Driving in Panama City is absolutely CRAZY so it is really better to NOT try to drive in Panama City. Hire an Uber or a taxi to get around in Panama City. The public transportation system is easy to use too.
But driving in the rest of Panama is easy… if you follow the rules and know what to expect.
When driving in Panama, you should always carry your passport (or Panama cedula if you have one) and your driver’s license. You cannot get a Panama driver’s license until you get a residency Visa.
Throughout Panama there will be immigration or police check points. If you encounter a check point, they may just wave you through. But usually, they will want to see your passport and driver’s license. They will check the entry stamp on your passport to verify that you are not in Panama illegally. Even though tourist can stay in Panama 6 months, you can only drive on a foreign driver’s license for 3 months. (It’s a crazy law, but it is the law)
They may also ask to see your auto registration documents and valid insurance. If you are renting a car, check the insurance documents in the glove box to make sure they are current before you take the car on the road.
The PanAmerican Highway and some other roads will have no U-Turn signs. You’ll need to go to a “Retorno” place to turn around. There is usually a retorno, just down the road. It’s a $75 fine to do a U-Turn on the PanAmerican Highway (ask me how I know :-).
• The minimum age for drivers is 18;
• You must drive on the right side of the road;
• You must keep the following documents on your person or inside the car at all times: your passport or cedula, your valid driver’s license, vehicle registration, insurance papers, accident report form, Rules of the Road book.
• It is prohibited to be use a cell phone while driving.
• Seat belts must be worn by everyone in the front seat
• Children under 5 years old must be seated in a special car seat in the rear.
If you get a traffic ticket, it must be paid within 48 hours in the province where you got the ticket.
Sometimes a police officer will suggest that you can “work things out” on the spot instead of getting a ticket (aka bribe). It is illegal for them to ask and illegal for you to participate so be very cautious about paying a bribe because it could be a set up.
TOLL ROADS IN PANAMA
Most of Panama’s roads are very good, especially compared to other Latin American countries. There is only one main road that goes East-West across country, called the InterAmerican Highway or the PanAmerican Highway which goes to the Costa Rica border and about 2 hours East of Panama City near the Darien Province. There is no road that connects Panama with Colombia. There is no toll to use the PanAmerican Highway in the interior of Panama.
In Panama City there are toll roads called the Corredor Sur and Corredor Norte but outside of Panama City there are no toll roads.
PANAMA SPEED LIMITS
The maximum speed limit is Panama is 100km (60 miles an hour). As you are driving in to a town, the speed limit will be reduced to 80km or 60km or less. All road signs, speed limits, and most car odometers are in Kilometers. Panama is very strict about speeding. Don’t do it!
Along the PanAmerican Highway, and other areas, there will be traffic police on small motorcycles to monitor traffic and watch out for speeders. They sometimes use a radar gun. If they think you are speeding, they will motion for you to pull over. You should pull over. They will not go chasing after you unless you do not pull over or unless you are driving really crazy.
If you do not stop, the police will take a photo of your license plate and car and upload it to a central system that immigration uses. Eventually, you will need to go through an immigration check point. They will check to see if you have been reported as speeding or breaking other laws. So, yes, eventually, speeding in Panama will catch up with you.
PANAMA DRINKING AND DRIVING LAWS
Panama’s Blood Alcohol Content is a ZERO driving limit. This means that just a small indication on a breathalyzer can result in a drunken driving violation and a maximum $2500 fine. If you are drinking and driving, your car/bus could be impounded too.
It is against the law to have alcohol in any open container anywhere inside a car or bus (We do not allow any alcohol inside the Panama Relocation Tours buses).
Especially during Panamanian holidays, the police could set up a check points in different areas to catch drivers who have been drinking alcohol or have open containers in the vehicle.
DRIVING AT NIGHT IN PANAMA
Extreme caution should be used when driving at night. There could be people wearing dark clothes walking on the road or close to the road. It is hard to see them until you come right up on them. It is common for people to ride bicycles, ride horses or walk along the PanAmerican Highway.
There could also be stray dogs, horses, chickens or cows on the road.
One time I was driving home after dark and a man was passed out right in the middle of the road. Especially at night, it is a good idea to drive slower than the posted speed limit and pay attention to your surroundings.