Can Tourists Drive in Panama?
Tourists and non-residents can legally drive in Panama for up to 90 days using a valid driver’s license issued by their home country. Visitors who need to drive in Panama have the option to leave for a minimum of thirty days and re-enter to begin a new period of 90 days. If you ever get pulled over by law enforcement at a checkpoint, they will check your passport along with your overseas driver’s license to confirm your last date of entry stamp. One way to avoid staying out of the country for thirty days before you are able to drive again is to leave before 90 days expires. Therefore, you’ll only need to stay out of Panama for 3 days after which you are able to drive for another 90 days.
For foreigners who intend to stay in Panama for more than 90 days, you are required to obtain a Panama driver’s license. Additionally, foreigners who become temporary residents are required to immediately apply for a Panama driver’s license. Even if you are in the country for less than 90 days, your home country’s driver’s license is not valid for driving in Panama after you have become a temporary resident. Generally speaking, citizens of several countries can stay in Panama for up to six months without a visa, however, you can legally drive for the first three months. In order to drive legally, one would need to leave Panama every 90 days in order to get a new stamp that entitles you to another 90 days of legal road use.
How to Qualify for a Panama Driver’s License
As far as Panama driver’s licenses go, people with intentions to drive for longer than 90 days may fit into one of three situations.
Those who live in Panama but do not have temporary or permanent residence and are possibly making border runs do not qualify for Panama driver’s license. In order to apply for a driver’s license in Panama you will need to have an immigration card whether temporary or otherwise.
Foreigners who have applied for permanent residency and have been issued a temporary residency card automatically qualify for getting a Panama driver’s license.
Once you have initiated the immigration process, your current driver’s license from your home country is no longer valid for driving in Panama and you also do not have to worry about the 90 day driving limit on your passport. In addition, you are supposed to present your residency card to a police officer at a traffic stop in order to make matters less complicated.
Keep in mind that you will be issued a Panama driver’s license based on the length of time given on your temporary residency card. If you are given a temporary residency card that only lasts for six months, then your driver’s license will be issued for six months only. In a scenario where your driver’s license is issued for six months based on your residency status, you will need to apply for and pay for your driver’s license each time your residence is renewed. That could be quite the bother for someone who really needs to drive in Panama while awaiting permanent residence.
Without a driver’s license you are likely to get caught driving illegally because random identification checks happen throughout Panama. If you chose to immigrate in Panama it’s likely you’re looking forward to less stress, not more. On these spontaneous traffic stops police officers will interrogate you about driving without a Panama driver’s license and may even try to get you to pay a bribe to get off the hook. Even more frustrating is trying to carry a conversation in Spanish with an officer who does not speak your language. Is that the reason you came to Panama? Might as well abide by the law.
Thanks to Panama’s many immigration visas, a growing number of foreigners have been able to attain permanent residency. If you have received your permanent residence and would now like to get a Panama driver’s license you won’t face any of the two slightly complicated situations mentioned above. Your permanent residency card proves you live in Panama legally, perhaps for the foreseeable future and you can get a driver’s license that will be valid for four years. This makes traffic stops way less stress and easier to handle.
A Panama driver’s license renders your license issued by your home country invalid for driving in Panama, however, you will also keep your other driver’s license for when you visit your home country. As mentioned before, once you get a residency visa, whether permanent or temporary, you are required to immediately get a Panama driver’s license if you want to drive in Panama. If you do not need to drive in Panama while you have a temporary residency card you can always wait until you get your permanent residency card to avoid applying for a short term driver’s license.
Panama Driver’s License Requirements for Residents
Step 1 – Certify your Current Driver’s License
The first step in applying for a driver’s license in Panama is to have your current driver’s license certified by completing a notarized affidavit of your driving history at the nearest embassy or consulate of the country from which your license was issued. This step may include scheduling an appointment in advance and paying a fee. For example, the US Embassy charges US$50 for this service which includes a public notary to authenticate the signature on the affidavit. You are required to bring your valid passport and driver’s license to your home country’s embassy or consulate.
Step 2 – Validate your Certified Driver’s License
A trip to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Panama City will be necessary to complete this next step. The MFA office will authenticate the affidavit you received from your country’s embassy or consulate along with the copy of your original foreign driver’s license. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs offices was once located at Edison Plaza on Ave. Ricardo Alfaro (also known as Tumba Muerto) but is currently occupying San Felipe, Calle 3, Palacio Bolívar in the vicinity of the international airport. Expect to pay a small fee for this service, somewhere around US$2 at a bank nearby. Sorting this part of the driver’s license process may take up a day because you might be asked to return at a later time to collect your documents.
Step 3 – Document your Blood Type
Step three is perhaps the easiest of all four steps to secure a Panama driver’s license. You need to know your blood type in order to get a driver’s license in Panama. Some applicants will be lucky enough to skip this step if their current driver’s license already carries their blood type. If your original driver’s license does not specify your blood type you will have to visit a medical lab certified by Panama’s Land Traffic and Transportation Authority (ATTT) in order to provide the results of your blood type test. This test result will be issued by one of the certified laboratories approved by SERTRACEN. Like many other drivers looking to get a Panama driver’s license, you may be wondering what is ‘SERTRACEN’? This is a private company the Panamanian government contracts to review applicants and issue driver’s licenses. For more information, visit the SERTRACEN website to view a listing of all the certified medical labs throughout Panama where you can have your blood type documented.
Step 4 – Submit Driver’s License Application
After completing steps one, two and three it’s time to finally submit your application to get your Panama driver’s license. In order to make this happen, you will need to take the medical report proving your blood type, your passport, your current driver’s license, immigration documents (if necessary), the notarized affidavit and authenticated MFA documents to a SERTRACEN service center. You are required to pay a US$40 fee for applying for a Panama driver’s license.
When you visit the service center you will need to take an eye examination to ascertain if it is necessary for you to wear eye glasses or contact lenses to see properly. If your eyes do not meet the requirements and you happen to fail this test you will need to visit an eye doctor for a prescription to purchase eyewear before you will be allowed to take the eye exam another time.
Additionally, you will be required to participate in a hearing test to determine whether you are able to hear car horns and other noises that are common while driving. After successfully completing these two examinations your photograph will be taken along with your home address details. Your new Panama driver’s license picture ID will be issued in one hour or less and you will be free to drive legally for the next four years after which a renewal is necessary.
In summary, the following are the requirements for all Panama Driver’s License applications:
- Original and copy of passport data page (back and front)
- Original and copy of immigration card (back and front)
- Original and copy of driver’s license from your home country
- Complete visual and auditory exams at SERTRACEN
- Clean background with the Land Traffic and Transportation Authority (ATTT)
- US$40 cash payment (includes visual and auditory exams)
- Make payment at ATTT cashier located in SERTRACEN’s service center
IMPORTANT: All transactions that require a visit to the SERTRACEN service center must be completed at the same branch. In other words, you cannot start your application at one SERTRACEN branch and complete it at another.
Other Things to Note on Panama Driver’s Licenses
You will have to renew your Panama driver’s license when you get your permanent residency visa because any driver’s license issued on a temporary residency card will expire when the residency card expires. The certification of your current driver’s license and the authentication at the Ministry of Foreign Relation must be done in Panama City, however, you can complete the other steps in another province. In order to renew your driver’s license, you will not be required to do the authentication step again but you will need to have the vision and hearing test administered again to renew your license.
Licenses for Panama drivers are valid for four years, once you hit the age of 70, your Panama driver’s license is valid for two years. If you happen to be over the age of 70, you will need a doctor’s certification to show you are fit enough to drive a car in addition to the steps listed above. This certification must be issued by either a Gerontologist or a Doctor of Internal Medicine. Even though it costs US$40 to get a driver’s license, residents who immigrated on the Pensionado (Retiree) Visa get a 10% discount after receiving their permanent residence. This discount reduces the overall cost of the license to US$36 at the time of this writing.
If you don’t have a driver’s license from your home country or your license expired, your application will start from the very beginning. You will have to attend classes and be certified by an approved driving institution, take a practical driving exam in your car or a car provided by you, and pass a written test to show your knowledge of road laws. Bear in mind this is a Spanish only test.
Many residents who intend to drive in Panama will already have a driver’s license from another country. If this license is valid, the process to get a Panama driver’s license is way less complicated. Both the U.S. and Canadian embassies in Panama offer helpful Panama driver’s license information to their citizens. Expect the driver’s license application process to take about two business days because of the steps listed above. If you would like to make this process less complicated, consult your attorney while you are applying for your permanent residency. They may be able to help make things go more smoothly.