Costa Rica shares land borders with Nicaragua and Panama. There is no fee for travelers to enter Costa Rica, but visas may be required for certain nationalities. There have also been reports of towns adding their own entry and exit fees, usually US$1.
A land border crossing opened in 2015 linking Los Chiles (Nicaragua) to Las Tablillas (Costa Rica). A bridge crosses the Río San Juan just north of the Nicaraguan border.
- The Los Chiles–Las Tablillas border crossing (2471-1233) is open from 8am to 4pm daily .
- Hourly buses connect Los Chiles and Las Tablillas (US$1, 15 minutes). There are also direct buses from San José and Ciudad Quesada (San Carlos).
- A Costa Rican land exit fee of US$7 is payable at immigration by credit or debit card only (no cash).
- After walking across the border, you’ll go through Nicaraguan immigration. The entrance fee is US$12, payable in US dollars or cordobas.
- After exiting immigration, you can catch a boat up the river or hop on a bus or a collectivo (shared transport) to San Carlos (roughly US$2.50, 30 minutes).
- It’s also still possible to cross this border by boat, which is a slower but more pleasant way of doing it. There is no scheduled service; boats depart Los Chiles when there's sufficient demand. Fares are approximately US$10 to US$15 per person, but if you have time constraints it may be possible to pay more and leave more quickly. You’ll avoid the Costa Rican land exit fee, but you’ll still have to pay US$12 to enter Nicaragua.
- If you are entering Costa Rica from Nicaragua, there are three lines in Nicaragua: one for payment (go there first and pay the US$3 municipal tax/exit tax), one for entrance, and one for exiting the country.
Situated on the Interamericana, Sapoá–Peñas Blancas is a heavily trafficked border station between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
- The Sapoá–Peñas Blancas border crossing (2677-0230) is open from 6am to 10pm.
- This is the only official border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica that you can drive across.
- Waiting times at this border can be several hours. Plan on at least an hour’s wait.
- You cannot cross into Nicaragua with a rental car; however, you can leave it at the customs office if you're just going for a quick visit – it'll cost US$10 per day to have your vehicle watched. However, don't leave anything of value inside.
- You'll pay a US$7 Costa Rican land exit tax to cross the border (via credit/debit card) and then US$2 municipal tax (in dollars; colones are not accepted – bring some cash in small bills with you).
- After walking a few hundred meters, you will also pay US$7 to enter Nicaragua. Keep your passport handy but stowed safely away – officials from both countries may ask to see it.
- Do not pay anyone for customs forms; this is a scam. The forms are free, but do bring your own pen to avoid the hassle of borrowing one. As at any border, there are shady operators acting as 'tour guides' and such. Keep your eyes peeled and on your luggage.
- After you cross you can catch a Nicaraguan bus or taxi for the 30-minute ride to Rivas (bus fares are approximately US$1), the key transit point for other Nicaraguan destinations. You can also take a taxi to San Juan del Sur (US$25, 30 minutes). A new road to this Nicaraguan beach town was being paved at the time of research.
- Theoretically, if you stay for 90 days in Costa Rica, you're supposed to stay in Nicaragua three days before returning to Costa Rica, but in practice many foreigners (expats who live in Costa Rica but do not yet have residence) stay only three hours. Coming back into Costa Rica, you'll pay a US$3 municipal tax/exit tax. Costa Rican officials may query you about how long you plan to stay and base your visa (60 or 90 days) on this information. Importantly, you should have a return ticket home or out of Costa Rica, dated within 90 days.
Tica Bus, Nica Bus and TransNica all have daily buses that serve points north and south. Regular buses depart Peñas Blancas, on the Costa Rican side, for La Cruz, Liberia and San José.
- Note that Peñas Blancas is only a border post, not a town, so there is nowhere to stay.
Note that Panamanian time is one hour ahead of Costa Rican time.
At the time of writing, entry to Panama required proof of US$500 (per person), proof of onward travel from Panama (including a bus ticket from Panama back to Costa Rica, if you’re not flying out of Panama) and a passport valid for at least six months. If you don’t have an onward plane ticket yet, buy a refundable one originating in Panama, print the itinerary and then cancel the ticket.
The Carretera Interamericana (Pan-American Hwy) at Paso Canoas (2732-2150) is by far the most frequently used entry and exit point with Panama, and it's open 6am to 10pm Monday to Friday, and to 8pm on weekends.
- The border crossing in either direction is at times chaotic and slow.
- Get an exit stamp from Costa Rica at the immigration office before entering Panama; do the same on the Panamanian side when entering Costa Rica.
- There is no charge for entering Costa Rica. Entry to Panama costs US$1.
- The departure tax in Costa Rica is US$7, but you will be charged US$8 at the border because the company that handles the transaction takes a US$1 commission. You pay this through the window of a storage container across the highway from the Costa Rica Migration office. Panama has no departure tax.
- Northbound buses usually stop running at 6pm. Travelers without a private vehicle should arrive during the day.
- Those with a private vehicle are likely to encounter long lines.
- Tica Bus travels from Panama City to San José (US$42 to US$58, 15 hours) daily and Tracopa (www.tracopacr.com) has a route from San José to David (US$21), both crossing this border post. In David, Tracopa has one bus daily from the main terminal to San José (nine hours). In David you’ll also find frequent buses to the border at Paso Canoas.
Situated on the Caribbean coast, Guabito–Sixaola (2754-2044) is a fairly tranquil and hassle-free border crossing open between 7am and 5pm.
- If you're coming from Bocas del Toro in Panama, you'll first have to take the frequent boat to Almirante (around US$2), then a public bus or shuttle to Changuinola (roughly 40 minutes), from where you can take a quick taxi to the border or to the bus station (roughly US$5).
- One daily bus travels between Changuinola and San José at 10am (approximately US$16, eight hours). Otherwise you can walk over the border and catch one of the hourly buses that go up the coast from Sixaola.
Río Sereno–San Vito (2784-0130) is a rarely used crossing in the Cordillera de Talamanca. The border is open 8am to 4pm on the Costa Rican side and 9am to 5pm on the Panamanian side. The small village of Río Sereno on the Panamanian side has a hotel and a place to eat; there are no facilities on the Costa Rican side.
- Regular buses depart Concepción and David in Panama for Río Sereno. Local buses (around US$1.60, 40 minutes, six daily) and taxis (about US$30) go from the border to San Vito.
- For travelers departing Costa Rica, there is a US$7 exit tax, plus a US$1 admin fee, payable at a kiosk at the border crossing.
- If crossing a border by bus, note that international buses may cost slightly more than taking a local bus to the border, then another local bus onward from the border, but they’re worth it. These companies are familiar with border procedures and will tell you what’s needed to cross efficiently.
- There will be no problems crossing borders provided your papers are in order. If you are on an international bus, you’ll have to exit the bus and proceed through both border stations. Bus drivers will wait for everyone to be processed before heading on.
- If you choose to take local buses, it’s advisable to get to border stations early in the day to allow time for waiting in line and processing. Note that onward buses tend to wind down by the afternoon.
- International buses go from San José to Changuinola (Bocas del Toro), David and Panama City in Panama; Guatemala City in Guatemala; Managua in Nicaragua; San Salvador in El Salvador; and Tegucigalpa in Honduras.
Car & Motorcycle
The cost of insurance, fuel and border permits makes a car journey significantly more expensive than buying an airline ticket. To enter Costa Rica by car, you’ll need the following items:
- valid registration and proof of ownership
- valid driver’s license or International Driving Permit
- valid license plates
- recent inspection certificate
- multiple photocopies of all these documents in case the originals get lost.
Before departing, check that the following elements are present and in working order:
- blinkers and head- and taillights
- spare tire
- jerrycan for extra gas (petrol)
- well-stocked toolbox including parts, such as belts, that are harder to find in Central America
- emergency flares and roadside triangles.
Insurance from foreign countries isn’t recognized in Costa Rica, so you’ll have to buy a policy locally. At the border it will cost about US$12 to US$36 a month. In addition, you’ll have to pay a fumigation fee of about US$5. If you have an accident you must leave your car where the accident occurred and call the police or your insurance will be invalid.
You are not allowed to sell the car in Costa Rica. If you need to leave the country without the car, it must be left in a customs warehouse in San José.