The term “perpetual tourist” was one I wasn’t familiar with until we got serious about the idea of moving to Panama several years ago. Sometimes you might also hear it by the name “perpetual traveler”, “permanent tourist”, “prior taxpayer”, or even just by the letters “PT.”
A perpetual tourist is someone who isn’t a legal resident of the country they are living in. Be aware that this is completely different than an illegal immigrant. PTs still play by the tourism rules of the country or countries they’re in.
To take it a step further, PTs might not have a home base at all. Technically, by not spending more than 183 days in one country, you can legitimately eliminate taxes completely in most countries.
But that’s not what this post is about. In this case, we’re looking at a PT as someone essentially living as a legal tourist in the country they want. It’s almost as if they’re a long-term vacationer.
When we moved to Boquete, Panama in 2019, we planned to live here for the first year as tourists and then get residency. I’ll tell you why we still haven’t gotten residency and the pros and cons of that decision.
Why not just get residency in Panama?
Obtaining residency in Panama isn’t too crazy. Saying it’s easy wouldn’t be the right way to put it because it does take a good amount of time and requires a fair amount of hurdles to jump through.
A better word might be “attainable” in that seeking common Visas here like the Friendly Nations Visa or the Pensionado Visa are relatively straightforward. Panama wants people from other countries to show up and spend their money here.
Depending on the type of Visa, some of the things that might be required to obtain residency include:
- Getting some documents authenticated
- Opening a Panamanian bank account
- Getting a criminal report (such as an FBI report)
- Possibly opening up a corporation (it doesn’t need to do anything) or buying real estate
- Proving a guaranteed source of income like Social Security (Pensionado Visa only)
Other than that, it’s not that big of a deal. It just takes time and is best served by using a lawyer for the process. You definitely want an attorney to do the hand-holding on this process.
Ah, yes… a lawyer. I see the dollar signs fluttering through the air!
And that was our only hangup. The reason we decided we’d stick with the perpetual tourist label for the first year is because of the cost to gain residency. The attorney costs are all over the map, but in general, It would likely run us no more than $7,500 total for the three of us to obtain the Friendly Nations Visa here.
So here’s the deal – that kind of money isn’t the end of the world. But what if we moved here and decided we didn’t like it? Boy, that would be a big waste of money!
The alternative is to live here in Panama as a tourist, which is what we’ve done here in Boquete for more than a year and a half.
Tourist rules in Panama
Every country is different in how they handle tourists. Luckily for us, Panama is very tourist-friendly.
First off, Panama doesn’t require a tourist visa when coming from most countries in the world. That’s different than a lot of places and it makes things extremely easy – you just show up for the most part. Here are the requirements for entry:
A passport valid for at least three months past the date of entry.
A return ticket to home country or onward destination.
Money – either $500 in cash or its equivalent, or credit card, bank statement, letter of employment or travelers checks.
Criminal Record Restriction – Panamanian immigration reserves the right to deny entry to any person with a criminal conviction.Travel.state.gov
And, at least for the time being, you also need to present negative COVID test results taken within a couple of days before your arrival.
Easy enough, right?
After that, you’re able to stay in the country of Panama for up to 180 days without penalty. Six months is a generous amount of time!
It used to be that when it came time to leave, you could just do a “border run” or “border hop” to reset the clock. You could head somewhere like Costa Rica for a few days before getting your passport stamped and coming back. But a handful of years ago, a new law was enacted in 2017 requiring tourists to leave for 30 days before re-entry was allowed.
Essentially, you can stay for six months but then you need to leave for a month. You don’t even need to go back to your home country if you don’t want to – you just need to get out of Panama.
For us, that’s been fine. We want to go back to the U.S. to see family and friends – this just gives us an excuse to make it happen. We’ve also done a few weeks in the States and followed it up with a week-long cruise before going back to Panama.
And because we efficiently use travel rewards, we’re usually not paying much, if anything, for the flights to and from Panama. You can read my post Travel Rewards – 12 Free Flights Earned in 9 Months! on how we do that. You can also check out our Recommended Credit Cards page for some of our favorite cards we use to accomplish this.
The pros of being a perpetual tourist
Be aware that being retired gives us some choice in what we decide to do. Not needing to get a job in Panama gives us a lot more flexibility than we’d have otherwise.
Also, know that there are some things you might think you need residency for in Panama but don’t. A couple of quick examples that come to mind:
- Buying property – Anyone can buy property here, whether a resident or not.
- COVID vaccine – Although this is still new, it’s already been announced that you don’t need to be a resident to get the vaccine here.
So you can still live a normal life here even as a non-resident. We don’t plan to buy property (we like the freedom of renting right now) but it’s still good to have that option.
Even so, there’s really only one pro I can think of when it comes to being a perpetual tourist…
The savings on the cost and hassle of getting a Visa
As I said before, it ain’t cheap to get your Visa here once you factor in all the costs of an attorney. It also takes some time and effort to get everything needed and make it happen.
Assuming a number like $7,500 for our family of three is a lot of money to drop. That’s especially true if you don’t know if you’re going to live in the country for the long haul. That’s our case with Panama. There’s a pretty good chance we’ll be moving back to the U.S. in the fall due mostly in part to ensuring we’re doing the best thing for our daughter, Faith.
For many of you though, some of these factors come into play:
- You don’t want to fly back and forth
- You don’t want to take advantage of travel rewards
- You’re making this your permanent place to live
- You’re considering working in Panama
If so, it’s probably a sound investment to obtain residency and get your Visa in Panama.
The cons of being a perpetual tourist
On the flip side of the coin, being a perpetual tourist has its fair share of disadvantages…
Leaving the country as required
Without a doubt, this is the biggest negative. Regardless of whether you want to stick around for more than 180 days or not at one time, you’re not allowed. Technically, the fine issued isn’t really big, but as law-abiding folks, we get out as we’re told.
As I said, getting the Friendly Nations Visa or Pensionado Visa brings with it some hassle. However, the work in leaving the country every six months is an ongoing bigger pain.
Planning the travel back to the U.S. for us usually involves:
- Arranging for a rapid-results COVID test right before our flight date
- Arranging transportation to the airport in David (about an hour away)
- Booking a flight from David to Panama City
- Making a hotel reservation to stay overnight in Panama City
- Booking a flight from Panama City to the U.S. As a side note, you can book from David to the U.S. but it’ll stop in Panama City anyway and it’s usually more costly to book it as one reservation.
- Possibly booking a hotel for the night in the U.S. depending on the arrival time
- Figuring out or arranging transportation to wherever we’re staying
It’s a real pain in the @#$. And guess what – one of those dominoes tends to fall apart and makes us redo some or all of the other ones. Oh, and that’s just one way – we have to do the reverse for the way back.
And, that’s just the planning – then we have to do the travel. Not only do we have to knock out what’s on that list, but there are airport shuttles involved, Uber/Lyft, and all sorts of other fun. It’s a long couple of days of travel when all is said and done! During these fun times, it also involves a lot of caution plus self-quarantine when we arrive.
The timing can also be bad for whatever reason on when you go back… who wants to go to Ohio in the winter? But timing it right isn’t always going to happen. Anything from wanting to be with family during the holidays to family/friends getting sick can throw off when you go back to the U.S.
And you’re at the mercy of the clock at that point.
A good example is when COVID hit last year. We waited things out here in Boquete for a long while. But eventually, we jumped ship and took a humanitarian flight back to the U.S. getting us to Ohio in early July.
The problem was that the Panama borders were closed to non-residents so we couldn’t get back there. They re-opened the borders on October 12, 2020, and we flew back to Panama two days later.
That’s all hunky-dory, but it threw off our schedule. Now to ensure we comply with the tourist rules (and to handle some other things we need to do), we missed the holidays in the States (as did most folks anyway) and we’re heading back to Ohio in February. Have you ever been to Ohio in February?! Ugh.
It’ll be great to get back there but definitely the wrong time of year. But when you’re a perpetual tourist, sometimes you just have to roll with it.
You can’t drive after 90 days as a perpetual tourist
I mentioned this earlier but your foreign driver’s license is only good for 90 days at a time in Panama. Why wouldn’t it be the same as the 180 days you’re allowed in the country as a tourist? No idea. But it doesn’t matter – it is what it is… them’s the rules folks!
If you’re planning on driving while living here as a perpetual tourist, you have two choices:
- Drive your heart out for 90 days and then let the car sit for the remaining 90 days of your allowed time here.
- Leave the country every 90 days for 30 days to reset the clock.
Neither option is ideal by any means.
That isn’t as big of a deal for folks like us who don’t own a car here but it can still throw a wrench in the works regardless. Our neighbor’s been out of the country for a couple of months now and was extra generous in letting us use her car while she’s been gone.
We’ve only used it a few times since we like walking everywhere we can here. However, we planned to pick her up from the airport when she returned. Then her flight got pushed back by a couple of weeks… and it’s now past our 90 days where we’re legally allowed to drive here. Now we can’t pick her up, which is a lousy way to pay her back for letting us use her car.
A perpetual tourist loses out on some rights a legal resident has
Don’t worry – a tourist has the same legal rights as a resident here as far as staying out of trouble. It’s not anything major that you have to worry about regularly.
But there are certain circumstances where not being a resident can be to your disadvantage. As I mentioned before, a perfect example was leaving the country during COVID. With the borders shut down, only residents were allowed back in. That nearly ended our time in Panama very abruptly.
It’s interesting twists like these that can make life more complex.
Being a perpetual tourist over the past year and a half has served us well. But know that it doesn’t come without hassle when trying to live a normal life. If we knew that we’d be staying here for the long-term, it would be worth the cost to help simplify our lives more.
Plan well, take action, and live your best life!
Have you ever considered staying in a different country or hopping around as a perpetual tourist?
Thanks for reading!!
16 thoughts on “Being a Perpetual Tourist… the Pros and Cons”
When my wife and I retired in June of 2019 after 30 years each of teaching, our initial plan was to escape the winters here in Massachusetts and travel pretty much Dec-March in southern regions of the world, then return here for family, friends, the growing season for our garden, and to Airbnb rooms/the whole house for pension-supplementing cash influx (we are ideally located at the entrance to the Cape). So we were able to travel to Spain, Bali, Vietnam, Hawai’i, and Mexico during those months, spending significant time in each along the way.
We discovered some interesting things: at 56, frequent moving from place to place in-country was tiring, way more so than when we had done extensive travel (even with young children) in our late 20s into our early 30s. Hopping on the (incredibly cheap) rental moped in Bali and Vietnam and just touring the countryside was beautiful, but not something you can just do day after day indefinitely. SEA countries don’t really have public squares or benches so if you wanted to stop and people-watch, or just hang out, you pretty much had to do so at a cafe or restaurant. Again, great experiences, but not necessarily what you want to do each and every day. And since my wife did not feel comfortable driving the moped, when we went out on jaunts it was usually the both of us. I love my wife but sometimes you just want to have some separate time too! To her credit, she was good about that, but you can’t do too many solo rides without feeling guilty about it…so there’s that to factor in. So we came to the conclusion that long-term stays in SEA were probably not for us. Hard for me especially – I spent several years as a lad in Singapore (1970-73), then my wife and I worked in Thailand for a year (and got married there); and we taught for 5 years on a western Pacific island (Saipan) and vacationed with the kids in Bali frequently, as it was so close. So I had always envisioned Southeast Asia as THE place to retire. Well, things change I guess! 🙂
We really enjoyed Spain and Mexico, spending a month in each. The key for us there was being able to speak the language well enough to comfortably operate on our own in just about every situation. I’m not talking deep philosophical discussions here (Sartre in Spanish, anyone? Nope!) – but everyday interactions, chatting, ordering food, tours, even getting my bike fixed at the local mechanic, were all within our grasp. So that helped immensely. Also, the physical structure of the cities there is different – there are parks with benches, they are more set up for strolling, sitting, watching the world go by. We definitely availed of the cafes for hangout beers, too – it was just nice though not having to do so for a chance to rest our feet.
So, of course our initial plan is on hold for the moment. No problem, though, as another thing I really really like about getting back to MA for the Spring – Fall is the chance to hike, kayak, shellfish, do projects around the house, etc. It’s nice to have a purpose to give meaning to where you are. Sounds like you had that going for a while with the horse lessons and animal rescue place in Boquete. So wherever we end up going to would have to have that component as well. Well, I also have to confess that I like being in a place where I can say wicked and not have to explain what that means!
Sorry for the long response but I wanted to give my two cents in answer to your question. I thought it might be useful to some of your readers to hear from a couple who traveled a lot in their youth, then as young parents, and finally are returning to the game with different perspectives as changed but still active early-ish retirees. I know some people will have different travel experiences and might not agree with our reactions but just putting them out there as food for thought.
Thanks for keeping to your weekly posts Jim and good luck with all of YOUR upcoming decisions!
(PS – The moniker comes from our choice to scale down our expected level of expenses to a degree, in order to get off the work treadmill a year or two earlier. So I figured since rice and tuna fish with veggies was a staple dinner early in our parenting years, why not adopt that as a rallying cry!)
Thanks for the great insight, TFT! It’s interesting to see how dreams you envision earlier in life tend to evolve into different realities later. I still don’t know enough about SEA and that would probably be a scarier leap for me than Panama has been, but I’d imagine if I became more familiar, a lot that would disappear. That said, I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about Spain and Mexico lately. I don’t have plans to live in either, but we may be making some trips to those countries in the future! 🙂
Great post Jim,
Can you do a border run reset for your drivers license or does that require leaving for a full 30 days as well?
It’s such a weird thing, David, but my understanding is that the only way to do the reset is to do the full 30 days. It’s kind of strange, but like a lot of things here, you just make sure you’re aware of this oddity and roll with it accordingly.
My largest fear of the perpetual traveller is the tax residency nets that crop up. Are you earning money in this new country and what are it’s tax rules? If you happen to hit a resident-based tax system and you end up staying for a while, will you trip up the tourist/work visa system, etc.
I feel many nomads are not that literate on tax and residency, thinking they can simply skip taxes since they only pay for their own country. At least the US has FEIE as far as I understand which helps a little? My own country has weird rules, DTA and all kinds of tricks.
Anyway, residency in Panama sounds like something useful to obtain? At least then you know you don’t need to keep moving around, especially in Covid times. Won’t the $7500 be offset through the number of flights you saved travelling back to the US? oh and the peace of mind?
Great points, Charlie! I purposely didn’t go too much into the tax part of things (as noted in the beginning of the post) because that can push folks into some muddy waters. I think it’s critical that anyone planning to move to another country for one reason or another, should absolutely talk to an accountant and/or financial planner to discuss their own situation.
In our situation, we are not making an income in Panama specifically (and we’re not residents) so we don’t owe taxes to Panama. However, we do pay taxes back to the U.S. every year. If someone were to work here though, the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) should definitely be something one should discuss with their accountant with. If applicable, that can be an amazing asset!
Your point on residency here is well-taken – the biggest being peace of mind. However, we also didn’t plan on a once-in-a-century to show up out of nowhere! 😉 We’ve been very careful in our traveling and I’m happy to say that the airlines and hotels have also been great on this as far as we’ve seen. As far as the cost, we’ve been using travel rewards to cover the costs. And we’d probably be heading back regardless to see friends and family. The only difference is that we lose some of the flexibility on how long before we go back each time.
If we knew we were going to stay here for the long-haul, we’d absolutely get residency. But for now, being a tourist has served us well.
Thanks for sharing. That’s what I want to do for a few years after our son goes off to college.
It seems visa rules are getting more complicated all over the world. I wonder why.
Thailand also made it more difficult for long term tourists to stay. In recent years, they depended more on short-term tourists from China. They come for a week and spend a ton of money, then leave. The tourist trade makes a lot more money from Chinese tourists than western tourists these days.
Anyway, I wouldn’t mind the 180 days rule. It’s probably time to move on after 6 months. So many places to see so little time. 🙂
6 months is definitely more than a fair amount of time to be here without residency. I know a lot of countries aren’t that generous. I just looked on the US Embassy site for Thailand and it looks like a tourist can stay for up to 30 days without much of a problem. After that though, it sounds like you have to get a tourist Visa and go through some more hassle. I’ll stick with the simplicity of Panama for now! 🙂
When you start traveling more when your son goes to college, do you think you’ll slow travel and spend months in a place? Or do you think it’ll be shorter runs of just a week or so in each country?
I haven’t heard of perpetual tourism before, ha. Six months IS a generous time to be able to stay at a country. There’s a lot that you can absorb in that amount of time.
Maybe when I reach FIRE, I will visit Panama for 6 months and another country that allows 6 months tourism, and repeat the cycle.. hmm… Giving me ideas already.
I don’t know of all the countries that allow such a long amount of time as a tourist, but I can’t imagine that the list is very long. A lot of perpetual tourists just bounce around the world in order to comply with the rules. I think that would be fun for a while, but for me personally, not having a long-term home would be tough. Others love it though!
Ok this may seem silly, but when you leave do you take all your belongings with you, then bring them back? Do you not buy anything that you wouldn’t want to leave behind? I am just wondering what people do with their “stuff”.
Hi Lorraine – I’m assuming you’re asking about when we leave every 6 months. If that’s the case, there’s not much to it. We still have our lease to our condo so everything just stays here. We’re stuck paying rent for a month while we’re not here, but other than that, it’s almost like locking up and going on vacation to the US. We just take a suitcase each and head back.
Also, don’t forget that our place (and most places here) are fully-furnished so when we take a suitcase back with us, it probably contains almost half of our “stuff” anyway! Weird, right? 🙂
I’m waiting for someone to come up with an international rental agreement for PTs, where you’d change countries before max’ing out your stay. You’d pay for just one place all year round, there would be no rental overlap, since the next country would be from the same provider, and places are made available for the next PT while you’re away. This pre-defined set of countries might also make it easier to tailor health insurances, where international “residents” could benefit from collective rates.
Well, that would be an interesting idea… looks like an idea for a startup!
Do you really need to hire a lawyer to obtain residency in Panama?
I have obtained residency in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico and never utilized a lawyer. Nicaragua and Guatemala were much more complicated and required several documents to be authenticated. Mexico was by far the simplest. I was in and out of the Consulate in less than half an hour.
As you know each country has its own idiosyncrasies with respect to residency. Nicaragua requires one to renew the residency card every five years and I learned a hard lesson. When you obtain residency through marriage, the rules continue to apply as follows:
1. if you remain married, you can renew
2. if you get divorced, you lose your residency unless you have had children
3. if your spouse dies, you can maintain your residency unless you are responsible for your spouse’s death yet if you have children, you can still keep it (one assumes they could visit you in prison!).
In Guatemala I learned the complexity of authenticating documents:
I needed an FBI record, I discovered the easiest way to do this was to utilize a contractor in the US who would send one’s fingerprint card to the FBI and obtain the results for a small fee. I printed out the fingerprint card and went to a local police station in Guatemala. Unlike the US, it turns out that the local courts take prints, not the police, so I went to a small court outside of the capital. I sent the completed card to the contractor and had the results sent to my father. He then had to send the document to the Department of State to authenticate the FBI signature. From there to the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington, DC. Once I received the document, I had to take it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to authenticate their Embassy’s signature. Then to an official translator. All of this for just one document!
Given that I did not use a lawyer in any of the three countries, the costs were minimal, and residency permits me to obtain a driver’s license, open bank accounts, etc. which make life significantly easier. Furthermore I never have to worry if the rules for tourists will change. The only downside is that in some countries, residency can be lost if you do not stay in the country for a certain number of months each year. Fortunately, Mexico, had no rule whatsoever.
Hi Alan – great information! I can’t tell you for sure that a lawyer needs to be used to obtain residency here in Panama just because I’ve never gone through the process. However, everyone I know who has gone through it has said that you really want to use one.
It’s funny though that you mention the possibility of the tourist rules changing though. Panama just announced this past week that tourists will no longer be allowed to stay in the country 180 days at a time. Starting October 1, 2021, you can only stay a maximum of 90 days and then need to leave the country for 30 days.
That actually causes an issue for us that I’ll be talking about in my post this coming Tuesday. If we had residency, this wouldn’t be a problem. However, we’re going to be moving back to the U.S. next spring so it’s not likely that we’d pursue the possibility of that route anymore.
Have a great weekend!