How to Cross the Border Between Costa Rica & Nicaragua 11

People boarding bus

We have a habit of crossing the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas/Sapoa. It can be a little confusing and overwhelming, so we came up with a step-by-step detailed guide to help travelers cross the border for their first time, in both directions. You don’t have to remember every step along the way, but at least you’ll know what to expect when the dude takes your passport and stuffs it in a bag with 50 others!

We’ve only taken the bus, but I included a few notes for crossing in a car too. Expect it to be a little tricker getting all the papers you need though!

It’s a fairly safe border, so don’t even worry. Be careful, but not paranoid. Here we go!

Costa Rica to Nicaragua – Crossing the Border

Before leaving the Costa Rica bus terminal, everyone must pay a $8 Costa Rican road tax. This is new, and is supposedly used to maintain the roads to the Nicaraguan border.

Along the way, the bus attendant collects everybody’s passports so he can fill out the immigration papers for each person. I know, we didn’t like it either!! I guess the border agents don’t trust the locals to know how to fill out a form properly… He returns them in a few hours with the paperwork mostly filled out, except for a few things like your destination and signature. They also hand out a health paper that asks if you’ve been sick or had a fever in the past week.

Read more here for tips on filling out the immigration papers.

Car note: If there’s a long line of semi trucks waiting at the border, the bus always passes them in the oncoming lane. They have to wait for their customs paperwork to get cleared once they arrive at the border, so they’re usually just parked in a line on the road.

First stop at the border is the immigration office on the Costa Rican side to get an exit stamp. Everyone must have the road tax receipt. There are good bathrooms for free just past the office, but bring your own TP. Be sure to take your valuables with you from the bus.

Costa Rica Exit Immigration Office, Crossing the Border From Costa Rica to Nicaragua

Scout out your bus again. It should be waiting just past the office.

Walking to the bus

The bus attendant collects everyone’s passports again, another $14 fee from foreigners, and the health paper. Locals only have to pay $1 – who made up that rule? They’ll take US dollars, Colónes, and Córdobas.

You’ll get your passport back after customs, in an hour or so. We were even more nervous about him taking our passport this time! When we first crossed I made a stink about it but the bus attendant said that’s just the way it was and I had to give it to him. Grumble, grumble… It’s just one more thing to keep you on your toes!

Half-way there!

Next stop is at the Nicaraguan immigration and customs area. There’s no building to go in here, only some big rain shelters. Take all your bags with you, especially all your food. Put them on the long tables for the customs people to check. We always try to get at the end of the line so they’re tired by the time they get to us and don’t even look in our bags. Always have someone stay with your bags.

Nicaragua customs check area

You can exchange money and buy phone chips, plátano chips, snacks, and drinks here. Be sure the exchange rate is legit and you get legit bills. The bathrooms are a few minute walk away, and everyone there will point you in the right direction if you say baño.

Fumigating bazookaDuring this process, some dude with a respirator and a funny protective suit will start up a lawnmower-sounding bazooka-looking gun and fumigate the inside of the bus. They say it’s a pesticide for killing the mosquitos on the bus so they aren’t imported into Nicaragua.

I don’t like that. I looked at the machine and it has directions to only fumigate a bus for 4 seconds. 4 seconds? That’s powerful stuff! I usually spray one spider with Raid for more than 4 seconds! My mind always flashes back to what the holocaust must have been like. Needless to say, I’m not the first guy on the bus after that!

Now the waiting begins… It takes forever, but eventually you’ll hear your name pronounced in broken Spanglish. The guy usually waits until the end to mispronounce the foreigners’ names! They should give you a 90 day visa without any problems.

Nicaragua Immigration Official Returning Passports

Nicaragua technically requires an onward travel ticket in order to enter the country, but they rarely enforce it. We have never been asked for a ticket at this border crossing, but always have one since we’re usually returning to Costa Rica.

Car note: There are a few turns to find your way to Nicaragua. As the bus leaves the border, it drives through another fumigation area that sprays the outside with pesticide. Be sure you have your windows rolled up!

Fumigating the bus for mosquitos

Nicaragua to Costa Rica – Crossing the Border

The bus attendant on this side just handed out the Nicaragua immigration paper for us to fill out ourselves. Then, he collected them, along with our passports and a $4 “processing fee” per person, similar to the other side of the border.

Car note: Near the border, there’s usually a long line of semi trucks waiting for their customs papers to clear. Sometimes a half mile of them! The bus always passes them in the oncoming traffic lane.

Car note: There was some gate that was closed on the incoming traffic side, so the bus just went around it on the left, oncoming lane.

Car note: On your way in, turn left just before the tall blue rain shelter.

First border stop is at the Nicaragua immigration area. Hop off the bus with your valuables and wait for the bus people to get a Nicaragua exit stamp on everyone’s passport.

There is food and drinks for sale, and the bathrooms are a few minute walk away. Just snap your fingers if you need someone to exchange money for you.

People selling food at Nicaragua Customs Area

The bus attendant will pass back the passports and everyone rides the bus just 2 minutes to the Costa Rica side. He will pass out the Costa Rican immigration and customs forms on the way, so try to fill those out quickly!

Next border stop is at the Costa Rica immigration office. Get off with all your baggage and go through the Costa Rica entrance immigration office. Ask the officer for a 90 day visa, even if you aren’t planning on being in Costa Rica that long. If your plans change or you end up in the hospital, the last thing you want to worry about is your visa.

Entrance Immigration Line to Cross the Border into Costa Rica

Costa Rica Entrance Immigration Office

They always ask for our “onward travel” ticket to leave the country (Costa Rica) within 90 days. If you don’t have an “onward travel” ticket to leave Costa Rica, you can buy one from Ticabus, TransNica, or others right outside the immigration office. It shouldn’t cost more than $30.

Companies Selling Onward Travel Bus Tickets

The next door is Costa Rica customs where they scan your baggage. You only need one customs form per family. There’s usually not much excitement here.

The bathrooms are on the other side of the building – do a u-turn when you exit customs. Clean and free but BYO-TP. Board the bus & wait for everyone else to finish.

Boarding Bus, Crossing the Border From Nicaragua to Costa Rica

Car note: The bus had one more stop at a little booth with a gate. The driver gave a paper to the attendant and we were on our way.

Ask driver or the attendant to let you off the bus early if you don’t want to go all the way into San Jose.

No more excitement for awhile – time to go back to sleep on the bus :)

Car note: There were 2 police checkpoints along the road before Liberia – little buildings on the side of the road with police. The bus driver took care of everything, but it looked like a simple hi-and-bye check.

A Few Things to Remember

  • Take a mental note of a few people on your bus so you can follow them through the lines and back to your bus. Also, remember a few numbers from a sticker on your bus or from its license plate.
  • Always be looking at or touching your bags. Everyone we’ve seen here is nice, but sometimes they just have sticky fingers…

Customs Check Tables, to Cross the Border into Nicaragua

  • It’s a good idea to change a little bit of money ($20-$50) at the border so you can buy things when you arrive on the bus, but you don’t need to exchange everything. It’s very out in the open, so keep your Benjamin’s hidden! Ask around for a good exchange rate, and be sure to check the bills you get.
  • It’s stressful when everyone selling something comes and asks if you want to buy a Coke or change money at the same time! Don’t let them get in your head. Just look them in the eye and say No, gracias, and they’ll leave you alone.

Lady selling food by bus

Good luck on your adventure to cross the border with Costa Rica and Nicaragua! Relax and follow the crowds. It’s easy!

Leave a comment below if you’ve been through the Costa Rica – Nicaragua border recently!

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11 thoughts on “How to Cross the Border Between Costa Rica & Nicaragua

  • Lyn Chee


    I am crossing this border next week. I would like to ask where the bus terminal is in san jose going to nicaragua? This will be my first time and i will be alone. Thanks for the info. I am asian so I dont need visa in coming here costa but i need to renew my stamp. Im living now in Jaco.


    • Landon Post author

      Hola Lyn!

      Good question. We’ve used Central Line a few times, and they are nice with A/C. Their terminal “Atlántico Norte” is on the corner of Av. 9 and Calle 12. You can reserve your ticket online too. We usually take the 4:30am bus, but they also have one at 10am. Be sure to buy 3 tickets – one up to Nica, one back, and one up to Nica again, you’ll have to show the 3rd ticket to the CR immigration office as your “proof of onward travel” out of Costa Rica.
      TicaBus is another good bus line – on Av. 3, between Calle 24 & 28.

      Have fun in Nicaragua!

  • Alexey

    Beware of scammers trying to sell you a small paper form that “you need” (necessito!) before entering the customs area. The kid will want $1 for it, but it’s obviously free inside the terminal. I encountered this on the Nicaragua side heading into Costa Rica. Then, one more time in the space between two terminals – the next kid was even more pushy. He asked me what country I was from, took my passport and started filling out my form for me. I said “No, thank you!”, took my passport in spite of his “necessito!” and proceeded to the terminal, where the same form was free.

    • Landon Post author

      That kid has an entrepreneur mind! Good to know one more thing to watch out for. The immigration and customs forms have always been free for us too. Also, I keep my passport tucked away and only give it to the immigration officials (and the place to pay for the road tax/exit fee on the Costa Rica side).

  • Oggy Bleacher

    for the onward ticket requirement I would recommend printing out some fake ticket itinerary or even a fake plane ticket from SJO to somewhere within the 90 day time period you will have a visa for. They just need something to demonstrate you have intentions to leave, even a fake ticket. just don’t say it’s fake.

    Vehicle insurance is required in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Nicaragua insurance is good for 1 month by default…but you can surely pay more for longer time…and if you are caught with expired insurance at one of the many Nicaraguan police checkpoints then you will have your hands full and your wallet empty. I learned this the hard way. An expired passport visa will also lead to fines at the border. and an expired vehicle permit will not be overlooked either and you will be escorted to a bank to empty more money into other hands. All this I can say from experience. on this topic, Nicaragua is a CA-4 country and you will have 90 days to exit to either Costa Rica or to Mexico. Your visa in Nicaragua may be good for 90 days…and you may think you have 90 days to leave Nicaragua, but you would be mistaken. You have 90 days to leave Guatemala to either Belize or Mexico. If you stay 90 days in Nicaragua and then try to get to Honduras you are going to run into problems because you will technically not have a valid CA-4 visa with enough time to cross into Mexico…every country will require some kind of bribe or fine to ignore your expired CA-4 visa. You can extend a visa in Managua and Guatemala City and probably San Salvador but you can’t stay in the CA-4 countries longer than 3 months even if, for instance, you have 10 days left on your Nicaraguan visa and you go to Honduras and get a new stamp for 90 days. Oh, no, you do not have 90 days in Honduras. You still only have 10 days to leave Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala and get into Mexico or else you will be fined. Eventually a border officer will look at the stamp of when you entered either Guatemala or Nicaragua and deduct 90 days from that date and it makes no difference if your visa says you still have 60 days left in a specific country because your original 90 days started when you entered the CA-4 countries. They will point to the country stamp and tell you that’s meaningless, the only one that matters is the original entry into Guatemala or Nicaragua. Or a Prorroga/extension. This works when you enter Guatemala going south or Nicaragua going North. The CA-4 countries each give their own individual stamp for 90 days, so it should add up to 360 days, but collectively you can’t stay longer than 90 days in all the CA-4 countries. “Why don’t they just give one stamp?” you ask. Because it’s Latin America and it makes no sense.

    Insurance in Costa Rica seems to be default for 3 month but check the dates on the paperwork.
    vehicle drivers will be surrounded by touts/guides who will make up every excuse why you need to pay them to guide you to the next country. they all complicate the process far more than they help as it’s not very difficult to cancel your vehicle permit from one country, get copies…and copies of your stamped passport…and then get a new permit and copies and new stamps. not hard at all. but having 10 people telling you that you will definitely be turned back at the border because you don’t have the right paperwork is simply confusing. so, if you’ve made it to Costa Rica then you already have the right paperwork and merely need to repeat what you’ve done in Guatemala and El Salvador etc.