Panama’s Tocumen Airport: Need to Know

Some airports make travelling if not a breeze, at least bearable. Other airports do a great job at dehumanizing you and making travel unpleasant. I’ve got tips on surviving a long layover in Mexico City’s airport, and have some advice for Beijing which I haven’t published yet.

Here’s what you need to know to get through Panama’s Tocumen International Airport as smoothly as possible. Oh, and if you’re staying in Panama, here’s how to take the bus in Panama City, plus I have more articles on the Panama page).

Arrivals at Tocumen are fairly standard. Departures / layovers are not as challenging as those I’ve experienced in Bali, Beijing, Mexico City or major U.S. airports, but Tocumen is certainly no blissful Singapore Changi.

Essential info for departing Tocumen:

  • Line-ups are long, print your boarding pass in advance and don’t check a bag to avoid lines as much as possible. 
  • There are two security and passport checks — before entering the airside of the airport and again before entering the gate for flights to the U.S. The secondary security check is more thorough than the first and you must dispose of your empty water bottle (yup, you read that right — empty bottles).
  • Tocumen does have free wifi, but there’s a 30-minute limit. I couldn’t login at all with my iphone, but could with my ipad.

More details below. And note that construction is underway to expand the airport which could change any of this.

Arriving at Tocumen International Airport

Arrivals are fairly standard, though lineups can be long if a number of flights arrive at the same time. Know that your bags (yes, carry-on too) need to be x-rayed in order to leave the airport.

You can breeze through Tocumen by booking the Tocumen Royal Saloon VIP Arrival Service. I’ve flown into Tocumen internationally and domestically without this service, and experienced no significant problems, but if you’re short on time (or patience) you’ll be glad you booked it. It costs $100 US.

Here’s what you can expect from the VIP Arrival Service experience: As soon as I arrived in the airport from the jetway, an airport employee was waiting for me with my name on a sign. He took me directly to baggage claim and, since I didn’t have a checked bag, we breezed on. He knew how to dodge a few slow spots and take a couple shortcuts.

We then went to Immigration. The agent took me to the queue on the far left, the line normally reserved for flight crew. He swept past everyone and went to the front of that line (as I apologized profusely to the Air France crew that were already there). When we got to the Customs desk, the Royal Saloon agent answered the few questions put to me by the Customs agent, in Spanish, reading from the form I’d filled out on the plane. The questions I understood were how long I was staying, my occupation, and the name of my hotel. We then walked to the x-ray machine. I put my bags through (nothing needs to be removed), while the agent used his cell phone to find out where my car was waiting. He brought me directly there, and waved goodbye before I could even say thanks.

Thanks to my flight arriving in the evening, I didn’t encounter much of Panama City’s infamous rush hour traffic as I made my way to my downtown hotel (the lovely Bristol Panama) and a delicious dinner.

Departing from Tocumen International Airport

Know that Panama City has a lot of traffic, so you’re wise to leave extra time to get to the airport (unless, like me, you stay just 10 minutes away at the Santa Maria — A Luxury Collection Hotel). Despite no traffic issues, I found Tocumen’s departure procedures somewhat frustrating and unnecessary. If you’re more prepared than I was, you’ll have an easier time.

On the good side, there are a few vending machines, both before and after the first set of security, if you want to spend your Panamanian change before leaving the country. There are snacks available for as little as 75 cents. There are several restaurants and coffee options and a few shops. I did not see a water fountain to refill a water bottle and saw airport staff drinking from the bathroom sinks.

If at all possible, print your boarding pass in advance or have an electronic boarding pass on your phone. This is essential if you’re not checking a bag. There are no kiosks to print a boarding pass at Tocumen and the lineups for check-in are VERY long. You’ll want to avoid them. I arrived two hours before my departure time and the United Airlines lineup already snaked well into the American Airlines’ section. If you need to wait in this line, you’ll be stuck following this glut of people through all the remaining steps.

Customs / Immigration and the first security check are fairly standard. I showed my passport and boarding pass to the agent, he flipped through my passport to find my entry stamp, and asked me no questions. Thanks to being able to skip the check-in line, I encountered no lineup here and only minimal lineups at the next two security stations.

To go through security, you will be required to remove your jacket and shoes (regardless of whether you have TSA Precheck or some other clearance). I was also asked to put the sunglasses that live on top of my head through the x-ray.

While I asked if I needed to remove my laptop and received a head shake in response, it seems this was incorrect. After my bag went through the x-ray, the agent asked if I had a laptop, told me to remove it, and then she put the bag (but not the laptop) back through the x-ray. Bringing my bag back to me, the agent then confirmed that my water bottle was empty, and then wanted to look at my 1 L bag of liquids. I had a small (less than 100 mL) bottle of hot sauce confiscated because it was supposedly “flammable” (Panamanian hot sauce is good, but I really don’t think it is that potent!). I didn’t have room to pack the tiny bottle of Panamanian seco I was also gifted, and as alcohol is more flammable than even the hottest of hot sauces, I can only assume that this would have been confiscated too.

A second security and passport check

When departing Panama on an international flight you will also likely need to go through a secondary passport check and security to enter your gate area. You’ll want to time this well, since not only will you have to re-enter if you need the washroom, but there are not enough chairs past the checkpoint.

At this passport check, I was asked whether I was connecting or had been in Panama, the duration of my stay, and the reason for my visit. The agent also asked me “this isn’t your first time in Panama, right?” but I assume she was just being conversational as my last trip was on my old passport. The agent checked my name off a paper list and placed a sticker on the back of my passport and initialed it.

The secondary security check was more thorough than the first. Water bottles, even though empty, had to be thrown away. The only other airport where I’ve experienced this is Bali, which, while not logical, is at least is explainable due to the high security throughout Bali following the bombing in 2002.

Bags going through the x-ray machine had to have laptops AND tablets removed. The agent also removed the thin smart cover from my iPad and broke it in the process. Again, shoes and sunglasses needed to go in the bin. Passengers around me were asked to remove belts and watches too.

Not much room at the gate 

There were only about 50 chairs in this roped-off gate area, so most passengers need to stand while waiting for groups to be called to board. Because of this, I was first in line for group 3 (though several people tried to jump the queue and stand in front of me … perhaps they really really needed to sit down?!). There wasn’t a lot of room for people to queue up, so I imagine the boarding of the remaining passengers was less than ideal.

Wifi was available, but my iPhone wouldn’t link to it. My iPad did. The free option is for just 30 minutes. Due to the lack of seating I didn’t try to hook up again after my 30 minutes had elapsed, so I don’t know if it’s 30-minutes max or if you can login again for another 30.  

Once on board it was a smooth flight home, though note that in Houston passengers were sent through an immigration and security screening post that did not have a TSA Precheck line.

Have you experienced Panama’s Tocumen airport? Have any advice to share?


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