Every 90 days we need to renew our Nicaraguan tourist visa. We have been living in Nicaragua for the last 4.5 years as perpetual tourists. These quarterly junkets to the border are uneventful and rather tedious. The alternative is to leave our paradise so we don’t complain too much.
An obvious question is, “Why don’t we have residency?” The short answer is, “We don’t qualify.” The long answer would significantly side track this post, so we will get to that another time.
Step by Step Instructions on How to Renew Your Nicaraguan Tourist Visa
When you enter Nicaragua from Canada, the USA or many other countries you automatically receive a 90 day tourist visa. This visa covers all CA4 countries. These countries include Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
If you want to stay in Nicaragua longer than 90 days you have a few options.
Apply for residency, apply for an extension of up to 90 days or leave the CA4 and return with a shiny new 90 day tourist visa. The details of the first two options are extensive, so we will cover them in a separate post.
Today we will only discuss the infamous border run to Costa Rica.
We ride my trusty steed and park it at this store to be watched ($2 USD once you return) by one of the many border “helpers”. Those without a vehicle can use the plethora of taxis and busses running back and forth to the border. They are easy to find and provide a cheap mode of transport.
Nicaragua has a new immigration office. The new office is easy to find (directly in front of the entrance gate) and you no longer need to complete any paper work to exit the country. You will need to pay a $1 USD tax to the city of Peñas Blancas at the entrance to the building. Once inside you wait your turn to see an officer, pay your $2 USD departure tax and get stamped out of Nicaragua.
From here you walk a couple hundred meters to the check point in the area we refer to as “no man’s land”. It is just past the vehicle fumigation station. A representative from Nicaragua will check to see you have an exit stamp in your passport. Then 20 meters later a Costa Rican representative will repeat the process. Be friendly because you will be back here repeating this process in reverse very shortly.
Entering Costa Rica
200 meters further down the road you will find the Costa Rican Immigration office. The line to enter the country is on the right side of the building. The most important thing is you will need proof of onward travel. We have done this enough times to fill a passport and twice we were not asked. You can buy an open ended (12 month expiry) bus ticket from a vendor on site for $20 USD. You can also show a flight itinerary leaving Costa Rica (not Nicaragua) within the next 90 days.
You complete a small exit form and get into line to be stamped into Costa Rica. There is no entrance fee. Extremely welcoming as long as you can prove you are leaving soon.
Leaving Costa Rica
Enjoy a little stroll into Costa Rica but don’t enjoy it too much. Less than 50 meters down the road on your left you will find a few not especially official looking offices to pay your $8 USD Costa Rican exit tax. Once you have your receipt turn around and walk back to the Costa Rican Immigration Office. Just make sure you go to the opposite side this time.
Obtain another immigration form and complete it before stepping up to the officer. They will need to see your form, passport and exit tax receipt. Once you are stamped out of Costa Rica start walking back to “no man’s land”.
Going Back Home to Nicaragua
The small, white building in the above photo is the check point at “no man’s land”. The Costa Rican official will check to see that you have stamped out of Costa Rica. The Nicaraguan official will do the same with one addition.
This is the place where we often hear about the “shakedown”. Often the officer will say you need to be out of Nicaragua 3 hours before returning.
First of all this is not true and they will not be able to show you any regulation. Secondly your passport is not time stamped so the whole thing is ridiculous and a ploy to inconvenience you just enough to pay a bribe.
Just remember these are government officials and they are in control. To get angry, loud or demanding is considered disrespectful and you may have a really long day.
I have handled this a few different ways that were all successful but took varying amounts of time.
- Once I sat cross legged beside the officer and asked him to tell me when the three hours was up. (5 Minutes)
- A couple of times I just kept repeating “I don’t like Costa Rica that’s why I live in Nicaragua. Why would I go to Costa Rica when I love Nicaragua. (2 Minutes)
- Once I said “We do this dance every 90 days. Sometimes we dance for five minutes and sometimes you don’t want to dance at all. How long would you like to dance today”. Then I took up position to lead a Waltz. (Zero Minutes)
Each time it seems like less of an issue. In fact, on our last border run the officer waved us to the front and said welcome as he shook our hands and sent us on our way.
On the way back to the Nicaraguan Immigration office you will have lots of opportunities to grab a drink or a snack. You can also stop at the duty free stores to stock up on inexpensive wine or any other vice you may have. The duty free shops are next to the old immigration office which is 150 meters east of the new office. If you aren’t looking for them you won’t see them which would be a crying shame.
Renewing Your Tourist Visa
Now that you have your bounty from duty free walk over to the Nicaraguan Immigration office. You will need to pay another $1 USD tax to Peñas Blancas at the door. We always show our receipt from earlier in the day and half the time they accept it.
You do not need to complete any paperwork to enter Nicaragua but you do have to pay $12 USD for a 90 day tourist visa. The officer may ask things like where are you staying, how long you are staying, what is your profession, etc. Our passports are littered with Costa Rican and Nicaraguan stamps so they know we are living in Nicaragua. They sometimes ask if we are working in Nicaragua and how we support ourselves.
Since the new Immigration office opened, the officers have been quite friendly and professional. Sometimes they recognize us, smile and reach over the glass to shake hands.
This is always a the best part for us. We have our wine and more importantly another 90 days in paradise with a fresh tourist visa. We celebrate by stopping for an ice cold Toña at the little restaurant/store where we park our vehicle. Door to door round trip including our duty free stop and Toña pitstop is usually takes just over 3 hours.
Tips for First Timers
We have done border runs so many times that it is easy and relatively stress free. If you have never been to the border to renew your tourist visa the experience can be confusing and a little stressful. There are very few signs and no way to know where you need to go next.
We encourage first timers to post on the Life in San Juan del Sur Facebook group asking if someone with experience is going around the same date. You can offer to pay for gas or lunch or something in exchange for their guidance on the trip.
Once you have completed your first border run you will be ready to help out the next newbie that needs some help.
Every so often we get an email from someone asking whether or not they should import their vehicle into Nicaragua.
And our reply is always the same.
“Don’t do it!”
Here are a couple reasons why:
1. Foreign vehicles entering Nicaragua will only be granted a 30 day permit to be in transit.
Upon arrival in Nicaragua you will be granted a 90 day tourist visa. Your vehicle however, will only be permitted to legally remain in country 30 days.
It is possible to apply for a 30 day permit extension in Managua, but you can only apply for this extension once. So the best case scenario is that you’ll have to drive your vehicle out of the country every 60 days, instead of every 30.
Crossing the border into Costa Rica in your vehicle is nothing like crossing the border from Canada to the United States and vice versa. It is a complicated process. It involves import and export permits, vehicle fumigation, purchasing of insurance and more. This task could easily take a full day.
There is an exception to this rule. Foreigners with residency (depending on which type) may be eligible to import a vehicle into the country tax free.
2. Finding replacement parts for your vehicle in country is likely going to be very difficult.
Most vehicles sold in North American are not sold in Nicaragua, which means finding replacement parts for your foreign vehicle here may be next to impossible.
If you are lucky enough to find the parts you need for your car or truck the next challenge will be finding a mechanic who knows how work on said vehicle.
If you plan to stay in Nicaragua for more than a couple of months — and you want to have wheels — we recommend saving yourself some time, money and unnecessary stress by leaving your vehicle in your home country and purchasing one when you get here.
You may have read or heard that foreigners without residency cannot own or register a vehicle in their name in Nicaragua. This is true; however, many expats have purchased vehicles here.
They are able to do so by leaving the registration in the previous owner’s name and having a lawyer draw up a sales letter (carta de venta). This is also common practice for many locals, as it’s a way to avoid paying transfer tax.
With the registration card and a carta de venta it is possible purchase insurance for the vehicle.
Vehicle importation is a complicated process; one that we are far from subject matter experts on.
This article was not meant to provide full and complete details on importation of a foreign vehicle or foreign ownership of a Nicaraguan vehicle, rather merely help you understand that importing a vehicle into the country is not as easy a thing to do as a lot of people think.
In short, before you load up the car with your three kids, two dogs and all your worldly possessions — en route to Nicaragua — you might want to think twice!