Costa Rica Departure Tax
The $7 departure tax when leaving Costa Rica by land is considerably less than the $29 exit tax charged if you are departing by air. It can be just as painful however.
Theoretically paying the departure tax should be a breeze at machines similar to ATMs near the border. Unfortunately, they go down regularly for hours or even days at a time and it is “absolutely impossible” to pay the tax any other way in Sixaola.
Fortunately, our expediter/driver knew how to make the impossible possible. It turns out that for an extra few bucks there’s a guy in the office behind the machine that can record your tax by hand in a book and put the money in the machine later… As soon as we walked out of the office with our tax stamps we were surrounded by other travelers who had been waiting all morning for the machine to reboot. Within minutes there was a line stretching across the street waiting to pay manually.
Of course it’s a scam but we just wanted to get on with it and get to Bocas. If you’re on a really tight budget and don’t want to pay the “convenience fee” then you can pay in advance at a bank…as long as you aren’t in Sixaola yet.
Bancredito does not have a branch bank in Sixaola there are offices all over Costa Rica where you can pay the tax in advance at any teller window and acquire the appropriate stamp. You can do it almost anywhere, except at the border.
Complete the Entire Maze
It would have been quite easy to miss one of the stops along the way and just wander into Panama without the proper stamps or documentation. There were no fences or gates and there didn’t seem to actually be any border guards to speak of after the Costa Rican officials on the bridge.
Once we walked off the bridge there were half a dozen taxi drivers trying to snatch our luggage and toss it in their truck before we had even seen a Panamanian official.
We had to seek out the tax, customs and immigration officials in their air conditioned enclaves. A number of guys (especially taxi drivers and pickpockets) who seemed to drift freely back and forth from one country to the other.
As best we can discern what we describe below is actually official policy and if you cannot produce the requisite documentation you cannot legally enter Panama.
Not only were we required to show proof that we had a paid onward ticket to leave Panama in less than 90 days but we were further required to show that after we returned to Costa Rica we had another ticket to leave there. Apparently you are required to have fully paid reservations to return to the country which issued your passport or you will be denied entry.
Fortunately we had a flight from Bocas back to San José and then a few days later reservations to return to Colorado with the electronic confirmations downloaded to our phones – remember you may or may not have signal or data available to retrieve them from e-mail or elsewhere in the ether.
We asked a few people in Bocas now they dealt with the requirement since many of them were obviously long term travelers and didn’t have a ticket all the way home. We heard variously that crying a lot, a $50 “fine” (cash only no receipt), or a fake ticket or reservation all worked. Apparently they do not have the capability to check actual flight manifests.
We have been told by frequent border crossers that you may also be required to produce two xerox copies of the photo page of your passport, $500 in U.S. cash and/or a valid credit card with a statement from the issuing bank that the available balance is greater than $500.
Pay Attention to the Visa Stamp
We have had immigration officials make several errors including
- neglecting to stamp the visa into the passport
- stamping the incorrect date (off by 5 months!)
- writing a completely illegible squiggle in for the duration of the visa (should say “90”)
Any of these could cause serious and expensive (immigration fines) problems while you’re traveling around Costa Rica, when you try to depart, or if you make a return visit.
Summary of the Costa Rica/Panama Border Crossing
After clearing immigration and customs we hopped in a cab that took us to a boat, that took us to another boat that took us to Bastimiento and our amazing accommodations at Punta Rica Villa. Highly recommended and well worth the trip!
Just under seven hours after leaving Puerto Viejo Costa Rica we slipped into the lagoon at Isla Bastimiento Bocas del Toro Panama to do some snorkeling. We’d averaged 5.7 miles per hour covering the 40 mile distance (as measured in a straight line which we obviously didn’t follow) – just a little slower than our normal trail running pace through the mountains…
Costa Rica Departure tax – $7 using the machine at the border or at Bancredito Bank (Bank option not available at the border…only in advance in Limón, San José etc.)
Bribe to get Departure tax recorded manually – $20
Panama arrival tax or entry fee – $3 – this doesn’t seem to be an official fee and the little sticker it buys doesn’t seem to be required for anything but they are quite persistent and adamant so we just paid it.
Total – $30 and about an hour and a half at the border. Without the scams the total could be as low as $7 – your choice…time or money.
We hoped that the fact that we were flying from Bocas back to San José would simplify things and maybe speed them up a little. Even though the 45 minute flight saved us about 12 hours versus driving and probably 16-18 hours compared to the bus it still took a total of about six hours.
There was an hour consumed by paying the $15 Panamanian departure tax and passing through customs and immigration on our way out.
We were unfortunate enough to land at Juan Santamaría airport outside San José just after four jumbo jets from the U.S. so immigration and customs there took a record setting 3 hours (we’re used to 20 minutes). By then it was rush hour so the 18 km drive to our downtown hotel took another hour and a half.
So much for a 56 minute flight.