Renewing My Driver’s License

My Panamanian Driver’s License expired the end of September. I know I have written about the procedure before, but I thought I might review it again. Not much is different from 4 years ago when I renewed it then.( My original one was only good for a year while I had my temporary Pensionado visa when I first applied.) The difference this time is that the Sertracen office in Las Tablas had moved to a different location with more available parking in a modern strip mall.

Last year while in California, I renewed my California Driver’s License.  It had expired the month before and was no longer eligible for online renewal (only eligible for two renewals, then you must go in to a “DMV” office to apply for renewal. So I thought I would do a comparison.

Llned up outside
Lined up inside

California: It is best to make an appointment which can be done online to expedite your time waiting at the DMV office. You still have to wait in a line for those who have appointments. (I waited in line about 10 minutes.) If you don’t have an appointment, that line is much longer and the wait time may very from 30-60 minutes. When I arrived, people who had no appointment were lined up out the door Then you are given a number and you have to wait again. There were about 100 chairs for people to sit in, but good luck finding on available. There were probably 150-200 people at the Santa Clara DMV office while I was there. I waited another 15-20 minutes before my number showed up on the screen.

Panama: First of all, I actually received a phone call about a month ago from someone at the Sertracen reminding me that my driver’s license needed renewing by Sept. 30th. When I arrived early afternoon last Thursday with no appointment at the Sertracen in Las Tablas, no one else was in the waiting room,; only 4 more people showed up after me while I was there. So there was not much waiting time. There are a dozen chairs for people to sit on. I told them my name and was called immediately to start the process.

California: After my number came up on the screen, I went to one designated window (one of about 12), filled out forms for renewal and signed. I had my thumbprint taken electronically. The clerk then had me read a line on the eye chart behind him covering one eye and then the other for the vision test. I paid $32. Then I was sent to another long line where I stood and waited for another 15 minutes to get my picture taken.

Panama: I sat at the desk almost immediately upon arrival, handed the worker my present license and a copy of my Cedula (Panamanian national ID). If you don’t have a copy, they will make a copy for 10 cents. The clerk filled out the application for renewal on the computer asking a few questions (in Spanish, but no problem for me to understand), took my picture while I was sitting there, and then had me do a vision exam looking into a machine. This consisted of naming letters on a certain line, telling her what a certain designated road sign meant (mine was “No gire izquierda” – No left turn), then naming 4 number I saw for a color blindness test. Then I was instructed to sit at one of the other chairs and wait until the called my name for the hearing test.

*Side Note: Last time I gave them a copy of my Passport and Pensionado Visa because I had not applied for my Cedula yet. Although not required for an expat, one of the benefits of having a Cedula is that the Cedula number does not ever change; you have it for life (like a social security number in the U.S.). The U.S. passport number changes when you renew and then you have to change the numbers on your important documents and ID cards such as driver’s license, residents visa, car registration, etc. A Cedula number avoids all that.

California: My number was finally called and I stood before a camera for my picture. Then I signed my name on an electronic pad. Given a half sheet document without the picture as my temporary license which was good for a month to use until I received my 5-year license in the mail. We use Mikkel’s daughter’s address as our mailing address. This time it only took about 10 days to arrive and Mikkel was still with his daughter having medical exams at the nearby VA. I had already gone to visit my daughter and son in Tucson, Arizona. But if we had already left, Mikkel’s daughter would have sent it on to our Panama forwarding address in Miami, Florida. The California Driver’s License includes your address and a separate California license number. If you move, you must go online and fill out a change of address form. The license also lists your weight, height, color of eyes & hair.

*Side Note: The California Driver’s License used to be accepted as ID for boarding domestic flights within the U.S. Next time anyone renews, beginning in mid-2020, the license alone will not suffice. A REAL ID license must be supplied if you don’t offer up a passport or passport card (which costs an additional $30 when the passport is renewed, allowing one to use when visiting Mexico or Canada instead of a passport). To get a REAL ID license, you must provide certified copies of your birth certificate (plus a marriage license for women if their name has changed), your social security card, a utility bill, a paycheck stub, and your passport, if you have one. The REAL ID will display a golden bear in the corner.

Panama: I sat and waited one minute, then they called my name. I was lead into a nearby room, sat down at a desk, and proceeded to take the hearing test on the computer with headphones. This consisted of clicking on the right or left box to designated which ear I heard the 10 sounds. One time I just sat there not hearing anything. The employee asked why I was waiting and when I told her I didn’t hear any more sound, she instructed me to click on the left box. I finished the test and passed. Then I went out to another window and paid $36.00. It is usually $40, but I received a 20% jubilado discount off the vision and hearing tests which were $10 each. I guess those were considered medical procedures, which are eligible for the jubilado/pensionado discount. I then went back and sat down and waited about 5 minutes. My name was called from a different window where I signed my name again and received my 4-year license with photo to be used immediately. The Panamanian driver’s license does not include your address, although the applications asks for where you live and your phone number. Nor does it lists your physical features. It does include your allergies, blood type, and nationality.

*Side Note: If you are over 70 years or older, you must also supply a document, dated within 6 months before renewing, from a Panamanian internist or gerontologist (not a general practitioner), stating you are of good health and mind. The license must be renewed every 2 years instead of 4. While I was at the Sertracen, Mikkel was 4 blocks away at a clinic getting his document to renew his license in October.

All in all, it is not very difficult to get a license in Panama for an expat resident. The initial one requires authentication of your driver’s license from the Embassy; that way you do not have to take a written or behind-the-wheel driver’s test in Spanish. I can only speak in regards to what is required from the U.S. and in comparison to California. A blood test is also required initially. I was in and out of the Sertracen in less than 30 minutes. California DMV with an appointment took about 1 hour or so. I am sure other Sertracen offices may take more time especially in Panama City. The cost for a CA 5-year license is a little less than the cost of a Panamanian 4-year license. But I think I will not be renewing my California license again unless my situation changes. Mikkel and I are living here permanently and plan to keep it that way. My Panamanian license is accepted in California while visiting, and there is no need to go through the new procedure for a REAL ID license since I have and will renew my passport when the time comes which is acceptable for all travel. Besides since I have moved to Panama, I have only used my passport as ID for both international and domestic flights.


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