Navigating Panamanian Bureaucracy: Residency Cards, Driver’s Licenses, and the elusive PanaPass

The COVID pandemic slowed our orientation into regular Panamanian life, among other ways, by limiting our exposure to Panamanian bureaucracy. One “must do” item on our task list that has taken months to complete: get Panamanian driver’s licenses. Finally, task completed…at least for one of us…kinda.

In Morocco we lived four years without needing to subject ourselves to the dubious pleasure of obtaining Moroccan driver’s licenses.  Our U.S. licenses were good for one year, but after that we were able to drive legally with international driver’s licenses that we secured online with proof of holding legal licenses in the U.S.  Indeed, getting those prior to moving to Morocco was one of the better preparatory actions we took, because the Moroccan driving bureaucracy offered its licensing test only in French (with the prospect of passing hopeless for Brian and merely unlikely for Audrey) and Arabic (with no chance of passing for either of us).  Many expats count on being able to talk (or bribe) their way out of legal jeopardy if they get stopped on the road past their allowed one year without a Moroccan license.  One person we know even spent a decade living in Morocco without ever taking the test, due less to insufficient French than to her disdain for dealing with bureaucracy if she could avoid it.  Thinking about how we expected foreigners living in America to follow the rules of the road in the U.S., we complied willingly with the easy act of securing the international driver’s licenses, and always encouraged newbies coming to join us at GWA to do the same.

But Panama has a much stricter expectation for foreigners wishing to drive on Panamanian roads.  One has three months to get a Panamanian license, and the clock starts ticking upon arrival even though one cannot actually apply for a license until after securing a temporary residency card.  On the plus side, though, the process does not require taking a written test in Spanish…kinda, again.  Presenting an affidavit from the U.S. Embassy certifying that one holds a legal license to drive in the U.S. suffices for reciprocity to get a Panamanian license.  Sounds simple, right?

If only…especially during a pandemic.

Besides the HAZMAT-like reception we had upon arrival at Tocumen Airport last July, our first experience with bureaucracy in Panama came with efforts to update our car’s electronic PanaPass sticker on the windshield that charges tolls for driving on the Corredor Norte and Corredor Sur toll roads directly to a bank account.  We had a PanaPass on the car, thanks to the previous owner having an account.  But that account went inactive when we got the car, so until we could update the account it has just tallied the accumulating deficit each time we drive through a PanaPass toll booth, along with adding a per-passage penalty for not having a positive account balance.  (At least we learned eventually we can do that.  But not before Brian’s first encounter with a PanaPass toll booth – of course, during a torrential rainstorm with very poor visibility – so he did not know he could go forward without paying electronically on the spot.  As a flexible, creative, full-of-grit 21st Century-skilled expat, he used his Moroccan driving skills to back around nearly a half mile of multi-lane access road with cars sloshing forward around the cloverleaf at high velocity through the rain as he reversed his way back to the main road.  Audrey remains very glad she did not accompany him on that outing.  Brian, each time she states this, merely smiles with raised eyebrows and nods in agreement.)  Our car had four appointments with the PanaPass people from September through December, and each time they had another reason why they could not issue the new PanaPass.  Meanwhile, each time we came to a PanaPass toll booth we had to stop and wait as the bar blocking our transit stayed down for 15 seconds a pop while the digital display told us, “Saldo de cuenta bajo: ¡recargue su cuenta!” (“Low account balance – recharge your account”) along with displaying the accumulated deficit that had approached $200.  Each time we thought, “We would if we could, really!  PLEASE let us recharge our account!!!” often adding, as we learned to say in Morocco and regularly have found apt in Panama, “Inch’allah.”  This week, on the car’s fifth appointment with PanaPass officialdom, finally updated the PanaPass account so that we can zip through the toll booths without stopping, just like everyone else.

Our PanaPass experience taught us that in Panama we can benefit from the tolerance we built up in Morocco to expect that bureaucratic things seeming easy may instead play out with much greater difficulty than one might otherwise reason they should.  As it turned out, getting a driver’s license proved not as burdensome as we feared (imagining a hot and crowded room chock full of bureaucrats exercising their absolute power from one edge of their own respective window counters to the other).  Instead, the people with whom we came into contact generally seemed in good spirits and wanting to be helpful; but the full process requires patience and a high tolerance for bureaucratic steps to find ultimate success.

Panama began counting the three months we could drive on our U.S. licenses upon our landing at Tocumen Airport on July 29, even though we could not initiate efforts to get Panamanian licenses before securing our Panamanian residency papers.  Like so much else hindered by the pandemic lockdown, Servicio Nacional de Migración (National Migration Service) had a flood of applications once Panama’s phased opening restarted immigration activity.  We confronted the calendar’s ticking days with bravado, outwardly confident that required pieces would fall into place in time while inwardly trying to reassure ourselves and each other that our first weeks here stuck in quarantine and without wheels demonstrated our ability to manage just fine with grocery deliveries.  More important for holding as much confidence as we did, ISP’s very capable HR office offers the tremendous service of facilitating residency visas for expat employees, and on October 1 they took us to our first SNM appointment to get temporary residency cards.

This provided our second encounter with Panamanian bureaucracy.  Unlike our PanaPass experience, success came smoothly and with reasonable dispatch.  Arriving at the SNM building, we met our HR miracle worker in the parking lot.  Typical of days in the rainy season, the morning sun hung bright and hot in the clear sky in order to make people thirst for the rains that would dump a waterfall in an hour once the afternoon clouds rolled in.  Fortunately for us, we took advantage of the appointment our HR Wonder Woman had set up for us and followed her past the long line of people baking outside.  Once inside, our brains jarred from the opposing sensations of appreciating the building’s unexpected air conditioning while simultaneously our eyes glazed over at the sight of multiple banks of windows, all with pools of people sitting in well-organized fashion with a big “X” marking every other seat to keep people from sitting too close for appropriate social distancing.  Not sharing our bureaucratic shock, Wonder Woman pursued her mission and found among the throng ISP’s attorney, who held a small stack of manila envelopes and folders in the crook of his arm which – more importantly – included all our residency paperwork, which he had prepared for us.  He led us around a corner to a smaller and more crowded bank of windows reserved for those lucky folks ready to submit applications and have their photos taken.  Standing there not long in an air-conditioned building, we mused at how much easier and less intimidating we found this process compared to our first trip to la Préfecture de Police du Grand Casablanca when we first arrived in Morocco.  Then, one at a time, our turns came to approach the relevant window, turn in our papers, and have photos taken for our ID cards.  Then, again trained by Morocco, we readied ourselves to wait a long time for our applications to process and cards to print.  Then the attorney disappeared.  Then Wonder Woman went after him.  Then she returned to tell us the attorney was taking care of final details.  Then, in what seemed like no time in the world of bureaucracy, the attorney reappeared with his armful of papers that now included our temporary residency cards.  Wonder Woman told us we had gone through in a record time of shorter than 45 minutes, she having spent more than two hours there with someone else not too long before.  Then she gave us the joyous news that while we would need to return in the spring to get our permanent residency cards, with the temporary cards we now could get our driver’s licenses…Inch’allah again.

Panama contracts out its licensing services to a company named Sertracen, with three locations in the Panama City metropolitan area and more spread around the country.  But before we could make an appointment with Sertracen we needed an appointment with the U.S. Embassy’s American Citizen Services (ACS) office to secure affidavits verifying our U.S. driver’s licenses.  After gaining our Panamanian temporary resident status, we had 28 days left on the clock to get the affidavits and trade them for Panamanian driver’s licenses…probably plenty of time in normal circumstances, but not when Panama still had to emerge fully from its pandemic lockdown.

Because of Panama’s pandemic lockdown, most embassy staff have worked remotely (like the rest of the world) since last spring.  Understandably, that made getting an appointment difficult, with efforts somewhat hit-or-miss.  We know someone who also arrived last summer but could not get an embassy appointment until December.  We lucked out and scored an embassy appointment days before our three month driving grace period would expire.  The ACS office had not even a handful of staff doing their best to move through the roughly two dozen people ahead of us seeking some sort of American citizen service that morning.  Audrey got Brian’s hopes up by telling him before we went to book an hour in his calendar.  In contrast, the four hours we actually spent at the Embassy just to get the affidavits seemed more like 10 because – par for the course in American consulates and embassies around the world, we had to leave our electronic devices at the entrance.  We enjoy spending time with each other and talking, but we prefer to do that at home instead of sitting socially-distanced in an embassy waiting room.  Once our turn finally came, obtaining our affidavits meant going to one counter to start the process…then to another counter to pay for the affidavits…then to a third counter to get the printed affidavits and sign them for notarization…then back to the second counter to pay again for another Audrey affidavit after she signed the first one on the wrong line…then back to the third one again to pick up Audrey’s reprinted affidavit (which the most kind and understanding Foreign Service Officer this time had marked with a “Sign Here!” Post-It so that she would not sign it on the wrong line again).  Of course, between each counter trip we had to wait again until whichever counter was our next destination called us.  The U.S. Embassy staff treated us warmly and well; but with our phones left at the entrance we had no way to contact anyone about being stuck at ACS while missing other scheduled appointments, or to let the driver waiting patiently for us in the parking lot outside the embassy know that we were delayed way past the time we thought it might take.  Finally we had the affidavits in hand, and when we arrived back at the parking lot outside the embassy’s entrance we found that our patient driver had not abandoned us.

All we needed now was the final step of going to Sertracen for our licenses.

Except for that old pandemic thing.  We could not get an appointment with Sertracen until December 11, six weeks after our three-month clocks ran out.  Expecting this, with understanding that we had done all possible to get our Panamanian licenses with no available Sertracen date before our deadline as the only reason we had not procured them, one of the ACS staff suggested we keep our affidavits handy if we had to drive before we finally obtained the licenses.  And so we did, driving minimally and always ready to plead our case should we get stopped for some reason.

We waited impatiently for December 11 to push through the calendar.  Then another surprise popped up.  Audrey and ISP’s board had worked hard to hold parent elections to fill vacant school board seats, with parents able to vote in person or online.  Farming out the process to one independent third party to run and another to certify the results, the board set the date and time to certify the results exactly when we had our long-awaited appointments to get driver’s licenses.  Audrey told HR Wonder Woman of the conflict, and she suggested in response that she marshall Brian through without Audrey to get his license, and then he could play chauffeur for Audrey until she could get her license later.  So that is what we did.

While Audrey masked up and went to school to witness the certification of the board election, Brian went to Sertracen for his license.  Mid-December means transitioning from rainy season to dry season, so the bright and hot afternoon sun had hung in the clear sky all day with little hope for rain when Brian arrived at Sertracen on Avenida José Augustín Arango and saw a very long line stretched along one side of the building, around the corner, and down the entire adjacent side to the back corner.  Setting his internal bureaucratic tolerance threshold to “high,” he prepared for a long, hot, miserable time waiting.  Then Wonder Woman came to the car and said with a smile, “I’ve been looking for you to tell you not to get into the line.  I talked to the guard at the front and told him I’m helping someone that is old, because you have white hair, and he said that I can just take you inside instead of waiting in the line.”  (Brian has always looked older than he is, taking it in stride and with good humor now that on at least one occasion someone presumed Audrey is his daughter instead of his wife, even though we are separated by only one year.)  So Brian went with her to the guard, and when she pointed to his white hair the guard let them in.  Inside, there was an entry room with a snaked line leading to windows and tables, and another guard just inside the door checking identification as people entered.  Wonder Woman looked at Brian, shrugged, and said, “We’ll see if your birthday or your hair is more important.”  The hair won.  Wonder Woman led Brian through the line to a table set next to the windows and staffed by a professional-looking woman wearing a Sertracen shirt.  Wonder Woman spoke in Spanish to her to explain his expat status and to give her the affidavit from the U.S. Embassy.  Brian appreciated very much having Wonder Woman with him to handle the Spanish discussion.  Then the Sertracen staffer looked at Brian and said in perfect English, “So you want to go through that door and go all the way to the back where they will help you and get your information.”  She was the only person at Sertracen who spoke English to him, but he felt silly nonetheless.

Brian and Wonder Woman went through the door and into a very large room that had even more stations than he saw at Migración, with even more banks of chairs set up with social distancing “X” marks on alternating seats.  The process entailed six stations – first to collect his personal information that Wonder Woman provided in Spanish; second to take a photo for the license; third to take a vision test; fourth to take a hearing test; fifth to pay for the license; and sixth to pick up the printed license.  Sertracen had tried to virus-protect each station, but at each one (especially for the vision and hearing tests) Brian thought about how Panama’s coronavirus infection rates had skyrocketed since the start of November.  Each time he signed something, he wished he had brought some of the latex gloves that have become ubiquitous for him…or some hand sanitizer…or at least his own pen.  When he received his license at the last station, Wonder Woman pointed out that it would expire at the same time that his temporary residency card expired, so once he obtained the permanent residency card he would need to get another driver’s license.

But at least one of us FINALLY had a driver’s license.  Brian’s ability to chauffeur Audrey lasted only a couple weeks, though, as Panama’s return to lockdown at Christmas meant returning to designated days for women or men to go out exclusively.

Fast forward to this week and we had our return to SNM for our permanent residency cards.  The process repeated our experience from October 1:  straightforward, thanks to the attorney managing the paperwork burden, and relatively quick by bureaucracy standards.  When she handed us our permanent cards, Wonder Woman reminded Brian that he needed to update his driver’s license and said he could do that online.  So yesterday Brian went to the Sertracen website to navigate the updating process all in Spanish, using Google Translate to check every instruction out of fear that a minor mistake could negate his ability to update his license.  The online process impressed him – straightforward, pretty easy to navigate, even doing online vision and hearing tests.  He had no long line in the bright and hot sun for him to avoid, so no need to refer online to his white hair.  Now he waits to see if a courier, for which he already has paid online, will deliver his updated license to him in the next 10 days as promised.  He has until the end of March to figure out how to make it right if something in the bureaucratic process goes haywire as bureaucratic processes sometimes do.

Meanwhile, next week Audrey will take her permanent residency card to an appointment at Sertracen and get her permanent driver’s license (good for either four years or ten years, depending on who you ask).  As Panama continues easing out of our renewed lockdown and, starting next week, husbands and wives can once again go out together on the same days, perhaps she will play chauffeur for Brian.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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