How To Get Your E-Cédula Without A Lawyer…. And Why?

Those of us living in Panama under the Pensionado visa program are now eligible to apply for a Panamanian type of cédula.  While many expats employ the use of a lawyer for this process, those of us that are more adventurous have gone through the process on our own.  Although it did cost us some aggravation and time it saved us at least a thousand dollars and gave us a chance to practice our Spanish. The word cédula comes from the Latin word “schedula” which simply means a small piece of paper. In several Latin American countries the term is used for just that but here in Panama things are different.  A cédula in Panama is an official; government issued identification card similar to a social security card for Americans.  The cédula card displays vital information of the person that owns it.  Their name, place and date of birth, nationality, sex, signature and photo along with a specific number assigned to that person.  The back of the card has a magnetic strip on it that contains all the same information along with a digital rendition of the holder’s thumbprint. Cards issued to expats display a large letter “E” in bright blue lettering indicating the status of “extranjero,” the Spanish word for foreigner.  

So what’s the purpose of pursuing a cédula and why did we want one?  All foreigners are legally supposed to carry their passports on them at all times for identification purposes.  Our passport number is listed on every document we generate here like our drivers license, our visas, our electric bill, water bill and even on that pizza we order from Domino’s.  Each and every time we present our Pensionado card for a discount our passport number is entered somewhere.  When it’s time to renew our passports we’re supposed to have that number changed on all these accounts.  

The benefit of having a cédula is that every time we present it the other person knows that we’ve taken the time to be entered into their system.  It shows we’ve had our backgrounds checked, fingerprints taken and have been issued a card that locals recognize since it’s similar to their own card.  In a sense it makes us just a little bit more Panamanian, and a little bit more accepted by the locals.  Another benefit is that after five years we can apply for citizenship should we so desire.  The process involves being interviewed in Spanish along with taking a multiple-choice test of Panamanian geography and history.  We could then apply for a Panamanian passport and have dual citizenship with both the US and Panama.  And since Panamanian citizens are allowed to vote, that’s another benefit some may enjoy.

According to Don Winner who writes, “having a cédula just makes life in Panama easier.”  “If you have a cédula you have more standardized rights and access than those with tourist cards or other less permanent immigration status.” Once approved the holder of the cédula is granted permission to live here permanently.  

The process of obtaining a cédula is two-part and does require a basic knowledge of Spanish, along with a willingness to go into Panama City.  First things needed are the following: two copies of your passport, two copies of your Pensionado card, two passport photos, and two copies of the resolution statement from when your Pensionado visa was issued.  Take all of these documents into the Department of Migration located on Tumba Muerto in Panama City.  Once inside the door tell the receptionist you need to go to “cédulas.”  She’ll give you a ticket with a number it and you’ll sit and wait your turn. Your ticket should have a letter “Y” on it followed by a number.  There is only one window in this huge building for cédulas and I believe it’s window number 21. Someone told us on our last visit that we should have mentioned our pensionado status and wouldn’t have had to wait so long.

Once your number shows up on the screen approach the window and give the woman all of your documents. After she reviews the paperwork and stamps it she’ll give you back some of the copies and then will tell you when to return, usually in about a month.  If all goes well when you return you’ll be given a stamped “authenticated” copy of your approval letter and paperwork.  Don’t be frustrated if when you return she can’t find the paperwork and tells you to come back again.  This happened to us but we had to realize it’s not the clerk’s fault, and even with a lawyer this still would have happened.

Once the documents are stamped and approved the next step is to take them to the Tribunal Electoral, which is the governing agency that issues the cards.  The TE is located on Avenida Cuba with the entrance on the side of the building.  Once inside proceed through the crowd near the door and head to the far right.  Snake your way through the hallway following the “salida” signs to find the stairs or elevator and proceed to the second floor.  After leaving the elevator proceed down the short hallway through the glass doors to the end of the hall. The last door on the right is the one you want and it should say “extranjero’s” on the door. There they will look through the documents, stamp them and send you downstairs to “planta baha,” the first floor to pay your $65.00.  Then back up to the first office to turn in the paperwork and wait while they process the documents.  Once they’re done they’ll ask that you proofread the documents to make sure everything is correct. Next they’ll send you back downstairs for fingerprinting and a photo. The photo office will tell you when to come back to pick up your cédula or you can ask to have it sent to your local TE.  Since they lost my paperwork three times it took nearly five months for our cedula process to be complete.  We certainly didn’t want to confuse things any more by asking them to send our cedulas to Chame where we live.  So instead we made another trip into the city to pick them up the following week which was quick and easy.  We just had to show our paperwork, touch our finger to the fingerprint screen for identification purposes and they handed us our permanent residency cards.

Yes, we made about five trips back and forth from our home in Chame into Panama City, but saved at least $1,000.  And even with a lawyer involved our paperwork would have still been misplaced and we still would have had to show up in person each time.  And perhaps we’ve learned just a little bit more of the language and the culture through this experience too. We forced ourselves to move out of our comfort zone and took the plunge into this foreign culture that we now call home.