Visiting a border crossing station can be intimidating. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when confronted with immigration formalities, customs officers, other travelers, the uncertainty of whether you’re following protocol, border closings, or maybe even a scam. In less developed countries, you may be told you’re “good to go” by the officials on one side, only to discover that you’ve incurred a “fine” (i.e. a bribe is required) on the other.
Luckily, when crossing the Panama-Costa Rica border, you’ve got nothing to worry about as long as you know what to expect. To better prepare you for your border crossing experience, we’ve consulted travel guides, read top travel blogs, and filled in the blanks with the help of expert expats and members of the travel community.
What You’ll Need
If you’re planning to cross the Panama-Costa Rica border, make sure you’ve got your passport, a tourist card ($5), a return bus ticket or proper documentation for using your own vehicle, and proof of economic solvency. In fulfilling this last requirement, Vicki Lansen, a US expatriate and traveler in Central and Latin America, advocates the use of credit cards rather than cash. While there is no fee to enter either country, you’ll need to get your visa stamped with Panama’s exit visa to cross into Costa Rica. Officials on both the Costa Rican and Panamanian sides will examine your passport closely to ensure that you haven’t overstayed your visit.
Bringing a car over the border involves some additional preparation. Miriam Butterman, author of Moon’s Living Abroad in Panama, recalls a road trip to Costa Rica: “I drove over the border from the Panamanian side using my own car. There was a lot of paperwork involved,” she admits. “I had to fill out several forms before I was allowed to cross the border. I also had to meet with a customs officer [prior to my trip]. It took [the customs officers] about a week [to process my paperwork]. Filling out all the paperwork was time consuming. But all in all, the process was pretty straightforward, and everything went smoothly enough.”
The requirements for border-crossing are clearly defined, but the actual enforcement may vary depending on the time, day, the official, and that individual’s own caprice. It’s always best to be prepared in case you meet Captain Vigilance on a moody Monday.
How to Travel
You can either cross the border by bus or use your own car, but unfortunately it’s illegal to drive a rental car over the Panama-Costa Rica border. And you can’t leave a vehicle behind in Panama without first obtaining the proper documentation for it. This involves getting a stamp on your passport to prove that you’ve paid the importation taxes.
If you’re planning to drive your own vehicle over the border, copycat Butterman and take care of the paperwork beforehand to ensure a hassle-free transit. Be ready with your vehicle registration, proof of ownership, and driver’s license or International Driving Permit. Also, make sure your vehicle has valid license plates. Butterman adds, “I had to have my car inspected – I sent it in to a professional to take a look at the motor.” Inspections are not a requirement, but a certificate of recent inspection can help you cruise through your border crossing without a hitch. Make sure your car has working headlights, taillights, and blinkers, a spare tire, gas can, flares, fire extinguisher, and a toolbox with replacement parts that are hard to find in Central America (ex: belts). All good things to have handy, even if you’re not doing any border-crossing.
If you don’t wish to drive, public transportation is a popular and convenient option, whether you’re visiting Panama from Costa Rica or vice versa. Butterman reassures: “Panama’s buses are safe and inexpensive, and they’re easy to use.”
Where to Cross
Three crossing stations serve to accommodate Panama-Costa Rica travelers:
Paso Canoas on the Pacific side
One of the busiest border crossings in Central America, and potentially the most confusing – you can easily drive over the border without realizing it (not scary, just illegal). On the Costa Rica side, you’ll find a bustling town full of shops and restaurants, whereas the Panama side is little more than a few border crossing offices that look much the same as the other buildings nearby. Non-Spanish speaking travelers crossing at Paso Canoas might benefit from the aid of a tramitator (helper). With proper preparations, the entire process should only take about 45 minutes.
Rio Sereno on the Pacific side
In contrast to Paso Canoas, this border crossing station is low on traffic and high on diligence. Lansen describes Rio Sereno as “the best, cleanest, and friendliest crossing of the three.” If your gadgets are low on juice, rest a moment in the gazebo in Rio Sereno’s central park, where you’ll find free wi-fi and electrical outlets, although you may have to compete with schoolchildren to for a chance to plug in.
You won’t need your tourist card when crossing at Rio Sereno. You will, however, need to provide a copy of your passport’s face page – not a law, but you won’t get very far by refusing to comply. Officials with little better to do than conduct thorough vehicle and baggage inspections may come off as overzealous; failure to present proof of insurance on a privately-owned vehicle could result in an unplanned trip to Paso Canoas. However, if your documents are in order, you should enjoy a swift 30-minute crossing at Rio Sereno.
Sixaola/Guabito on the Atlantic (Caribbean) side
You’ll find this off-the-beaten-path option to be fairly relaxed and straightforward. At Sixaola/Guabito, adventure travelers get the added bonus of walking over wooden planks of the former railroad bridge that takes you between Panama and Costa Rica.
When to Go
Paso Canoas is open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Costa Rica side) or 11 p.m. (Panama side) every day. For a busy border crossing station like this one, it is recommended you time your arrival for noon or later – early morning border crossings take longer due to commercial truck traffic. Rio Sereno and Sixaola/Guabito border crossing stations are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Lunchtime closings at Rio Sereno (noon to 1 p.m. Panama time) give you an opportunity to pick up a few necessary items, do some shopping, or grab a bite yourself at an open-air restaurant on the Panama side of this border crossing station.
This insider info should help you have a safe, straightforward, and simple border crossing. Still have questions? Leave us a comment! Or feel free to share your own border crossing experiences!
More on Miriam Butterman
Miriam Butterman is a teacher, freelance writer, and the author of Moon’s Living Abroad in Panama. Butterman initially traveled to Panama City in 2000 for a two-year teaching position, but she soon fell in love with the slow pace and lush surroundings. Once her teaching contract ended, Butterman decided to remain in Panama on her own terms, establishing residency and continuing to live and write in Panama City until her return to New York City last year.