The Ol’ 90-Day Costa Rica to Nicaragua Border Run

When one thinks of the word ‘border run’ it conjures up mental images of coyotes, bandits, and cartel movies. But in this case, as a North American ex-pat, having lived in the Pacific Northwest section of Guanacaste, Costa Rica for over a decade, I’m talking about what’s known in Costa Rica as the ever-popular Nica Border Run for the purposes of both adventure and more so for the purpose of renewing the 90-day tourist visa stamp. Unlike the USA, Costa Rica does not frown upon perpetual tourism so if you have a US passport and the means you can literally live year-round in beautiful Costa Rica without ever going applying for residency with the only rule being that you must not remain in the country for more than 90 days at one time. However, with easily accessible land borders on both sides of the country, you can simply cross one of the borders, have lunch and/or do a little shopping, then return to Costa Rica with a brand new 90-day stamp. If you have time, you can even stay a few days across the border and enjoy the opportunity to experience it. The border run process can seem complicated and stressful for those not prepared for the adventure of it so I’ve documented every aspect of the Nicaragua Border Run into a simple 12 step process that should make it easy for the would-be border traveler to prepare and execute.

OK please understand it’s been some time since I’ve done a run and things can and do change but here’s how it works:

You don’t need to show $500 at the Nica border. I only had to do that when doing a Panama border run. In any case, I always brought cash with me and lots of $1 bills because often no one has change. I think they might have added some kind of local ATM on the CR side by the immigration office but I can’t remember for sure and I never used it.

Rule #1 say no to anything and everything. Deal only with people in the offices working behind the counter. There will be people there trying to talk you into currency exchanges, and offer to help you get through the process, and who knows what else. Just say no to all.

Step 1:
At the Nica border on the CR side, you will first need to step into this little side office and pay a departure fee. If memory serves it was $7. Best to have a $5 bill and two $1 bills because they may not have change. Sometimes they do have change and it’s not a problem. It’s hit and miss on that.

Step 2:
Go to the main immigration office it will be obvious. Make sure you bring your own pen and bring several. Fill out a form and show them your passport and receipt of the departure fee you just paid in Step 1. The person behind the desk will put an exit stamp in your passport.

Step 3:
Walk to North to Nica side or pay one of those guys with a bicycle cart to carry you to the other side. It’s about 1/8 mile walk total. Once you get to the other side there will be two checkpoints to go through and they will look at your passport and exit stamp. Once you get past that, several non-official guys will approach you and insist you must have help to navigate the Nica immigration and they will want money. JUST SAY NO. They will persist. Keep walking and keep saying NO THANKS. Tell them you have done this many times and don’t need their help. Eventually, they will give up and go away. Or you could just pay them for the help but they don’t really do anything to help that you can’t do yourself. It’s a scam.

Step 4:
You are now on the Nica side where the Nica immigration office is. Honestly, I forgot what the entry fee is. I want to say it was like $10 or something but I forgot. There is also this other fee that is like $1 so please have correct change or you could end up delayed or having to pay without change. Just bring lots of $1, $5, $10, and $20s so you always have correct change. Basically just stand in line there, pay, and get an entry stamp.

Step 5:
Now you are ready to exit Nica. Technically you are supposed to stay like 3 hours or something. It used to be 3 days actually. So now you can either actually go into Nica and spend some time OR just walk to the other side of the office to the exit line, fill out the form, pay the exit fee, and start walking back to CR.

Step 6:
While walking back to CR there is another Nica checkpoint where there will be a police officer checking your passport and exit stamp. If you have not been in Nica for at least 3 hours he may not let you past the checkpoint. So to get around this, place a $20 bill discretely folded in your passport so that when he opens the passport he will see it. Then give a small wink if you want. He knows the deal and will then let you through even though you spent no time in Nica.

Step 7:
Continue walking to the CR immigration side for your re-entry to CR. There is a booth that sells bus tickets right outside the office. Purchase your open-ended $25 Tica Bus ticket to return to the CR/Nica border. This is your proof of a ticket to exit CR within 90 days.

Step 8:
Walk inside the office, fill out the entry form, stand in line, show your return bus ticket, pay your fee, and ask for another 90-day stamp.

Step 9:
Walk through the exit. Any luggage, packs, or purses will go through an x-ray machine.

Step 10:
You’re done. Drive away or get a bus, shuttle, taxi, or however you got there.

Step 11:
You just had one hell of a long stressful day. Grab some comfort food in Liberia and get back to your happy place asap. On return arrival open a bottle of wine or your favorite beverage and proceed to drink until the stress fades away and/or you pass out.

Step 12:
Repeat the process within 90 days.

Disclaimer: again it’s been a couple of years for me since I’ve done one and things can and do change on their policies and ways of doing things.

About the Author

Photo of Dusty Hale surfing in Costa Rica.Dusty Hale
I'm a professional photographer and website solutions consultant living in beautiful Tamarindo, Costa Rica for over a decade. It is my joy and pleasure to serve others using my creative and technical skills in the digital industry.

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