Every time I fly in or out of Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) in Costa Rica, the procedure is different and the employees are a little bit stricter. Rapid changes are taking place. Just four years ago, I could show up 30 minutes before a flight and board with drinks and all kinds of liquids, no problem. Just one year ago, my friends could saunter off the plane and through customs without having to know where they were going or what they were doing. They used to play pleasant Latin music over the loud speakers, now they are starting to follow the Western trends of broadcasting possible perils and threat level warnings.

It’s definitely different now.

entering costa rica - aerial view of costa rica's beautiful coast


Entering Costa Rica

I had a friend come to visit me in June, and he was held in the airport and not allowed through customs because he did not know my exact address. Sure, he could have just mumbled something about staying in any one of the big name hotels, but he was tired from a 12-hour flight, and under the impression that everything was pura vida. Not so much.

Customs turned him away and denied him entrance into Costa Rica. My friend forgot to bring my phone number with him, couldn’t find it online, and then resorted to trying to contact me through facebook. After an hour and a half, he finally got through to one of my friends in Costa Rica on facebook, who called my cell phone to let me know he was stuck inside and needed my address. Customs let him through no problem after he gave them the exact address… 200 north of the old bar that’s not there anymore, 100 meters east of the orange tree…

The last time I flew into Costa Rica from EWR (New Jersey), I was prohibited from checking in online. The airline’s message stated I had to show proof of exiting the country to the airport personnel. When I showed up to EWR, I tried to check in at a kiosk, which also denied me. An airport employee then came to assist, swiped her card to grant me permission to check-in, but never asked for my ticket out of the country. I had a ticket out, but never had to show it.

On the other hand, I was coming back into the country through the Nicaraguan border back in April during Semana Santa and despite there being 500 people in line behind me, the border guard insisted I show proof of exiting Costa Rica before I entered. It didn’t matter that I had four years of stamps in and out of the country, none of them EVER going over 90 days. I showed him my Tica bus ticket for the trip I was currently on and, miraculously, he let me through, although not without a scowl.

A couple years ago I was re-entering Costa Rica on foot through the Panamanian border at Sixaola. There were backpackers in front of and behind me. They were all stopped and denied entrance because they didn’t have exit tickets. I was admitted without an exit ticket and without question.

exiting costa rica - security checkpoint in costa rica airport

I know expats here who get stopped and interrogated every time they re-enter the country. I know expats who have never been stopped. It all depends on the border guard, but based on recent trends I think it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The problem is there are hordes of innocent tourists, volunteers, and temporary residents, including me, who want to travel and live short term in Costa Rica and they do not know the exact date they are leaving. It’s not that anyone is trying to rip off the government or trick someone; we just don’t know the exact date!

My solution is simple.

Buy a refundable ticket before entering the country. You can put a $1000 fully refundable ticket back to your country on a credit card, then cancel it as soon as you get the chance while in Costa Rica and it should be refunded within your card’s grace period so no worries. OR buy a 24-hour grace period ticket that allows you to cancel it without penalty within 24 hours of purchase. As long as you follow the law that says you have to leave every 90 days, it’s all good.

Bus tickets outside of Costa Rica are like 30 – 40 dollars, and change fees on airline tickets are like $150, so why waste that money if you are like me and can use it to buy cervezas or a day at the hot springs spa?

Requirements for entering Costa Rica

  • A valid passport, with an expiration date outside of 6 months from the date of entry
  • A ticket that has you exiting the country within 90 days of entering the country

Exiting Costa Rica

I can’t believe this has become a pain. I used to love going to the airport, being surrounded by the nice Latin music and calm security guards. Now, each time I go through security, they search deeper and deeper. Here are some things to keep in mind when exiting Costa Rica:

  • You have to pay a $28 airport departure tax (exit fee). This can be done at the airport, or at Banco de Costa Rica on the day of or before departure. You are supposed to be able to pay it online, but this just looks like more hassle because you still have to pick up a receipt, so my advice is just don’t do it online. If you pay it the day of, give yourself extra time in case the line is long. The departure tax kiosk in the SJO airport is inside to the right. Pay with cash, Visa, or Mastercard, but beware that it’s a cash withdrawal (debit) so you might get stuck with charges from the credit card company. This particular tax is not required at the border crossings into Nicaragua or Panama, only at the airports.
  • At the airport, there are 2 security checkpoints, not just one. The first one looks like all the others around the world. You check in, then stand in a line to go through the metal detector and x-ray machine. You have to take your belt, jacket, and shoes off. You have to take your laptop out. Etc. etc. etc. But they don’t check for liquid. However, the 2nd checkpoint is alllll about some liquid. This happens in the breezeway as you are boarding the plane. You and your bags get searched thoroughly by hand and if you have liquid, it better be small and in a plastic bag. They will take it if it is not. This SUCKS for those of us who like to take a bottle of water onto a dehydrating flight, but it’s their law and procedure, so we have to deal with it. Hmmm, I think I should also note here that this is where the racial profiling takes place. If you look slightly Middle Eastern, you will be taken out of line and practically strip searched. At least, this is what I have noticed only on the times I’ve flown. It’s not like I’ve sat down and done any formal research on the matter.

costa rica exit requirements - bags in bins at security checkpoint in airport


Wow. I thought I was going to write some quick tips about entering and exiting Costa Rica, but I totally got carried away with four years of pent up frustration at the trending change towards Westernized paranoia. I miss my pura vida airport workers. Lucky for me, I’m going through the process to get a work visa, so I don’t have to deal with this crap anymore. …Although, I guess we should all be incredibly grateful that we have options and it’s not completely screwed like the process foreigners go through just to enter the United States… yet.