One of Panama’s attractions is the six month visitor visa. Panama is also happy to let a foreigner drive around using their license from home – but only for three of those six months. Huh. Your average vacationer has no issues with this, but the snowbird crowd who take advantage of the full six months of their visa find it a bit awkward, as do the penisonado crowd. Some make a “visa run” and renew their driving privileges that way.
However, it seems that Panama and Costa Rica are walking stiff-legged and bristly at the border right now. Panama especially is insisting that everyone crossing her borders comply with a five year old law which previously was not enforced with regularity. To wit, the only proof of onward travel acceptable right now is an airline ticket to the same country as the traveler’s passport, each and every human of any age whatsoever (yes, even two year-olds) must present $500 in cash, and an exiting traveler must remain outside the border for a full 24 hours before he/she will be readmitted to paradise.
With this level of hassle on top of the cost and struggle to get to David, etc., etc., getting a Panamanian drivers’ license starts looking better all the time.
The requirements for your basic Gringo-in-the-Street are not too awful. Panama assumes that if you are licensed to drive in another civilized country, you know the basic rules of the road. In Panama they are pretty much the same, with notable exceptions such as 14 year-olds can be licensed to drive cattle trucks so they can help dad on the farm, and anyone over 70 has a special set of regs to obtain a license.
I can say this with complete confidence because (drum roll) owing to a set of special circumstances, I had to take the written test, in Spanish, and that meant reading the manual, again in Spanish, which was not my favorite thing to do. The test, in case YOU might have to take it, has a lot of arcane questions about which law in which year established the Sertacen (Panamanian DMV), which government agencies get involved and at what point if you are in a traffic dispute, and what color the lights on a bicycle or a long haul truck should be.
You don’t care about that, so let me tell you what you do care about.
1) Take your passport and your home state drivers’ license to the Embassy and get them apostiled (similar to notarized, but slightly different).
2) Then take all the resulting paper to the Departmento de Autenticacion y Legalizacion (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores) for authentication.
3) Armed with this, come on back to Las Tablas. Get a Tipo de Sangre test (blood type). There is a place across from Melo in Las Tablas where you can have it done for $10. It takes about 15 minutes unless there is a crowd. You will receive a piece of paper folded and stapled. Leave the staple alone and plan to give the paper as-is to the lady at Sertacen.
4) If you are over 70, Panama wants to make sure you are not some cackling old geezer who should not be driving and scaring the rest of us. So you will have to visit either a geriatric specialist ($$$ and they are all in Panamá anyway) or an approved INTERNIST. This can be a bit tricky, because the Sertacen workers aren’t supposed to recommend any specific doctors, but I got a couple of names anyway. I went to Dr. Rogelio Nuñez, who took my blood pressure, pronounced me “as fit as a 15 year old,” and filled out my form with great exactitude.
5) Take your little pile of documentation (apostiles, Tipo de Sangre, and Geezer Certificate) to the Sertacen, which is located on the corner where the light is in Las Tablas (there is only one).
6) If you are under 70, your drivers’ license will cost you $40 and will be good for 4 years. If you are over 70, your charge is only $20, but you will have to get your degree of geezer-hood checked again in TWO years before you can renew.
That’s it. You’re good to go.
Try not to be a menace on the road.