Below are instructions for a smooth transition at the Costa Rica – Panama border crossing in the town of Paso Canoas, near David, Panama. If you are crossing at a different border, the process will be the same, but the buildings will be different.
You are not allowed to drive rental cars across the border from one country to the other in Central America. But you can call a rental car office in David and ask them if they will meet you at the border with the car for an additional fee. (Approximately $40-$50 more, but the price is what you negotiate.)
If you are on a tour bus, they will help you with this process. If you will be on foot, you can use these same steps, just skip the steps pertaining to a car.
If you are planning to take a car to Panama from Costa Rica, there are several steps you need to complete ahead of time.
Before you go you will need:
- A permit to enter Panama. (This exit visa can be obtained at the National Registry or Registo Nacional. There are several offices throughout Costa Rica. The validation is for 15 days, I believe you can pay more and get a 30 day validation. There is a fee involved to get the exit car visa, but it depends on your length of stay and I believe type of vehicle.)
- INS insurance certificate
- RTV papers
- Driver’s License
- Title of the Vehicle
Once you have all the above paperwork, take a photo of it with your cell phone so you have a copy of it with you in the event that any papers get misplaced. Maybe email a copy to yourself in case your phone gets lost.
(Panama requires temporary insurance and fumigation tax that you pay for at the border.)
Steps to cross Panama border
Warning: This process takes approximately 1 to 4 hours once you have arrived at the border.
Costa Rica side:
1. Dive to Directorate General of Immigration and Nationality, Puntarenas Province, (Paso Canoas). It is a blue and white metal building.
2. Pay the exit tax or departure tax (impuesto salida) in yellow building across the 4 lane street from the Immigration office. (The sign on the top of the building just says impuestos.). I believe it is $7 US per passport or per person.
3. Get passports stamped at outside window of immigration office (the blue/white metal building). Go to the window that says Salidas (exit). They need to see everyone in your family/travel companions.
4. If you have a vehicle, walk past bathrooms on left, go in gated office to the left, fill out form. They need to see all paperwork associated with your car.
5. MAKE SURE YOU GET ALL YOUR VEHICLE PAPERWORK AND IDs BACK.
Drive towards Panama. Park to the right of the new-ish modern building in front of you at the intersection.
Park to the right of the Panama building. The minute you step out of your car, someone official looking with an ID tag will probably approach you to help. They are not actually official. They will be expecting to be compensated. Go ahead and negotiate a rate. It should be $10 to $20. You do not have to hire this person, but if they speak English or whatever language you speak, it is worth every penny for them to help facilitate the process.
1. If you are facing Panama, standing by the Panama immigration building, on your right you will see “Seguro de Automovil” – here they need to see all passports of drivers and make copies of your paperwork and IDs. There are ads all over the buildings, but you are looking for the sign that says “Seguros de Automovil.” Pay $26 for additional Panama insurance (mandatory), plus $1 fumigation tax to take your car into the country.
2. Go to Migracion (Immigration) office. It is the first floor of the “new” Panama building. Get passports stamped and fingerprinted. When I was there, these outside windows were closed, so go in the door on the left in the photo below.
3. Next, walk towards Panama, past the circled staircase building to “Aduanas Panama” (customs) Panama – show all your paperwork.
4. They will give you a customs form, stay in line and fill it out. You will need to give it to an agent later. Stand at Aduanas window while they go through all your paperwork, and go make coffee, and talk to their friends and call their mom.
5. MAKE SURE YOU GET ALL YOUR VEHICLE PAPERWORK AND IDENTIFICATION BACK.
6. An outside agent will sign off on your form. They may ask to see all your luggage and you will have to get it out of the car and show it to them.
7. Now drive through fumigation. (Honestly, I’m pretty sure this was just water, but whatever, drive through it, it’s a 30 second car wash that you paid a $1 for. Now you can drive into Panama with a cleaner car.)
8. You will then be on a 4 lane highway. You are not done yet. There will be a checkpoint within 5 to 10 minutes and they will want to see all your paperwork again.
WELCOME TO PANAMA!
You are now in a time zone one hour ahead of Costa Rica.
In general, get gas and cash before you get anywhere near a border in Central America. The border crossings aren’t in major cities. Then use that cash to buy something inexpensive (water/gum) so you have smaller bills.
Border crossings in Central America are a cash only situation. It is best to have US dollars because it is accepted by Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Each country will only accept their own currency and US dollars. Panama does not want Costa Rican money.
On the Panama side of the border, it appears that at 2:00 pm one shift ends and another begins. You may stand next to an empty window for a while.
$26 insurance & $1 fumigation tax, as of 2019.
Reuben – local man who helped at customs on Panama side.
In my opinion, the best time to cross a border is around 10 or 11 am on a weekday. You should know that this border closes at night. Check the schedule on google maps, but it opens at 7 am and closes at different times depending on the day of the week.
All of the above steps are the same even if you aren’t taking a car into Panama, just walk instead of drive, and the customs office may not be necessary on either side after you get your passport stamped.
There’s a mall with a Burger King just over the border in Panama if you want to shop nearby. A little further walk, there’s a mall with a McDonalds. You can map to both malls.
If you are driving a car to the border, but not taking it across the border into Panama, there is parking past the Costa Rica immigration office in an area called Parqueo Canoas. It is a little over a dollar per hour or 700 colones per hour.
When entering Costa Rica you have to have proof of onward travel (a flight booked departure within 90 days if you aren’t a resident). Allegedly you have to have proof of onward travel when entering Panama as well, but I have never been asked in Panama, but I am always asked when entering Costa Rica.
When parking by the Panama building, park as close as you can to Panama (the country), or closer to the fumigation spray, because otherwise you might get ready to leave and a giant semi truck will be blocking you in. If a custom’s agent is directing you to a parking spot, park where he/she tells you to, unless you want to ask if you can park in a space close to the exit, if you see one available.
Most people we interacted with at the border spoke English or understand Spanglish.
Forgive the quality of the photos above, I was trying to do the entire immigration process with kids and snap quick photos.
RETURNING TO COSTA RICA FROM PANAMA WITH A CAR.
The return into Costa Rica with a Costa Rican car is much easier. You stop at immigration (Migracion) office on the Panama side, get your passports stamped. Someone may want to look at your luggage. Then you drive to the blue/white metal immigration building on the Costa Rica side. Get your passports stamped. This time you go to the outside window that says “Entradas.” They may ask to see your car or your luggage and if you have a lot of stuff, they may ask you to drive around to the back of the building to take everything out and have officials look at it.