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Getting Around Panama: Renting or Buying a Vehicle

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Getting Around Panama: Renting or Buying a Vehicle

Panama City often surprises international visitors as they descend toward Tocumen airport. The majestic skyline displays a vast array of the unique architecture of soaring towers along the coastline. Cranes dot the landscape highlighting new construction projects and further expansion. 

Panama is visited by more than two million tourists annually. There is a myriad of things to see and experience. Getting around in Panama City is simple and often refreshingly inexpensive for a metropolis of this size. Bright yellow taxis are everywhere even in the suburban areas. Taxis are unmetered and you should always get a price before jumping in. Uber is a cashless alternative and fares are metered. Multiple tour services and double decker city sightseeing buses hit all the popular sites. Buses and two subway lines are great inexpensive alternatives, just make sure you map out your destination in advance.  

Beyond Panama City, public transport is available, buses run constantly up and down the Interamericana Highway and taxis wait where the buses stop. 

For the more adventurous, driving in Panama is an option. Your drivers license from your home country allows three months driving in Panama and you must always carry your passport. Traffic in the city is hectic and use of a GPS app such as Waze or Google Maps is highly suggested as many streets are unlabeled. 

Panama car rental options span the standard airport choices of internationally recognized brands as well as smaller, locally owned companies dotted across the country. While an airport auto rental is suitable for short term stays, those who don’t leave will likely need another form of transport. 

For expats with Pensionado Status, importing your vehicle is a one time tax free option.  Shipping costs in excess of $2k USD, availability of North American parts and knowledgeable mechanics must be factored in your decision. You can also import a vehicle without tax every two years from elsewhere. Assistance with ensuring you have all required documentation is available from any reputable shipping company. 

If this is not a viable alternative, renting or buying a vehicle in Panama can be a simple process. Toyotas, Hyundais and Kias are the most popular, mechanics and parts more readily available. 

The least expensive option is to buy privately and if you are up for it, the savings can outweigh the effort. 

Purchasing a used vehicle privately definitely requires fluency in Spanish. If you are uncertain of your language skills, bring along a trusted companion who is fluent. In a private purchase, the buyer is responsible for completing the paperwork associated with transferring the title, etc. All used vehicles require a road worthiness test. As you are unlikely to have a mechanic at this point, online references from community Facebook pages are very helpful. Background checks on the vehicle ensure no nasty surprises. Warrants, traffic tickets and liens follow the vehicle not the driver and the purchaser assumes responsibility for these outstanding liabilities. 

Used vehicles must come with insurance which is then transferred to the new owner. Every seller must provide title, registration and proof of insurance for the vehicle transaction. Both seller and buyer are required during the registration process to visit the Municipio that issued the license plate. A Traspaso pour Venta form is completed and required documentation and payment for the transaction. 

For those unwilling or unable to take on the paperwork, the best place to buy a car in Panama is a dealership. Purchasing a new or used vehicle through a dealership removes the burden of title transfer and the associated paperwork from the buyer.  A purchaser is required to provide proof of Panamanian residence. Dealerships posted prices generally have little flexibility for negotiating. Most new vehicles remain in port until purchased and floor models are minimal. 

Once the transaction is complete, the purchaser is required to provide proof of insurance in Panama to drive your new vehicle off the lot. A reputable insurance agent can guide you through the process. 

If a bank loan is involved, the process becomes more complex with passing documents and approvals between the bank and seller. Pre approval of funds can make or break a deal. 

Often smaller, private business, especially outside the city, offer weekly and long term rentals as well as short term service for those who only occasionally require the use of a vehicle. Many expats begin their Panama life with vacation leading to extended stays to migratory snow birds to full time residents. The first vehicle is a rental but as more time is spent here, needs change. A private business can grow with your lifestyle changes. 

Many of these businesses have ties to the community and their reputation is based on customer satisfaction, return business and referrals. Buy, sell or lease a vehicle, all related document handling can be included in core services. Maintenance and insurance advice often available. Purchasing locally at small businesses supports the community and it can be a pleasure to do business with your neighbors. 

Annual registration and license plate renewal can be simplified by any one of a number of people offering these services on your behalf. Ask around, query local pages to find someone in your neighborhood. 

While daunting at the start, once language is removed as an obstacle, a little bit of guidance can get you behind the wheel of your ‘new to you’ Panamanian vehicle. Happy driving!

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