This post is about our border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama but it requires a little back-story to set it up...
When we entered Costa Rica near the end of August, we went through the Immigration line at the airport. The agent didn't say much - she just reviewed our documents, took our picture, stamped our passports, and we were off and running. From all our research, we knew that citizens from the U.S. and Canada get a 90 day tourist visa and you have to leave the country by the end of that 90 days. You can then return and get a new 90 day visa. We knew we would be taking a trip to Panama and we made sure it was scheduled inside that 90 day window.
We planned our trip in mid-November, since our tourist visa would expire a few days before Thanksgiving. About 2 weeks before our planned Panama trip, we were talking with some expats and they mentioned that the Immigration agents don't always give North Americans a 90 days visa. They actually have to write in the number of days on the passport stamp and it can be anything from 1 to 90 days. When I went back to our apartment, I pulled out our passports and was greatly concerned when I found "30" written in our passport stamp. That meant we were into our 2nd month past our legal stay. We were now in the country illegally!
I talked to several expats about this situation, to get their advice. We also researched online to get more information. I called the US Embassy in San Jose, explained our situation, and got their advice as well. The decision we had to make was whether to turn ourselves in, admit our mistake, and get things handled before we headed for Panama or just wait and see what happens at the border. I understood from the US Embassy contact that there is a designated fine of $100 per month, for each month you stay past your visa expiration. That would mean a possible fine of $400 for us - ouch! They also have the discretion to refuse entry back into the country, although the Embassy employee said that was unlikely. Basically, it comes down to the Immigration agent you get and how they are feeling that day. That fact did not provide a great deal of comfort.
We decided we would take our chances at the border and see what happens.
With that background, you can understand that the border crossing was not really a part of the trip we were looking forward to...
Meanwhile, back on the bus, we were getting close to the border. We had been given a couple forms to fill out when we left San Jose and Tina had those ready to go. We really didn't know what to expect at the border - we were just going to follow everyone else.
It was dark when we reached the border crossing. The bus pulled up next to a building and everyone got off. We had a backpack and an "under-seat" sized bag on the bus with us. We decided it would be safer to leave those bags on board, than to carry them around with us in a crowd. The driver would be staying with the bus.
[NOTE: Since we already had some potential legal trouble, I didn't take out my camera or cell phone to take pictures at the border area. There were video cameras everywhere and I didn't know if picture taking was allowed. The pictures shown below are ones I found on the Internet.]
We were pointed in the direction of the building, which had 2 sets of windows: Entrada (entrance) and Salida (exit) - at least we knew that much Spanish. We followed other bus passengers to the Exit windows and got in line. Our Moment of Truth would soon be here. I went first, thinking that if we got busted, maybe Tina could make a run for it (just kidding). I handed my passport to the agent. She looked at it briefly, stamped it, and handed it back. Yay! We assumed the same thing would happen to Tina. Wrong.
The agent scrutinized Tina's passport and started talking to her sternly. I couldn't hear what they were saying, because it was very noisy. I did hear Tina say "90 days." After a couple of minutes of this exchange (I'm sure it seemed an eternity to Tina), Tina left the window and turned to me with tears in her eyes. She was visibly upset. The agent had "laid into" her about overstaying her visa and told her they might not let her (us) back in when we return. It was very unpleasant but if this was all that happened, I figured we got off lucky. A Hispanic man in a shirt with some kind of official logo on it came over to us, seeing that Tina was upset. He said to follow him.
I thought we'd be getting back on the bus but this man was ushering us out into the dark street, pointing toward a lighted building that was maybe a couple hundred yards away. At first, I didn't see anyone else from the bus going this same direction, but the man was very insistent. There were a lot of people walking all over the place, lots of noise and traffic - basically, organized chaos. We hoped this guy was on the level.
He guided us to the other building and pointed us toward another set of windows. Obviously, this is the Panama side of the border crossing. The first office processed us out of CR, this one lets us into Panama. I guess in-between is No Man's Land.
While we were heading for the lines, a woman in an official-looking shirt stopped us and was asking us for money. Our "handler" (the guy who led us to this building) told us this was for the Municipal Tax. The tax was $1 each. I gave her $2 and she put a little stick-on stamp in each of our passports. Whatever...
[NOTE: The U.S. dollar is the official currency of Panama. This makes it much easier to deal with payments and purchases - no conversion required.]
At the Panama Immigration window, we had to show proof that we had at least $500 in financial means and a return ticket out of Panama (our return bus ticket took care of that). We knew about these requirements and had our paperwork ready. The process took just a few minutes and we were admitted to Panama.
By this time, our bus had pulled up to the Panama border building. We thought we were all through with the process - but we were wrong. Once all the bus passengers had their passports processed and were gathered by the bus, the driver opened the luggage compartment and started taking out bags. Each passenger had to claim their bags. Our "handler" led us to a large, nearly-empty room in the building. The room had a table with an official on one side and a long table (probably 20' or so) on the opposite side of the room. The official checked us off the bus passenger list and we were pointed to the table on the other side. We lined up in front of the table and put our suitcases on the table, as the other passengers were doing.
As we waited for everyone else to file in, an official came in and started addressing our group, in Spanish of course. One of the passengers who spoke English pretty well translated that the officials had found an iPhone on the bus and wanted to know who it belonged to. Tina realized it must be hers (it was in her backpack). She told the official it was hers and identified it. Apparently, the border agents use some kind of electronic sensing equipment and they picked up the signal of the phone (and obviously took it out of her backpack). We were told, rather pointedly, that we should keep all our bags with us. Another lesson learned.
The officials did a search of all the bags, then, as a group, we took our luggage back out to the bus. The driver put the bags back in the luggage compartment, we all got back on, and our Ticabus headed into Panama. Wow... The whole process took about an hour - seemed much longer.
It was only about an hour more before the bus reached David - our stop.
So, we made it out of Costa Rica with only a severe scolding. The question remaining was what would happen when we tried to get back in...
Posted by Mark.