When Traveling to Panama, DON’T Make the Same Passport Mistake That My Mother Did

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UPDATE: I wrote about this at the end of the article, but to make sure that people see it, here is a link to the state department website where you can see the country specific website on passport validity. Not all countries are three months like Panama. Some others require 6 months from date of entry, while other countries only require it to be valid for the length of your trip. If you are using this article as a reference for travelling to a country that is not Panama, please make sure to check your country specific information. 

I will start this article off by letting everyone know that my mother’s story had a happy, if costly, ending. She is now enjoying her trip to Panama, and escaping the freezing cold of the American North. She wanted me to share her experience with all of my readers to hopefully prevent people or their guests from making the same mistake that they did.

In order to travel to Panama, Panamanian authorities require your passport not just to be valid for the length of your stay, but to be valid for 3 months from your arrival date. This is something that surprisingly very few people who are traveling to Panama know about. Most just think it needs to be valid for the length of the your stay. Since adult American Passports are valid for 10 years (passports for kids under 16 when they first get their passport are valid for 5), this is something that most people can get by with not knowing about, since their passport will have at least 3 months of validity on it. My mother was not so lucky.

Her passport was scheduled to expire May 9th, and her flight was March 4th. That put her under the three month threshold for her expiration date. If she had flown to Panama with that passport, she would not have been let into the country. They would have turned her around at customs and put her on the next plane back to New York. Panama is very strict with this. I spoke off the record with people in the know about this, and apparently it happens all the time. Ideally, your airline should catch you at your point of departure, but that rarely happens, and they let you get on the flight. But Panamanian authorities will not let you in the country, and will send you back home. This happens regularly, since most people are not aware of the three month requirement.

Thank God that this topic accidentally came up in conversation between me and my mother on the Saturday before her trip (which was on a Wednesday). We were just having a normal conversation and I was telling her about how my wife’s passport was going to be eligible for renewal soon, and we were going to legally change her last name when it was. That’s when my mother mentioned to me that she was going to need to renew her passport soon, and that it expired in may. I had heard something about a passport expiration date requirement (I had originally thought it was six months), and quickly checked the US State Department Website and confirmed the 3 months requirement. Needless to say, we both started panicking. My mother is normally the most detail oriented person. Her plans have plans. So I had naturally assumed that she had figured out everything she would have needed to know ahead of time about her trip.

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My mother touring the Panama Canal Locks Expansion with my wife and I during a trip last May

Luckily, because we discovered this on Saturday, it still left us with some options. We first tried to book an appointment with the New York Passport’s Agency’s office, but they were fully booked. We were able to find a private passport expediter service who had availability Monday morning who was able to take her in person and get her a new passport withing 24 hours (they have standing appointments with the passport agencies). However in addition to the government fees for her passport, in order to get it done this quickly, she had to spend almost $400 in fees to the private company to get her passport the next day. It ended up working out, as she was able to get her passport the next day, and make her trip. While there were definitely a million other things she would have spent $400 on than that, it was still preferable to rescheduling her trip or getting turned around at the airport.

She had the benefit of living 30 minutes outside of Manhattan, so she could go to an expediters office in person to drop off her forms and pick up her passport. If she lived in the middle of the countryside, she wouldn’t have been able to get it in time, since overnight mail each way would’ve taken more time than she had. 

If you are coming to visit Panama, please make sure you know about the three month rule. If you have guests visiting, make sure they know before they book their trip, so they will have plenty of time to renew their passport if needed. If you are a US citizen, you can renew your passport up to a year before it expires. If you have other citizenship, please check with your country’s passport authorities to get clarification on how far in advance you can renew your passport.

It is strongly recommended that you keep at least six months validity on your passport (plus at least one blank page for stamps, as this can cause an issue as well), since some countries require six months validity from date of entry. Not all countries require this (some just require it to be valid for length of stay), so make sure to check information on any other country before you travel there at the US state department website or the website of your home government authority. Other requirements may vary depending on which country’s passport you hold, so it is important to do as much research as possible before taking your international trip to make sure you do not run into any issues with immigration. 

Hopefully my mother’s lesson will help some of my readers and their guests avoid the same mistake. If so, some good will come out of it.  

UPDATE: I’ve gotten some feedback from folks who say that everybody traveling overseas should know this. While we can debate what everybody “should” know, it’s clear that my mother was not the only one who didn’t know this. This is a sample of some of the comments I’ve gotten from people who either didn’t know or learned the hard way about this themselves. 

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Posted in When You Travel.

12 Comments

  1. I think it is 6 months valide passport requirement instead of 3 months as you mentioned. The tourist visa for Panama is 6 months.

    • Hi Salut, the State department link confirms it is only 3 months. I also had this verified because a friend of mine just had her aunt visit, and she had more than 3 months but less than 6, and she was able to get in the country. Keeping at least 6 is strongly recommended because some other countries require 6. But Panama only requires 3.

  2. The requirement is 6 month shelf life of passport at the tome of entry. They reserve the right to deny entry to the country.

  3. You don’t have to pay a passport agency. If this were to happen again, or if anyone you know ever needs a passport, renewal or otherwise, know that there’s a State Department office in every major city. Including NY. I got mine in Philly the day before my flight to Panama. All you need is proof of international travel, like an itinerary or boarding pass and the expedite fee, which is a little more, but not nearly as much as you paid. Also, bring your passport pics with you. They don’t take them there.

  4. Note too about passport pages. Some countries require you to have six squares left in your passport book. If you do land borders you aquire more stamps as you get exit stamps, entry stamps, ect. They add up fast. Here in Panama, you can add pages to your book for about $80 and it just takes an appointment and about an hour of your time.

  5. i just went through the same thing. I was going to Ethiopia. I was flying out on March 4th and my passport expired on August. I didnot have 6 months. It is required. So glad I know this. I had to get my passport renewed, so glad I wasn’t the only one. Honestly did not know it. My travel agent is the one who informed me,

  6. I’m at the airport now and just got this message… I tried to get on the plane Friday, but was turned away because my passport expired June 5 and I departed March 6. One day short of 3 months… $650 for the flight change and $170 for the passport later I’m finally on my way to see my friends! So yes one SHOULD know this, but not everyone knows it without learning their lesson.

    • Ouch! Really sorry this happened to you! At least they caught you in the departure airport and didn’t send you through to Panama, where you would’ve been stopped and turned around. I hope you enjoy your trip! Please feel free to reach out to me in the contact section if you have any questions during your trip.

  7. Yep this exact thing happened to my Aunt. We was going to Panama in Nov of 2013 and her passport was going to expire in Jan of 2014 and they caught it at Love Field in Dallas. I was determined we were going so we took cabs and got her photos then went to the Federal building downtown Dallas and got an expedited passport that same day and was on the 5:30 pm flight to Houston. Spent the night in Houston and was on the early flight and landed in Panama at 1 pm. The hardest part was lugging our luggage around. It was stressful to my Aunt but she was a real trooper and says to me there would be no way she could have done this alone. Yes folks please check your passports.

  8. It is 3 months because it happened to me also but I was lucky because it was an emergency and when I came back to the US I had to renew my passport

  9. This happened to my wife today. We were supposed to leave Cali, Colombia on the 19th but her passport was stolen so we had to go through a whole ordeal to get a temporary passport. Latam airlines wouldn’t let us change our flights after her passport was stolen on one of their planes so we had to buy new tickets through Copa. We were supposed to leave Cali for Panama today and fly from Panama back to the US tomorrow but the attendant at the Copa airlines desk turned us away because a temporary passport expires after 3 months. So now we have to stay another night and incur even more costs for airline tickets. Were they correct to do that since it was an emergency passport and not a conventional one?

    • I’m sorry that that happened. I am not sure on whether they did the right thing, but I think they probably did. They are not strict about much here in Panama, but there’s a good chance customs would have turned you around and put you on a plane back to passport with a temporary passport. The airlines can get in major trouble if they let someone through who is under the three month rule.

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