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Procedures for Transiting the Panama Canal

By Sue Richards — last modified Mar 03, 2018 09:53 AM
It is recommended that first-time-transit yacht skippers do one transit as a line handler prior to their own transit, so they are familiar with the transit procedures.

Published: 2012-10-15 09:55:00


Regulations are somewhat "cloudy" with reference to the 72 hour rule mainly being applied to commercial vessels transiting the Panama Canal, which most do within 72 hours, and for which no navigation permit is required and no crew visa. Vessels transiting the Canal also do not need to undertake domestic clearance between the Caribbean/Pacific Terminals. Some yachts using agents have been able to pass the Canal handled the same way as commercial vessels, however this is only possible if the yacht in question has transited previously and registered with the Canal and is ready to transit on arrival in Panama.

See full details on clearing into Panama at Panama Formalities.

Note that use of an agent is optional.


See also:
Go to “Maritime Services” and then “Customer Forms”.
Available for download are numerous reference documents, such as “Procedures for Securing a Handline Transit at the Panama Canal” (4352-I OPTC-Av.12-10-2012) which is still in force. This form contains all regulations inclusive of current transit fees and charges for small craft less than 125 ft. LOA, classified as handline transits, equipment requirements, types of lockage etc.
Other forms are also available on the Panama Canal website, such as “Request for Transit Booking”.

Cruisers have reported being able to complete the preliminary paperwork process online.

1. Advance Notification of Intention to Transit and Request for Inspection

The Panama Canal Authority requires 96 hours advance notification of arrival for vessels wishing to transit the Panama Canal, utilizing the Electronic Collection System EDCS (Web or GIG). Since many small craft do not have the necessary communication facilities on board to action this prior to arrival in Panama, the Admeasurement Offices at Balboa and Cristobal have a computer available where the required information can be entered on arrival.

On arrival in Panama, skippers should first clear in with the Panamanian Authorities and then make arrangements for the transit by visiting the Admeasurers Office at Cristobal or Balboa, furnish the EDCS information required (if not already done so), present the yacht's registration documents etc. and request an inspection.

No small vessel will be accepted for transit before inspection and payment of Transit Fees and Charges.

The waiting time for an inspection is normally 2-3 days after arrival in Panama, Monday - Friday. Inspections on Saturdays and Sundays incur overtime fees.

Yacht skippers should follow instructions from the Canal Official when checking in, as at times it has been reported that the officer from the Admeasurements office will gather all required information whilst measuring the boat, negating the need to input details into the EDCS system.

2. Inspection

Inspection will cover admeasurement, equipment requirements, deficiency and condition inspection and lockage arrangements. The captain will be requested to sign a release covering equipment on board not meeting the Panama Canal Authority requirements.

The optimum minimum speed to transit the Canal, is 8 knots. The Canal Authority may deny transit if a handline vessel (i.e. a yacht) cannot maintain a minimum speed of 5 knots. However, a vessel may be towed through the Canal by another handline vessel if it can tow her at 5 or more knots, or make arrangements to be towed, at their own expense, by a Panama Canal Authority launch. For further details on transit speeds see "Transit Schedule" below.

Finally the Inspector will deliver an Admeasurement Clearance and Handline Inspection form to be shown to the Bank (Citibank) when payment is made covering transit and charges.

Note: The Canal Authorities prohibit discharge of any "dirty water" in the Canal area, which in fact indicates that a Holding Tank is required. However generally the question as to whether there is a holding tank on board seldom arises during inspections. Some yachts have rented portable units (which requires a fair amount of space). Also the Canal regulations state that the Advisor they place on board must have the necessary "facilities".

3. Pay Transit Expenses

Update March 2018. The good news is that now payment to the Citibank can now be made online, but note, the bank sometimes takes a fee for the transfer, so ensure the full amount is paid to the Canal Authorities.

As soon as possible after the inspection arrange payment to the Bank (Citibank) and later the same day contact Transit Operations to confirm payment has been registered and to place the yacht on the transit list. Normally a tentative transit date is given at the same time, which must be confirmed and followed up.

For information on the latest transit fees (including deposits etc.), see the Panama Canal Authority Customer Form "Procedures for securing a handline transit of the Panama Canal" from their website (go to Maritime Operations and then to Customer Forms).

Note: In July 2012 the security fee for small vessels (under 3000 tons) increased to USD 130.00

See this official website page for transit costs in 2018.

Addresses, phone numbers etc. for the Panama Canal Authority Admeasurement Offices and the Citibank Offices etc. for both Cristobal and Balboa, can be found in the above mentioned Customer form. Note that the Signal Stations at Cristobal and Balboa handle Canal and Port traffic only and that communication with the Admeasurers Office is by phone or personal visit only.

4. Transit Schedule

Southbound transits (Cristobal - Balboa) normally start late afternoon, anchoring in Gatun Lake for the night and finishing the following day mid-afternoon. However, the Panama Canal Authorities have now determined that they are able to transit yachts through the Canal during night hours, and will therefore sometimes schedule transits in both directions, "all the way" for yachts. This is partly due to the fact that insufficient lighting prevented small boat transits at night, however the lighting has now been vastly improved. Lots of cruisers have commented what a wonderful passage it was at night. It can however be quite stressful with ships passing from behind and gives little time or light for sightseeing.

Southbound Transits (Cristobal - Balboa): Start in the afternoon and finish late at night (1500 to 2330hrs), or start late afternoon and finish the following day mid-afternoon with an overnight in Gatun Lake.

Northbound Transits (Balboa - Cristobal): Normally start around sunrise and finish the same day, late afternoon.

The locks will most likely be passed with a small commercial ship. As per the rules and regulations of the PCA, in order to complete a transit in this timeframe yachts are required to have a minimum speed of 8 knots. If a yacht can not meet this minimum speed and can therefore not make the lockage with the commercial ship, there will be additional charges incurred which are included in the buffer fee.

These are:
Transit pilot delay: $471.00
Launch services: $364.00
Mooring: $55.00
Total: $890.00

(Note that whilst you will be asked if you can maintain 8 knots, in reality very few yachts actually manage to keep this speed up all the time).

Yachts are required to maintain their transit schedule regardless of weather conditions (see point 2. regarding minimum speed). The cost of a Panama Canal tug is between $145 and $1650 per hour depending on the circumstances.

Transit Delays do occur, particularly in peak season. Delays depend on the number of new arrivals and availability of transit advisors signing up for small craft transits. During peak season the average wait for transit is between 8-12 days after inspection and payment of passage (in some cases even less).

5. Canal Advisers

The Adviser appointed by the Panama Canal Authority will be on board throughout your transit. It's important to remember that the adviser is not a Pilot in command, but as the name suggests, an adviser.  You may not necessarily choose to take all the advice you are given!  The adviser needs to be given proper meals whilst on board and bottled water with unbroken seals. If your transit is overnight, he will not stay on board and may not eat an evening meal prior to departure, however be sure to confirm this in advance as if "proper food" is not provided he will order a meal box which costs $35 for the meal and a further $180 delivery charge for the fast ferry.

6. VHF Channels

See Panama Communications.

Cristobal Signal Station and Flamenco Signal Station Balboa (Panama Canal Authority) listen on Channels 12 & 16 and use these channels for Port and Canal movements.

7. Line Handlers

Any "handline" craft must have 4 line handlers (apart from the skipper), one for each of the 4 lines required. The line handlers can of course be the crew or part of the crew. During the busy season most yachts help each other with line handling and it is recommended that first-time-transit yacht skippers do one transit as a line handler prior to their own transit, so they are familiar with the transit procedures.

You can hire line handlers locally to supplement the crew if required, or all 4 if necessary. Expect to pay between US$ 90 - $135 per line handler, plus transportation back (US$ 10). The best way to get reliable line handlers is to ask on the VHF yacht nets at Cristobal/Colon and Balboa or at the Marinas/Yacht Clubs in the Canal area. (See note below about agent-arranged line handlers).

A new website (February 2013) set up by yachties for yachties to facilitate the introduction of skippers and potential volunteer line handlers for Panama Canal transits can be found at

8. Agents

It is not required by local Authorities or by the Panama Canal Authority that a local agent is employed. The Panama Canal Authority employ people who are not only polite, helpful and efficient, but also speak excellent English. However, if you choose to transit without using an official agent you have to pay a security deposit of US$800 which will be repaid to your bank account after about 6 weeks. With an official agent this is not necessary.  There are many agents and quality varies as do prices. Expect to pay between US$300 - $450.

If you wish to manage the transit without an agent, then read these reports from cruisers who transited without an agent.

The service of agents are available if yachts are prepared to pay for the service and don't want to do the paperwork for the transit themselves. If your knowledge of Spanish is uncertain, then employing an agent who knows the system would be useful.

Yachts using agents normally make the appointment upon arrival (having asked around first), few before. The extent of the service depends on the captain's requirements and his negotiations with the agent.

Note that there are official agents, registered with the Canal Authorities, and unofficial “agents”, who in the main are taxi drivers who understand the procedures and where the various offices are located, but will be unable to assist should any problems occur during transit. Whilst official agent fees may be a little higher, this includes insurance against problems.

A few things to consider if using an agent:
- If Transit Fees and Buffer (Guarantee Deposit) is paid via the agent and not directly, it should be made clear beforehand how and when the Buffer is refunded or accounted for.
- Daily rate for line handlers - don't forget to take into account the number of days your transit is expected to take.
- Experience of line handlers and possible language barrier.

For Agent Recommendations, see related reports on the right of the Panama pages, where there are various reports sent in by cruisers.

For additional agent listings see under General Services for each Panama port.

9. Fenders and Lines for Transit

Most boats have to rent large fenders (normally tires wrapped in plastic) and long lines for their transit. If using an agent, this can all be arranged through them and they will responsibly collect both after transit.

However, if using an unofficial agent, or no agent, the person you contract to rent equipment will most-likely only pick up the lines after transit. This has resulted in cruisers throwing the used tires on the free landing point in Brisas anchorage where they are not disposed of. Old tires are a mosquito focus and the local authorities are unable to control the pile of tires laying around in Brisas dock station.

Cruisers are requested to be sure that any tires and lines rented for the transit are picked up after transit by the person they contracted, or make the necessary arrangements to dispose of them properly.

Back to Panama Formalities.

Last updated March 2018.