Costa Rica Travel: Costa Rica Border Crossings
What to expect and how to be prepared when crossing the Costa Rica border into Panama
Anywhere in the world, crossing the border between two countries comes with a bit of bothersome immigration protocol. Crossing the Costa Rica-Panama border is no different, however, if you know how to be ready for what’s ahead, your Costa Rica-Panama border crossing can be simple and painless!
The Borders: On Costa Rica’s southern border with Panama there are three main crossing locations.
- Paso Canoas: Open 7am to 11pm Mon-Fri, 7am to 9pm Sat & Sun. Located on the Pacific side of the country, this border crossing is actually on the Inter-American Highway section of the Pan American Highway which runs from Panama City to Mexico. Needless to say, this is the busiest of the three Costa Rica borders due to commercial traffic. Actually, Paso Canoas is one of Central America’s busiest border crossings. The Costa Rican side of the border has a lively town with small shops and restaurants, while the Panamanian side is mostly immigration offices, officials, internet & copy places and buses lined up to take you to David, the next large city about 30 minutes south. The immigration buildings look very much alike to the rest; hence it can be a bit confusing. There are “helpers” around for non-Spanish speakers to help you through the process (known as tramitadores), however if you have all your documentation up to date, there’s no need to hire one. Most people are friendly and will help you in the right direction. At the Paso Canoas border crossing you could probably experience the longest wait out of the three because of the nature of its border traffic, particularly in the morning due to commercial trucking activity.
- Rio Sereno: Open 7am to 11pm Located in the mountainous range somewhat in the middle of the Pacific & Caribe borders, the Rio Sereno crossing has much less tourist traffic and no cargo crossings. Officials at this station have a diligence motto and if you comply with all entry requirements, you can have a swift border crossing (less than 1 hour). On the Panama side you will find the roads paved from Sererno to David, however coming from San Vito, the road is a rather rough rocky road…which is probably why this border is still not widely used and quiet. As it is in the middle however, it is convenient to both David and Bocas Del Toro as an alternative to the more crowded borders. Just beware, it’s remoteness means if you do not come prepared, you will not have easy access to resources.
- Sixaola-Guabito: Open 7am to 6pm Located on the Caribbean side, this crossing station is the most interesting of the three. Most traffic here is from tourists and back-packers making their way from the sleepy Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to the party town in Panama’s famous archipelago of Bocas Del Toro. The crossing at Sixaola-Guabito takes place on the off-the-beaten tracks and wooden planks of the original railway bridge that once connected the two countries and it is for both, pedestrians AND motor vehicles!! If you get to see the bridge you will understand why the surprise. Until just recently, it had not undergone renovations since its construction in 1908 and there were gaps between the boards yet they insisted it was safe to cross over the bridge. Now, rest assured that the center lane is paved for cars crossing, however you missed your chance at the awesome photo ops of crossing the border to post on your FB. At either side of this border crossing, there are times the line can take up to 3 or 4 hours during a busy tourist season, so be ready in case this happens…bring your Pura Vida.
What do I need to cross the Costa Rica Border into Panama?
To answer that question honestly, I would say it just depends on the border agent you are dealing with and which border you are crossing. I swear, things change every time I cross a border in Central & South America. Below I have listed the current requirements, however when in doubt, abide by the Panama Entry Requirements you find listed on the Panama immigration website.
Passport: You may say, duh…but you would be surprised by how many people show up at the borders and realize they have left it behind on their last stop or somehow misplaced it. Keep it safe! More importantly, your passport MUST be valid for a minimum of 6 months prior to entry. This used to be mildly enforced, but in the past couple of years this is no joke entering ANY foreign country. If you plan to travel for several months and your passport expires within the next year…just get a new one and don’t risk the hassle.
Aside from having your passport, you will need to carry 2 copies of your passport with you, one of which the border agent will keep. There are typically copy places nearby in case you forget, but then you will have to get out of one line, get in another, then go back and wait in line again. If you are on a bus…don’t expect the driver to wait if you are under prepared…trust me I learned the hard way.
Departure Tax: Yes, Costa Rica does make you pay to leave the country…most countries do actually, it is just included in the cost of your airline ticket so you don’t realize it. As silly as that may sound, be thankful that it is currently only $8 per person if crossing on land as opposed to the $29 per person fee if departing by air.
The tricky part is that they are trying to go all digital. Previously there was a person there to help collect the fee and provide you with the documentation. Now they have installed automated machines, which means if the machine is out of service…you could be out of luck. They are pretty straight forward if you can follow instructions, and be aware this can only be paid using a credit card. If you are concerned or you do not have a credit card, you will want to pay this fee in advance at one of the Bancredito branches in Costa Rica. To find the one nearest you, take a look at the Bancredito website. They of course have banking hours…so do not expect any last minute weekend assistance.
Proof of Exit: A plane or bus ticket out of Panama. IMPORTANT!! This does not just mean you have proof of leaving Panama, this means proof that you are returning to your country of citizenship (the country of whatever passport you are using). Have dual citizenship? Make sure you are using the passport to that coincides. If you are a legal resident of another country and that is where your return will take you, be sure to provide proof of legal residency as well. After a countless number of times I crossed the border back and forth between Panama and Costa Rica I had never been asked for anything other than proof of leaving the country. Until that ONE dreadful day I got stuck. According to immigration this has been law since the 80’s, but it was never really enforced until recently. Trust me, you DON’T want to get stuck, it is NOT fun.
Proof of Economic Stability: The minimal requirement is $500 cash or a credit card with your name on it for a 3 month stay. Rather than carrying that much cash and flashing it at the border, I advise bringing a bank statement. If you did not bring a bank statement with you on vacation, you can get your balance printed from most cash machines in a pinch and immigration will typically accept that.
Visa: US and Canadian citizens do not need a visa to enter Panama (if want to check visa requirement according to your country of origin, you can visit http://www.projectvisa.com/ or contact your nearest Panama Embassy or Consulate). Note: If after your visit to Panama you’ll re-enter Costa Rica, check your visa status prior exiting Costa Rica in the first place because you will be required to remain out of the country at least 72 hours if your visa is about to expire (for more info you can visit our past blog on Costa Rica Entry Requirements).
Entry Fee: Hmmm…so if you review the government requirements, there is no “official” Panama Entry Fee really clarified by land, however I have been charged multiple times a small fee of $1 to $4 depending the border in trade for a little sticker they put on your passport. I really do not know what that is all about, but after being held at the border once, I have learned to smile nicely and do whatever they ask. Note: They do not accept CRC, only dollars or balboas.
Finally, when planning your trip across the border, take note of the hours of operation of each Costa Rica border. Keep in mind Panama time is one hour ahead of Costa Rica time. The times listed above reflect the hours of operation in Costa Rica according to the Frontera Costa Rica Panama website which is the only reliable one I seem to find. Everyone notes different times based on their experience though…so not sure how reliable times really are. Oh yeah, and they take a lunch break too, so just relax and get a bite to eat while you wait.
Between my border hopping experiences, I think I have compiled enough frustrating experiences (or more accurately immigration has changed their practices leaving to scramble un-expectantly) that I can help my fellow travelers avoid their own frustrating experiences. I will try to keep you all updated, but if you encounter something not listed here or anything that needs to be updated, please leave a comment and help out your fellow travelers.
For more information on how to prepare for your Panama vacation and other Panama travel tips, you can also check out our previous post, How to Prepare For My Trip to Panama.
In my opinion, border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama is best done by bus. Crossing into Panama by car is more of a headache than a convenience. There are too many requirements to comply with, plus rental cars are not allowed across the Costa Rica-Panama border. Car rental companies do have a service you could request to have the car picked up at the border, but for an additional charge of course.
There are plenty of direct buses to go across the border (i.e. TicaBus or Panaline). If you are more of an adventurer, and looking for means to save a bit of money, you could take a bus to the border for less than half the price, walk across and continue your way either by bus, colectivo or taxi depending your final destination. As previously mentioned, if you do not have everything prepared properly and are detained at the border, the bus WILL leave you (and your luggage) to sort it out and there is no refund for the leg of the trip you lose out on. Obviously I learned this the hard way. If you really want to make things simple on yourself going from San Jose or Puerto Viejo to Bocas Del Toro, get a shuttle, they will walk you through the process and have teams on both sides….who WILL wait for you.
For more information on how to prepare for your Panama vacation and other Panama travel tips, you can also check out our previous posting.