As a foreigner, you can legally drive in Panama for up to 90 days using a valid driver’s license from your home country. Panama does not accept international driver’s licenses.
If you want to drive longer than 90 days, you can leave Panama for a minimum of thirty days. When you return, you’ll get a new entry stamp in your passport so the 90 days will over again. Some people have been able to leave Panama for less than a week, then come back in to get a new entry stamp in their passport.
There are checkpoints throughout Panama. If you get stopped, the police will ask to see your passport and your foreign license. They are looking for your last entry date stamp to verify that you are driving legally in Panama.
To avoid this madness, you will need to get a residency Visa to live in Panama indefinitely and get a Panama driver’s license. You cannot get a Panama driver’s license until you have a residency visa.
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 a temporary visa, you are required to get a Panama driver’s license right away if you plan to drive in Panama. If you leave 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.
To apply for a Panamanian License, you must have a 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 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 (see Plan B below). You will have to attend a driving school class 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, but you can take a translator with you!)
THE EASY WAY…
If you already have a valid driver’s license from another country, the process to obtain a Panamanian license is much easier. It takes about 2 days because there are several steps.
- In Panama City, 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. This takes about 30 minutes.
- Go to the Panamanian Ministry of Foreign Relations 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 $5 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 each front and back. 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.
- If you get your foreign license authenticated at your Embassy, you do not need to take a written test or a driving test. You will only need to do a vision and hearing test at SERTRACEN.
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.
You cannot get your foreign license authenticated at the Embassy until you have a temporary visa.
In Panama City, you must authenticate your current driver’s license and the authentication at the Ministry of Foreign Relations. But the rest of the process can be done in the province where you live.
Because it could take a while to get an appointment at the Embassy, or perhaps you don’t want to travel to Panama City, you can pay the driving school nearest you $70 to get a certificate and the test questions to study for the written test. The written test is composed of 10 multiple choice questions with only 60 seconds per question….you can take a certified translator. THESE ARE THE TEST QUESTIONS IN SPANISH AND ENGLISH
For the driving test you are required to demonstrate 3 parking skills:
1) pull into designated parking space
2) parallel park
3) back into designated parking space
Once you complete the written test and the driving test and you have your blood type, then you can continue to SERTRACEN to do the vision and hearing test.
CONSEQUENCES OF NOT GETTING A PANAMA DRIVER’S LICENSE
Once you get a residency visa, you can no longer drive with your foreign driver’s license. You must get a Panama driver’s license. When you apply for a visa, a stamp is put in your passport that indicates you have applied for a residency Visa. If you are stopped at a checkpoint, the police will ask to see your passport or your Cedula (national ID card that you get after you get your permanent Visa). If the police notice that you have a stamp in your passport that you applied for a visa but you are driving with your foreign driver’s license, they will likely impound your car and you will get a $150 ticket. Therefore, it is better to use a taxi or ask a friend to drive you until you get your Panama driver’s license.
RENEWING YOUR PANAMA DRIVER’S LICENSE
You will need to renew your Panama driver’s license every 4 years unless you are 70 years old, then it will need to be renewed every 2 years. To get your license renewed, you do not need to go through the authentication process again. You will only need to take a vision and hearing test to renew your license. If you are over 70, you will also need a doctor’s letter that you are ok to drive.
It cost $40 to get a driver’s license initially. Once you have your permanent residency visa, you will get a 10% Pensionado discount so you can renew for $36.