Buying a car in Panama can be an adventure. My first attempt culminated in the loss of US$6,000 and a great deal of time.
Some people imagine living the expat life without a car and enjoying the vast options of public transportation, which is doable but may not suit your lifestyle long term. Panama’s public transportation is improving; however, reliance can become a problem.
Used cars hold their value quite well, making them a bit pricey. The good news is that the cost of maintenance and insurance is lower than in the United States or Canada; and most auto service shops do not operate on a sell, sell, sell mentality.
Here are a few tips that will greatly increase your chances of making a good purchase…
It may seem obvious, but making all the changes that come with becoming an expat can test your patience and judgement. Take it slow. Finding the car that’s best suited for you could take time.
Find A Good Mechanic
Don’t wait until you’ve found a car to start looking for a mechanic. If you’re not a fluent Spanish speaker, find an English-speaking mechanic or a good translator. Panama’s climate, relaxed safety laws, and a general aversion to preventative maintenance can be rough on vehicles. It’s important that you have a professional inspect your car before buying.
Consider Parts Availability
If you’re from the States or Canada, you’re accustomed to availability of parts for a wide range of makes and models. It’s not the same in Panama. Ask your mechanic what makes and models are good choices given parts availability. You want to know that your preferred mechanic can easily source parts for the car you buy.
Everything Moves Slower In Panama
Mostly everything moves slower in Panama. While it’s quite pleasant to sit in a restaurant for an hour after a meal, the slow pace of Panamanian government agencies can be maddening. Patience will be your best asset. It will save you a great deal of stress and mitigate the risk of bad decision-making.
Registration, Title Transfer, And License Plate Renewal
Registration and title transfer between owners must be done in the municipality of the vehicle’s existing registration. Registration can be transferred to the municipality of your choice, but only when the car’s license tags are up for renewal.
License tags must be renewed annually by law. Requirements include a simple form, a valid driver’s license, proof of insurance, and your passport or residency card. You’ll also need something called a revisado (vehicle inspection), which must be done in person.
It sounds simple, but you could spend an entire day dealing with the municipal office that manages renewals. Luckily, there are service providers who will help you with these processes, for a fee.
Obtaining A Driver’s License In Panama
You don’t need to have a Panamanian driver’s license to own and drive a car or motorcycle, unless you plan to stay in the country as a permanent resident.
The steps to obtain your license are as follows…
First, visit your embassy and have your foreign driver’s license authenticated. Be sure to make an appointment, as they do not take walk-ins.
(If you’re a U.S. citizen, visit the embassy website to read more on obtaining your Panamanian driver’s license.)
Then, your license must be authenticated by the Departamento de Autenticación y Legalización.
Panama requires verification of your blood type, so you’ll have to visit a clinic.
With residency documents, passport, valid license, notarized documents, and proof of blood type in hand, you’re ready to visit the SERTRACEN office closest to you (there are several in different parts of the city). Be prepared to take a hearing and sight test, and a simple written exam.
Municipal and government offices a dress code. You can’t wear sandals, shorts, t-shirts, tank tops, or sleeveless tops.
Obtaining insurance is relatively easy. I recommend you ask your local community for a referral.
Consider a broker that has an actual office and visit them in person. Never pay cash. Insurance payments should be made to the underwriting insurance company. They accept payment by credit card, local bank transfer, or via Panama’s Multipagos system.
Full coverage is not overly expensive, so buy it if your vehicle is eligible. Don’t hesitate to contact an insurance company or broker if you have questions.
Traffic laws in Panama are somewhat similar to U.S. and Canadian traffic laws. However, enforcement is not the same. I advise you read through and learn the laws. Paying for traffic tickets is a cumbersome and time-consuming process you’ll want to avoid.
Familiarize yourself with the unwritten rules of the road. These are counter to what you may have learned in a defensive driving class. In fact, part of being a defensive driver in Panama is observing, learning, and following these unwritten rules.
Before driving in Panama, especially in the city, know that almost everyone drives in what can only be described as a chaotic manner.
Important things to keep in mind are:
- Blinkers are “optional.” It’s rare to see someone signal if they’re planning to make a turn.
- Yellow light means push on the gas pedal before the red stop light comes on.
- When the green light comes on, wait a few seconds in case some drivers decide to ignore the red stop light.
- Drivers will seldom let you pass when trying to cross an intersection. If you don’t cut in front of another driver, you’ll likely be stuck in the same spot for a while.
- Alto (stop) signs are treated as a suggestion. No one is going to come to a complete stop.
- When backing out of a parking space, take it slow. Drivers won’t stop because they see you. In fact, they’ll most likely zoom past you.
- If a driver rolls their window down and starts yelling and gesturing at you, don’t engage. Taxi drivers are usually the ones to do this.
Roberto R. Hernandez