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Thursday, February 28, 2013

How to get a Panamanian 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 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. Here’s where things got really frustrating for me, but I’ve heard it’s changed a bit. I was told that I had to go all the way to a place on Via España to get a stamp on my paperwork. A friend of mine who has since gone through the process said this part of the process has been done away with. Even if that’s the case, have an extra few dollars as I think I paid $2 for the stamp, which might just be done now in the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, rather than at that office I mentioned on Via España.

The SERTRACEN office in Albrook

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. Their website lists locations at (just click on the Sucursales y Horarios tab). I recommend you go to the one in Albrook. Albrook, being so close to the Clayton area where the embassy is located, is a much more Americanized area than where some of the other offices are. You’re probably more likely to find English-speaking assistants at that office.

Step 8: When you finally enter the SERTRACEN office, go to the line on your immediate left (assuming you’re at the Albrook office). 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. At that point you’ll be told to take a seat and wait for your name to be called. Do yourself a favor and sit all the way in the front, on the left hand side, as this is the area you’ll be going to first. When they call your name, you’ll be asked a few questions and your photo will be taken. 

When you’re told to take a seat again, make sure you move over to the seating area in front of the vision test machines. Listen for your name. They’ll call you up to take the vision test. I had two people doing mine so that one could translate while the other operated the machine.

Again, you’ll be told to take a seat. This time sit near the closed in cubicle area to the right of the vision machines. You’ll be called in to take the hearing test in that area. 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 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.