We have seen countless travelers at land borders in Central America that are totally confused by the process. This is not at all surprising. The “system”, if you can call it that, is in a constant state of flux. And there is very limited information online to help you get out of your predicament. So, we thought that with our 10 years of experience with Costa Rican border crossings, we could help out with a comprehensive and practical guide.
So, let’s break it down with all the things you need to cross a land border, how to get there, and how much it will cost you.
How Long Does a Tourist Visa Last?
For most Central American Countries, including Costa Rica, a tourist visa is 90 days (approximately 3 months). For Panama, the maximum is 6 months/180 days. For most nationalities, the visa itself does not cost anything, and you will not need to apply beforehand. However, “conditions apply” when you arrive at a border.
If you are from Africa, Asia, The Middle East, or Latin America: check with your consulate or embassy to see if you will need to pre-apply for a Costa Rican Visa. Here is a basic list of countries with visa restrictions.
Tickets for Onward Travel
When entering Costa Rica, you will often need proof that you have a ticket leaving the country within 3 months of entry. In most cases, a pre-paid bus ticket from one country to another will work. However, recently we have come up against border officials that have asked specifically for flight confirmations back to our home countries. And at Paso Canoas they now have the ability to check the validity of your ticket.
So, this is how you can be the most prepared.
To enter Costa Rica there are 4 options depending on the mood of the border guard:
- Show a Bus Ticket from Costa Rica to Panama or Nicaragua
- Show a Plane Ticket from Costa Rica, to anywhere that is not Costa Rica
- Show a Plane Ticket from Costa Rica to your home country
- Show nothing because they have decided not to care that day
This basic principle also applies to entering any other Central American country. They recently became particularly strict in Panama
You can easily purchase Tica Bus tickets online for approximately $40. Unfortunately they are non refundable nor transferable, so you will be out of pocket with this option if you weren’t planning on using the tickets.
Flights can be more complex, especially if you don’t actually need to fly from Costa Rica, because you were planning to fly home from Colombia… or wherever else you may be traveling. In this case, the best thing to do is find a website or airline that offers “On Hold” tickets. This means you get an e-ticket with a reservation number, but you don’t actually pay for the ticket and can cancel it as soon as you get through the border nonsense. Spirit Airlines used to offer refundable fares, but this is no longer available. If any of our readers find fully refundable fares, we would love to add them to our links.
At the main Costa Rica/Panama border (Paso Canoas), you can show these tickets on your phone, but be prepared to print them out at a nearby internet cafe if they ask.
Proof of Money
This is an easy one. You need to show that you have at least $300 or $100 for every month that you are in the country. Proof of this can be in cash, or your internet banking screen on your phone, laptop, or as a print out. Make sure you have the credit card or bank card that is associated with the account.
How Long Before Re-Entry?
In theory, you need to be out of Costa Rica for 3 days before they will allow you to re-enter. In our experience, it is usually more like 3-5 hours. The border guards change shifts at 2pm at Paso Canoas, which is good to know, for reasons that may become clear to you. If you are planning on being in Costa Rica for more than 3 months and need to make a “border run” to renew your tourist visa, factor in at least one night away.
In the case that you have over-stayed your visa, there are a few things that can happen:
- Nothing, because it wasn’t very long and they didn’t happen to care that day
- A $100 fine for every month that you are over
- Refusal of Re-entry to Costa Rica for a period of 3 times as long as you overstayed.
Basically, just don’t overstay your visa. It’s not worth it.
Costa Rica has an $8 exit tax. You will need to pay this before you get you passport stamped. At the Costa Rica/Panama border of Pasa Canoas, the tax payment kiosk is located across the road from the Costa Rican border office. It’s bright yellow, and it’s next to a fried chicken shop. Yes. Don’t be surprised if your border crossing includes giving $8 to a person in a hole in the wall, or a random van. Don’t panic. See the our Paso Canoas Map below for the exact location.
Most international flights now include the exit tax, so this only applies to those exiting Costa Rica via land borders.
Where to Go in Paso Canoas
The Paso Canoas border is notoriously confusing. The first time I went there, I accidentally wandered into Panama without getting a stamp! Below you can find our custom Google map with all of the important spots highlighted and photographed.
How to Get to Pasa Canoas
Paso Canoas is the border we visit most frequently, and is the main land border between Costa Rica and Panama. To get to Paso Canoas from Drake Bay, there are 3 options via public transport:
1) Take the 7.15am boat from Drake to Sierpe ($15), then a collectivo taxi to Palmar Norte ($5), then the 9.30am Tracopa bus to Ciudad Nielly ($3), Then a collectivo taxi to the border ($2)
Total Cost: $25 pp
Total Time: 4-5 hours
2) Take the 4am mini bus from Drake Bay going towards La Palma ($6). Ask them to drop you at Rincon, which is basically just the corner where the road changes from gravel to highway. Wait here for the bus going to Ciudad Neilly at approximately 6.10am ($6). Take a collectivo taxi to the border ($2)
Total Cost: $14 pp
Total Time: 6 hours
3) Take the 4am mini bus from Drake Bay going to La Palma ($6). Take the 9.20am bus from the same stop, right in front of the bakery, to Puerto Jimenez ($2). Take the 11.30am Ferry to Golfito ($6). Take a collectivo taxi to Paso Canoas ($10)
Total Cost: $24
Total Time: 8.5 hours
An important thing to note is that the mini bus from Drake Bay to La Palma is not particularly reliable. Call the driver directly the day before you leave to make sure the service is running.
To get to Paso Canoas from other destinations in Costa Rica, you will likely also have to pass through Palmar Norte and Ciudad Neilly. Make use of the links below.
Useful Links & Phone Numbers:
Where to Stay if you Get Stuck
Costa Rican public transport is famous for being the most unreliable in Central America. And from our experience, and the experiences of almost everyone we know, border runs never go exactly to plan. If you do get stuck at any point on your journey, we can recommend the following relatively cheap rooms:
Paso Canoas- Cabinas Romy:
Ask for a room with hot water showers. They also have Air con and decent wifi. $40 for 2 people.
Palmar Norte- Cabinas Romary:
A truly lovely family. They have helped us out multiple times over the years. All rooms have air con, cable tv, and wifi. The hot showers don’t work, but the beds are comfy and they are flexible with check out times. $20 for one person.
Puerto Jimenez- Cabinas Jimenez:
The owners are old friends, and they have very comfortable rooms right on the water. Air Con, Wifi, and even a pool. From $50 per night.
Ciudad Neilly- Hotel Diamante:
Not the most comfortable place in the world, but they do have WiFi and Air Con. The advantage of this place is that you are next door to cheap food, and across the road from the bus terminal. So you can get up early and get the hell out of Neilly.
La Palma- Soda La Palma:
Basic rooms for $15 per person. Do try your best not to get stuck here though, as La Palma is the only place on this list that does not have an ATM in town.
The Final Checklist
Although this blog is specifically about the border between Costa Rica and Panama, the following basic checklist applies to almost every land border in Central America. Although they may not always ask, it is better to be safe than stuck at an ugly dusty border!
- Proof of Onward Travel Within 3 Months of Entry
- Proof of $300
- Exit Taxes Paid
- A List of Public Transport Times
- A List of Emergency Accommodation
- A USB with your documents on it (in case you need to print them)
- Fully-charged Laptop and/or Phone
- Plenty of Small Bills and Coins for Public Transport
- A Sense of Irony
We wish you luck with your future border crossing in Costa Rica and beyond. We welcome your feedback via email, WhatsApp, or Facebook for anything we are missing or any new updates.