Citizens of most countries are granted a 90 day tourist visa at the immigration desk in the airport, dock or overland border crossing. The term “perpetual tourist” refers to foreigners who leave the country approximately every three months to renew their tourist visa and avoid becoming illegal aliens.
The “border run” can be both a big pain in the neck and a great excuse for a little vacation four times a year. Some of the best “expat adventure” tales (both good and bad) are inspired by events on these quarterly migrations to Nicaragua, Panama or destinations around the world.
After reading this page you may be a bit intimidated but remember it’s (usually) not as bad as it sounds. Thousands of expats successfully use the perpetual tourist method for years before seeking residency.
NOTE: The terms “arbitrary”, “random” and “capricious” come up frequently in any discussion of enforcement of regulations in Costa Rica and while everything on this page was true to the best of our knowledge in early 2018 any of it could change at any time.
Each individual situation is a bit different depending on the passport issuing country, the country chosen for the crossing, the mode of transportation, and probably your personal appearance (profiling is definitely practiced) and the mood of each immigration official you deal with.
The guidelines below are a good starting point but you should use the first 90 days to ask long time expats in your area about specifics.
What you will Need
A list of your neighbors and friends who are in sync with you (nearly the same 90 day expiration) can be helpful for sharing transportation, lodging and other expenses as well as making it a fun mini vacation instead of a chore.
Onward travel tickets – Enforcement of this requirement is extremely rare for arrivals from the U.S., Canada or Europe at San José or Liberia Airports but quite common at overland crossings. This requirement is in place to guarantee that you do not intend to stay more than 90 days (even though that is precisely your intention) anywhere.
As an example if you’re crossing into Panama you may be required to have as many as three onward travel tickets. First to get into Panama you’ll show a ticket to leave Panama within 90 days and/or a second a ticket back to the country of issue of your passport. The third ticket will be required when you reenter Costa Rica and must show that you plan to leave within 90 days. This could be the same ticket used in Panama to show that you’re going back to your country of origin.
A valid passport – Costa Rica only requires passports from the U.S., Canada and E.U. to be valid on the day of arrival. Other countries vary but we recommend that you do not make a border run with a passport that expires in less than 90 days; renew it first. The migracion.go.cr has pdf documents with specifics for each country of origin and the requirements.
A current Costa Rica tourist visa stamped in your passport – If your visa expired you may or may not be allowed to leave or reenter. If you are allowed to cross the border (either direction) there will be a fine and additional paperwork. Don’t forget about those 31 day months. The visa period is measured in days and counts the first and last day.
About $US 100 – The total cost should be significantly less ($20 to $50 without “expediting fees” or other unexpected costs) and you may be able to pay with a credit card or local currency (you may need two local currencies e.g. Costa Rican and Nicaraguan) but it’s easier if you’ve got U.S. bills – 3x $20, 2x $10, 2x $5, 10x $1.
You will be paying Costa Rican departure/exit tax ($29 by air, $7 to $12 by land or sea) as well as entry and/or exit taxes for the other country and various fees. You will also probably need to find a nice shady bar and have a beer half way through the process if you’re not staying for a few days of vacation.
Proof of funds – You need to be able to show $US 300 to prove you are not indigent (you don’t have to pay $300 just show that you have at least that much).
A backup plan – There’s no guarantee that either country will grant you a tourist visa within the time frame you expect.
There are also a whole other list of requirements if you plan on driving your own vehicle across the border (rental cars are not allowed to cross). Generally it’s not worth it. If you really need a car in Nicaragua or Panama just rent one on the other side.
- Probably the most common and persistent myth is that you have to remain outside Costa Rica for at least 72 hours before crossing back. The reason this myth hangs around is because it’s almost true. You can turn around after only 10 minutes in Nicaragua or elsewhere for visa renewal purposes at the immigration desk. However, customs requires 72 hours to reset your duty free exemption so if you want to stock up on liquor or refrigerators you’ll have to spend three days outside Costa Rica.
- You absolutely have to leave the country every 90 days or less. In fact it’s possible to extend your tourist visa once for 60 days without making a border run (see below).
- You cannot use the same country twice in a row. While not exactly a myth this no longer seems to be true. A law passed in 2014 to crack down on perpetual tourists does in fact state that you cannot enter Costa Rica twice in a row on a tourist visa from the same country of origin. Immigration officials soon realized this was ill conceived and would prevent visitors from the U.S., Canada or Europe from returning to Costa Rica for a second vacation enforcement was dropped.
- You can cross the border into Costa Rica with just a U.S. driver’s license – false. This has not been true for decades but we still hear it every once in a while.
- Every second border run requires 15 days outside Costa Rica. Again, this was true for a few weeks in 2014 (see perpetual tourist crackdown law above) but it was soon obvious that perpetual tourists bring millions to the Costa Rican economy and it was a bad idea to harass them. Additionally this meant 15 days worth of revenue for Nicaragua or Panama instead of Costa Rica so it appears that it is no longer enforced.
- You can just overstay your visa and pay a fine. While it’s true that you’ll have to pay a fine you may also be incarcerated, deported and not allowed to return to Costa Rica for at least 3x the number of days you overstayed your visa or possibly never.
Since 2014 tourists have been able to legally “buy” a tourist visa extension of up to 60 days for $100 (see details from the Ministry of Immigration). We’ve never tried this but having dealt with other bureaucracies we’d recommend getting started on the paperwork immediately upon arrival because it might take the full 90 days validity of your original visa to obtain an extension.
When this option was first introduced there were some companies that would expedite your extension for a fee of a couple hundred bucks. They soon disappeared amid allegations that they just held your passport for a few weeks then used a fake rubber stamp they bought on the internet.
As far as we know currently you have to either go through the process in person or hire an immigration lawyer and give them representative power of attorney. You should be extremely cautious of anyone who offers to get you a renewal “the easy way.” We’ve known people who were detained due to invalid visas and according to them Costa Rican jails are not pleasant places.
To apply for an extension to your Costa Rica tourist visa you will need at least
- A current valid tourist visa (you cannot apply if your visa has expired)
- Directorate General of Immigration Application for the Extension of Tourism completed and notarized before a lawyer
- Form of Affiliation completed and notarized
- Notarized copy of every page (yes, covers and blank pages too) of your passport. If you present your application in person and show your original passport for comparison the xerox does not need to be notarized.
- 3 passport photos
- Certified copy of an international ticket (air, boat or bus) with a date of departure from Costa Rica clearly stated.
- Documentation of solvency (bank statement)
- If you’re claiming that you need to remain because of an extended invitation from a public or private agency you’ll need a certified letter of invitation and financial support from the agency
- If you’re claiming that you need to remain for medical reasons you’ll need a certified letter from the doctor and hospital.
- Official (government approved translator) translations of any documents if the original is not in Spanish.
- A receipt for the deposit of $US 100.00 into account 242480-0 of Bank of Costa Rica (Banco de Costa Rica).
- A backup plan…there is no guarantee that the extension will be granted