The Border Hop, or the Passport Shuffle

Before I tell the story, let me write a disclaimer. This is not advice, nor a reliable reporting of the laws. Do your own homework and learn for yourself what is required. This is only our experience, and our understanding of the requirements which may or may not be correct.

At this point, we are not residents of Panama. There is a process that one must go through and it takes some time. So, for now, our understanding is that our drivers licences are good for 90 days. Our visas are good for 180 days but it’s inconvenient if you cannot drive legally. We’ve been here almost three months already so it was time to cross the border, get our passports stamped, and come back into Panama with new stamps.

What a day it was! We had done some reading and heard about some other people’s experiences, but it did not prepare us well at all.

We (my husband, his 93 yr old mother, and I) headed out on the Pan American highway towards the border, 26 kilometers away. The road is excellent and the drive was very pleasant. We passed towns and villages, lots of produce vendors alongside the road, and some beautiful scenery. There really was nothing to tell us that we had arrived at the border except a lot of trucks lined up along side the road, and what looked like a rather chaotic town with tons of little shops, stores, food vendors, and traffic.

As you are getting close to the spot, this is what it looks like. The main thing we noticed was all the trucks lined up along side the road.

As you are getting close to the spot, this is what it looks like. The main thing we noticed was all the trucks lined up along side the road.

We thought we might be in the right spot so I was sent out on foot to check out the scene. I expected that there would be a barrier and you would have to be checked out to cross that barrier. But no, it was not like that at all. There was a big building with trucks lined up, but one could walk through or around it easily, and then there was more shopping on the other side, and lot of taxi’s and pedestrians. So, I kept walking, as confused as ever. I asked a policeman and he told me the way into Costa Rica was ahead, big building with a white roof. I couldn’t even see it from where I was, so I figure it was time to go back to the car, drive a bit more, and see if we could get closer to “the border” so Ma wouldn’t have to walk so far.

Little did I know I had walked right through the first point, the exit from Panama.

THIS is the building you are looking for! Trucks are leaving Panama on the right, and entering on the left. People are getting processed in the middle.

THIS is the building you are looking for! Trucks are leaving Panama on the right, and entering on the left. People are getting processed in the middle.

When you are almost in front of the building, this is what we saw to our left. We eventually found a place to park down the road to our right.

When you are almost in front of the building, this is what we saw to our left. We eventually found a place to park down the road to our right.

This is the view over our left shoulder as we approached the building.

This is the view over our left shoulder as we approached the building.

I returned to the car. We drove to the right, and to the left, both of which took us out of the area of activity, but didn’t get us any closer to the area farther ahead which I believe was our destination. We ended up back in front of the big building full of trucks. We were approached by a young guy who figured out immediately that we needed help, and told us he was just the person to do it. We knew he was going to want money, but we also knew we needed some guidance and direction so we were more than happy to accept the help!

He lead us down the street to the right where we found a place to park, and then walked with us back to the big building. He led us in to where there was a huge throng of people waiting for a turn at the one window that was checking people.

I believe this is the road to the right where we ended up parking, but I'm not sure. I was a chaotic day and I didn't take a lot of the pictures until we were on our way back into Panama.

I believe this is the road to the right where we ended up parking, but I’m not sure. I was a chaotic day and I didn’t take a lot of the pictures until we were on our way back into Panama.

I believe this is another view of the scene outside the first building.

I believe this is another view of the scene outside the first building.

Yes, THIS building is where you start!

Yes, THIS building is where you start!

This photo was actually taken later after we were all finished, but this is where there had been a huge crowd of people waiting to be checked out of Panama. The standing area was full and the line stretched all down the sidewalk.

As you walk into the building, alongside the trucks entering on the right side, this is what you see.

As you walk into the building, alongside the trucks entering on the right side, this is what you see.

This is a better view of that same area.

This is a better view of that same area.

“Salida” means exit, so these are the windows you need for exciting Panama. One window said something about people with cars (you have to get permission to come through with a car) and the other didn’t, but everyone seems to be going to the one and only window that had someone working there, the “with car” window. Later, after we had been squashed in the crowd for a while, the second window opened and we were directed to go to the back of the line. I balked, not wanting to wait and wait and keep Ma standing in line all day, and I couldn’t understand what the man was telling me was the reason for leaving our position. Finally a wonderful guy from Columbia just put us in front of him in line, and we made our way to the window after maybe another 30 min wait. One group of people said they had been waiting for 3 hours, so needless to say they were becoming a bit unhappy. There was still quite a lot of pushing and trying to get in a better position, and people in line making sure they and their neighbors didn’t have others pushing their way into the line.

But, we made it! Each of us went up to the window when it was our turn. The official looked at the passport, looked at us, snapped our picture with a little camera, stamped the passport and that was it.

But, this was only step one of four. The next step was to get checked IN to Costa Rica. We were told this was 500 meters away. After standing in line so long we didn’t want Ma to walk through the crowds and over the uneven pavement, so we let our helper grab one of the waiting taxi’s.

There is kind of a between zone between the two check points. It’s full of taxis, cars, pedestrians, food vendors, shops, like a whole active city in there. It seems you could easily walk from Panama into Costa Rica without anyone giving you a second glace. But, we were intent on getting this process done, not wandering about.

The taxi took us to this building.

The lines to get in and out of Costa Rica

The lines to get in and out of Costa Rica

 

Things seemed much more orderly here. The line on the left is people coming IN to Costa Rica, and the line on the right is people going OUT of the country.

Things seemed much more orderly here. The line on the left is people coming IN to Costa Rica, and the line on the right is people going OUT of the country.

There was more waiting in line here but it was quiet, orderly, and the line moved steadily along until it was our turn. There was a customs paper that had to be filled out and presented with our passport. There were some waiting outside the windows so I managed to cut through a line and grab what we needed. When we arrived at the window we presented our passports, the customs forms, the passports were stamped and that was it. Our helper said something about needing bus tickets, but he was friends with the official so he would be sure we were all right. I’m not sure if there was any truth to this or he was just trying to prove to us how valuable he was. That certainly wasn’t necessary after all he had done to help us so far.

Standing on the street with my back to the Costa Rica check point, this is the view looking to the right, trucks lined up and waiting.

Standing on the street with my back to the Costa Rica check point, this is the view looking to the right, trucks lined up and waiting.

and this is the view to the left from the Costa Rica checkpoint. The line of trucks extended quite a ways!

and this is the view to the left from the Costa Rica checkpoint. The line of trucks extended quite a ways!

Now, we were officially checked OUT of Panama and IN to Costa Rica. Next, we had to reverse the process and get back into Panama.

Step 3 was filing out the same customs forms again (which I had to cut in line and ask for, since there were no more at the windows), getting in the other line in the same building, and waiting our turn. Again, when we got to the window our papers and passports were checked, our pictures were taken, and our passports where stamped and we were done. We got back in the taxi who had been waiting for us all this time, and were taken back to the first building on the Panama side.

An aside – wherever there are people who need something, there are people to provide it. If you didn’t bring a pen, there is a guy who will sell you one for $1. If you need a drink or a snack, there are people there with those too. If you need a bathroom though, from what I could tell you are pretty much out of luck. There were no visible bathrooms in either building so I imagine you would have to go find a nearby store or restaurant in the area.

back to the first building!

back to the first building!

Now were were directed back to the first building, but on the other side and in the area behind where we waited at first.

Our understanding is that there are requirements to get IN to Panama. They don’t want you stuck with no means to get out again, so you need a bus or plane ticket out, a car (with the paperwork to prove it), $500 cash, or a major credit card. When I flew in I was required to buy a return ticket. Cash, credit card, whatever, NO. Only a plane ticket would do. At the border here though, we had our car paperwork. They guy took a look at it, took our pictures, asked us where we were going, stamped our passports, and that was it. We were FINISHED! Whew! The whole process took us about 4 hours, not counting drive time back and forth, maybe 40 minutes each way.

The worst part of this whole experience was the confusion. We had no idea that there were four processes 1. leave Panama 2. enter Costa Rica  3. leave Costa Rica  4. enter Panama. We didn’t know where to go or exactly how these processes worked, or that we had to fill out customs forms for Costa Rica each way. We thought we had the requirements covered to reenter Panama, but what if we were lacking something and got stuck outside the country? It was a big relief when the process was done and we had our necessary stamps in our passports. We are also very grateful to the enterprising young man who helped us through the whole process. He did indeed want to be paid, but I was happy to do it because without him, it would have been so much harder, especially with Ma along. As it was we were all exhausted and very happy the process was done.

If any of you need to go through this process, I recommend you go with someone who has been there before and knows their way around. But, if not, maybe at least our story and pictures will help a bit.  Since Ma doesn’t drive hopefully she will never have to go again. If I knew how difficult and tiring it is we wouldn’t have taken her this time, hoping her residency would be done before it was necessary. But, it is done and if we have to do it again in 3 months, I will definitely be calmer and  more in the mood to take pictures. Then, I can write another post that is more detailed with more pictures. It is an interesting area to explore if you have more time and energy beyond just surviving!

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About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
This entry was posted in expatriate, Getting Things Done, Panama and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Border Hop, or the Passport Shuffle

  1. allison says:

    Good information Kris, although I will still be confused when I have to do it, and I too will “hire” someone or go with someone who knows the process! Makes me perhaps want to book an excursion bus trip to Costa Rica instead of the “have lunch in Costa Rica” or do like your family did. OR I hope to have residency lol and not have to endure this within 90 days. Glad you have this under your belt though. Just one more thing to cross off your list of things you have tried and encountered in Panama 🙂
    Just curious, what time did you arrive at the border? Is there a better time or the earlier the better?

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  2. kristc99 says:

    I have read quite a few other people’s accounts of doing this, but nothing detailed enough to be helpful when faced with the reality. Yes, a bus would be a good idea. I’d go for that since I want to see Costa Rica anyway. And, I noticed the bus people all being herded about in groups with their passports and luggage so I’m sure they were less confused.

    We arrived maybe 11:30 or 12, and left about 4 hours later. I noticed around 3:30/3:45 or so when we were done and I settled down enough to take pictures that the lines to leave Panama were much less. That was the worst part, that first line. The lines in Costa Rica and to reenter Panama weren’t bad. There are no signs directing people or any clue where to go or what to do, so that was the hardest. It’s just so confusing! But, this is our first and only time so I don’t know if a different time a day is better. There are other border crossings also, and experiences there may be different as well.

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  3. indacampo says:

    Whew! I didn’t realize what a kerfuffle it was. The people from here without residency live a little farther from the border so they usually take a couple of days to do the trip and have a mini vacation. Glad we had everything done before we moved. Our driver’s licenses are due in March because they expire when our temporary residency cards would have expired. Our abogada said that our residency was the quickest she’s had yet…2.5 months for our indefinidamente!

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  4. Pingback: Pineapples and Videos | The Panama Adventure

  5. i read all of this with a smile! the first time i crossed from CR to Panama was via bus that left sjo, costa rica at eleven thirty at night. we stopped around dawn, and most everyone went straight to the bathroom, had breakfast, whatever.. my friend, barb, and i took one look at the bathroom and were all but ill… we ambled back to the bus and sat on the road near the front tire/door. people ebbed and flowed, and then some nice lady walked up to us and asked, ‘have you gotten your passports stamped yet?’

    what?

    we had no clue that we were at the border! we dashed to the other side of the highway and got everything we needed, then on the bus and away we went!… so crazy..

    years passed, and a friend and i crossed again into panama. yes, you are so right, it’s crazy, one official points you one place, another to another…

    i could write forever on that one!

    glad you made it there and back! whew! now you can enjoy your next 85 or so days!

    congratulations!
    z

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    • kristc99 says:

      Thank you 🙂 Yes, exactly, how are you to know? There are no signs, nothing that makes sense. Before this my only border crossings were at airports which is way different.

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  6. I am so glad you posted pictures! The last time we crossed the border into Panama, it reminded me of the movie “Mad Max: Thunderdome”. They were building the new custom’s office and it was really confusing and scary. It was the worst border crossing we had ever experienced. But, now..it looks so much better and it seems that the process is somewhat easier and less confusing. Did you have to show proof that you were working on your residency? I heard that Panama was changing their rules and not allowing foreigners that live in Panama without residency to make regular border crossings to renew their visas. Is that true?

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    • kristc99 says:

      This is easier and LESS confusing?? Oh my goodness, I can’t imagine what it was like when you did it! As for new rules, I hadn’t heard that one but this is why I posted that disclaimer. You hear different things, things change, and you can never be totally sure you’ve got it right. I hope it isn’t, because I won’t even be eligible until I get social security in 1 1/2 years. But no, we weren’t asked to show proof that we’re working on residency.

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