We recently had a discussion with some expat friends who said that they calculated the cost of doing border runs for visa renewals and compared it to the cost of hiring a lawyer and applying for residency.
What they found was applying for residency would be cheaper than trying to leave the country every 90 days to renew their visas, especially for their family of four.
While it does take a nice chunk of change to apply for residency, cost-wise and convenience-wise you are better off doing that instead of leaving and returning to the country to renew your visa every 90 days if you want to live in Costa Rica longer-term (unless of course, you have other reasons to leave and return at least every 90 days).
On top of that, you are not guaranteed 90 days. Your customs official may decide to give you less than 90 days on your visa, which means you would have to do a border run even sooner. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason as to why this happens, especially when you follow the rules, but occasionally it does.
Unfortunately, since our application is currently in the process of being approved, we recently needed to do another border run.
***Side Note: From what I understand from our immigration lawyer, we do not have to do border runs anymore since our application is pending except to keep our US drivers licenses valid. Whether or not that is a current policy regarding pending applicants, I didn’t want to take any chances of possibly violating the terms I already understood of a tourist visa. Not to be paranoid, but in Costa Rica there are occasional miscommunications and also what seems to be abrupt changes in requirements, rules and policies, but maybe it is the result of slow communication versus miscommunication. I’ve learned to “cover all my bases” because of past misunderstandings and miscommunication. I think also not being fluent in Spanish doesn’t help, but I trust that over time my Spanish will improve! Luckily it’s been minor so far, but nevertheless can be inconvenient.***
Yes it was that time again, but this time I didn’t let it creep up and surprise me. I marked it in my calendar and set a reminder on my phone for three weeks ahead, giving myself enough time to plan and coordinate.
Ok, let’s make this official – I am not fond of border runs.
Why? It’s kind of an ordeal and it’s a definite disruption of your everyday life. Yes, there’s the fun part of going to a new beautiful locale that is full of adventure. I love that part. But it’s what you have to do to get there that’s not so fun, at least not for me. I’m kind of a worry wart, but I know that experiences like this are good and get me out of my comfort zone. Plus, opting out is not an option.
In planning border run #3 for us, I came up with this checklist for myself of things to consider when doing a border run from Costa Rica into either Panama or Nicaragua:
1. What is My Budget?
The answer to this question will affect your planning and decisions tremendously.
For those on a tight budget, a one-day, no-overnight-stay border run will have to suffice, and will get the job done. Its pretty inexpensive to take a bus to the border, cross it, spend a few hours across, then return and take a bus back home. It just takes a lot more TIME. Some travelers on a budget will travel to a destination near or in a border town one day, stay overnight, then cross the border the next morning and return later in the day.
For those who may have a bigger budget, you should ask yourself whether it is more economical for you to take a flight home (for example, a direct flight to the U.S. can be quite inexpensive if you buy your ticket at the right time), especially if you have a free place to stay. Alternatively, a mini-vacation or an overnight stay somewhere in Nicaragua or Panama may cost the same or be slightly cheaper than flying to and staying at another destination.
2. Do I Need To Get a House/Pet Sitter?
Unless you live close to a border, these border runs require at least an overnight stay somewhere. You may be able to do it in one day, but it will be long and exhausting (many people do it, it is possible!).
In Costa Rica it is not wise to leave your home unoccupied and unattended for long, mainly because of the possibility of break-ins, especially if you have valuables such as electronics, appliances, and jewelry. “Petty” theft is very common here, so it is best to either have a house sitter or someone you trust stop in and check on your home everyday. Whenever we leave our home longer than for the day, we make sure we have a house/dog sitter. As with anywhere, you never know who is watching or monitoring your patterns, so mixing it up is best.
As an added security bonus, we have two big dogs (perros bravos), one inside and one outside, and a trustworthy, active neighbor who grazes his cows on our property.
3. Do I Want to Coordinate With Other Expats/Get a Ride?
We have not done this ourselves, but many expats who want to share costs and who need a ride will coordinate their border runs with others. This is also beneficial for border crossing “tours,” that have a minimum number required and charge more, for example, if it is only two people. Facebook expat groups help make coordinating border runs easier if you can’t find anyone in your immediate community to join you.
4. Do I Want to Drive My Vehicle Across The Border?
Depending on where you are going and if you have a vehicle, it may be more economical to drive into Nicaragua or Panama. The only way you can take your vehicle into one of these countries from Costa Rica is to go to the nearest National Registry Office and get the paperwork granting permission to do so. This process requires proof of ownership and insurance, current marchamo (vehicle tax) and riteve (inspection), and may take a couple of weeks so make sure you do it well enough ahead of time. So, it only makes sense if you are going for an extended period and you know where you are going and what you are doing (Spanish fluency would also help).
We have yet to drive our car across a border, so we have not gone through the process of getting this paperwork yet. We also have Tico friends who will not go through the trouble and prefer to just park their cars in a safe place at the border if they are going for an extended visit. Just something to note, Costa Rican rental cars cannot be driven across the border no matter what.
When we went to Nicaragua through the Peñas Blancas border, we would have saved $120 driving on own to our destination at Hotel Costa Dulce (the taxi cost $60 one way without the tip). Ever since that trip, I always research and consider the possibility of entering the country by car.
5. Will I need to Park at the Border?
If you are driving your vehicle to the border and not driving it into Nicaragua or Panama, you will need to park it there and pay someone to watch it for you. I’ve heard prices from $3 a day to $20 a day. In my opinion, it’s a big hassle and can be a rip-off depending on who you encounter and how desperate you are. But if it has to be done, it has to be done. It is best if you are not in a rush to get the best deal with a trustworthy person/place to park.
6. Am I Prepared For The Border Crossing Itself?
Crossing the border wouldn’t be as bad if you did not have locals there who make a living trying to assist foreigners hounding you. I would consider this the most stressful part, because it is hard for me to say no. As many times as I have traveled in and out of the country, these “helpers” are not necessary, but depending on your needs, you may appreciate their assistance. In certain circumstances we accept assistance from a helper and give him a little tip just to be nice (a couple dollars goes a long way).
The actual process is not complicated at all. You pay the exit fee (depending on what border, this is paid by machine with a debit card at the customs office or in a little store located at the border, USD cash only), fill out the forms, and get your passport stamped for exit. Then you walk towards the border, enter either Nicaragua or Panama, pay their fees, fill out their custom form, and get your entry visa stamped.
What can make it seem complicated is not being very fluent in Spanish and being in an unfamiliar environment (this is usually just applicable to first timers).
Try to bring small bills in USD to pay all the entrance and exit fees. The Costa Rican Exit Fee, Panamanian and Nicaraguan fees are collected in USD. If you bring too big of a bill ($10 or more), they may have a hard time making change for you. We have been delayed more than just a few minutes waiting for customs to find small USD bills to make change. It doesn’t make sense if other people are paying with small bills too, but we have found this to be a minor issue when doing these border runs.
Make sure that your passport is not expiring in 6 months or less. Costa Rica is very serious about this and will not let you back into the country if your passport is this close to expiration.
You will need proof of onward travel, whether it be a plane ticket or a bus ticket. In my experience, Nicaragua has never asked for proof of onward travel, but Panama and Costa Rica have. On some occasions they won’t ask at all, but this is not common. If you are an expat with no intention of leaving anytime soon, you can buy a refundable plane ticket and return it once you have gotten your visa stamp.
Some people buy a refundable plane ticket and once they get their confirmation email, they cancel their reservation. I have heard stories about border authorities in Panama going through the extra effort to confirm that the plane tickets are actually purchased and still valid, so beware if you do this.
7. Should I Book an Overnight Stay Somewhere Or Take a Mini Vacation?
This is the fun part of a border run for me. Since we live near the central valley and all borders are at least a four hour drive from us, we find it works better for us to at least stay one to two nights somewhere, otherwise it is an extremely long, exhausting, and unpleasant day for us.
On our trip to the Las Tablillas border, we stayed overnight in La Fortuna at Baldi Hot Springs Hotel and drove to the border the next day. After crossing back into Costa Rica at about 3:00 pm, we drove straight home and arrived at 6:45pm. Not bad. The next time (if there is a next time) we cross this border, I would like to visit the little town of San Carlos, which is located on the southeastern corner of Lake Nicaragua.
When we went to Nicaragua through the Peñas Blancas border, we crossed the border and stayed overnight at Hotel Costa Dulce. The next day once we were back in Costa Rica we were immediately on our way home, arriving around 7:30 pm after stopping to eat dinner at an awesome place along the way.
With our third border run, I decided to cross something else off of my bucket list by taking a mini vacation to the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, located in the province of Limon. We booked three nights at the lovely Hotel Banana Azul in Puerto Viejo. On the second day we booked a day tour to Bocas Del Toro, Panama and by doing so got our new visa.
There is almost always something new and fun to do, even if you have crossed that particular border in the past.
Every time I do a border run I feel a huge sense of accomplishment and breathe a big sigh of relief. There can be quite a bit to think about and coordinate, depending on your budget and travel goals. Most importantly, you just want to feel the satisfaction of getting a new visa stamp in your passport granting you another three months in Pura Vida country.
After three border runs, I feel much more comfortable with the task of planning and try to take advantage of traveling to a new place and experiencing new things.
In preparation for my border runs, I did quite a bit of research online and read many informative and helpful posts. Like this post, nothing can fully prepare you for the experience of crossing a border by land in Central America, but it is certainly good to read about what others have experienced and to try to get acquainted in general with what to expect.
For those of you who have a border run in the near future – the best of luck to you! Just be prepared, smile a lot and above all, be patient. Give yourself a mini-vacation in or near the area if you can to make the effort a little more worthwhile.
Expats – is there anything else you would add to this list? Please let me know in the comments below or email me at email@example.com. Sharing is caring!
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