The Panama Perpetual Tourist Border Hop Two Step – Separating Fact From Fiction

The Panama Perpetual Tourist Border Hop Two Step – Separating Fact From Fiction

Wednesday, November 30 2011 @ 09:47 AM COT
Contributed by: Don Winner
Views: 248
By DON WINNER for – There are many who live as “perpetual tourists” – people who initially come to the Republic of Panama as tourists – and then they basically stay and live here forever in the same status as a tourist without obtaining some other sort of more permanent or legal residency status. Tourists who come to Panama can stay here for a maximum of 90 days, but then the government of Panama can grant a 90 extension to a total of 180 days (more later.) But no matter what, any tourist who overstays past the 180 day limit are then in an illegal status with regards to the National Immigration Service. By doing this they are exposing themselves to the potential for arrest, fines, and deportation. In order to remain in a legal status with regards to the Panamanian National Immigration Service, these “perpetual tourists” have to leave the country regularly in order to “reset” the tourist visa status with a new date of entry. People commonly travel to the international border with Costa Rica at Paso Canoas in order to accomplish and comply with the requirement of leaving the country, at least temporarily. I call this the “border hop two-step” because the perpetual tourists have to simply “hop” across the border and enter Costa Rica (or any other country) and then return to Panama (step two) in order to reset their tourist status for another 180 days. Recently there have been interesting and lively discussions between members of the English speaking expatriate community on a couple of the different Internet forums regarding the details of the requirements that must be met, tricks and techniques on how to go about doing this “border hop two step,” and the potential risks involved. I thought I knew enough about the details of this particular issue but now it appears I was wrong, and that I was holding as true some commonly held perceptions that are not, in fact, contained in the underlying law. So, I did my own investigation and now I’m writing this article in order to set the record straight. (more)
Does Not Apply To Me – But Important To Many Others: First and foremost let me claim a little bit of institutional ignorance here because I have never had to deal with this issue on a personal level. When I first came down to Panama in 1987 I was assigned here with the military and didn’t need any kind of a visa nor did I have to worry about my immigration status in this country – the military took care of that for me. Then once I retired and moved back to Panama I applied for and was granted permanent residency status under the “married to a Panamanian” section of the immigration law. As such, I have a cedula and now I am a permanent resident. So, I’ve never been in this status of being a “perpetual tourist” as many people currently are. However, I know there’s a great deal of interest in this topic, and that these issues apply to a large number of people who “live” here as tourists. And therefore, I already know eventually this article is destined to become one of the most read on the website. So, preambles aside, here ‘goes.

What Laws Cover This Topic? The problems and discussions that have developed recently revolve around discrepancies in what the law actually says, compared to the actions of the immigration officials on the ground. So as a starting point I want to establish the legal basis for the discussion. These are the “rules” of the game, so to speak;

In Panama there is only one primary law governing the activities of the National Immigration Service, known as “Decreto Ley No. 3 de 22 de Febrero de 2008” (Decree Law Number 3 of 22 February 2008). It’s called a “decree law” because it was handed down by President Martin Torrijos, and it’s similar to an Executive Order in the United States. The National Assembly of Panama can grant or delegate the legal authority to the Executive branch of government to issue these “decree laws” over things pertaining to their realm of responsibility. It falls to the Executive branch to handle and manage the day to day functions of all issues related to immigration in Panama, so therefore we have this “decree law” that sets down the basic parameters, and in fact this is the law that created (basically changed the name) of the new National Immigration Service. I will get more into the specifics of what’s contained in this law later. For right now I just want to specify and provide a link to the original underlying applicable law.
Implementing Regulation: In Panama when a new law hits the books, the executive branch then issues an “implementing regulation” that describes exactly how and what will be done, by who. This is where the rubber meets the road because the implementing regulations contain the nuts and bolts of how the law will be interpreted and implemented by the responsible agency, in real life. Normally new laws are passed by the National Assembly (legislative branch of government) and then signed into law by the President (executive). In this case (of immigration) the law was both handed down by the Executive branch (through the “decree law”) and then implemented through two Executive Orders. The first is “Decreto Ejecutivo No. 320 de 8 de agosto de 2008.” And again, at this point I’m not going to get into the details at this point – that comes later.
Second Implementing Regulation: The government of Panama then issued a second implementing regulation – “Decreto Ejecutivo No. 26 de 2 de marzo de 2009.” This later implementing regulation “modifies, adds, and repeals” some of the articles of the earlier regulation issued on 8 August 2008. And once again, details coming later. There are other laws which cover things such as the “pensionado” (retiree) visas which I’m not going to get into here.
Why All Of The Confusion? First of all you have to know what the law says. Legally speaking the law is what matters, and the implementing regulations are restricted to the constraints as established in the underlying law. Then the two successive implementing regulations are laid down on top of the law. And of course this adds to the confusion because you have to check to see what the first regulation says, and then was that modified by the second regulation. And then to add even more confusion on top of that, the Director of Immigration (who has since been fired) issued internal memos that are basically illegal, that ordered the Immigration Inspectors of the National Immigration Service to basically ignore the law and do what she says. And then in reality those same immigration inspectors have varying degrees of professional training and personal competence. At times it seems like they are just making it up as they go along. Some seem like since they are in a position of authority they can do whatever the hell they want – law or no law. All of these factors contribute to a growing level of confusion and frustration among the foreigners who just want to know what the rules are.

So, What Are The Rules? I started to translate the pertinent parts of the law and executive orders as they relate to tourists in the Republic of Panama, but then I bailed out of it, and here’s why. The law in Panama is not being followed at the present time. For example, the law says a tourist can stay for 90 days, and Immigration can issue an extension for another 90 days, and then there’s a whole list of requirements. You’re supposed to pay $50, provide three photographs, show proof of economic solvency, prove you have a return plane ticket, etc. The reasons for this in the law are clear – anyone who wants to stay for more than 90 days is (was) supposed to register with Immigration, to be put on their books. Well, that part of the law is not being followed.

“180 Dias” Written In Pen: Back on 25 June 2010 I wrote and published this article – Tourist Visas Now Six Months? (Or Not). The Director of Immigration at that time simply issued a internal memo, and summarily declared that arriving tourists can stay for 180 days. Period. I just did a quick survey and – sure as hell – the inspectors at the border crossings are simply stamping the passports with an entry stamp and writing “180 dias” in ink pen. Welcome to Panama. And nothing has changed since June of 2010 – the law says 90 days (max) but Immigration is still letting people come in, no questions asked, for 180. And of course they treat immigrants from different countries differently. There seems to be a tendency to let gringos slide a little bit, while they have different requirements and demands for Colombians, for example. So that’s clear (as mud) – the law says 90 days max, but in reality everyone is getting 180 days on a tourist visa.

Other Elements Of The Law Not Being Enforced: There are other elements of the law that the Panamanian immigration authorities are simply choosing to not enforce. For example, you’re supposed to have a valid return plane ticket or e-ticket that shows when you will be departing. You’re supposed to show documentation of “economic solvency” – meaning you have enough money to support yourself while you’re in the country, and you won’t be working here. They are supposed to make anyone who stays for more than 90 days register with Immigration, fill out a form to apply for an extension, provide three photographs, etc. None of that is being enforced.

But They Can Enforce It At Any Time: There’s a certain degree of risk here. Of course you know the Panamanian authorities can do whatever they hell they want at practically any time. If you’re here in Panama on day 95, and even though someone wrote “180 dias” in your passport, they could in fact, if they wanted to, arrest you, fine you, and deport you. Just like that. Why? Because the law says one thing, and you did something else. Now I know you will stammer and protest and bitch and complain – but in response the Immigration officials can just hold up a copy of the law, point to it, and say you overstayed your visa. Bye.

Snap Quiz (No Cheating…) How long do you have to stay in Costa Rica when you exit the country in order to reset your tourist visa status? Almost everyone is going to say “72 hours” – because that has become standard practice. Most of the people who go across the border stay out of Panama for at least 72 hours. Well, I checked the law – it’s not in there. No where is there any requirement to remain out of Panama for 72 hours. And in addition there is no time period specified at all, be it 72, 48, or 24 hours. This was a complete and total shock to me. I was sure I “knew” this one. Nope, wrong, it’s not there.

The Genesis Of This Article: I started writing this article because people have started to figure this out. They are now just going to Paso Canoas, crossing the border into Costa Rica, and getting their passport stamped. Then they spin right around on their heel, go back through the line in the other direction, get stamped back in, and presto-chango, they’re good for another six months. Really? No shit? Yup, sure as hell. Several people have done this in the past few days, and it’s working. No questions asked. Here is some testimony from recent experience:

“I did the same thing 2 weeks ago. But did not have to buy stamps either on the Costa Rican side or Panamanian. Maybe because I did not go by bus? I went by car and left it on the Panama side,then walked to do all the formalities. At 8.30 in the morning it only took a few minutes each both on Panama side and Costa Rica. and coming back at 3p.m. it was the same, a few minutes on each side, I was the only person on line.”
“This is what the local (David, Boquet, & Volcan) expats do. 1. Take the bus to David bus terminal from your origination. 2. Take the local bus from David to the boarder. 3. Exit Panama – visa stamped and baggage (if you have some). 4. Walk 200 yards to Costa Rica boarder check point. 5. Enter Costa Rica – visa stamped. 6. Wait two hours. 7. Exit Costa Rica – visa stamped (make sure it is stamped on a different page than the entry to Costa Rica!) 8. Walk 200 yards back to Panama boarder check point. 9. Enter Panama – visa stamped (make sure it is stamped on a different page than the entry to Panama)! 10. Take local bus back to David bus terminal. 11. Have a safe travel home or vacation in the area.”
“You ARE NOT required to say any amount of time, that is a urban myth.”
“You do not have to go to San Jose and no need to stay 48 or 72 or even 24 hours. I went in the morning at 8.30 and came back in the afternoon at 3 p.m. no questions asked whatsoever, not even about the return ticket out of Panama.”
“I left on Sunday after having confirmation from my Lawyers firm that this 72 hour rule is pure urban legend. We stayed over night in David, left the car, made it to the border by bus. Spent the next 3 1/2 hours standing in lines. When the same lady who sent us the stamp to leave Panama saw us back to buy a stamp entering Panama in 20 minutes she said – oh for your six month stamp! Nothing about leaving town. F I N A L L Y got to the agent. Looks at papers. How long you coming in for? 180 days. Got proof you are leaving? I showed him the printed paid itinerary to visit the boy in New Orleans for Xmas. Cool – Looks at my wifes passport – virtually the same. 6 years of in and out always with me… he sees she is 20 years younger and very beautiful (and looks much younger still) and starts asking questions about her papers to enter Panama originally. She doesnt need any. She came in as a US citizen. We have been married for 25 years and have a 23 year old son. I could see this was edging toward human trafficking so I made it clear we are really married 25 years and very legal so c’mon man….ok he stamped her. Back on the bus, stay over in David, out 9a, Tues (today) home by 4pm.”
Immigration Is Heavy On “Common Practice” I bounced all of this off of Carlos Neuman, a long time friend of mine and an attorney with the Panama Relocation Attorneys. He explained that Immigration is “heavy on common practice.” He explained how they always require some documents when processing Pensionado (retiree) visas, for example, that are not required in the law. He said the 72 hour waiting period in Costa Rica is one of those things have become a “common practice” for immigration border inspectors, and all it would take is for a single inspector to decide that you’re not doing the right thing, and he can refuse entry. So just because something is not specifically in the law, does not mean it won’t come up.

Related Resources And Additional Links:

Government of Panama: The website of the National Immigration Service is located at URL If the website comes up in Spanish there’s a little British flag located on the top right-hand side of the page. Click that, and parts of the website will be presented in English. However their web page format is weak and there are errors, so it’s sort of hit and miss.
The Americans in Panama Yahoo Email Group: The members of the community of English speaking expatriates in Panama make good use of these Yahoo email groups to share information, ask questions, and explain their personal experiences. All members receive the email sent to the collective group address. Anyone member can send an email to that group address, and the message is then instantly and automatically distributed to all of the members of the entire group. While there are many of these groups available, the best of the bunch is the Americans in Panama group. It’s the best because I own it (grin). Founded on 19 September 2002, the group currently has more than 5,400 members. These groups practically “free fire” zones and there’s a tendency for the discussions to be dominated by a few active individuals, while the vast majority of the members simply monitor the stream of traffic to keep an eye out for specific parcels of information of interest to them. Clyde Jenkins and I monitor and moderate activity on the group, mostly to make sure people stay on topics related to Panama, and to keep the fruitcakes and trolls at bay. In any case, all of these groups have their pros and cons – try them on for size and figure out which best suits you.
Copyright 2011 by Don Winner for Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.

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