Better Safe than Sorry: Carry ID in Panama

by | Feb 11, 2022 | Panama | 1 comment

Whether you’re a tourist on a holiday, on a temporary assignment working here, or an expat with temporary or permanent residency, carrying an ID in Panama is mandatory – it’s the law. Getting caught without could create avoidable difficulties.

I’ve Been Checked for an ID in Panama

In September 2018, I was on my weekly visit to a nearby Libyan restaurant to enjoy dinner and a cold beer.

My favorite dinner place, a Libyan restaurant in Punta Pacifica, Panama City, in walking distance - by LP Wirth
My favorite dinner place, a Libyan restaurant in Punta Pacifica, Panama City, in walking distance – by LP Wirth

As I walked home, several police cars with lights were parked in front of my gated highrise. When I wanted to enter the gate, a Policia Nacional officer approached me, asking for my ID. I had just received my permanent residency card (which is not the cedula) and showed it to him.

Suddenly, I remembered the words of my immigration lawyer, saying: “You still must carry your passport!” Sure enough, the officer asked for my passport. Luckily, he allowed me to go upstairs to fetch it. This operation, I learned later, was a crackdown on persons with expired visas.

But this wasn’t my only encounter with ID checks in Panama City. Twice, as a passenger in a cab, police asked both the driver and me for ID. Presumably, they were on a manhunt. No problems there, as I had my ID on me. On another occasion, only the driver was asked for ID.

In December 2020, during the stringent COVID lockdowns, I went for groceries when Policia Nacional stopped me midway to the supermarket and asked for my ID. I was on foot. I had to explain where I was going and where I lived because of the COVID restrictions. The officers inspected my cedula, the country’s version of a National ID Card, and asked me why I was in Panama. Though a little confused, I patiently explained that I lived here, and offered my Panamanian Drivers License as additional proof. I think they gave me a hard time because they saw me not wearing a mask, which I put on after they called me over. They finally let me go.

Situations Where Police Could Ask for ID in Panama

  • As a passenger in a taxi
  • Walking
  • On a bus/in the metro
  • On a train
  • In a mall/shop
  • On a boat
  • In front of your house

Being asked for ID is a thing here. It makes public life safer, though it is not something I was used in the US or in the UK. But it is mandatory to keep a valid and original ID on your person in Panama as it is in Germany.

No Photocopies Accepted

It’s a biggy. Photocopies won’t count for proof of ID in Panama. The reason is simple:

Someone may have photocopied their passport page along with someone else’s immigration stamp. It is a common trick used by many perpetual tourists, and the authorities have wised up to it.

There are plenty of smart solutions to carry ID and money close to the body by Amazon
There are plenty of smart solutions to carry ID and money close to the body by Amazon

If you’re worried about losing your passport other ID in Panama, follow travelers and expat wisdom: Keep those essential items close to your body. There are plenty of smart options to keep the important stuff close to you.

And in the unlikely event you get mugged, it is easier to replace the passport at your embassy than it is getting in trouble for breaking the law.

As a permanent resident, I carry my Panama ID, my cedula, and my Panama Drivers License with me at all times and I have had no problems.

It’s good to stick with the rules of and in your host country. As a backup, I keep copies of my IDs at home should I ever lose them.

I left my wallet once at Mailbox ETC but was able to recover it.

Reasons for ID in Panama

Well, for one, it is the law. But why?

Panama is a safe country. I felt never in jeopardy or threatened, and this is one reason I enjoy Panama so much. Another reason to carry a cedula or passport is that you may be refused service without it. I am frequently asked to show ID when I pay for groceries with my debit card. Even dealing with internet providers, cell phone companies, and public utilities, they won’t do business unless you show either the original passport or cedula.

Why Are Police Checking ID in Panama?

The quick answer is: to curb crime. They use the ID to check against outstanding warrants or items, such as unpaid fines. They can even see if you’re set to give evidence as a witness in an investigation or at a trial. They’re also checking your immigration status.

Dealing with Police in Panama

Never be tempted to offer police a bribe. The Panamanians have cleaned up the system a great deal. They are proud people. If you tried to bribe an official, expect it to go horribly wrong. Even if it worked, it would contaminate the system and make it worse for others. I have encountered police and other authorities several times in the 3+ years in Panama and have found that openness, attentiveness, and respect will resolve any situation much quicker than fighting the system.

We here at TCI have expats in many countries – the Alliance team. Join TCI for free to ask us questions. We’re here to help.

by: LP Wirth