Are there any special requirements for driving or hiring a car in Panama?
Driving in Panama can be described at best as chaotic and you need to be prepared for anything, especially in urban areas.
The building of a new network of toll roads, partly completed, will help access into the cities and towns but not deal with the mayhem in them.
If you can cope with that, you'll find a beautiful and richly cultured country with friendly people.
Seat Belt Laws
Everyone in the front seats of a moving vehicle in Panama must wear a seat belt by law. The rear passengers don’t have to but for your own safety, use them where fitted.
Drinking and Driving
In Panama, drink driving is completely banned with the blood alcohol level set at zero. Large fines and imprisonment result from being caught with any alcohol in the blood and there is no allowance for alcohol from other sources such as medication
Must Have Documents
You must have your own licence plus an international driving licence to drive in Panama, even then you must obtain a Panamanian licence after 90 days in the country. You will also need the vehicle registration documents, your passport, your insurance document with a blank accident report form.
The speed limits for Panama are as follows:
Open roads: 80 km/h
In Town: variable up to 50 km/h
Minimum Driving Age
You have to be over 18 to be able to drive in Panama. If you're renting a car the minimum age is 21 and if you’re less than 25 years old you’ll need to pay an extra premium for your youth.
Safety Camera Warning Devices
It is not against the law to use speed camera detection equipment but in the interests of safety for you and other road users, we always recommend that you stick to the speed limit.
On the Spot Fines
Panama has had problems with police corruption in the past but has worked hard to eradicate it. For this reason you will never be asked to pay an on the spot fine but instead will be given a penalty notice detailing the offence and the fine you have to pay. In most circumstances you’ll have two weeks in which to pay.
Child Safety Rules
In Panama, children under five years old must sit in the rear of the vehicle in an age appropriate car seat. If you have older children with you when you travel and want them protected, let us know and we can arrange for seat restraint systems to be fitted for children up to 12 years old.
A minimum of third party insurance is compulsory in Panama and you must be able to prove it with a valid certificate. You’ll also need to carry a blank accident report form which the police will complete in the event of an accident.
Rules of the Road
Rules of the Road
Standard international driving laws apply with one or two exceptions.
• In Panama, cars travel on the right hand side of the road
• The country’s roads are congested and in poor condition
• Try to avoid driving at night as you’ll find cars with no lights, pedestrians and animals using the road
• The police set up regular road blocks to check documents
There are no special rules or regulations for towing a vehicle in Panama. It is up to the driver to ensure the vehicles are securely attached and that the driver has good visibility.
Panama hasn’t introduced fixed speed cameras and instead relies on hand held cameras used in police mobile speed traps. If you are caught speeding by one of these you’ll be given a penalty notice detailing the excess speed and the fine you’ll need to pay.
Using Mobile Phones when driving
You are not allowed to use a mobile phone without a hands free kit whilst driving in Panama.
Parking is often a nightmare, especially in the towns and cities. If you can, it’s best to pay for parking because everyone else tries not to meaning you have a chance of getting a space.
Every town and city will have paid parking which at least is ordered and usually well managed. Parking costs are average – owners rely on people being frustrated with the lack of parking elsewhere.
The police do what they can to enforce a modicum of order but you’ll often see terrible parking, double parking and more. Avoid problems by using the paid parking where possible.
There are no concessions for disabled drivers, it’s everyone for themselves! If you use the attended garages you have a chance of finding a space and, with a little politeness and some Spanish, you’ll often get assistance.
Motor Way Signs
There are four motorways in Panama, totalling 150km and all leading out from Panama City. Tolls apply and signage is the usual American colour scheme of white writing on a green background.
Adelantamiento prohibido - No overtaking
Calzada con prioridad - Main/priority road
Ceder el paso - Give way / Yield
Camino de grava - Gravel road
Cruce de peatones - Pedestrian crossing
Curva peligrosa - Dangerous curve
Curva a derecho - Curve to right
Curva a izquierdo - Curve to left
Curvas peligrosas hacia la izquierda - Double bend, first to left
Detención obligatoria - Stop and give way
De dos camino tráfico - Two way traffic
Echar la mano - pay cash
Entrada prohibida - No entry
Entrada prohibida a vehículos de motor - No motor vehicles
Estrechamiento de calzada - Road narrows
Estrechamiento de calzada por la derecha - Road narrows on right
Fin de prioridad - End of priority road
Gire a la derecha - Turn to right
Girar a la izquierda - Turn to left
Intersección con prioridad - Junction with a minor road
Licencia de conducir - Driver license
Límite de velocidad mínimo - Minimum speed limit
Límite de la velocidad máxima - Maximum speed limit
Media vuelta prohibida - No U-turn
Ninguna parada - No stopping
Obras - Road works
Otros peligros - Other danger
Párese y ceda el paso - Priority road
Patojo - Child
Pavimento deslizante - Slippery road
Permiso de conducir - Driving permit
Permiso de conducir internacional - International driver license
Prohibido el paso - No entry
Prohibido estacionarse - No parking
Rocas decrecientes - Falling rocks
Rotatoria - Roundabout
Semáforos - Traffic lights
Topes/ tumulos - Speed bumps
Vehículo - Vehicle
Velocidad máxima - Maximum speed
Viga alta - High-beam
Almost all traffic lights are found in the major settlements like Panama City. There, you’ll find the system is very much like the US one and follows the Vienna Convention on sequencing so no surprises.
The Pan-American Highway passes through Panama and currently doesn’t require a toll however the four motorways leading to Panama City are all subject to a toll but the cost is low, especially given the short distances.
The emergency number in Panama is 911 for the police, medical services or fire.
What to do in an emergency
If you encounter mechanical problems with a hire car, they’re usually easily resolved by calling the number given to you by the car hire company on the documentation and often inside the windscreen. If in a private car, you’ll have to rely on a local mechanic to help as there are no national breakdown services.
In the event of an accident where no one is hurt you must first photograph the scene then move the cars. You must fill in your accident report form and send it with a copy of the photographs to the insurance company or give it to your car hire company. When an injury has occurred, the police and medical services need to be called. If the vehicles aren’t causing a danger to others they should be left in place. The police will fill in the accident report for insurers or your car hire firm.
As of December 2014, the average price of 95 octane unleaded petrol in Panama is 68p whilst diesel is 61p. Prices can vary between the cities, towns and the smaller villages.