One mistake a lot of expats make when travelling to a new country is assuming that the laws of their home country (particularly the USA) are the same laws in the rest of the world, so they may inadvertently violate local law without knowing it. And one law that a lot of tourists expats either are unaware of, or don’t follow regularly (I have been guilty of this myself until recently), is that in Panama, you must carry proper ID on you at all times.
In Panama, the police can stop you at any time for any reason to ask you to produce identification. They do not need to prove probable cause or any other legal requirements. If asked to produce it, you must produce it. If you do not have proper ID on you, you can actually be taken to jail. And Panamanian jail is really not a place you want to be.
And here’s the very important part for expats: Proper ID is only one of two things. It’s either having a Panamanian Cedula or a passport for your native country. ID’s that may have worked in your home country, such as an US drivers license, will not do you any good. The primary point of these ID checks is to check your immigration status. You US driver license does not do any good for that purpose, and won’t be accepted.
I know some people might be worried about getting their passport lost or stolen, and of course there is always a potential risk of that. But overall Panama is a pretty safe place, and if that were to happen, you can always get a rushed passport replaced at the embassy within a couple of days. Much preferable to the alternative of if you get caught without yours.
If you’ve previously been asked to produce your ID in the past and haven’t had any negative effect when you haven’t been able to produce it, don’t assume past events are indicative of future performance. While in the past, police may have been more lenient, or you may have been able to walk away with just a wink and a “$20 handshake,” things are changing. With growing anti-immigration sentiment rising in Panama, the police have increased ID checkpoints recently, and have been stricter with enforcement.
Luckily this is a pretty easy rule to follow, so make just make sure to have your ID on you at all times, whether living here or visiting, and all will be well.