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Costa Rica to Panama Border Crossing

Written by Jessica on June 11, 2012

Costa Rica and Panama Flags

This article is part of our Border Crossing Report series.

Border Name: Paso Canoas
Closest Major Cities: Ciudad Neily, Costa Rica and David, Panama
Cost for Visas: $1 per person for Panama entry
Cost for Vehicle: $15 for insurance, $1.60 for copies
Total Time: 1.25 hours
Date Crossed: Monday May 28, 2012

The Steps

  1. Park next to the Costa Rican immigration office (it’s on the left side of the road when driving towards Panama).
  2. Go to the Salida window, fill out your exit card and hand over the exit form with your passport. The official will stamp and return your passport.
  3. Go around the back of the immigration building to the Aduana office.
  4. Explain that you want to cancel your temporary permit and you will be given a simple form to fill out.
  5. Fill out the form and hand it with the original permit papers and the driver’s passport to the official. He or she will want to go to your car to verify the VIN number.
  6. Back at the office, the official will cancel the permit, keep the original, and return to you the form you filled out with a stamp on it. This is your proof of cancellation.
  7. Get back in your car and drive to the Panama side. Note: If you need to change money, do it at the BCR bank in no-mans-land before you get to Panama. No other banks around will change colones.
  8. Drive under the right side of the dirty white covered building. You can park next to the curb on the left.
  9. Go to the furthest end of the building and you will see the windows for immigration entrada. If the line is short, go here first.
  10. Someone will approach you and ask for you passports, he or she will put a small sticker on a page in your passport. Cost is $1 per sticker. You can pay in colones but the exchange rate is not good.
  11. Give the official behind the window your passports. She/he will type in some stuff, take your photo, stamp and return your passport.
  12. Next, walk across the street to the insurance office. Hand over the vehicle title and drivers passport, a copy of both and $15. You’ll be issued two identical pieces of paper. One will be kept by aduana, the other is for you.
  13. Go back across the street and up the stairs to the Transito office. Hand over your insurance paperwork and the drivers passport. They will stamp the insurance papers and return them.
  14. Go back down stairs to the aduana window. The sign on the window actually reads “Captura y Manifesto”. You should see a piece of paper taped to the window that says “Turismo”, that’s the right line.
  15. The official will need your title, driver’s passport, a copy of both, and the two insurance papers. The official will enter a bunch of stuff in the computer and will return originals and one copy of the insurance. Also they will give you a vehicle import permit.
    NOTE: If you plan to ship your car to Columbia, triple check that EVERYTHING on your permit is correct. Especially that your VIN number is listed for both your chassis and engine number, and that your vehicle type is correct.
  16. Take your new permit to the random official guy with a clipboard who loiters outside the aduana window. (Don’t worry, he’ll probably find you.) He’ll inspect your car and verify the VIN number. He will also stamp your permit.
  17. Head out of the border area, make sure to drive through the fumigation area.
  18. In about 1 km you will be stopped at a military post and will have to show your permit, insurance and passports for everyone in the car.
  19. That’s all. Enjoy the four-lane highway and cheap beer.

Our Experience

We left our hotel in Puerto Jimenez around 8am and arrived at the border at 10 am. The Costa Rican side took all of 15 minutes. We parked right outside of immigration and went to the salida (exit) window.

Parking at the Costa Rica border

There were quite a few people in line and we noticed they all had exit forms. Kobus went to a vacant window and asked the official for the exit forms. They promptly handed over three for us to fill out.

Back in line we filled out the forms, then handed our passports and the forms to the official. She swiped the passports, stamped them and kept the exit form. Done.

Around the corner we found the aduana (customs) office easily. The official gave Kobus a piece of paper to fill out. It essentially asked for your name, vehicle numbers and if you intended to come back to Costa Rica in the next 3 months. We turned the vehicle permit and this new paper back to the official who then asked to see our car.

Costa Rica border Aduana office

We led him outside where he checked our VIN number and then went back to the office. He entered some things in the computer, then handed us back the form we filled out with a stamp on it. That’s it, “nada mas”.

The Panama offices are equally as easy to spot. The only thing worth mentioning is that if you need to change money go to the BCR bank on the left side of the road between the Costa Rica and Panama immigration centers. They give better rates than the booths on the street. We didn’t take the time to change money at the border and almost ended up going to the Panama airport because no one wanted to change our colones to dollars.

On the Panama side, things were suspiciously quiet. We counted our blessings and parked against the curb, just near the migracion windows.

Panama immigration and customs building

We went to the entrada window, and just as we were about to hand over our passports a lady approached us and asked to see them. She gave us each a sticker in our passports and asked for $1 each. We paid in colones and the cost was C$1650.

Next we gave our passports over to the official, dreading what they were going to do with a South African passport. Reports were unclear if Kobus needed a visa or not. Consulate said no, the official Panama website said yes. Thankfully the official stamped our passports, took our photos with a digital camera and handed everything back. No fees, no hassle.

The lady who sold us the stickers was nice enough to explain the vehicle import process as well. First she sent us across the street to by insurance. There is only one small place to do this, and yes, it is obligatory. The cost was $15 plus photocopies of the title and drivers passport. We went ahead and made a few extra copies since we were running out.

Panama vehicle insurance office

Insurance papers in hand, our sticker lady friend pointed up the stairs and told us to go to the transito office. Ok lady, you’re the boss. Up the spiral staircase and into the transit office, we handed over the insurance papers and the driver’s passport. Stamp. Stamp. They return the papers and the passport.

Back downstairs we head to the window marked “aduana”. They send us back to the other side of the building to the “other” aduana window. This window said in blue letters “Captura y Manifesto”. We saw a taped up sign that said “turismo”. Sweet, that’s us. We waited a few minutes until an official showed up. He took the driver’s passport, title, insurance papers, and copies of both the title and drivers passport.

Panama audana customs for vehicle import

Panama Aduana Logo We waited there for about 20 minutes while he typed away. Then he returned to the window and handed us back all the originals and one copy of the insurance. Also he asked for Kobus’ signature on several copies of the permit, one of which he gave to us. The official told us to go talk to the man in the black shirt.

Customs official inspects our carWe found an official looking guy milling around the area who had a black shirt with the Panama Aduana logo on it. We handed him our permit and he asked to see the car. We walked over, showed him the VIN and opened the trunk. He made some joke about our half drunk bottles of Costa Rican guaro, then stamped our papers and said “Adios.”

Back in the car we drove straight ahead through the automatic fumigation area. No one stopped us to ask for a payment, so we didn't bother to look around. About a kilometer to a military checkpoint.

Panama vehicle fumigation area

One official in a military uniform asked to see everyone’s passport. Another official in the typical aduana shirt asked to see our permit. They looked over the documents, handed everything back and sent us on our merry way.

Now for the fun part. We drove out to Boquete that day, determined to chill in the fresh mountain air for a few days. Our first stop was David (second largest town in Panama) to buy a new camping stove and change money. Three banks refused to change our money and said the border is the only place to change it. With nearly $200 in colones we thought we were screwed. Oh well, onwards to Boquete.

We arrived in Boquete to a facebook message from our friends Home on the Highway attempting to container ship their car in Panama City. They said that the inspectors refused to issue the exit paperwork because the engine number was not written on their vehicle permit. It simply said N/R. (FYI for most vehicles the engine number, chassis number and VIN number are all the same.) We checked our paperwork. Doh. Same problem.

The next day we headed from Boquete back to the border to have the paperwork fixed. Thankfully all it took was a little explaining and a lot of por favor’s and gracias’s and we had an updated permit with all the right stamps. Also, we walked out to the BCR bank in no-mans-land and successfully changed our pile of colones in dollars. Whew.

Worst part about this border: Triple check your paperwork or you’re going to be coming back.
Best part about this border: 15 minutes to clear the Costa Rican side. Sweet!


Cory Logan
#4 Cory Logan 2013-10-27 16:32
I passed through there yesterday. It was definitely annoying. I've been talking to some people that live near the border and run a hostel, and they informed me of some new regulations as of the last couple months.

1. You need to provide proof that you have $500 to your name. That can be cash, or it can be a bank statement (I just printed one from online and they accepted it), or it would seem you can give them a credit card impression.

2. Proof on onward travel. I didn't run into any issues with this. But I had two people with vehicles tell me that, even if you have a vehicle, you need to provide proof of onward travel in the form of a plane or bus ticket. Of course, this makes no sense, as it would mean leaving your vehicle in the country and therefore breaking a law. Anyway, I came prepared with a ticket from American Airlines on hold. Which is nice, because even though you don't pay for the ticket, they keep it for 24 hours, and when printed, it looks somewhat like a plane ticket. This may not be necessary, but it's nice to have in your pocket in case someone decides to play hard ass.
Patrick & Marijke
#3 Patrick & Marijke 2013-09-27 23:32
We crossed the border today (27 September 2013) and our experience was a little bit different.

1) The parking at the Panama border was quite busy so we had to queue. The line for immigration was very slow. We switched to the line for the truck drivers (which may have annoyed some other tourists, but it worked).
2) We were told to buy insurance after we got the sticker in our passport in Panama. We don't really think it was necessary to do this before you get your passport stamped, but the man selling the sticker insisted.
3) You need to be able to show 500 USD in cash or a bank statement that shows you have this money in your bank account to get your passport stamped in Panama. There is an internet cafe where you can print a statement if you don't have one. Cost 50 cents for internet and 25 cents for a print-out.
4) You need to pay 1 USD for fumigation. You pay at the little booth on the right side of fumigation. The fumigation receipt needs to be stamped by the guy with the clipboard in front of the building
#2 Kobus 2012-09-04 18:37
Hey Clayton,

You are welcome, sorry to hear of the problems on the road but glad you are going with the flow.

Shoot me an email
#1 clayton 2012-09-04 18:33
hello, Just wanted to thank you for your amazing site and blog, it is so helpful to us. I wanted to put as much effort as you have but into ours but have been sick, family has died, all eltronics have failed and decided to just stop fighting the flow and enjoy the ride. Thank you again we are so very great full, and my two mates I am travling with are from South africa and would like to talk to kobus if at ever possable we are curently working on geting the van from panama to equadore via a container.

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