Panama’s Tocumen Airport: Need to Know

Updated March 2018. See comments for additional new info.

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 the passport verification area. 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 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 a short distance 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.

Passport verification 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 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. Don’t even think about bringing an airport-purchased drink through. 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 log in again for another 30.  

Once on board, it was a smooth flight home. Note that in Houston, connecting passengers are sent through a passport check and security screening post that does not have a TSA Precheck line, meaning you need to remove your shoes and empty nearly everything out of your bag. An official told me that if you have TSA Precheck it’s better to exit to the land side of the airport and re-enter the airside from there, because there is a TSA Precheck line there. 

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


28 responses to “Panama’s Tocumen Airport: Need to Know

  1. Our family had to go through this airport (Jan 2023) due to a recent vacation. This airport is awful. The employees are very rude (I witnessed 2 employees taunting a female visitor) and it’s filthy to the point of beyond disgusting. There were spills on the chairs (as limited as the chairs were) and old food crunched in on the floors. The bathrooms also had not been cleaned. Avoid this airport if you can.


    • I agree that the employees were not nice. When I asked a question one replied “I don’t speak English” and could have cared less. It’s an International airport. All employees should speak English or direct me to someone who can. A pilot walking by answered me.


  2. I went in 2019, Copa Airlines now have a couple of Check In machines, which makes the check in process faster. Saw a couple at the Delta side of the airport but didnt check of they were working. I flight in and out alot from this airport so I’m used to all the check points and dress as simple as possible ( no watch, jewlery or belts) I put my electronics on my backpack with no sleves so its less of a hassle. DO NOT take any BRAND liquids on your carry on ( liquor, creams, lotions,drinks) doesnt matter the size they will try to take it away!! If you are on a budget EAT BEFORE you enter the airport, its expensive! GET THERE ON TIME! Now Panama has the metro which helps out some of the traffic but you might not be able to take a check bag on it!. Panamenian traffic is the worst thing especially when you are in a hurry!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Apparently Panamanian coffee is explosive also, at least in larger quantities. At the Panama store, after the first security, they told me I could only but a small bag of coffee. A larger one would be confiscated at security. But only if I fly Turkish airlines. Coffee going to the USA is apparently non-explosive. I asked what security. They said I go through a check again at the gate, but they didn’t tell me you couldn’t take liquids through the second check, so I had to drink my water right there. if i have to go to the bathroom before the plane boards, I guess the carpet will be the only choice. My cat has done it. Too bad you cannot go to Panama though Schiphol in Amsterdam, where their high tech scanners allow even full water bottles and stowed laptops.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Apparently” being a key word! Airport security seems to be, in many instances, security theatre. Hope the new scanners help air travel become easier.


  4. This is great info. Thank you for posting it! I’ll be checking your site for other airport info.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The 737 MAX are still grounded. But pleasantly surprised to find Premium Seating available (737 800 aircraft) while doing COPA online check-in. See the Seat Map.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Signed up for Migracion Fast Pass (12/2019). They check cedula (resident), take photo, scan passport and only the Right Index finger.
    They didn’t take out or look at my Global Entry card (still in the sleeve)
    So I think we can conclude that EITHER Residency OR Global Entry required, at least for Americans.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have Panama migracion fast pass… and I am not a resident of Panama. They used my US Passport

      Liked by 1 person

  7. After the 737MAX grounding, was pleasantly surprised to find Premium Seating available on COPA (737-800) during Web Check-In. December 2019

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I go through PTY monthy flying American. There are kiosks available now and AA has a dedicated bag drop line. I usually have very little wait in the ticket counter line

    Entering Panama is a breeze now. I exit the plane and head downstairs to customs/Immigration. I enrolled in the Panama Migration fast pass ( Free to enroll, had a quick interview..fingerprints scanned) so I use the kiosks in customs and get my entry receipt. Next to baggage claim and then to the line to have bags x rayed and turn in my declaration. Fairly quick.
    Now exiting the country.. the US requires the secondary checkpoint at the gate and does not allow beverages to be brought in. The line can get long.. but I have rarely waited more than 10 minutes to enter the gate area and usually more often than not we have had a large holding area in the gate with a lot of seats. Occasionally we get in the round part of the terminal and seating is much more limited there.
    If you plan on going to Panama often..definitely enroll in the Panama Migration fast pass.. you can fill out form online and just walk in for the interview.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 12/2019 There is no online signup needed. Ask the passport control officer that you want to register for FAST PASS and they send you to an office just past the automatic gates.


  9. notify me on issues regarding Panama airport


  10. Travel date 3/24/19. I will never, add long as I remember this airport, travel trough PTY again. What easy to many bag scans with undressing and dressing. And, they sell coffee, water ect. to only take it at the next bag scan. They watched me walk past them with a cup of coffee that I just bought. They made me go back through the portable scanner again and tossed the coffee. I will never go through Panama again. I will pay more to go through another airport the next time for sure.


    • That sounds like a very unpleasant travel experience, I’m sorry to hear that but appreciate you sharing the intel so others can learn. Were you travelling to a US destination by any chance? I’m told the portable scanner / liquid rules are US requirements. Clear signage would make it much easier for passengers and I’m not sure why they don’t have them.


  11. Also can wordpress please implement date stamps for both articles and comments? a lot of information on travel blogs are time sensitive and staleness is a major issue.


    • It depends on the WordPress theme you use. I added a note at the top of the article with a date, Agreed — it is difficult to know if info is still accurate. Thanks again for all your intel!


  12. Also, COPA just announced the new 737 MAX 9 with Lie-Flat Business and more legroom Economy Extra (Finally!) which will be great for the long haul routes such as SFO (7 hours)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Yes major changes. In June 2018, had to connect thru IAH Houston because flying United due to other countries on this trip. (I prefer COPA SFO Non-Stop) There is NO more CUSTOMS LINE. (Global Entry skip this anyway) Passport control check and take your customs slip (or GE receipt). Just claim your bag, drop it off at the Connections, and now proceed to the exit instead. They eliminated the (smaller, faster) TSA line after Connections drop off. You now have go outside to the main line with everybody else and there wasn’t Precheck either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for the new intel, Gato.
      Yes, I call passport check “Customs” … but it’s not very accurate. I’ll edit it the text for greater clarity — thanks!
      I also learned a good tip transferring in IAH Houston if you have Global Entry / Nexus. It’s better to exit the airside as if your final destination was Houston, rather than following the Connections signs. This is because there is no TSA-Precheck for Connections and you have to remove your shoes and the whole bit. By exiting to the landside, you can quickly find a TSA-Precheck entrance and it’s much smoother.


      • Is this recently, after June 2018? In June, they ELIMINATED the tsa checkpoint after Connections. (and correct, the Connections checkpoint never had Precheck but its quicker due having only connecting passengers) After dropping off your bag, you join everyone else for the airport EXIT. when I went back upstairs, they said Precheck was not available (not sure if that day or not at all) Next trip is Copa, but will keep in mind your tip if have to fly United again and see if there prechek elsewhere.

        Liked by 1 person

What do you think? Your comments are most welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s