As a foreigner, you can legally drive in Panama for up to 90 days using a valid driver’s license from your home country. As a tourist, you can leave the country for a minimum of thirty days and return to start the 90 days over again. This is why you must show your passport along with your foreign license at checkpoints – the guards are looking for your last entry date stamp. If you leave Panama a few days before your 90 days is up, you only need to be out of Panama for 3 days before you can come back in to Panama to drive another 90 days.
To avoid this madness, you will need to get a residency Visa to live in Panama indefinitely and get a Panama driver’s license.
When you get a residency Visa, you will be able to obtain a Panamanian driver’s license. You will be able to keep your current country’s license also, so you can use it when you visit back home. Understand that once you get a residency Visa, even the temporary Visa, you are required to get a Panama driver’s license right away if you plan to drive in Panama. If you are leaving Panama right after you get your temporary Visa and do not plan to drive in Panama, you can wait until you get your permanent Visa to get your Panama driver’s license.
The minimum driving age in Panama is 18 years.
In order to apply for a Panamanian License you must have residency Visa. Initially, you are issued a temporary, or processing Visa, which is only valid for 6 months. So, your Panama driver’s license will only be valid for 6 months.
Once you get your permanent Visa, you will need to renew your Panama driver’s license. Your Panama driver’s license will valid for to four years, until you reach age 70, then it is only valid for two years. If you are over age 70, in addition to the steps listed below, you must obtain a doctor’s certification to prove that you are healthy enough to manage a car. This certification has to be from either a Gerontologist or a Doctor of Internal Medicine.
If you do not currently have a driver’s license from your home country, or your license is expired, your application process will start from square one. You will have to attend classes and be certified through an approved driving school, take a practical driving test in a car that you provide, and pass a written exam to demonstrate your knowledge of the laws of the road. (Warning: this test is administered only in Spanish!)
If you already have a valid driver’s license from another country, the process to obtain a Panamanian license is much easier. SERTRACEN is the private company which has been contracted by the Panamanian government for the issuance of driver’s licenses. It takes about 2 days because there are several steps.
- In Panama, visit your country’s embassy to complete a notarized affidavit of your driving history (which usually involves setting up an advance appointment and paying a fee. The US Embassy charges $50). You have to bring your valid passport and driver’s license with you.
- Go to the Panamanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to have your affidavit validated. You will have to pay a small fee for this, $2 paid to a nearby bank. This step can take a day because they will tell you to return later to pick up your documents.
- Step three is to document your blood type through a SERTACEN-approved lab. I paid $4 for my blood test.
- Bring your residency documents, your passport, your current driver’s license, your notarized documents and your proof of blood type to a SERTRACEN service center. Be sure to bring both the originals of all these documents and a photocopy of the front and back of each. Vision and hearing tests will be required, along with the payment of all fees which is $40 as of this writing. Once you get your permanent Visa, if you are a Pensionado, you will get 10% off the cost of getting a driver’s license.
I know it sounds complicated. Don’t worry, your attorney can help you get a Panama Driver’s License while you are in Panama to get your residency Visa.