Panama began receiving international flights on October 12th, 2020, with immigration requiring a negative COVID-19 test before entering the country. This can be achieved two ways. One is to present a certified negative PCR or antigen test that you took within 48 hours of your arrival time in Panama (not to be confused with your departure time). The other way is to take a rapid antigen test in the Tocumen International Airport upon arrival. If you are going to test in Tocumen, make sure your airline does not require a negative test before boarding. We have found that whether or not certain airlines are requiring the test prior to boarding has been a source of misinformation and frustration for some travelers. This article has been compiled with a combination of research from official sources and testimonials from residents and visitors who have flown internationally and traveled to Bocas del Toro, Panama during October, November and December 2020. This document will be updated as much as possible as things evolve.
Should Passengers Get Tested Before Traveling or Upon Arrival in the Airport?
Everyone that we have talked to that took the test in Tocumen happened to have tested negative and had a flawless experience, however, we still recommend taking the test before you come if you are able to organize it. In order to 100% guarantee smooth entry into Panama, the best case scenario is to get a certified negative COVID rapid antigen test as close to your flight as possible, while still being able to receive your results before traveling. Based on everyone we interviewed, we recommend the following:
- Schedule a rapid antigen test within 48 hours of your arrival time in Panama and try to schedule it the day before your flight, or if you are flying at night and are able to take it in the morning and get your results without complicating your travel plans, that’s even better. Please recognize that if your flight is delayed, or for whatever reason you happen to arrive at customs more than 48 hours after your test was taken, they will turn you away and you will need to take it in the airport.
- When you schedule your appointment, confirm with the clinic that you will receive your results the same day, or at least before you have to travel to the airport. With the rapid antigen tests, you should be able to get the test results within the hour (usually 30 minutes). PCR tests are accepted by Panama but generally take more than 48 hours to receive the results. If you are going to get a PCR test, confirm that the lab will be able to deliver the results before you have to travel to the airport.
- It is preferable to have a printed copy of your lab results and to have it signed, dated and time-stamped by the clinic. Make sure it has your name correctly and that it indicates what type of test that it was (antigen or PCR). Highlight the important information to make your time going through customs even faster.
- Be aware of holidays and weekend hours when scheduling your flight and test. Clinics are usually closed on Sundays, so it may be difficult to fly on Monday and still get a test within that 48 hour window. Watch out for holidays in your departure country and for when clinics may be closed.
If for some reason you do not receive your results physically before traveling, stay in touch with the lab via phone and email and you may be able to present your results electronically at customs. This is not guaranteed, though we have heard of instances where test results were delayed and later accepted via showing an email on a phone to a customs agent. However it is much preferable to have a physical copy of your test results in hand when passing through customs.
On many websites, it says that Panama will accept the negative PCR or antigen test from your departure country taken 48 hours before your departure time. While this would give you a few more hours of a time window, it is not accurate. Panama’s official tourism website says 48 hours before your arrival time to Panama and after a series of interviews with people who have made the trip recently, it has been confirmed by their experience that 48 hours before your arrival time is correct. Passengers whose tests taken 48 hours and 20 minutes before their arrival to customs can be turned away.
Some passengers have been electing to take the test upon arrival because scheduling a test in their country of departure wasn’t convenient or they consider the $50 airport test to be more cost effective. If you are going to go this route, please confirm and re-confirm with your airline that they will let you board without a test. Unfortunately we have read about Spirit, United and American Airlines denying people at check-in because they didn’t have a negative COVID test, where others who flew the same airlines were indeed able to board without a test. This seems to be something that is subject to change, miscommunication and varying degrees of enforcement among airline agents, so this is another reason we are going to recommend a COVID test before flying in your country of departure.
Testing at Tocumen International Airport
Though we recommend taking the test before departing, we will admit that our of everyone we have spoken to that tested after arriving at the airport, no one had any problems. The cost was $50 and results were available in half an hour on average. They all tested negatively and were able to proceed as normal into the country. The Bocas del Toro Blog made a video documenting the whole experience. Based on our research, we believe that most people will have a similar flawless experience testing at the airport. However, we have also read about a few cases of passengers testing at the airport who were very unfortunate and had a completely different outcome.
If you test negative upon arrival in the airport, you are free to proceed into the country as normal; no problems. If you happen to test positive upon arrival, then you will be required to quarantine in a government mandated hotel-hospital for 7 or 14 days. You will be tested again after 7 days and if you test negative, you are free to go. However if you test positive again after 7 days, you will have to spend another 7 days completing a 14 day quarantine in the government hotel-hospital.
Though it seems rare, we have read a few rather unfortunate reports on-line of others who tested positive and it really complicated their trip having to quarantine for the 7 or 14 days. Some believe even their test was a false positive and they were not allowed to take a second test until 7 days later. Also, their experience in the hotel-hospital was not fun at all. In order to avoid this situation altogether, come with a negative test result 48 hours within your arrival time. Testing at the airport can certainly work out if you must do it, but why risk losing 7-14 days of your precious time in Panama?
Are There Any Other Requirements Aside from the Negative COVID Test?
Aside from the negative COVID test, not much else is required for entering Panama. As of December 21, 2020, the only restrictions on countries are on England and South Africa. Health insurance and travel insurance is not a requirement. The only other things that may be required for entry into Panama is to fill out your information on the Panama Digital platform, and to also complete the Registro Paco Viajero, where you will electronically sign a sworn affidavit declaring that you will follow the protocol and regulations put forth by Panama’s Ministry of Health. We recommend you fill it out before traveling as some airlines are requiring it before boarding the plane. Some passengers were asked for it, while others were not, and some that we spoke to had never even heard about it. At any rate, we recommend filling it out just in case.
Other than that, enjoy your time in Panama! And stay a while: tourists visas are 180 days. The internet connection options are definitely good enough to work remotely and Bocas del Toro is a low-density, natural socially-distanced archipelago with a lot to offer. As of December 9th, the only types of businesses that are not open yet are night clubs, bars without kitchens and any type of activities that involve large gatherings. Of course we will ask that you respect the Ministry of Health’s bio-security measures and protocol they have put in place for your safety and to be a little patient with the hotels, restaurants and all the businesses opening up under these circumstances.
UPDATE: Leaving Panama COVID-19 Testing Info
As of January 26, the CDC will be requiring everyone entering the US to present a negative PCR or antigen test. Many other countries are requiring the same tests, and some are only accepting PCR tests. Check this article for information on where you can test to meet the requirements for your next destination.
Remember to always be in contact with the airline directly about boarding procedures and COVID-19 testing requirements before traveling, as it is your responsibility, and stay up to date with the health and government regulations of your destination when traveling.
If you have any questions or comments about your experience traveling to Bocas del Toro and Panama, feel free to contact us on Instagram or Facebook @thebocasbreeze or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to answer any questions and we are also interested in hearing about your experiences as well.
For information on other Central American destinations opening up: Central America Living
This article was last updated on January 21st. For the most current information, check our social media @thebocasbreeze and feel free to contact us directly.