Tourists find that 90-days visas are less frequent

Entry stamps add up quickly for residents here

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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. 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.

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.

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