Border Run 101

People who come to Panama arrive with a Tourist Visa. It allows you to stay for 180 days. Sounds easy but what a lot of people do not know is that your driver’s license is only good for 90 days. that means that these visitors must cross the border in order to continue to use their home-country driver’s license.

We tried to do this quick trip across the border into Costa Rica a few weeks ago. We were told we could not do it because we would have to be gone 24 hours for them to check us back into Panama. We went to Rio Serreno, near Volcan, and there are no places to stay in this very tiny town. So we returned home and planned to return shortly.

Then our calendar began to fill and we didn’t have 24 hours until yesterday. Our Florida licenses were not valid after September 10 – we’ve been in Panama 90+ days already. We could not take our car to the border so we caught the Boquete-David bus and then the David-Frontera bus. We were in Paso Canoas in no time.

Paso Canoas is a typical border town. It’s smaller than Nogales, Az but not cleaner. It’s classier than Tijuana (before the new immigration bridge) as x-rated stuff is not on every street corner. It’s safer than El Paso, TX. That said, it is dirty, hot and dusty. It does not have infrastructure to handle the hundreds of people who cross every day. Until recently, we could just go across the border, have lunch at Chicken Brothers and return to Panama. That changed about 3 weeks ago. Now we are required to stay out of Panama for 24 or more hours. Paso Canoas is not prepared to handle this new requirement. It has places to stay and some offer air conditioning, wifi and a pool.

The hotel we found was not the best. PC1

Unfortunately, we found a much better hotel on the Panama side of the Free Zone AFTER we registered at Casa del Sur. The hotel was creepy looking but it was clean and had AC, wifi and a pool. I still left the bathroom light on all night as I am hysterically afraid of roaches. We saw not a single bug, not a fly, not a mosquito. The hotel was clean and, more importantly, right across the street from Costa Rica Immigration.

Food in Paso Canoas does not have to be good since their restaurants are for a captive audience. The aforementioned Chicken Brothers was actually good. PC2We had dinner at another nondescript restaurant and it was barely fair. Until Immigration closed at 10 PM, it was noisy.

There was also some kind of celebration between the two immigration buildings last night. Boys and girls were in their finest traditional dresses and suits. There was a band and fireworks. The officials from Costa Rica gave a flag to the Panamanian officials but we have no idea why. People had little boxes with lights in them.

We got up early to be at the beginning of the line when the immigration office opened at 6 AM. The office actually opened at 7 AM. PC4It was very smooth. Out of Costa Rica, short line to get back into Panama, catch the bus and we were home by 10:30 AM.

All in all, it was painless since we have been reading about horror stories. We did not see long lines, we were not asked for proof that we each had $500 or for an airline ticket to the US. This might be attributed to the fact that we are in the process of getting our pensionados for permanent residency.Can You Find the Gringo?

Although this was not the worst 24 hours of my life, or anywhere near the worst 24 hours of my life, I really hope that this is the last 24 hours I have to spend in Paso Canoas.

Can you spot the gringo in this picture?

living in Panama

Blog Expat: living abroad


17 thoughts on “Border Run 101

  1. Glad everything went smoothly and the hotel was tolerable!
    You can always spot the gringo by the shorts and flip flops 😀 This one is dressed up though – sneakers.

  2. I am also glad you posted your experience. The more we read about them, the better we can prepare. Although I am just hoping that once in PC in January, I am successful enough to get my temporary residency VISA and then once retired to Panama, I will have received my permanent status. One can only hope!

  3. This is a very helpful article – enlightenment on life in the real world is so much more valuable than over-hyped stories about exotic retirement destinations. After all, if it was easy, everyone would do it. We chose “easy” Puerto Rico, and even that has its challenges. We enjoy reading about your adventure – a big “atta girl” for taking the time to keep your informative blog going. Hang in there!

  4. You are all lucky as Americans to get easily a permanent residence permit in Panama and to change your American drivers license without passing a test. Same applies to me as a European. Later I will post a story how those two things are impossible for an European citizen in the USA. The land of the Free????

  5. I have lived in Panama for two years. I always continue driving past the 90 days and I get pulled over on my moto about twice per month. If I am ever past the 90 days, my trick is I just keep a copy of my photo page of my passport. If the cop asks me what day I arrived, I lie and make up a date about a month in the past. They NEVER check, and I have never gotten a multa (ticket) in the half-dozen times I have been stopped past 90 days. At worst, the cop will threaten to tow your vehicle, but this is an obvious attempt to get some cash. Give him $20 and they will let you move on. This happened to me only once in the 35-plus times I have been pulled over. The police here have been told not to extort the gringos because bad press about that can result in Mexico-like abandonment and Panama is smart – they understand the value of foreign investment.

    • But if they do catch you, they can impound your vehicle. It’s not worth the gamble to us. Coming from Florida where a lot of immigrants ignore US and state laws, I vowed that I would never be that kind of resident in Panama. Like I said, the border hop wasn’t horrible but I should have permanent resident status by the next time it comes due.

      • Could anybody tell me how long it takes nowadays to get a pensionado visa from the moment you introduce with your lawyer all documents correctly with the immigration in PC.

  6. I have driven from the U.S. to Panama twice. So, I’ve crossed every Central American border twice. (Except Belize.) When I lived in Costa Rica for 5 years, I crossed the Nicaragua border or “the other” Panama border (Sixaola) every 90 days.

    Now, get this….I’ve lived in Chiriqui Province, Panama for 9 months now and have to leave the country every 30 DAYS, to renew my vehicle’s papers ! (Yes, I know about “nationalizing” my vehicle. It’s a long story.)
    All this is just to say: EVERY TIME I cross a border it’s a different, challenging, adventure !!
    Even when I am “fully prepared” with all the documents, tickets, proof of solvency, etc. There’s ALWAYS SOMETHING that makes it “less-than-easy”.

    So…learn as much as you can (e.g. from forums like this and asking around)….prepare MORE than you think you’ll need doc-wise….then prepare mentally ! Because SOMETHING will have changed or SOMEONE will try to interpret their job differently or SOMETHING….

  7. How hard is the drive from say El Paso, TX to David, Panama? Is it safe? I need to go there to do some work on my new house and I will need a truck, so I thought I could save the rental and flight costs by driving. How many hassles crossing all those borders? Advice – fly and rent or drive? Thanks

    • I know a guy who drove from Idaho and still has his truck. I’ve heard many more horrible experiences. If you know Spanish, you’ll be able to manage the borders, getting insurance in each country, etc. If you are planning on loading an open truck, you probably wont have much left buy the time you make it through to Panama.

  8. Nice post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed!
    Very useful info specifically the last part 🙂 I
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