Anyone who has driven in NYC, Paris, Berlin, or Madrid will manage to drive in Panama. Bring patience, alertness, though, and a valid driver’s license. If you are in the country for over three months, you must present a Panama license.
No exceptions. The police will demand your passport if you’re driving with a non-Panama license and check how long you have been in Panama. Even if you’re on a temporary stay exceeding three months, you better have that Panama license. There is some good news though, you will keep the DL issued in your home country, which helps when going back home.
Sertracen for Expat Driver Licenses in Panama
Important: Before You Start
In my previous article What Not To Do When Getting Your Panama Driver’s License, I explained how to certify your foreign-issued document. Without this paper, you can not apply for a Panama license. And now that the government has deemed your existing license valid, you can apply for a Panamanian one.
Off We Go to Sertracen for my Panama Driver’s License
Getting a Panama driver’s license as an Expat differs from that of a Panamanian citizen. The Panama citizen will go to the transportation authority.
All foreigners, however, will use Sertracen, a government contractor, for administering all tests and issuing the document. A one-stop shop for us, much like the DMV in your home state. Sertracen offices are located throughout the country.
No appointment is necessary for applying for a license exchange. However, if do not have a license, you must schedule a theory and driving test with their office.
To do this, an authorized Panamanian driving school called las escuelas de manejo autorizadas will issue a certification if they are happy with your skills. The process I am describing below relates to someone who already has a license.
Four Steps to Get a Panama Driver License
1. Pick the closest Sertracen office to you. Don’t wear shorts. They will turn you around to get dressed properly. This is true for all government offices. Arrive at least thirty minutes before the doors open. There will be a long queue, but it is longer the later you arrive. Plan about 2-3 hours for this chore. First, a Sertracen employee will walk along the queue and check your documentation. Once deemed sufficient, you allowed into the building. At the first counter, they will check your documentation, ask you to pay $40.00 in cash, and then give you a number and ask you to wait in a certain area. If your Spanish is bad, bring a Spanish-speaking friend, because you do not want to miss your number.
2.The second step is an eye test (for existing license holders). If you wear glasses, bring them to pass the eye test, which they will administer.
3. Now off to the hearing test. Using a computer and headphones, you will listen to certain tones in different frequencies to which you must respond as quickly as you can, showing the direction from where the tone came from, left or right. It’s a straightforward test, and no Spanish is necessary. However, I suggest having a basic knowledge of Spanish, not least to show the Panamanian people respect.
4. Once you passed the test, they will call you to the desk where they take a picture for the license and they set your license classification. To my dismay, Sertracen did not accept the motorcycle license from Europe. It was for an up to 125 cc class motorcycle. I already applied and received the papers from a driving school to take the test to become a Panama Biker, which I plan to do as soon as the raining-season ends.
In the US, the DL is the most common form of picture ID. However, here in Panama and many other Central and South American countries and Europe, a national ID (called a Cedula in Spanish-speaking countries) is the accepted form of ID.
It makes banking and purchasing services, such as internet and telephone, easy. Although I don’t need a car just now, it’s good to have that local license if you ever wanted to rent a car or buy a vehicle. I am really eye-balling a motorbike, all in good time.
Let me know, here on TCI, if you need further advice on getting your Driver’s License in Panama.
by: LP Wirth