Immigration Update for Expats and Tourists in Costa Rica: Visa vs Legal Residency

By Laura Gutierrez of Immigration Help Costa Rica

Due to COVID, rules and procedures continue to change and evolve regarding travel and how one remains legally in Costa Rica.

For tourists and those of you preparing for or waiting to have your applications for legal residency submitted (by appointment) or for those of you awaiting approval on submitted applications, the dreaded border runs are still required. Based on the many emails I receive weekly from clients and those thinking of pursuing a legal residency, an update about visas and maintaining their validity is necessary.

There is also confusion for some between the term “visa” and “legal residency.”

Entry Visa

Anyone with a valid passport from “Group One” Countries such as the U.S., Canada, or EU and several other countries entered Costa Rica before COVID were automatically granted
a non-renewable 90-day VISA stamp on their passport. It allows you to stay and drive legally (with a valid foreign license) in Costa Rica for the duration of those 90 days. (If unsure which of the three-country groups you belong to, please get in touch with your nearest Costa Rica Embassy or Consulate.)

Legal Residency

Unlike a visa, legal residency is something you apply for, and it involves a particular process that ends in the applicant holding a DIMEX card. (Also referred to as a residency card or cedula.) Therefore, when inquiring about living in Costa Rica permanently and legally, please know that you are talking about residency – not a visa. Big difference.

Keeping your visa valid

Post-COVID, entry visa requirements have been modified several times and left many confused about the difference in entry rules.

If you can provide proof of complete vaccination with either the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, you are no longer required to purchase COVID insurance coverage for your stay in Costa Rica. For U.S. citizens, the “COVID-19 Vaccination Record” will be accepted.

If you are still unvaccinated, you will still need to purchase COVID insurance coverage. Please visit the Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT) English-language website detailing these entry requirements for more details: https://www.visitcostarica.com/en/costa-rica/planning-your-trip/entry-requirements

The visa stamp is limited to the number of days of COVID insurance you purchased for the unvaccinated. IE: If you purchased only 30 days of insurance, your visa stamp would be for 30 days – not 90. You will have to leave Costa Rica by day 30.

Whether vaccinated or not, all visitors entering Costa Rica will still be required to flash the Health Pass QR code ( online Health Pass ) on their cell phones or show the paper record to customs officials.

Visa Stamp Updates

Once the days allotted to you on your last entry stamp into Costa Rica have expired, you must leave the country and then return. Upon your return, you are issued a fresh visa stamp, and on that stamp will be written the number of visa days based on the conditions mentioned above.

A valid, non-expired visa will be required for specific numbers of you having your applications for residency submitted digitally or in person.

For many readers, this will entail a border run to either Panama or Nicaragua (or a flight to Mexico where entry requirements are less stringent than the U.S. or insane Canada.) In the past, the trip into Panama or Nicaragua usually involved a 60-90 minute U-turn back into Costa Rica. Things have become hostile in Panama. Unless you are prepared to stay in Panama for up to three days, love the idea of quarantine in a pricey hotel, etc., avoid any border runs there.

On the other hand, I have received favorable first-hand accounts from clients about runs to Nicaragua. There have been some instances of over-charging or border staff “forgetting” to return the proper change. If it happens, consider it arbitrary tipping. Arguing with the guy with the gun and passport stamp for the sake of frugality is not a good strategy. Remember, these people have dull, underpaid jobs and endure much nonsense with many who walk up to them. Maintaining a good mood is a tremendous challenge for any staffer. It is best to lower your expectations but still lead with a smile, and good deportment.

These border runs can also cause significant concern for some in fear of contracting COVID at the border in those crowded conditions. You might also inquire about hitching a ride of border runs by bus tours. Ask around and find them. The driver will be experienced at the border and help you through the process safely. As for keeping free of COVID, common sense and following mandated protocols will keep you perfectly safe. Keep the alcohol gel close at hand because 90% of COVID is spread by touch.

Please do not procrastinate when it comes to keeping your visas up to date. Visas are a non-negotiable requirement if you wish to avoid deportation or a smooth residency application submission.

One thing to pay extremely close attention to (triple check) is those visa stamps on both sides of the border. One person emailed me recently about a Costa Rican border guard who forgot to put the return entry stamp on his passport. When he pointed it out, the staffer argued the point until asked to show exactly where the stamp was placed on the passport. The embarrassed guard could not find the stamp and quickly complied.

As an aside, mistakes like this are also occurring on required government fee payments receipts at BCR bank branches. In any instance where you are in a transaction involving stamps or receipts, you must now be very vigilant that the content is accurate. Your name must be
spelled out precisely as it appears on your passport. Do not sign any receipt if there is even the slightest error.

I will go into more detail about this issue in my next article.

If you are in need of immigration assistance Laura can be reached by clicking here, Toll-free at 1-833-733-6337, Locally at or by sending an email to [email protected]

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