If you’re planning on relocating or retiring in Panama, chances are, you’ve considered whether or not to drive a car there. Driving in Panama, like anywhere, has its ups and downs, and buying or using a car in Panama depends on many factors. Before you make the decision to drive in Panama, we highly recommend you do some due diligence first. Panama has one of the largest amounts of cars on the road, per population, of any country in the hemisphere. There are also numerous laws, licenses, and regulations involved in driving in Panama, so weighing out whether is worth it is critical to your plan to relocate here. In order to keep you informed, here are the basics on what you should know.
Your foreign driver’s license is only valid for 3 months at a time
If you are in Panama on a tourist visa, or even one of the many residents’ visas available to you, your home country’s license is only valid for the first three months you’re in the country. If you leave the country, this resets itself upon your return to Panama. Also, remember that if you’re using a foreign driver’s license, you will still need to show either your cedula (Panama ID), or passport if stopped by the police. Without these documents, you are not driving legally, and may risk losing your vehicle, and paying a steep fine.
You can get a Panamanian driver’s license if you are a legal resident
As soon as you receive your Panamanian legal residency, you can apply for a Panamanian driver’s license. This requires a short driving course from local authorities, as well as a paper test, and time to process. While this process is underway, you may drive with your foreign license, but you will be held to international license regulations until your Panamanian license is fully processed and approved. Have patience, as often this process can take longer than expected, and requires a number of trips to get approved.
Do you really need to drive?
This is a question every expat who is relocating or retiring to Panama should ask themselves. Panama is a diverse country as far as rural to urban development goes, and this affects access to efficient transportation. While many people who live in the interior, or smaller towns around the capital, choose to have a car, many in the city don’t. A car isn’t necessary in the center of the city for many people, and you may want to live without one for a few months to see if that applies to you. Panama City has clean, modern buses, a new subway, and cheap taxis, as well as ride share services like Uber readily available. It may be more cost effective (and less stressful) to live without a car. But in the end, that’s up to the individual, and their needs.
Buying a car in Panama
If you decide you’re going to be driving in Panama, you’ll need to start looking for a car. Buying a car in Panama is similar to buying one in North America, however prices will be about 15-20% higher on average. There are a number of dealerships in each city, as well as ones in populated suburbs throughout the interior. You can finance both used and new cars through a local bank, or pay cash if you’re banking internationally. If buying from an individual, make sure to have your car inspected by a 3rd party first. Also, many people will offer to sell used cars that include the legal paperwork for licenses, insurance, registry, etc. If this is offered, make sure to check these documents with your lawyer first, to make sure they are legitimate and up to date.
Have fun driving, and see you on the road soon!