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Crossing the Border into Nicaragua or Panamá from Costa Rica

I have a love-hate relationship with Costa Rica’s border crossings. It’s great being able to explore the neighboring countries of Panama and Nicaragua. But long lines, piles of paperwork, and the ambiguity of border crossing requirements can be downright frustrating for travelers. There are some things you cannot control, like delays and grumpy customs officials, but you can help your travel experience be as stress-free as possible by arriving at a frontera (border) prepared.

You’ll need to pay an exit tax ($8 pp) to leave Costa Rica, complete paperwork at a Costa Rican oficina de migración (migration office), physically cross the border, complete additional paperwork at the destination country’s migration office, and possibly pay an entrance fee ($14 pp to enter Nicaragua; entrance to Panama is free). Some border regions require the exit tax to be paid at a booth steps away from the migration office. Don’t be alarmed if representatives hand you paperwork to fill out as you approach a migration office line. This is to help expedite processing times, especially during busy periods.

Border towns are not safe tourist destinations. Most don’t offer decent lodging or dining opportunities, so avoid staying overnight. If you’re traveling by bus, depart in the morning so you arrive at the border as early as possible. The later you arrive, the more likely an unforeseen delay will lead to a missed connection, which could leave you stranded in an unsafe area.

Photo of a sign at the border entrance to Nicaragua.
A sign at the border welcoming travelers to Nicaragua. Photo © F Delventhal, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Migration Office Locations

Southern Caribbean region: Costa Rica’s migration office at Sixaola (tel. 506/2754-2044, 7am-5pm daily) is 200 meters north of the border with Panama.

Southern Pacific region: Costa Rica’s migration office at Paso Canoas (tel. 506/2732-1534, 6am-10pm daily) is across from the bus station, 100 meters northwest of the border with Panama.

Guanacaste: Costa Rica’s migration office at Peñas Blancas (tel. 506/2677-0230, 6am-midnight daily) is by the bus station, 350 meters south of the border with Nicaragua.

Northern Inlands: Costa Rica’s migration office at Las Tablillas/Los Chiles (tel. 506/2299-8048, 7am-5pm daily) is immediately south of the border with Nicaragua.

Preparing for Crossing the Border

  • You can pay exit and entrance fees in cash and by credit or debit card. Some border offices accept one form of payment but not the other, so be ready to pay either way.
  • You may be pulled over on the side of the highway as part of a routine police check within a few kilometers of any border town.
  • You should be able to provide proof of funds (roughly US$500) and/or proof of exit from the country you plan to enter within 90 days. Proof of exit must be in the form of a confirmed bus ticket, flight, or cruise ship departure.
  • You may have your bags searched after crossing into a new country.
  • Have your passport and at least two hard copies of the identification page handy. Bring a pen to fill out paperwork.
  • Keep all paperwork and receipts you are given. You may need to show them later, especially if you plan to reenter Costa Rica.
  • Make sure your passport gets marked with entrance and exit stamps when you enter and depart countries.
  • Exchange your Costa Rican colones into Panamanian balboas or Nicaraguan córdobas before arriving at a border (if desired). Another option is to exchange money through unofficial parties who loiter around border crossings, but make sure you know the going exchange rate to avoid a bad deal.
  • Set your watch or clock one hour ahead of Costa Rica time if you’re entering Panama.