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.
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.