How far ahead do I need to start the paperwork?
From experience, the situation in Panama is pretty friendly.
Tourist visas are relatively easy, with options to do "border runs" to keep tourist status. There are also options to get an investment visa for a relatively low investment amount. Employment visas are also plentiful, if you can find an employer that needs your skills.
What most people do is find a immigrant-friendly immigration lawyer in Panama who will walk you through the process. Most people do this after they have entered Panama and found an expat community that will help guide through the situation on the ground.
Note I am not licensed in Panama! This comes from regular interaction with Panamanian sources.
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