17. Getting Your Panama Drivers License | OPERATIONEXPAT.COM

Getting my Panama drivers license was one of the more stressful residency hoops I jumped through. Like Ken, you get to benefit from my experience, hopefully making it significantly less stressful!

I’m pretty sure the last time I took a written and driving test was when I was 16 years. Let’s just say that was many decades ago.

The idea of doing this in the states is intimidating enough—but, I confess, I lost a little sleep thinking about the potential nightmare of the Panamanian version of the DMV. 😳

Do you really need a Panama drivers license?

The short answer—maybe no, but probably yes.

If I was living in Panama City, I honestly don’t think I’d bother. It would be SO much easier using public transportation, Uber and taxis—no car purchase or maintenance (both of which are legit challenging here), no parking hassles, and you get to skip the whole Panama drivers license process.

Ubers and taxis are cheap and readily available in the city—and, I’ve heard that once you get a handle on the public transport system, it’s totally doable (and even cheaper, of course).

Living outside of the city is a whole different ballgame, especially in the countryside where we live. There’s no way I’d not have a car here!

In most places outside of Panama City, there are no Ubers. While there is often at least one taxi, it’s not going to be conducive to any sort of schedule. Plus, there is usually a pretty good distance between Point A and Point B.

Tourists coming from a “friendly nation” are automatically given a 180 day visa (aptly named a “tourist” visa). BUT, you’re only allowed to legally drive for 90 of those days.

You used to be able to leave for a few days—many would cross the border and enjoy a weekend in Costa Rica—to reset the clock, but this is yet another casualty of Covid.

On Day 91 of your visit, you are legally required to have a Panama drivers license. You’re also required to have it once you get your temporary residency.

TIP—if you get pulled over during the window of time between getting your residency and your license, and you’re within that 90 day tourist grace period, do NOT give the officer your temporary residency card…give them your regular driver’s license and your passport!

So, if you’re not living in the city, you’re planning on being a tourist here longer than 90 days OR you got your Panama residency, you definitely need to get your Panama drivers license!

How do you get a Panama drivers license?

Being an American, I can only speak to how U.S. citizens can get their licenses. I believe the process is similar if you are from any of the “friendly nations,” but I wouldn’t bother reading on if you’re not from the U.S.

U.S. citizens have choose one of two (legal) paths to get a Panama drivers license:

  1. The U.S. Embassy route
  2. The Sertracen route

If you’re not fluent in Spanish, I wouldn’t attempt to do either on your own. Panamá buries you in bureaucratic minutiae and the driver’s license process is definitely not an exception to this rule.

After I go over the steps on each path, I’ll share a couple of recommendations for personal concierges who will lead you through all of the required steps—including making all of the required appointments, accompanying you through the process, and eliminating most of the stress and wasted time.

Even with a personal concierge, I had a bit of a stressful experience due to a missed instruction and a tight timeframe. I would have lost a few years off my life without one!

Getting your Panama drivers license the U.S. Embassy route:

This route involves getting your existing drivers license notarized by the U.S. Embassy and stamped by Panama’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MIRE)—both of which are located in Panama City.

Most people prefer this route because it avoids the dreaded driving school and required written and behind-the-wheel tests at Panama’s “DMV.”

If you don’t live in the city, note that this route requires a multiple day stay in the city, adding to its cost—and possibly taking a serious toll on your sanity.

Today was a BAD day in my Panamá honeymoon phase.

Had to leave my little slice of Pedasí paradise to go back to the city to get my drivers license (starting with the US Embassy). Have a huge shopping list to conquer because the stores in Pedasí barely cut it.

A good chunk of the country was held hostage FOR 3 HOURS by protesters in Rio Hato. Dead stop in both directions…no movement (not even the air). I lost my sense of humor at 1-1/2 hours. My AC was barely cutting it and there was no baño. Started to panic at 2 hours…called a local to suss out my fate.

Hit PC at rush hour…INTENSE. Checked into my hotel to find it (temporarily) without toilet paper and water, then braved the roads again for the giant Discovery Center. Took me 45 min to go 3 miles. Turns out I’m pretty badass behind the wheel by myself but cannot navigate or follow direction for the life of me when I’m with my guy…what’s up with that???

Lessons learned…

  • ALWAYS bring a car charger for your phone…even if you swear you won’t need it.
  • ALWAYS have plenty of water and snacks…it could save your life.
  • Probably not a good idea to hydrate too much when driving in Panamá.

I’ll be sleeping in the fetal position sucking my thumb in 10…9…8…7…

This is the path we took—with the guidance of a personal concierge—so I have firsthand experience with it.

TIP: There are rumors that Sertracen accepts an apostille of your existing drivers license from your Secretary of State. This is NOT true!

Here are the steps to get your Panama drivers license with the help of the U.S. Embassy:

  1. Make an appointment at the U.S. Embassy (click HERE to make one online; an individual appointment should be made for each person needing a license notarization. If you’re having difficulty getting a U.S. Embassy appointment, word has it you can email them (see website for email address) and request an appointment for notarization of your license and they will respond with an appointment in 10-14 days.)
  2. Bring your current U.S. drivers license and a copy of both sides to your appointment. When you arrive at the Embassy, go to the Cashier window to request and complete an affidavit form (do NOT sign the form) and pay the $100 fee (cash or credit card). You will then wait your turn to go to the notary window where you will take an oath and the notarization will occur.
  3. Get a blood type test at a certified lab and return to pick up your STAMPED blood type test certificate. NOTE: You only need a drug test if you are applying for a Type D (light truck) license. (You can do this step any time before your Sertracen appointment.)
  4. Make an appointment at the Panama Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MIRE)
  5. Take your valid U.S. license and notarized Embassy document to MIRE for certification (located at Plaza Sun Tower on Avenida Ricardo J. Alfaro in Tumba Muerto by the National Bank of Panama; telephone 511-4045 or 511-4046)
  6. Make a Sertracen appointment (click HERE to make one online)
  7. Bring your regular driver’s license, passport AND a copy of your passport, residency card, notarized and stamped Embassy document, stamped blood test printout, and $40 cash to your Sertracen appointment. (Ladies…make sure your shoulders are covered for your photo!)
  8. Take a vision and hearing test, pay the fee, have your photo taken, and (hopefully) get your driver’s license during said appointment (NO written or behind-the-wheel tests required!)

Ken and I had separate appointments—here are some info and lessons learned on each step:

  1. I was able to make an Embassy appointment pretty easily, but Ken got hit with the post-Covid appointment shortage. Someone shared with me that, at least at the time, the Embassy would release new appointments in clumps. This was definitely the case. Since I work at home, I was able to check several times a day and finally nabbed him one.
  2. The Embassy only allows the person with the appointment to enter the highly secured facility, so if you’re working with a concierge, they won’t be able to accompany you into the building. The good news is everything is in English—and both Ken and I had a smooth experience here.
  3. We used a Raly lab for our blood type test—they have multiple locations throughout the city, they take walk-ins, and you can pick up your stamped results at any of the labs. TIP: Do NOT mess things up like I did and download your blood test results from the computer! I made it all the way to Step 8 and got rejected because I was missing the beloved stamp.
  4. THANKFULLY, our concierge made our MIRE appointment…(you’ll see what I mean if you click on the link above 😆)
  5. My first MIRE appointment was cancelled due to an in-office Covid breakout. Fortunately, my concierge was able to get me another appointment for the next day. I waited outside while she got the beloved stamp.
  6. See #3—navigating these government websites is pure torture.
  7. There is NO way we could have navigated our Sertracen appointment without a concierge. Still, I caused a snafu by daring to show up with a stampless blood test resulting in a second Sertracen visit. (I have to give BIG props to Sertracen for kicking the California DMV’s booty—no long lines and next day appointments!)
  8. The second time was a charm for me! You’re allowed to wear your glasses for your basic vision test. The hearing test involves a set of headphones that emit a series of high-pitched beeps and you identifying which ear you hear them in.

Getting your Panama drivers license the Sertracen route:

Sertracen is the Panamanian version of the DMV. As I mentioned above, they are much smoother operators than the folks running the California DMV.

Still, we were thankful that neither of us had to go this route. Although I’ve heard it’s “not too bad,” I’m pretty sure test anxiety would have totally humiliated me.

Here is the process on the Sertracen website. Again, I recommend using a concierge if you aren’t fluent in Spanish.

Here’s the summary of the steps to get your Panama drivers license the regular Sertracen route:

  1. Get a blood type test at a certified lab and return to pick up your STAMPED blood type test certificate. NOTE: You only need a drug test if you are applying for a Type D (light truck) license. (You can do this step any time before your Sertracen appointment.)
  2. Go to—and pass—driving school from an authorized agent or by the ATTT (don’t forget to get your stamped diploma!)
  3. Make a Sertracen appointment (click HERE to make one online)
  4. Bring your own car, your valid U.S. driver’s license, passport AND a copy of the main page, residency card, stamped blood test printout, certified driving school diploma, and $40 cash to your Sertracen appointment. (Ladies…make sure your shoulders are covered for your photo!)
  5. Take the written (offered in English) and behind-the-wheel tests, vision and hearing tests, pay the fee, have your photo taken, and (hopefully) get your driver’s license during said appointment

I’ve heard some interesting stories about this route involving “donations” that make Step 1 a breeze and Step 4 significantly easier. 🙈🙉🙊

Tip from Keith F.: “I think the driver test in Panama requires you to sit in the seat and honk the horn. Inability to merge is bonus points.”

Special note for those who are over 70…

All applicants who are 70+ years of age must present a certificate of good physical and mental health from a doctor specializing in internal medicine or geriatrics dated within 6 months prior to the Sertracen appointment.

Make sure the document has your full name, identification number, and is signed by the doctor.

Just when you think you’re done…

It’s very likely you’ll have to repeat some of the above steps depending upon the state of your residency when you first got your license.

If you are applying with your temporary residency card, your new Panama drivers license will have the same expiration date as your temporary residency…which means you have to update your license when you get your permanent residency card (and again if you get your cedula).

It took me three trips to Sertracen to complete my Panama drivers license process:

  1. Once with my temporary residency card
  2. A second time to update my license from my temporary to my permanent residency card
  3. A third time to update my license from my permanent residency card to my cedula

So much fun!

For #2 and #3, you are NOT required to re-authenticate anything…theoretically, you can do them online (I tried and failed).

So, I just brought my permanent residency card, and later my cedula to my local Sertracen office, where they updated my ID and I retook the hearing and vision tests and had a new photo taken.

TIP: Your vehicle registration must match your license—if your license is under your temporary or permanent residency cards, your car registration will be the linked to your passport; once you get your cedula, your car registration must be updated.

Using a concierge for the Panama drivers license process

Have I mentioned that there’s no way we would have made it through the Embassy route without our concierge??? Seriously.

When you add a language barrier to hyper-bureaucracy, the result is a bona fide nightmare. 😆

Time has faded the memory of what the concierge cost, but $60 is a solid guesstimate. BEST…$60…I’VE…EVER…SPENT.

Here are two good options for Panama City concierges who have experience with the driver’s license process:

Both young women will help your experience getting a Panama drivers license be as pleasant as possible!

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