The Visa Dilemma

cr-flagsAs we prepare for our trip to Costa Rica, each week seems to bring a new obsession. Something new to keep us up at night, wishing for a crystal ball. This week, it’s the question of visas.

We have two options regarding visas, and if either were certain we’d probably pick it just to be done. But uncertainties abound.

Option 1: The Perpetual Tourist

I wish I could take credit for the term “perpetual tourist,” because I like it. But I didn’t come up with it – it’s a term people use in Costa Rica to describe folks like us, people who come and stay for longer than a typical vacation, but don’t need permanent residency.

American tourists entering Costa Rica can get a tourist visa for up to 90 days. But don’t even think about coming into the country without proof of onward travel – a plane or bus ticket that shows you exiting the country within 90 days. If you don’t have it, you’re headed back home.

If we go the tourist visa route, we must plan to leave the country at least every 90 days – the expats call it the “border run.” We could drive to Nicaragua, but the roads are gnarly at best, and we can’t drive our rental car across the border. So we’d have to park and go across by foot and find transportation on the other side – not my idea of fun.

We already know we’re making two trips back home, but we’ll need two other international trips to comply. We’d probably fly to Managua, Nicaragua once, and Panama City, Panama another time. That could get pricey.

But where it gets really dicey is that you are not guaranteed a 90-day visa each time you come into the country. Just because you CAN get 90 days doesn’t mean you will. The length of your visa is at the discretion of the border agent, who can be having a bad day and decide to give you a 30 day visa. Now THAT would get really expensive, having to leave the country again every month.

Are we likely to get a too-short visa? Probably not. I polled a group of ex-pats, and while their visa length varied, it was sufficient for their stay. But it could happen, which means some nail-biting each time we go through border control.

So the pros: we get to tick two more countries off our list of “places we visited.”
The cons: the expense and hassle of the extra travel, and the uncertainty of our visa length upon return.

Option 2: Student Visas

Students who are coming into Costa Rica to study can apply for student visas. Since Camille will be attending an accredited school, she could apply for a student visa. Then the idea is that Lee and I would also get student visas, as parents accompanying a minor.

A student visa would exempt us from the 90-day border run, and all that border control nail-biting.

However, we’ve talked with four different attorneys in Costa Rica. Two say we can get student visas as parents of a student; two say we cannot legally do that. So who is right?

And the student visa will not be cheap – it’ll cost about as much as those two extra international trips.

In addition, we’ll have to send a big chunk of that money in advance to the attorney in Costa Rica to start the process. But what if we get denied? Then we’re back to square one.

So the pros: no 90-day border runs, no worrying about the length of our tourist visa. Our fate would not be in the hands of border agents.
The cons: the expense of the student visa, the risk in sending money to an attorney I’ve never met in another country, and the chance that the visa will be denied and we’ll be making border runs anyway.

Decisions decision.

Off to bed now, so I can pull the covers up to my chin, close my eyes, and fret about this just a little more…

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