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Getting our Panama Drivers License

Panama DL

One thing that needed to change when we bought the car - we couldn't continue to play loose with the law, we needed a Panama driver's license. I had been using my Virgin Islands driver's license when we rented a car and just played the dumb tourist if we got stopped at a police checkpoint, those days were over. So I needed a license and Jane decided that she might want to drive, so the two of us ventured forth into the bureaucratic web that one encounters when getting something official done in a foreign county.

First, lets put this adventure in context. A few months ago I decided to get a Michigan drivers license - with help from my sister, it took about an hour, I was impressed. Seven years ago when I got my Virgin Islands DL, it took a couple of weeks, half a dozen trips to DMV and a lot of aggravation. I was hoping that Panama would come a lot closer to my Michigan experience than the Virgin Island nightmare.

First stop, the American Embassy so they could put a fancy seal on a form that said the copy of my Michigan DL I had supplied was a real/valid license (same for Jane, except her's is from Kentucky). Took us about half an hour and cost us $50 - I guess that's our contribution to reducing the national debt.

Next stop, the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores for the first test of Jane's ever improving command of the Spanish language. It was across town and it took us a little hunting around in the shopping center to find a tiny office. Jane got in line, oops wrong one, got in another line (that didn't move) and finally in the third (last) line thanks to some nice Panamanian ladies that took pity on her and let her go ahead. What happens at this stop (eventfully) is that they stamp (not as fancy as that embossed U.S. thing) and affix some tax stamps to that document we got at the U.S. Embassy that certifies those documents as authentic and acceptable to the government of Panama. Jane spent about 30 minutes in the office, 5 minutes buying the tax stamps from a vendor on the sidewalk, and 20 minutes in the bank paying (government offices rarely accept money, but send you to a nearby bank and you come back with a deposit slip), then a couple of hours shopping until it was time to retrieve the authenticated forms and move on to the next step. Total time, 2½ hours - total cost $8.

Last stop (we thought), the Sertracen (Drivers License Bureau) which, of course, is back across town. We find the nice new building, go inside and take number. Find a couple of chairs and start trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Surprisingly, after just a few minutes we hear our number called and approach the girl at the front desk, whose job was to check our documents and make copies of everything. We're doing great until . . . she asks for our blood test that we don't have. Can't proceed, can't come back tomorrow (another holiday) - so much for our good luck. Outside, I remember reading something about a clinic in the shopping center just down the road. A real shock, we find the clinic and twenty minutes later we have our blood test done. It's now approaching three o'clock and the Bureau closes at four - no way is it going to happen today, but we decide - might as well give it a try. I drop Jane off and I go to find a parking place. When I get back Jane is at the "document checkers" desk waving me over. She had gone in, taken a new number, took a seat and then decided she would just mention to the lady that we were back with our blood tests. BANG - we leap back to the front of the line AND the lady tags our paperwork "jubilado" (retired), putting us in our own private line of two for the vision and hearing tests. Less than thirty minutes later we're out the door with our shiny Panama drivers licenses.

It's funny what makes you smile when living in a foreign country, but navigating this process was one of those things. Jane's language skills helped mightily, I managed to get us everywhere without getting lost, and we had the help of some awfully nice people along the way. Turned out to be a nice day.

Take care.
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