Border Crossing & Visa Run: Nicaragua to Costa Rica

We have an updated post for this topic. Click here to view.

Although Elisha and I have lived in Nicaragua for more than a year now we have not yet applied for residency. Compared to many countries the process is relatively easy and inexpensive. That being said, there are still numerous hoops to jump through to obtain residency in Nicaragua.

Elisha and I are currently living in Nicaragua on a tourist visa that we are required to renew every 90 days. This 90-day visa can actually be extended for an additional 90 days at most immigration offices in the country. The cost is approximately $60 USD.

Just before our visas expire we leave the country and re-enter.  This restarts our 90 day clock. Luckily for us we live less than an hour from the Costa Rican border, so renewal is only a small inconvenience.

We get a lot of questions regarding tourist visa renewal and border crossing so we decided to document the details of our most recent “border run” so that we could share it with you.  

The time line below summarizes a typical border run for us. Well, kind of…

This particular time we took a little longer than usual because Elisha took approximately one hundred photos and jotted down about three pages of notes. I too held up the process a little trying to decide on my alcohol purchase from the Duty Free store.

9:02 am
We left home with our “itineraries” in hand. 

Another 90 Days in Paradise

– These United “itineraries” may or may not be authentic. Shhhhhhhh!

Costa Rican immigration now requires that you show proof of onward travel from their country.  

9:10 am
Gas tank topped up. Check! Windshield washed. Check! Fluid levels checked. Check!

Another 90 Days in Paradise

– UNO Gas Station – San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

9:54 am
Our Hyundai Galloper is safely parked just 50 meters outside the border entrance at Comoder Mayra. The dude shown in the picture below will hang around and watch your vehicle for you for a small fee. For a few extra cordobas, he’ll even wash it!

Another 90 Days in Paradise

Another 90 Days in Paradise

– A chicken bus leaving the border and heading to Rivas

It’s a short stroll to the first gate.  If you’d like can get a meal or do a little shopping on the way.

Another 90 Days in Paradise

– Shoe Shopping at the Nicaraguan Border

10:00 am
We pass through the first gate. A Nicaraguan immigration officer looks at our passports to check the date of our last entry into Nicaragua, then we are on our way to the Nicaraguan immigration office.

10:01 am
On the way to the immigration office we must stop and pay $1.00 USD for tax to the city of Penas Blancas.

Penas Blancas tax collection booth.

– The town of Penas Blancas getting their tax money

Penas Blancas Tax receipt

– Penas Blancas tax receipt

10:09 am
With our tax paid we enter the immigration area and get in line and fill out our customs forms. An agent checks our passport and forms and then keys some information into the computer. At this gate we paid a $3 USD exit fee.  The friendly agent stamps our passports and we’re off.

Central American Customs form

– Nicaraguan Customs form

10:13 am
We are officially stamped out of Nicaragua and approaching “No Man’s Land” as we like to call it.  We are now walking between the two countries.

10:20 am
Yet another check point. This photo friendly agent was checking for the stamp that showed our exit out of Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan Immigration official

– This Nica Immigration officer thinks taking pictures at the border is cool

10:20 am
We are now entering Costa Rica. It’s about a 200 meter walk from the Nicaraguan Immigration office to the Costa Rican equivalent.

Welcome to Costa Rica

– Bienvenido a Costa Rica

Taxis to take you to Costa Rica from the immigration office.

– Taxis to transport you from the immigration office to your Costa Rican destination

10:27 am
We enter a line up for the Costa Rica immigration office. Thankfully we arrived just before of a group of 60+ people who were traveling on a Tica bus. 

Lining up at the Costa Rican Customs and Immigration building.

– Lining up at the Costa Rican customs and immigration building

The Costa Rican Immigration office after a Tica Bus arrives.

– Sometimes it’s all about timing!

10:44 am
After a short wait we enter the immigration office with our completed customs forms and “itineraries” in hand ready to show the immigration official.

Costa Rican Customs and Immigration form.

– Costa Rican Customs & Immigration form

10:49 am
Not suprisingly the agent asks for our boleta (ticket) showing proof of onward travel out of Costa Rica. This is a fairly new practice and seen by many as a money grab. 

To avoid hassle most expats simply purchase a $25 open-ended bus ticket – which is good for one year – but never actually use it.

Unlike Nicaragua, Costa Rica does not charge an entrance or exit fee. However, it seems to us that the government is trying to compensate for that revenue by requiring you to purchase the bus ticket.

Costa Rica entry requirements.

– These signs went up recently when they started to require proof of onward travel from Costa Rica

10:54 am
We distract a police officer by asking him if we can take a photo. In exchange for a quick little chat we avoid having to walk further into Costa Rica.  We walk back the way we just came from and get in line on the opposite side of the immigration building.

10:59 am
We enter the building that we just left and fill out another immigration form.  This time it’s to leave Costa Rica.

11:05 am
Our passports now have three stamps and we are out of Costa Rica and on our way back into Nicaragua. 

There is a misconception that you must leave Nicaragua for a period of three days before you can re-enter and renew your tourist visa.  This is not the case at all. There is no law indicating how long you must be out of the country before you may re-enter.

In fact, on this particular border run we were only in Costa Rica for a period of 16 minutes.

On the other hand, if you are living in Costa Rica on a tourist visa you are required to leave the country for a minimum of three days prior to entry back in.

Nicaraguan and Costa Rican Exit and Entry Passport Stamps

– Nicaraguan and Costa Rican Exit and Entry Passport Stamps

11:16 am
Check point back into Nicaraguan frontera.

Checkpoint at the Nicaraguan Frontera

– Check point at the Nicaraguan Frontera

Nicaraguan Immigration

– Nicaraguan Immigration straight ahead

Shoe shine at the Nicaraguan border.

– Need your shoes shined?  No problem – get it done before returning to Nicaragua!

11:24 am
We are back at the Nicaraguan immigration office and pay a $1 USD tax to the city for the second time that day.

11:25 am
Entrance forms are completed. We pay $12 USD for our 90-day tourist visa and entrance back into Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan Immigration office

– Finally…our last passport stamp of the day!

Another 90 Days in Paradise

– Sandals anyone?

11:29 am
Since we are here we might as well get some cheap duty free treats. We haven’t actually left long enough to qualify, but no one ever cares or even checks to see if you have duty free.

The shops are setup after you clear customs and are right next to where we park the truck. In truth you wouldn’t even need to leave the country to shop at the the duty free store. In fact, we have friends that own a bar and they used to shop there regularly.

Another 90 Days in Paradise

– A border run wouldn’t be complete without a quick stop at the Nicaraguan Duty Free Shop

Another 90 Days in Paradise

– Lots of goodies at Duty Free!

11:36 am
We are good to go for another 90 days and ready for a snack before making our way to a Rivas for some shopping.

Another 90 Days in Paradise

– A couple of snacks for the drive to Rivas

11:40 am
We pay our parking attendant C$40 cordobas for his services. He’s happy and so are we!

Another 90 Days in Paradise

– Our truck (and our parking attendant) are safe and sound exactly where we left them! 

Posted on February 25, 2013, in Travel & Transportation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Thank you so very much for this info! I have to do this next month!!

  2. This is great information to have—but what bus ticket – from who–open ended.

    Thanks,
    James

  3. Great Post. Did you get the immigration forms at the window?

    • Yes, we did.

      You can also get the immigration forms from one of many guys who will greet you as soon you step out of your vehicle or off the bus. They are there to walk you through the check points in return for a tip.

      Elisha

  4. Dear Gord and Elisha,

    Thanks for the info. I’ve not yet arrived in Nicaragua. I’ll be there April 11th (flying from San Francisco). I plan on staying for at least a year; and, so anticipate having to make these “border runs” a few times.

    Your “itinerary”, I presume, is a printed copy of a “flight reservation”? There is no concern by immigration officials, either exiting or entering Costa Rica or Nicaragua, that the travel dates shown are not substantiated by your actual return time/date?

    Also, what is the penalty (if any) if you exceed the visitation time allowed by the tourist visa? By a day or two, for example. I wouldn’t plan on doing so, of course. I’ve enjoyed following you on your blog…and hope to meet you shortly after my arrival in Granada (provided you’re still there).

    Steve

    • Hi Steve,

      The only place you must show an itinerary is when entering Costa Rica. It just needs to show you will be leaving Costa Rica within 90 days. Your itinerary is not recorded by immigration, it just needs to be shown for proof of onward travel.

      If you overstay your visa in Nicaragua there is a $5 or $10 fine, plus $2 per day for every day you are over.

      We have been in San Juan del Sur since August, but we go to Granada once in awhile to visit friends.

      Cheers,
      Gordon

  5. There seems to be one thing missing. The Nicaraguan police will charge you at the border on your return back into Nicaragua when you cross back on the same day. I have experienced this every single time I have crossed over the last 4 years. Typically 200-400 cordobas and completely illegal.

    • I paid a 200 cord bribe my first time, but we have not paid any bribes since.

      Gordon

      • So what’s the trick to avoid the propina. They have scouts that pick out the returning tourists and then notify the border police just before you arrive. They are expecting you and your payment when you cross into Nicaragua.

        • Hi Steve
          We have not had that happen. Even the coyotes that are there to help people across for a tip recognize us and don’t ask us if we need help anymore. There is no reason for the police to stop you on the Nica side. I would ask to speak to their boss to show me that a regulation exists.
          Cheers,
          Gordon

  6. Enjoyed your visa run post, especially the photos. We did the visa run for several years (we have residency now) and it was different every time. 🙂

    We actually enjoyed going into Liberia for the night and returning the next day. Instead of buying a $25 bus ticket, I saved an old airline reservation and each time we had to make a border run, I’d change the dates and print the old airline ticket. Haha..great minds ( or should I say cheap minds..think alike) Worked like a charm.

    We live on Ometepe Island and several of our friends who have been doing a border run for over 5 years have been getting hassles lately at the border. I think it depends on the mood of the custom’s agent.

  7. Loving your blog so far! Hoping to get to Nicaragua in May/June, on a scouting mission – with my good friend/future business partner 🙂

  8. Thanks so much for the info. I plan to arrive in September and who knows how long I might stay. At least 3 months and maybe forever. Thanks again hope to see you sometime.

    Ron

  9. What makes you think Costa Rica’s 72 hour rule isn’t a misconception too? I have heard that you only have to stay out 3 days if you are importing goods. I guess we will find out on Friday!

  10. How are you dealing with your car’s “visa” (import permit) and insurance?
    I just drove down from the U.S. I got both at the Honduran border, but was told the permit would expire in 30 days. Immigration in Managua says I have to renew my 30 day import permit in Managua at a cost of $1 day for another 30 days, but also that it is so old 1996) that they won’t allow me to renew it. I arrived on October 17, 2015, so I have a bit over 2 weeks left to figure out what to do.

    Thanks, great blog!

    Bob

    • Hi Bob,

      We researched bringing a vehicle to Nicaragua and realized it would be a huge mistake.

      Yours is too old to ever import into the country, so unfortunately it will only ever receive a 30 day transport permit. If you are lucky someone might buy it for half of what it is worth to drive back to the US.

      Unfortunately you are in a terrible position with no good answer.

      Regards,
      Gordon

  11. Gordon, thanks for the quick reply. That seems to be the case. I tried to find out more before coming down, but obviously not hard enough. During my few trips to Mexico it was so easy to deal with, and as with the several posts I did find from people traveling in Central America did not indicate otherwise, I kind of expected it would not be a big deal. Oh well. I still like it here a lot so far! — Bob

    • Hey Bob! So, you are only getting 30 days when you got Costa Rica for a visa run with your car?? I am leaving for a run of my own from Leon next week and assumed I would get 90 days.

      As I understand it, it is 90 days for the C-4 block.

      Also, they only do the 30 day extension in Managua once, unless you prove that it needs repairs. This was my experience anyways. Tons of red tape and illogical thinking.

      All this proof of travel, limited time-periods is a bad trend if you ask me. Why can’t people just do what they want where they want? That’s rhetorical by the way.

      Anyways, any info you can share would be helpful, thanks!

      • People receive a 90 tourist visa to travel within CA 4 counties. Vehicles receive a 30 transit permit when entering Nicaragua. Vehicle transit extensions can be applied for in Managua for one 30 day period. After 60 days the vehicle must leave the country.

      • Ryno,

        1. I had the Nicaraguan woman who is the manager of the apartment building in Granada call customs in Managua. They said I could not renew my original permit there.
        2. Nov 12th: I go to the Border, hire a guide, pay the money ($170 to DGA men, police, and the guides, $30 in normal fees and insurance on the Nica side coming back in) and I am allowed to cross to Costa Rica and immediately return to Nicaragua without getting a permit for the car in Costa Rica. Now I have 30 more days.

        3. Dec 12th: I go to Costa Rica and stay for 3 days at a resort/farm outside of La Cruz, nice place, $200 including meals. The Costa Rica permit is good for 90 days, cost $36 for insurance.

        4. Dec 15th: On the return I buy 2 months Nicaragua insurance at the border, along with my new permit. Next week I will go to Managua to renew it for 30 days, which everyone says is possible, despite what we were told when we called on the phone.

        4. Feb 12th: I will continue on to Costa Rica and stay for 3 months.

        5. May 12th: I will continue on to Panama for a 3 month stay. My source in Panama (a gentleman from Texas who has been there a while and done it) says I will get a 30 day permit for the car, a 90 day visa for myself, and I will be able to renew the permit twice without having to cross the border. He also says I may be able to register the car in Panama.

        6. In Nicaragua there was recently a change in the law: If you are wanting to import a car and have a cedula (long term visa) it must be no more than 7 years old. A car up to 10 years old may be imported by Nicaraguans. That is what I was recently told by a U.S, citizen who has been down here for 20 years and has a business and has imported trucks and cars in the past.

      • Bottom Line:
        Bringing an older car down to Central America for a round trip tour of all the countries and a return to the U.S. might be ok, though all the border crossings are a PITA, esp. if your Spanish is limited, as mine is.

        In the case of several travelers I have met who are continuing on to South America by having their vehicle shipped out of Panama or Costa Rica, while they experience similar issues as I did at border crossings, they are not trying to stay in country for very long, so that’s fine too.

        It is not recommended, by me for sure, to drive down to Central America if you are planning on staying for a while, with your vehicle, like several years to forever, as I am, in a car older then a few years. Much better to buy one here.

        Please do share this with as many people as you know can. I sure wish I had found out this information, I would have left it at home for sure. I did a lot of reading of recent blogs, forum posts, etc. but obviously not the right ones, and certainly not the ones with current info that is correct. That’s life.

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