How to get a Panama driver’s license

In blog sites and in my email inbox, questions about driving legally in Panama come up all the time. So what’s the deal with driving in Panama? I’ll do my best to explain it here. 

I’d put most people into one of the following three categories:

A: You’re here living, but not working on legal residency, which means you’re making border runs every 3-6 months. 

B: You’re here working on getting permanent residency, which means you should have some sort of residency card, probably a temporary resident card as you’re working towards getting that coveted permanent card. 

C: You’re here on some other sort of visa, like a pensionado visa, or you’ve already received permanent residency. 

I’ll try to address all of these situations as I explain the process I went through in receiving my Panamanian driver’s license. 

First, those in group “A” above, cannot get a driver’s license. You have to have an immigration card of some sort to receive a license. The good news is you can drive with your passport and valid home driver’s license for 90 days. The tricky part, as you all know, is that you can technically stay in Panama for six months before you have to make a border run. What does that mean? It means that you can drive legally for the first three months, but even though you can technically stay here three more months, you won’t be able to drive during those last three. So if you want to drive around legally, you’d need to leave every three months and come back into the country with a new stamp. 

I fall into the group “B” category. I’m still working on getting my permanent residency. In the beginning of the process, this posed a real problem for me. Going through the immigration process, I was given a temporary residency card that only lasted for about three months. I could no longer drive on my passport because I had the temporary residency card, and that alone will tell the cops that I’ve been here longer than 90 days. Panama will only issue you a driver’s license for the amount of time on your immigration card/ID. Since mine was only for three months, this meant that my driver’s license would expire in three months. So you can see how that gets tricky. Who wants to pay to have their driver’s license renewed every three months? 

If you don’t get the driver’s license, you run the risk of getting caught driving illegally. This happened to me. Random ID checks are set up all over the place here. They pop up all the time on major streets, in the middle of neighborhoods, and everywhere else. Several times I got stopped and when I handed them my American driver’s license and my immigration card, it always turned into a lengthy argument in my poor Spanish about how long I’ve been here and why I don’t have a Panama driver’s license. In every one of these situations the cops eventually got tired, realized I wasn’t going to pay a bribe, and just let me go. I was good at playing the “I don’t speak Spanish and I don’t understand” card. 

So if you’re in category “B” like me, your options are to get a driver’s license for the amount of time that matches your immigration expiration date, or try to talk your way out of every random traffic stop you come across. 

When I finally got my two year temporary residence card, I rushed to get the license. I was tired of the random traffic stop hassle. 

If you’re in group “C” and have a permanent residency card or a pensionado visa that proves you’re legally here for good, you can get a driver’s license that will last four years, just like any Panamanian behind the wheel. 

So how do you get a driver’s license? 

Here are the steps I went through when getting my driver’s license. Of course, as with anything having to do with the government in Panama, these steps could change at any moment with little or no warning.

Steps one and two will apply to U.S. citizens. Citizens of other countries will need to visit their own embassy or consulate. After step 3 the routine should be the same for everyone. 

Step 1: Having two copies of your valid American (or your home country if not from the U.S.) driver’s license, your valid immigration ID, and your valid passport, will save you a lot of aggravation. Just bring these copies with you and save yourself the hassle of having to run around getting copies later. Of course, bring the originals with you as well.

The U.S. Embassy in Clayton

Step 2: You’ll need to visit the U.S. Embassy, which is located in the Clayton area. Do not go to the embassy without an appointment. Even if the place is completely empty, it is highly unlikely they will assist you without an appointment.

Go online to https://evisaforms.state.gov/acs/default.asp?postcode=PNM&appcode=1 to make an appointment.

At the embassy, you will need your valid passport, valid driver’s license, and $50. Then you will receive a notarized form that proves your driver’s license is real and valid. It’s basically a fill in the blanks sheet that they notarize there on the spot. 

Step 3: Next you will need to visit the Departmento de Autenticacion y Legalizacion (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores) which is basically the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This office is located at the Plaza Sun Tower on Avenida Ricardo J. Alfaro, also known as Tumbo Muerto. This is the same plaza where the Banco Nacional is located. You should see the sign from the street that says Ministero de Relaciones Exteriores (above the bank). 

This is the map to Plaza Sun Tower given to me by the U.S. Embassy

The office itself is located on the second floor. If you’re in the parking lot, looking at the building, walk all the way to the right side of the building and go up the stairs or elevator. The door is somewhat hidden, inside of a hallway, so just go all the way to the right side on the second floor and you should see it. 

You will need to bring your valid U.S. license and the notarized form you were given at the embassy. 

Step 4: You will leave both your license and the notarized form with the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores. I’m not sure if this step is always the same or if they were just swamped that day, but I was told that I had to wait about three hours before I could pick up the authentication I needed.

In the meantime, you will need to pay $2. However, paying it isn’t as easy as you’d think. You’ll need to take a form they give you down to the Banco Nacional on the first floor (where there were no less than 50 people waiting the day I went) and pay the $2 there. Keep the receipt as you’ll need to present it to the Ministero de Relaciones Exteriores later when you return to pick up your documents. 

Step 5: Since you’ll have about three hours to kill, I recommend taking care of the blood type test at this time. Now, according to the SERTRACEN (the driver’s license department) website, you only have to have the blood type test done if your home license doesn’t list your blood type. My Ohio license didn’t.

Since this step only costs $5, I recommend having it done anyway. I have a feeling that if you showed up at SERTRACEN without it, it wouldn’t matter if your home driver’s license had it listed, or not. Trust me, rules change depending on what agent/assistant you’re dealing with oftentimes in government offices. So I’d rather have the form just in case. 

Parking is a hassle at Plaza Sun Tower, so I recommend just leaving your car there (if you drove) and walking to the lab to get the blood type test. The lab is right around the corner. The SERTRACEN website lists all of the labs you can go to for this test, but I found one a couple of blocks away that has an English speaking technician and is super cheap. Here’s what I did. 

If you’re standing at the Plaza Sun Tower, looking out at the main street, turn right and start walking that way. Cross the first street you come to. You’ll see the El Dorado shopping mall in front of you and a ton of other stores. Don’t go into that parking lot. Turn right on the sidewalk as soon as you’ve crossed the street, and start walking down the hill. You’ll be on the opposite side of the street as the Blockbuster Video. Almost directly across from the Blockbuster is a small lab called Clinico Del Castillo. That’s where I went.

The test only costs $5 and it takes just a few minutes. They’ll give you the results right away. The English-speaking tech is Alfredo del Catillo, and he’s a really nice guy.

Keep the blood type test form with you as you’ll need it in the final step when you go to the driver’s license office. 

At this point, you’ll probably still have some time to waste. The El Dorado shopping mall has some stores and few restaurants, so you can hang around that area for awhile. 

Step 6: Go back to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, give them the receipt for the $2 and pick up your authenticated paperwork. 

This is the office in Albrook, but don’t go to that one

Step 7: By the time you’ve finished all of this, I doubt you’ll have time to go to the SERTRACEN office and finish the process. I didn’t. It was about 3:30 p.m. when I’d finished, and the driver’s license office closed around 4. Chances are you’ll need to have a second day available to finish the process. Whether on that same day, or the next day, the next step is to go to a SERTRACEN office.

UPDATED INFO, UPDATED ON JAN. 11, 2014

Their website lists locations at www.sertracen.com.pa (just click on the Sucursales y Horarios tab).

A reader, and friend, Gary M. just informed me that you can no longer go to the Albrook SERTRACEN office for first time driver’s licenses. It seems they only renew them there. Now, for first time licenses, you have to go to the office in Plaza Carolina. This office is located on Via España, on the far end, opposite of downtown Panama City. Just travel down Via España until you pass the 2nd McDonald’s and go under the bridge (KFC will be on the corner right after the bridge). Keep going, maybe a half a mile, and you’ll see a big building on the right hand side that says SERTRACEN. Next to it is a big open field where you can park.

The last time I visited this office, I had to take a ticket from the attendant in the parking lot into the building with me to have it stamped (I can’t remember how much I had to pay, but it wasn’t much). 

Step 8: When you finally enter the SERTRACEN office, you’ll be in a small room, where more than likely you’ll find a long line that leads to the counter. This building used to be a call center, so the room you start in is like the security checkpoint. When you reach the end of that line, the person behind the counter will check to make sure you have all of your paperwork in order. You’ll need to bring everything you’ve collected up to this point: copies and originals of your U.S. driver’s license, your immigration card, and your U.S. passport. Have the blood type test results, the notarized form from the U.S. Embassy (which should now be authenticated as well), and $40. Ok, almost there. 

Give all of your forms to the agent at the desk. Once they’ve checked to make sure you have everything, they’ll buzz you through the next door, where you’ll find a tightly packed driver’s license office with several stations you’ll be herded through. Go to the desks to the right, marked 4-8, where you’ll be called over to do the final review. The last time I visited this office in Plaza Carolina was to renew my license, and when I got to this point, the woman I was working with spoke no English, so we both kind of laughed our way through the process. She called over a partner to help decipher my horrible Spanish. They ask you a few questions, have you sign, and take your photo.

When you’re told to take a seat again, just circle around to the left, and sit in front of the vision testing machines. Listen for your name. They’ll call you up to take the vision test. 

Again, you’ll be told to take a seat. This time sit near the center of the room where you’ll find an office where they conduct the hearing test. Just wait for them to call your name. The hearing test is the kind where you just click left or right on the computer depending on which ear you’ve heard the beep. Pretty easy even for non-Spanish speakers. 

Finally, you’ve reached the end of the process. Go pay the cashier $40 and have a seat in front of the little cashier window. Wait for your name to be called. That’s when you get your driver’s license. Congratulations. You’ve done it!!!!

So in the end you wind up paying just over $90. Going forward, when your license expires, you’ll just need to take your valid immigration card, your valid passport, and your expired Panamanian license into SERTRACEN, renew it and pay $40. Still, I think you can see why you may not want to go through the process until you have a permanent residency card or one that lasts longer than 3-6 months. 

The regular license, for Panamanians, permanent residents, and pensionados, is good for four years. 

***Extra info: Any person over the age of 70 may be required to complete a medical exam as part of the process***

Just a little something to add to this article. I was so excited to finally get my driver’s license. I no longer had to deal with getting harassed by cops who wanted a payout. Now, I could just show them my driver’s license. The first time I got pulled over was on the way to Las Tablas. It was just getting dark and a cop flagged me over on the Pan-American Highway. I proudly pulled out my driver’s license, thinking, “Not this time, pal.”

My first ticket 🙁

Boy was I wrong. I didn’t realize I had a headlight out. He didn’t even listen to my explanation (not that I had one, I had no idea my headlight was out). He took my license, stuck it in this little machine, and out came my ticket. He handed it to me and told me to get it fixed. I think I paid $25 for that ticket. Maybe I was better off without the darned license.

This article was originally written on 2/28/2013, and updated most recently on 1/11/2014. 

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16 Responsesso far.

  1. Kieran says:

    My wife is from Panama and I have a cdl we bought land in panama and plan on moving there and I would like to drive trucks over there is that possible and where would you get a job over there does anybody know

  2. Adrienne says:

    Hello…a quick question about the Panamanian driver’s license procedure:

    Do you have to surrender your USA license when you receive your Panamerican one?

    (Thanks for all the great information!)

  3. Leamsi says:

    Thank you for the info on drivers license. I fall in to group “A” that was talk about at the begging of the article. I’m planning on staying 1 or 2 years in panama making border runs. Can I buy and register under my name a new or used vehicles/scooter? What do I need? Please feel free to expand your explanation. Thank you.

  4. Rob says:

    You were complaining about a few hours waiting at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores.
    They probably changed the procedure, I came in on Monday to hand in the papers and was told to return on Thursday to pick ‘m up. No problem for me as I live in Panama City but it could be an unpleasant surprise for others.

  5. Cindy O'Leary says:

    Hi Chris:

    Great find to getting this done! A slight note of change if you want to note it:

    As of March 2015 you can no longer wait at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores for your notarized documents. They have you come back in 2-4 days.

    Two other tips if you are a pensionado (Senior) there is a special line at the Bank as well the SERTRACEN. This saved a bunch of time.

    Thanks for all your hard work on this site you saved me 500. that my lawyer wanted to charge. So a BIG Thank You again!

  6. Bill says:

    Chris,
    I’m a pensionado and already have a drivers license but getting close to the renew date…..do you have to do the vision and hearing test again when you renew?….Can I add a motorcycle endorsement on my license? I have the cycle endorsement on my US license but didn’t add it originally when I got my Panamanian license….thanks for the great article

  7. SVezina says:

    Hi.

    I am a French Canadian who has a valid truck driver’s license.

    I’d like to know 2 things:

    1- Is it possible for a foreigner to come live in panama and earn a living driving big rigs (given that picture from your blog: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-CG2Gnxq4VKU/VIh5aWJAfrI/AAAAAAAAEkY/0AggXe3x7uw/s1600/20140829_111403.jpg, there seems to have some rigs to drive around…) or is it exclusive to born panameans?

    2. If so, how hard is it to get a truck driver’s license in Panama? What are the extra steps required, if any? I guess if you don’t know, you could ask a few truckers over there 🙂

    Thanks in advance.

  8. Liz says:

    Hey Chris!

    Your site is so useful and informative, specially since I’m trying to move back to Panama after living in the D.C. area for almost 14 years. I have dual citizenship with a driver’s license from VA… I wonder if I can go through your same process or if I have to do it the Panamanian way.

    • Chris says:

      Hey Liz,

      Thanks for checking out the site. I’m not 100% sure on this, but I’m pretty sure you’d be able to do it the American way as long as you’re a U.S. citizen and have a driver’s license that hasn’t expired. I don’t know though. That’s a doozy. My wife would be in the same boat, but her U.S. license expired so she’s going to have to go through the good ol’ Panamanian process.

      Chris

  9. Gabriel says:

    What if one has a US license, but it has expired while in Panama? or where does one start to get a Panama drivers license if you know how to drive, but don’t have a current valid license? Thanks.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Gabriel,

      If you have a US license and it has expired, you’ll need to renew that license before getting the Panama license. And remember, the Panama license will only be issued for the amount of time you have left on your immigration ID card. So if you have your cedula, or pensionado card, you should get the normal 4 year license, just like Panamanians. If you don’t have a license, as in never had one or it has expired and you don’t want to get it renewed back home, you’d need to go through the process just like Panamanians. You’ll need to be here legally (as in going through the immigration process and have the card/carnet to prove it) and you’ll have to go to driving school. The driving school should be able to walk you through the rest of the process as I think most of the process is done through them. I think the school usually takes about a week, a couple of hours a day. The good news is, if you don’t know how to drive a stick shift, they’ll teach you, and a lot of the cars here are manual transmission. I’m not sure what extra paperwork is involved for foreigners. I can get you in touch with an attorney if you like. Most attorneys can assist with the process, for a fee of course. Thanks for checking out the site, Gabriel, and for commenting.

  10. Gregory says:

    What about for a US citizen born in Panama, with birth cert from Panama, and Panama on Passport, but not a citizen of Panama?

    Is there any special provisions for someone in this category?

    • Chris says:

      Hey Gregory,

      Thanks so much for checking out the site and for commenting. I’m laughing as I read this over again. I think you’re serious, but it kind of sounds like you’re joking, or messing with me. Haha. So…a US citizen born in Panama, with a birth cert from Panama, and Panama on Passport, but not a citizen of Panama? How did that happen? I thought you’d be a citizen if born here? I’ve heard of a similar story with a guy I worked with though so it doesn’t really surprise me. Since this comment came in on the driver’s license article, you’re just talking about getting a driver’s license right? You can drive on your passport for 3 months (90 days), but to get the Panamanian driver’s license, you’d have to be going through the immigration process. Man…this is a doozy. Are you a resident of Panama though? I think, when you mentioned the passport, you mean the U.S. passport, but it says you were born in Panama, right? I think I might need to pass you on to our Immigration attorney and see what he has to say about all this, lol. Let me know if that’s cool with you and I’ll get you his info. Thanks again for your comment. Sorry I wasn’t able to help.

      Chris

      • Gregory says:

        No, quite serious… Blue eyed white guy born in Panama at Gorgas Hospital, don’t speak much Spanish either… parents were US citizens, military family.

        In the USA am asked for a green card everywhere I work.

        I’m an Test Engineer and my wife is a IT Manufacturing Analyst, we would be hoping to work there if we came early.

        Have so many questions…

        • Bruce says:

          Since you were born in Gorgas at the time it was still a U.S. Military hospital, it is considered U.S. soil, therefore technically you weren´t born in Panama hence the reason you can not get citizenship…just like Mccain.

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