Crossing the Panama – Costa Rica border

It’s always a relief to make it home, especially when home is another country! There has been a lot of discussion among expats here in Panama about border crossings since the rules seem to be a bit different than they used to be. So, I figured I’d write about how it went for us.

There is a photo of the notice that is posted everywhere on the Panama side with a translation, so if you need this info scroll down to the bottom of this post.

Going to Costa Rica was easy.
Step 1 – Go to the exit window to leave Panama. But there, we were told that we had to have our baggage inspected first.
Step 2 – Go to the baggage inspection room and wait around for someone to show up. When the man came in he looked at us and another couple from Holland who were also waiting, and told us to consider ourselves inspected and go back to the exit window (the luggage was never inspected).
Step 3 – Go back to the exit window, answer a couple simple questions about where we were going and for how long, and our passports were stamped and we were done.

Next, walk to the Costa Rica office to get checked into that country. It seems very strange to me that the borders are separated with a “no man’s land” between, and a person could easily walk right past the checkpoints and into the other country. If you were never stopped for a passport check, who would ever know? But, being old law abiding people with no taste for new experiences with immigration officials, we made the short walk to the other checkpoint.

Step 1 – Go to the entrance window and get an immigration form, fill it out.
Step 2 – Go back to the window with the completed form, and get stamped into Costa Rica (no questions, no problems)

That was Wednesday. Yesterday, (Saturday) it was time to return to Panama. It seems that everyone who has gone to the border to get their passports stamped lately has been required to stay out of Panama for 24 hours. Since we wanted to spend a few days in Costa Rica, this wasn’t a problem for us.

Step 1 – Go to the exit window for Costa Rica, get the form.
Step 2 – Return to the window with the completed form, get passports stamped (no questions, no problems)

Then we head for the entrance back into Panama, and the potentially most challenging part of this process.

Step 1 – Wait in line until we get to the entrance window, present printout of tickets to the US, get told that since they aren’t verified so they won’t do. We also need $500 cash (each). No, a credit card won’t do. Read the sign. Only these things will do (this sign is pictured below).
Step 2 – Leave the window, ask a cop if there is a bank nearby. Yes, but it’s Saturday and all the banks are closed. I explain that I only need to get some cash and need a machine. He takes me to one of the many guys hanging around waiting to change your money. The man leads me to an ATM, I get $500, and we return to the line (giving a man a bit of money for the tip he demands). Joel is concerned that he also needs $500 and would rather not pass money between us so I leave him in line, go get another $500, and return again (Thank goodness I left him in line because it looked like a tour bus had arrived and all the passengers were now in line behind him!)
Step 3 – Wait for our turn again at the window, present $500 cash, get asked for the airline ticket, present the same airline ticket  printout, get told that it is now fine and we are good to go. I ask if only the airline ticket is enough, and the guy explains that we need both the ticket AND the cash.

WHEW!! We are back in Panama.

It’s interesting at the border. It seems that everyone has $500 cash on them, so there are many wads of cash in a lot of hands. We also saw lots of cash changing hands. One person would present their cash, and when they were done they would quietly hand it off to the next person who would present it with their passport, and so on through the whole group that was traveling together. There were some police wandering around but not in sight of the windows and waiting lines. As security conscious as they are in Panama, it is very surprising that there isn’t more security where there is that much cash around.

Also, if you need to get cash from an ATM, good luck finding one! I didn’t mind giving the man a tip since I never would have found it on my own. He led me towards some shops on the right of the building as you exit facing towards Panama. We went through a narrow passageway with little shops on either side, making our way through throngs of people until we entered a newer looking bright and light department store on our right. We went to the second floor in the electronics department, and there right on the center aisle was an ATM!  So, if you get stuck, ask around, and for a couple dollars you can probably get someone to direct you (unless you want to try these directions on your own).

I don’t know how you verify an airline ticket, and the lady at the window who rejected it didn’t seem to know either (even though she was asking for it – or maybe it was too hard to explain across the language barrier in a very noisy environment). In the future we will just take $500 cash AND the airline ticket! I will be happy when I have residency and don’t have to jump through all these hoops. But, I am glad it all worked out. I have heard stories about people who don’t have cash or access to cash, and can’t get through unless some kind stranger is good enough to give them a loan for the time it takes to get them through the process. It would be awful to get stuck like that.

In case you want to see it, here is the notice they have posted in the windows about the requirements to get into Panama.


(legal title stuff )

Article 43  Notwithstanding any existing international agreements in the Republic of Panama, to enter the national territory foreigners must meet the following requirements.
6. Have sufficient funds to cover their expenses while in Panama. Exception from this provision is the passenger in transit who remains in the same place of immigration.
(not sure what this means, but it’s the best translation I could come up with)

7. Have a return ticket to their country of origin or residence when the immigration category requires it.

(more legal title stuff)

Article 17 – a foreigner can apply for tourist visa if complying with following REQUIREMENTS.

  1. Proof of economic solvency for support according to the term of stay in the country which MAY NOT BE LESS THAN FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS (B/500.00) and demonstrated with the following options.
    a. Certified check or money order in the name of applicant
    b. Travelers checks in the name of applicant
    c. Bank certificate with statement of the last three months that reflect available balance
    d. Credit card account statement of the last three months that reflect available balance
    e. Income statement or the like for the last fiscal year
    f. Any other proof of income that is acceptable by NATIONAL MIGRATION SERVICE.

So, this is all I know about border crossing at the moment. Feel free to correct any translation errors in the above. Who knows if it will be the same or different the next time someone I know heads for the border. If this affects you check the on line forums and any other resources you have for current information, bring your patience, and be prepared for anything.

An aside and a funny – we talked with an American guy who has a hotel in Puerta Jimenez in Costa Rica. He’s been there 20+ years, and said in the past all you had to do was go to the border with $25. They would adjust the dates as needed, get you the proper stamps, and you were all set. People would take turns taking all the passports to the border, so when it was his turn he’d have this big stack of passports and money! But, that was then, and this is now. Now people living in Costa Rica who need a visa renewed have to spend three days out of the country before they can return.


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 Getting Things Done, Panama, travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Crossing the Panama – Costa Rica border

  1. Allison says:

    Wish us luck! It looks like our credit card is being processed for our FBI background check, and now here is hoping that our prints are “readable”. The attorney emailed Ray last week (he is on top of it, and we haven’t even paid him a dime yet!) checking on our paperwork status for VISA. We sent him all that we have (which is everything but the FBI check), he is reviewing and will take it to Immigration offices. Here’s hoping we are successful in January on our trip to PC, because I want to avoid crossing the border in this manner!
    Glad you made it to Costa Rica for a few days–it is on my list of places to go to (after I have visited you in David and traveled to Boquete, that is, lol)


  2. John & Susan says:

    Great information and thank you for sharing!


  3. Robert & Helen says:

    Can anyone tell me how long it will take to get the penaionado visa after one has presented all necessary documents correctly to immigration in PC with a good lawyer?

    Thanks. Robert & Helen.


    • Some friends of mine got theirs in three months, which was really fast. I’d say plan on 3-6 months.


      • Robert & Helen says:

        Thanks Kris. We have contacted. our lawyer in PC. We can get from city council in The Netherlands our birth, marriage certificates multilingual including Spanish, including the
        statement of our social welfare pension. Alle will be attached to “Apostille”. That will do
        the lawyer. A we are permanent residents of St. Lucia for more than 4 years, we will need a police report of good character from St. Lucia in English, Translated into Spanish
        by the embassy of Venezuela in St. Lucia. Then an Apostille of the ministry of foreign affairs in St. Lucia. Our lawyer received copies of our passports with our permanent resident stamps and the official residency government stamped document. The lawyer
        said the immigration will accept this as proof of St. Lucia residency. Will take about 3 months she said. In St. Lucia permanent residency is quite complicated and takes 3 years to get temporary for 2 years and than another year to get permanent residence.
        And you have to buy a home for at least US$ 150k and proof of sufficient income.
        Helen and I do not know anymore how many times we visited the immigration office in St. Lucia. Anyway every country has it’s own rules. In the USA it is worse and virtually
        impossible to get a permanent visa as a pensioner. That is what we call very unfriendly, even for European citizens. Anyway we have been a couple of times to Atlanta. Unfriendly treatment at immigration, stupid questions and more BS. We never will set foot on any American soil anymore. It is not anymore the land of the free. Sorry we like most American people but not the political system of the past years.


        • It’s a process to get residency here but I’ve also heard from others that it’s not bad here compared to most countries. I’m sorry about your bad experiences in the US. Many of us are also fed up with a lot of things there too! I don’t even read the news anymore because it only frustrates me.


  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi Kris. Forgive me, I’m abit new. So your husband is a pensionado? And you are more or less a perpetual tourist? The airline ticket kind of says that, right? So your required to leave every 90 days or so? Thank You, David.


    • I am a perpetual tourist, yep 😀 A lot of people have lived like this for years, no big deal. I am required to leave every 180 days, but a drivers licence is only good for a 90 day stay (don’t expect everything to make sense in Panama). Now Panama has these new rules that to enter you have to have reservations back to your home country, the country on your passport AND $500 (or one of the other proofs of solvency). It can be confusing when today’s rules are different from yesterday’s so that’s why I wrote this post and also stressed to do your homework for the current news if you are crossing the border. For me, with daughters and a grandson in the US, I’d want to see them at least every 180 days anyway so it’s no problem. For others who don’t want to go back to their home country that often, it changes things a lot.

      My husband *sigh* – still in the process. If fingerprints aren’t clear enough the FBI won’t do their thing. If a document is outdated, it won’t work. It’s a process and all the ducks need to get in a neat row and it takes a fair amount of time. I wasn’t a big concern for him either, though with the new return tickets requirement it would be good for him to get it done in case he would ever not feel like going back with me on one of my trips. I think the ducks are pretty much lined up now, so hopefully they will be marching forward in the near future.


  5. Pingback: A bit about our Travel and Lodging in Costa Rica | The Panama Adventure

  6. oldsalt1942 says:

    With your “pensionado” carnet you don’t have to go through all that stuff at the border. Also, did you know that the indigenous peoples don’t need a passport to cross the border?


  7. indacampo says:

    Just catching up on reading the blogs while the internet is working. Although these never ending spinners are driving me crazy.

    Anyhoo…found this one very entertaining. And my dear friend, you and Joel have the patience of Job! 🙂


    • LOL Nah. You just figure it’s going to be something, and it will be interesting to find out what, and then you jump through a couple more hoops until they are happy.
      YOU have the patience! I’d be down at the internet office with my lunch in hand, prepared to sit on their desk all day and pitch a fit.


      • indacampo says:

        But really, do you think they care that my internet sucks? I’m just researching some other providers, Movistar may end up getting my money now. We’ll see…


        • Apparently they don’t care at all. If this happened back at home everyone would be camped out at the office! Good luck. We have Cable Onda here, never a problem. I only have a cheap pay as you go phone with Movistar but it also gives me no problems. Their internet can’t be worse than what you have now, can it? I know… who knows… but hopefully you’ll find a solution. I’ll cross my fingers for you.


  8. Kohl says:

    “Now people living in Costa Rica who need a visa renewed have to spend three days out of the country before they can return”. Not so, only if they wish to bring in items, duty free, else they can do a ‘more or less immediate turn around’ back into CR


    • Really? Thanks for the correction. I’ve met people who said they were doing the 3 days out of CR so I just figured that’s how it was all the time. Thanks for the comment because I don’t want to be posting incorrect information.


  9. Pingback: Crossing the Border back into Panama | The Panama Adventure

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