For the majority of expats and visitors that stay long term in Costa Rica, getting official residency is something that’s not worth the time, money or hassle. That means “living” there as a tourist, not a permanent resident or citizen. That's altogether doable, but it entails a lot of juggling to accommodate the visa situation.
When researching visas and staying in Costa Rica, you’ll notice there is a large gap between fact, rumor, and the blurred lines of what occurs down there every day. For that reason, I suggest doing your research online and from official sources but also, talking to some expats and people who have lived in Costa Rica a while to get insider information.
First, the official word on U.S. citizens getting visas in Costa Rica from the U.S. embassy and its travel site:
This is no longer automatic that the customs worker at the airport or border will give you the full 90 days. In fact, they have been known to ask you how long you are staying for your vacation (it is a tourist visa) and then give you only 10, 15 days, etc. just to cover that period. This is because Costa Rica is trying to stem the prevalence of “perpetual tourists.”
• Americans and Canadians do not need to acquire a visa to enter - you can stay for 90 days as a tourist.
• However, you must have a valid U.S. passport
• Your passport must be valid through the length of your stay (not just upon arrival)
Most countries are now instituting internal measures that mandate visitor passports must be valid for at least six months after the date of departure from the country. That means even if your U.S. passport is good for a few months after you arrive in Costa Rica, you will likely be turned away.
• Make sure your passport is in good physical condition – they will not honor if it is too damaged
• You must present a round trip ticket or proof of travel to another country upon entry
• Immigration is allowed but not required to allow residency/travel within the country for up to 90 days
• If you overstay your visa, you will be charged a fine of up to $100 USD for every month you overstay
• Most schools will help you acquire a student visa if you are studying abroad
• Any airline is allowed to require you to present proof of $100 monthly income for the time you remain in Costa Rica
• Most countries (North America, Europe) require a renewal of a tourist visa every 90 days (some Central American countries require renewal every 30 days)
So with only a 90-day visa, how do most travelers and expats stay long term in Costa Rica?
That’s where “border runs” come into play, or as they’re often casually referred to, “the border shuffle.”
U.S. citizens, Canadians, and other foreigners staying on tourist visas usually just head overland to the neighboring border of Nicaragua to the north or Panama to the south. There, they can cross the border, wait a little bit (usually just long enough to get lunch and a beer before getting back in the long line!) and come right back into Costa Rica, renewing their visa for another 90 days.
Of course, once you enter Nicaragua or Panama you’re welcome to stay and visit for as long as you want, or other travelers have the resources to fly out of Costa Rica to a different country for a vacation.
But make no mistake, this system of crossing the border and then coming right back into Costa Rica is discouraged by Tico authorities. Although the “border shuffle” is inconvenient, time-consuming, and pretty sweaty, it usually goes without a hitch IF you are careful and know what you’re doing.
But there could be more stipulations based on Costa Rican visa requirements:
• According to the Migración y Extranjería, (the Costa Rican immigration department), there is technically no minimum period of time that you have to remain outside the country before reentering
• However, there are plenty of stories from expats about having been solicited for a bribe, denied entry if they do not meet the 90 day requirement, or they try to reenter the country the same day
• Immigrant officials are being more strict with enforcing higher fines for expats
• New laws state that you cannot renew a tourist visa by traveling to the same country twice. (a.k.a. you cannot go to Nicaragua twice in a row, you will have to go to Nicaragua then to Panama after another 90 days.) After two border runs, tourists will have to leave Costa Rica for a minimum of 15 days in order to renew a tourist visa again
• But instead of traveling to another country to renew a tourist visa, a foreigner can go to any immigration location and renew another 90 days for $100. Offices have recently been in San José, but will soon be available at international airports, border posts, ports, marinas and other locations.”
• Tourists are not allowed to work in Costa Rica, but many do so illegally. This puts you at risk of being deported! (We’ll cover a lot more about working later on.)
But there are plenty of foreigners getting scammed, robbed, and paying unnecessarily at the borders. Touts and pickpockets abound, but there are also poor but honest workers willing to carry your bags or expedite paperwork.
I recommend going along with another expat or foreigner that knows the lay of the land and has done border runs before, or sometimes social clubs, community groups, or even bars organize border runs where they provide comfortable transportation.
If you want a real life account of the chaos and confusion at the Las Penas border crossing in northwestern Costa Rica (about 2 hours from the main city of Liberia in Guanacaste,) check out this article I wrote for the Huffington Post:
The Border You’ve Never Heard About: http://ow.ly/lO158