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

Filtering by Tag: costa rica tourist visa

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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To visa or not to visa? That is the 90 day question.

In the US Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson stated that we (the people) have certain unalienable rights, such as Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. I do not want to elaborate into what were considered people at that time, but just to make my point, those rights are very simple and straight forward.

On the other side of the pond, a few decades earlier Jean Jacques Rousseau aimed to determine whether there can be a legitimate political authority. He figured that man must enter into a Social Contract with others, whereby we, as a society, delegate to government the authority to enact the rules that will allow us to (in Jefferson’s terms) afford Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Government is formed with the purpose to protect and further the interest of the citizenry. In Costa Rica, we always thought that we were as enlightened as Jefferson, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Locke, etc. Which is why, the Constitutional Congress in 1949 added in section 50 of the Constitution a clause stating that the “Estate will procure the wellbeing of all inhabitants in the country through organizing and stimulating production and the most adequate distribution of wealth”.

The organization and stimulation of production sounds like economics to me. Economics is the allocation of resources in order to incentivize different sectors of the economy. This is not done just because, the purpose of this is to further people’s rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

So let’s talk about immigration now. First of all, I can guarantee you that nobody from the Immigration Department in Costa Rica has a degree in economics, nor does anybody from the Department of the Economy and Industry has a background in migration and human studies.

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Having said that, let’s look at an immigration phenomenon that has been going on in Costa Rica for a while, the perpetual tourist. People who go back and forth across borders in order to have a valid 90 visa in their passports. (Just as a note, I am not going to elaborate on the four categories for entry visas to Costa Rica, I am just using the visa exempt countries in the first group).

The Costa Rican government has been making it exponentially difficult for foreign nationals to function while in Costa Rica. Although, the current immigration law provides a significant number of options to stay in Costa Rica, it still needs to improve a lot. But, there are still a lot of foreigners who do not qualify for status. Current regulations make it extremely difficult for some people to be here. Therefore, they resolve by leaving the country every 90 days.

There have been people in Costa Rica who have been doing the 90 visa for ten years. That is just absurd. Let’s see the economics of it. Depending on where you are, on average, it will cost you $300USD to do a border crossing. Some people return on the same day which minimizes the cost of the trip, but plenty of people decide to stay for two or three days in Panama or Nicaragua, which increases the cost of the trip. But, for the sake of the argument, we will say that in average it costs $300 USD, and you need to do this four times a year. Therefore, it will cost you $1,200 USD a year to maintain the perpetual tourist status.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine exactly how many 90 day runners are out there. But just to give you some figures, at the border crossing in Paso Canoas 40,910 nationals from the US and Canada crossed the border to Panama, while 41,679 entered to Costa Rica. Please bear in mind that this is not exact science, there are hundreds of possible variables here. These figures do not include the others ports of entry to Panama and Nicaragua and others. But if we argue that most of these people are 90 day runners, we are talking about $40 million USD that are being invested on a yearly basis on the endeavor of crossing the border into Panama.

We know that all those perpetual tourist invest their money in the local economies where they reside. The beach towns of Tamarindo, Samara, Playas del Coco, Jacó, Sant Teresa, Dominical, Golfito, Puerto Viejo, and everything in between. They invest their money in paying rent, buying groceries, using cell phones, buying gas. There may be some people living out of a backpack, but there are plenty of others who own a home or a business and pay taxes and employ people, pay into the CAJA and do all other things that “legals” do. Money, does not discriminate between nationals and expats, legal or not legal. All those 40 million spent in crossing into Panama, could be spent in local  businesses.

Call me wacko, but it is in the best interest of the country and in furtherance of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to keep those 90 day runners in the country. On the other hand, what about their right to life, liberty and their pursuit of happiness. Going back to the Costa Rican Constitution, Section 19 states that foreigners have the same rights as Costa Ricans. In conjunction with section 50, it seems to me that the Costa Rican government should enact policies that will promote the wellbeing of all inhabitants including foreigners. It is in the well being of foreigners not having to make a trip to Nicaragua or Panama every 90 days in order to be legal in Costa Rica, specially as there are plenty of elder foreigners to whom making a trip to the border represents a hardship. Please note that section 50 of the Constitution states inhabitants, not Costa Ricans, not citizens, not residents. Inhabitants refers to whoever is in the country.

In my opinion, it makes sense to further the wellbeing of all inhabitants (Costa Ricans or not) by allowing foreign nationals to stay in the country without having to leave the country every 90 days. It is good for the country, it is good for the expats.

If you are foreign national who has to leave the country every 90 days, please let me know. I may need your help to change policy. I need as many signatures as I can get in order to build a case in the Supreme Court. Send me an email to 90dayvisa@outlierlegal.com

 

Check out our interview with Dawn Drummer, Client Services Manager for Outlier Legal Services takes Corey’s call to give an overview of the very popular topic of immigration options for foreigners looking to live and work in Costa Rica. Dawn covers some of the residencies available and some not-so-well-known processes to apply for a variety of legal residency statuses.

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