After cost of living and housing, the question of foreign residency options is a key one to consider as you make your retire-overseas plans.
The truth is, not every country welcomes foreign residents or retirees, and, in those that do, the requirements for qualifying for residency status vary greatly. Furthermore, some countries (for example, Panama) offer many different options for establishing permanent residency.
A local attorney can detail all the possibilities for you, and, in most cases, I recommend you use a local attorney to process the associated paperwork for the visa you choose to apply for. It’s worth the minimal expense, and it saves you the effort of trying to wade through the related red tape in a foreign language. In some cases (again, in Panama, for example), an attorney’s help is not only advisable but required.
The most important thing about residency visa options for any country is to understand the rules before you get too far into your relocation plans. You don’t want to begin house-hunting in a country only to find that you don’t qualify for any visa option and won’t be able, in fact, to take up residence, at least not legally or full time.
In some countries, on the other hand, the options for foreign residency are one of the big advantages for foreign retirees. Right now, Panama’s pensionado residency program is the gold standard. Qualify for pensionado residency in Panama, and you can bring your household goods and a car into the country duty-free and then, while living in Panama, benefit from discounts on everything from doctor’s visits and prescription drugs to domestic airfares and closing costs on real estate. To qualify for Panama pensionado status, you need only show income from a pension (can be a pension from any source, including Social Security) of at least US$1,000 a month.
Note, though, that the pensionado visa is but one of more than a dozen visa options available in Panama. This is why, again, you really need the help of a local attorney with experience helping foreigners establish residency to determine which option makes most sense for you.
Before you begin to research the particular retiree resident visa options for the countries on your list, be sure you understand the relevant issues and terminology.
A visa is a document that allows you to remain within a country’s borders for a specified period and, sometimes, with specified restrictions and limitations.
A tourist visa is the easiest form of entry into a country, and this is all you’ll need for your initial scouting visits. Most Western passport-holders (including Americans) aren’t required to apply for tourist visas to most countries. You need only show up. When you arrive at the entry point into the country (typically the international airport), you show your passport, and you’re automatically granted a tourist visa and allowed to enter the country. Sometimes you’ll be required to fill out a form, and sometimes you’ll be asked to pay a fee (of, say, US$5).
A tourist visa allows you to stay in a country for 30 to 90 days, depending on the country and the passport you carry. That’s why this is all you’ll need during the scouting phase of your retire overseas adventure. To stay in a country beyond the 30 to 90 days allowed for by the tourist visa, you’ll need a residency visa.
When you hold a residency visa or permit for a country, you’re a legal resident. You’re not a citizen. This is an important distinction, especially for tax purposes. You’re not a citizen, and you don’t necessarily have the right to work. A work permit is a separate thing.
Residency visas come in different forms–temporary and permanent, for example. A temporary visa, as you might guess, gives you the right to remain in the country for a limited time, typically one year. After that time, you must apply for another residency visa. The re-application is usually a formality, but you may be asked to prove again that you meet whatever requirements you were required to meet to obtain the visa in the first place.
Depending on the country, after you’ve renewed your temporary residency visa a certain number of times (three or maybe five, for example), you can be eligible then for permanent residency. It depends on the type of temporary residency visa you started with.
In most countries, you’ll be required to make a new application to progress from temporary to permanent visa status. Once you’ve obtained permanent resident status, you’re done. You’re free to live in the country as long as you like and to come and go as you please.
Residency visa requirements aren’t onerous, but the paperwork can be a hassle and the process can require several trips to the local immigration office (where the bureaucrats behind the counter aren’t going to speak English). This is why I recommend that, for most countries, even if it’s not required, you engage an in-country attorney experienced at helping foreigners obtain residency.
This isn’t rocket science. But it’s a process. In another language and in another country, where they do things the way they do things. The systems and protocols don’t have to make sense to you, and sometimes they won’t. I’ve found that it’s a waste of time and energy to try to understand. You don’t need to understand how the residency visa application process works in France. You need only qualify for a visa to remain in the country (if that’s your objective). Why drive yourself crazy (and waste your time and money) trying to make heads or tails of French immigration law when you could easily hire a French attorney who has spent years interpreting it?
How do you find an in-country attorney to handle your visa paperwork? I suggest you seek referrals from expats already retired in the country. An attorney is one resource you don’t want to choose randomly over the Internet. I recommend trying to get at least two referrals from expats who’ve gone through the residency process. Then follow up to interview each referred attorney, informally, over the phone or perhaps during your first country visit.
The #1 resource I know for information on foreign residency, dual citizenship, and second passports is The Passport Book–The Complete Guide to Offshore Residency, Dual Citizenship & Second Passports, written by my longtime personal friend and former Congressman, Robert Bauman. Kathleen Peddicord www.liveandinvestoverseas.com