This Week in Costa Rica

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This Week in Costa Rica is a weekly, online radio program and podcast by US expat, Dan Stevens

The Hassle-free Panama Visa

We get a lot of email at This Week in Costa Rica about renewing a tourist visa via Panama.  Here’s a great article from our friends at Viva Tropical on making the “border run”!  

Photo: Dennis Kruyt

Photo: Dennis Kruyt

Source: Viva TropicalThe tourist visa is by far the easiest Panama visa to obtain.  Why?  Because it’s free, and for citizens of most countries (including the U.S. and Canada), it’s automatically granted when you enter the country.

The tourist visa is good for 180 days, but many expats in Panama are finding that it’s all they ever really need.  With virtually no requirements, other than the renewal, it’s entirely possible to live in Panama for a long time as a permanent tourist!

Not only is the tourist visa easy to obtain, it’s fairly simple to renew as well.  Since it’s automatically granted to those who enter Panama from approved countries, essentially the only thing you have to do to renew it is…you guessed it:

Leave and come back!

Every six months or so, expats in Panama load up their families and take the Pan American highway west to the border the country shares with Costa Rica.  (Driving east is not an option, since the road literally ends at the Darien Gap, leaving no viable way to reach Colombia.)  Once there, they stand in a total of four lines to 1.) exit Panama, 2.) enter Costa Rica, 3.) exit Costa Rica, and 4.) re-enter Panama.

And it’s all perfectly legal!

Want to be truly free?

Want to be truly free?

While many simply choose to leave and return and be done within a few short hours, others opt to spend a few hours shopping in the tax free zones on both sides of the border.  If you have even more time, you can even use your “visa run” as an opportunity to take a little vacation.  Rather than driving to the nearest border, you can take a short flight to another nearby Central or South American country, or even return to your native country for a visit.

Even though the process of obtaining and renewing a tourist visa is definitely among the easiest immigration procedures in Panama, keep in mind that you’re still dealing with the governmental operations of a developing country.  That being said, here are a few important things to remember about renewing your Panama visa as a tourist:

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1.)  There’s “what the law says,” and then there’s “what’s commonly practiced.” It’s a common occurrence in Panama for immigration officials, or any governmental entity for that matter, to just sort of make things up as they go.  The law may say one thing, but if they’re operating under a completely different standard…just go with it.  For example, the law says that when you renew your tourist visa, you have to show proof of solvency so they know you won’t be working while you’re in the country. Sometimes they ask for it, sometimes they don’t. (Editor’s Note: It’s best to be prepared, check for changes in Panama’s migration laws prior to making your trip.)

On the flip side, nowhere in the law does it say how long you have to be out of the country before you can re-enter.  However, some officers will tell you to wait 72 hours.  If you run into this, don’t try to refute it.  Just smile and nod and maybe try again when another employee steps up to the window. I will note that we have been specifically told, in 2013, that 72 hours is no longer a requirement.

2.)  Officials can switch at any time, without warning, from abiding by the law or by common practice.  Just because you’ve renewed your visa 5 times without ever being asked for anything other than your passport, that may not always be the case.  Our best advice is to be prepared every time with all the documents you could possibly be asked to show.

For instance, the law states that you are to show proof of a planned departure date within 180 days from your entry into Panama (i.e. a bus or plane ticket). They may or may not ask to see one.  A good solution is to buy a bus ticket that’s good for 6 months.  Even if you don’t end up using it, at least it isn’t a huge investment, especially on Air Panama who currently charges $11 to refund a ticket.

3.)  Exit and re-entry is a bit tougher if you bring a car.  Those leaving and returning with a vehicle must stand in a separate line and provide a bit more paperwork than those doing so on foot.  So, if you drive yourself to the border, you can park your car and walk the short distance between immigration stations.  If you plan to do some traveling in Costa Rica, there are buses and taxis available just inside the border.

4.)  Even though the immigration department will let you stay in the country for 180 days, they only trust you to drive for the first 90.  That’s right.  True to typical bureaucratic asininity, tourists are only allowed to drive for 3 months after entering the country.  So although the length of stay has been extended to 6 months, permission to drive did not follow suit.

One option for overcoming this is to renew every 3 months instead of 6.  You can also, like many expats, just keep on driving and be prepared to pay the fine, which can be as much as $500 if you’re caught.  You should also know that you can forfeit your auto insurance if you are involved in an accident while driving without a license.

As always, when dealing with the renewal of any Panama visa, our best advice is to be prepared and remain patient.  Have everything you think you might need and then some, and don’t get frustrated if the rules have changed since the last time you renewed…or since last week.  In the end it’s all worth it.

If the tourist visa sounds like too much of a hassle or uncertainty for you, find out if another might be more appropriate for your situation.

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This Week in Costa Rica is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, expressed or implied.  This Week in Costa Rica is produced by Podfly Productions, LLC and broadcast with permission by the Overseas Radio Network.