Tourists Find 90-day Visas Are Less Frequent

By Andrew Rulseh Kasper - of the A.M. Costa Rica staff


The following article appeared in the January 10 edition of A.M. Costa Rica.  It has been faithfully reproduced in the Boomers Offshore newsletter. 

I felt it important (and necessary) to make some editorial comments regarding this article.  Those comments are noted [ED] and appear in RED.

The ability to continually renew a three-month visa in Costa Rica is a lifeline for many perpetual tourists here. But with official attitudes toward the practice changing and immigration agents granted large amounts of discretionary power, entering the country can be like rolling the dice: A person can land anywhere between zero and 90.

passport stamps

One expat, a business owner in Costa Rica and self-proclaimed perpetual tourist for the last seven years, said on a recent trip out of the country to renew his 90-day visa via Panama, he spent one night across the border and upon re-entry was only granted five days permission to be in Costa Rica. He claimed to have had a bus ticket signifying he would be leaving again within 90 days, a standard requirement made by some border agents, but that he was unsuccessful in trying to persuade three separate border agents to grant him the full 90-day stay.

The man acknowledged that he had overstayed his previous 90-day permission in Costa Rica by a week or so but complained that the decision by the border agents was arbitrary and possibly done out of spite against perpetual tourists like himself. Many other expats, perpetual tourists, have reported similar treatment while others have said they have had little to no problems receiving the maximum 90 days for their North American tourists visas. But most all agree that for years 90 days has been the golden standard. That may not be so anymore.  [ED] The question must be asked, how can the border guards be able to get away with such arbitrary application of the law?  The answer is equally as simple... laws are written to be intentionally ambiguous.  If laws were written to be absolute and required no interpretation, then there would be no doubt and border crossing guards would not have this leeway.  People would know where they stand and the opportunity to bribe border officials would be drastically reduced.

Mario Zamora Cordero is the minister of Seguridad Pública and former director de Dirección General de Migración y Extranjeria. He affirmed that a 90-day stay in the country is not guaranteed. The maximum is 90 days, he said. Agents are trying to close the doors on the type of pseudo-residency many perpetual tourists hold, he said, adding that, for whatever reason expats are living in Costa Rica, whether because of an investment in a business or for work, there is a legal immigration status that exists for them.

“The problem is that people have become accustomed to prolonging their status as tourists,” Zamora said. “What we are trying to do now is normalize the situation.”  [ED] Then please write laws that are clear and require ZERO interpretation!

He claimed the loose practice started years ago when the immigration agency didn't have the capacity to attend to all the people who were coming to the country seeking some sort of residency status. He said now the process is easier, the laws are in English and it does not require any legal assistance to make an appoint with immigration and present documents for the purpose of obtaining an upgraded status. He said most times the steps are easy and simple.   [ED] While this might be true in theory, an experienced and qualified immigration attorney knows all the shortcuts and tricks that are needed to make it through Costa Rica's quagmire of bureaucracy.

But while a perpetual tourist with a passport full of entry and exit stamps for years on end may raise the red flag for officials, other more traditional visitors to the country report that the unpredictable and sometimes arbitrary decisions of immigration officers can make the country a drag to enter. According to an informal survey of several travelers entering the country, the results and requirements varied with each person.

One young man flying to Costa Rica with only a one-way ticket was allowed to enter without problems and never was questioned about his intent to leave by airline employees at his point of departure or immigration officials at the airport. Meanwhile another traveler with only a one-way ticket was told he could not even board the flight leaving out of Chicago without proof he was going to leave Costa Rica within 90 days. He said he had to scramble to purchase a return ticket at the airport.

Another female traveler was allowed to board a plane to Costa Rica with a one-way ticket but was questioned about her departure date upon arrival in Costa Rica. She returned to the airline desk at Juan Santamaría airport and the attendant there printed her a fake airline departure ticket to show to the immigration officials.  [ED] This airport person should be fired. 

 However the fake ticket was only dated 35 days later, and the immigration agent only granted her permission in the country for those 35 days despite her plans to spend more time in the country.   [ED] Then based on the information presented to the Immigration official, they appear to have made the right decision.

A common complaint among those living here as perpetual tourists is that it is difficult to normalize their immigration status without jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Furthermore there may be unforeseen negative affects on the economy with more barriers in place preventing tourists from entering.

Also, expats who have been hassled at border crossings and airports when attempting to re-enter the country have expressed frustration that several undesirable people have been granted permission to enter the country over the past several months.  These include an Englishman who was allowed in despite an INTERPOL alert deeming him dangerous and violent, as well as a mafia boss who freely crossed into the country past officials. The British visitor is a suspect in a brutal murder. The Mafia figure was extradited.  [ED] Even using a highly qualified Immigration attorney, it took us 18 months to gather all our papers, have them approved by several Attorney's of State in multiple jurisdictions then have multiple Costa Rican Consulates validate those various State signatures.  We found that the requirements for applying for various levels of residency were fairly well defined, the application of those requirements varied from Immigration agent to agent.  The best thing I can say about the process is it is CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT.  Whether you decide to "file"your own immigration papers or use the services of an attorney, bring patience and NEVER PAY AN ATTORNEY IN FULL AND IN ADVANCE FOR THEIR SERVICES.  Work out a schedule predicated on deliverable such as... 33% initial deposit; 33% when you receive your folio number and 34% when you are notified that you can return to San Jose and get your Cedula.  Without having some sort of incentive plan for the attorney, you may find yourself just "pissing in the wind!"


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