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By Karl Kahler
A little-noted new law makes it possible for foreigners visiting Costa Rica to obtain visas of 180 days — six months! — doubling the 90-day period that was previously allowed.
“From now on, according to the immigration office, they will give people 180 days instead of 90,” said Marcela Gurdian, a top immigration attorney based in Playas del Coco. “That’s starting today, so it means anyone coming to Costa Rica will be able to stay for six months without doing the border run.”
This development will be happy news for expats and “perpetual tourists” living in Costa Rica without residency. They’ve always been required to leave the country every three months just to get their visas renewed. Now they’ll need to make that border run only twice a year instead of four times.
The new law applies to people from countries that are currently not required to obtain a visa before they can travel to Costa Rica. This includes the United States, Canada, most European countries and several others. A list of eligible countries can be found here under “For stays of 90 days.” It’s a long list that looks like this:
These are most of the “visa-exempt” countries affected by Costa Rica’s new 180-day visa law.
In case you already entered Costa on a 90-day visa and you’re hoping to extend that to 180, Gurdian says that will not be possible. She says the law went into effect today, Friday, Sept. 8.
“For people who are entering the country starting today, they will have to show an exit ticket for 180 days. And it is up to the immigration officer, but what is important about this new law is that they want the 180 to be normal, not the 90 days.”
Under longtime Costa Rican law, anyone who enters the country on a tourist visa needs to show an exit ticket, proving they’ve booked a flight to leave the country within 90 days. (If traveling by land, a bus ticket is also sufficient.)
Costa Rican visa stamps are marked “E” for “entrada” (entry) and “S” for “salida” (exit). This 2019 passport page shows entry stamps with the handwritten “90,” indicating the maximum number of days that tourists were previously allowed to stay.
Airline ticket agents in foreign countries are required to verify that Costa Rica travelers have a 90-day exit ticket, because otherwise they can’t enter Costa Rica legally. If new rules suddenly double these 90 days to 180, will all the airports in the world get the memo?
The new regulations will surely be tested soon by the hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists who fly into Costa Rica every month. Costa Rica currently welcomes about 2 million visitors a year by air, down from a pre-pandemic high of 3 million.
No break for drivers
Unfortunately, the new law does not change the rules about driving in Costa Rica with a foreign driver’s license. Foreigners are allowed to drive for a maximum of 90 days, and then they must leave the country to renew their visa.
Foreign licenses “are valid for only 90 days,” Gurdian said, “because the law specifies only 90 days.”
If you’re stopped by the police, they’ll want to see your foreign driver’s license and your passport, and they’ll check the date of your last entry visa.
If it’s more than 90 days old, you’re driving illegally. Police can take away your license plates, and to get them back you’ll need to go to the border to get a new visa, in addition to paying potentially heavy fines.
So if you own a vehicle in Costa Rica and want to drive it legally, the new 180-day visa will probably not affect you in any way. Sorry to report that you’ll still have to make that border run every 90 days.
Digital nomads take note
Gurdian noted that this new law will make the new “digital nomad” visa less popular. The digital nomad visa allows remote workers to stay in Costa Rica for a year without making a border run every three months. But now that those people can make just one border run every six months, there’s not so much incentive to apply for this special visa, which requires proof of at least $3,000 in monthly income.
“My personal opinion, I think it’s good because people will be able to stay longer,” Gurdian said. “But the digital nomad visa, I guess nobody will apply for the digital nomad because what will be the point? If they can stay for six months, they will go out and then they will have another six months.”
In fact, she said, probably fewer people will apply for permanent residency either. One of the biggest advantages of applying for residency is that once your application has been accepted (even if not yet approved), you’re given a document called an expediente that exempts you from border runs. But these border runs will be much less onerous if you have to make only two a year instead of four.
“And maybe some people, they won’t even apply for residency because they will be able to stay here six months,” she said. “Some people stay in Costa Rica six months and the other six months they are in their country. But if they have investments in Costa Rica, I will always recommend applying for residency because these people want to make sure they will be able to enter Costa Rica no matter what.”
La Gaceta is an official publication that prints the text of new legislation approved by the Costa Rican government.
The key clause in the new law, published in the official La Gaceta on Aug. 31, translates as follows (emphasis added):
“1. In the first group will be those countries whose nationals can enter the country without need of a visa. The maximum period for legal stays for foreigners whose nationalities are within this group will be determined by the official of the General Directorate authorized to approve entry into the country, which in no case may be greater than one hundred eighty natural days from their entry.”
Almost no news about this development has been published yet in Costa Rican media, English or Spanish, and most people are still unaware of it. Yet for long-term visitors or foreigners living here on tourist visas, cutting those dreaded border runs in half will be cause for celebration.