If you plan on traveling to Costa Rica’s neighboring countries by foot, bus, or car, you’ll want to know about its border crossings. Costa Rica has several borders or fronteras connecting it to Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. We’ve crossed several of these borders during our time in Costa Rica. They’re typically hectic and crowded, with lines of people queued up, and are dusty, hot, and uninviting. While they do share certain similarities, each border is set up a little differently so it takes some time to figure out where to go and what to do. We recently did the Rio Sereno border crossing in southern Costa Rica and were pleasantly surprised by the experience. In this post, we’ll share what you need to know to get ready to cross this little-known border.
For information on the Paso Canoas border, read our post Crossing the Paso Canoas Border: Costa Rica and Panama’s Biggest Border Crossing.
The Rio Sereno border is located in the mountains of southern Costa Rica. The closest major town on the Costa Rica side is San Vito, a rural community with a small-town feel that is best known for hosting the Wilson Botanical Gardens. The San Vito area is also a birding hotspot, complete with a local birding club. On the Panama side, the closest major town is Volcan, and the city of David is a couple of hours away.
Border Crossing Process
What You’ll Need
Note: The requirements sometimes change. We’ll try to update this post if they do, but as of January 2016, this is what is required.
- 2 copies of your passport (photo/ID page)
- Proof of onward travel (plane ticket)
- $500 or bank statements or a credit card to show proof of sufficient funds (3 months)
- $8 to pay Costa Rica’s exit tax. Payable in Colones as well.
UPDATES: These apply to anyone living in Costa Rica and crossing the border to renew your tourist visa. We recently heard of two changes from a reader (October 2016): (1) Costa Rica is now requiring one day out of the country before they will stamp you back in; and (2) You need a bus ticket out of Panama in addition to your plane ticket. The official in Panama suggested that the people get one from Rio Sereno to Sabalito. If you have had an experience with either of these, let us know in the comments below. We recently went to this border in September 2016 and neither happened to us. We did have our residency papers with us showing that our application had been made, which probably helped with the Costa Rica side.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Rio Sereno border is how quiet it is. You won’t find the traffic, lines of tractor trailers, and crowds of people here that you see every day at the busy Paso Canoas border, one of Costa Rica’s other border crossings with Panama. At Rio Sereno, there are just few government buildings, a grocery store, and a couple of other small stores and duty free shops spread out along the dirt road.
Here’s a map to help you get your bearings. The three buildings that you will need to visit are all within a few minutes’ walk from one another.
For directions to the border, see the bottom of this post.
Exiting Costa Rica and Entering Panama
The first thing you’ll need to do is get your exit stamp from Costa Rica. Here’s a breakdown of the process:
- Pay departure tax: Costa Rica has a tax (impuesto) that must be paid before you can exit the country by land. Everyone crossing on foot or by car or bus has to pay this tax. You can pay it at certain banks in Costa Rica in advance, but the easiest way to do it is right at the border. Look for the Agroquimicos store on the right as you come into the border area, after the government buildings and next to the grocery store. The tax is $8. They’ll give you a receipt that you can put in your passport for when you check out of Costa Rica.
- Check out of Costa Rica: Once you’ve paid the exit tax, head back up the small hill to the Costa Rica Migration office. It’s one of the first buildings on the left as you come into the border area. It’s a makeshift-looking building with a corrugated metal roof and a sign that says Oficina Reg. Sabalito. You can enter from the open area in the front or back. Note: This is a separate building from the Costa Rica police station.
There will be a large open space and some chairs, though there’s not likely to be any line as this border crossing usually isn’t very busy. The immigration official will ask you for your passport and have you fill out a form where you put basic information like your name, passport number, destination, etc. Usually the agent doesn’t ask too many questions but we’ve been asked where we’re traveling, for how long, and if we’re going by car. Once the agent has gone through your paperwork, he or she will put an exit stamp in your passport.
Note that if you’re bringing your car across the border, there is another whole process for getting the permissions and paying insurance.
- Get stamped into Panama: Once you have your exit stamp, head a couple hundred meters down the street to the Panama Migration office. It’s the green building with the red roof. Look for the Panama flag and a yellow sign that says Migracion.
When you enter the building, go to the office on the left. If there is a line, wait on the right side of the entranceway under the sign “entrada/salida.” The line on the left is for “grupos originarios” or indigenous travelers, which require different paperwork. This area of both countries has several indigenous communities so you will likely see them waiting around town, dressed in colorful dresses.
Once in the office, the immigration agent will take your passport. There isn’t a form to fill out, but the agent will likely ask where you’re traveling to and for how long. They will probably also ask for a copy of your passport and proof of $500 (usually can be satisfied by showing 3 months’ of bank statements or a valid credit card if you don’t want to carry cash). We weren’t asked to show $500 but it’s best to be ready to do so. If you don’t have a copy of your passport, you can have one made at the Libreria (office supply store) next to the Agroquimicos store.
The last requirement is to show proof of onward travel out of Panama within 180 days. This requirement has changed over the years and even differs by border. Bus tickets out of the country sometimes work, but lately Panama has been requiring a plane ticket back to your home country (country that issued your passport). At Rio Sereno, we were asked for our plane tickets and gave them our tickets from Costa Rica to the US.
The agent will then stamp your passport and you’re ready to travel to Panama. Standard visas are for 180 days.
Exiting Panama and Entering Costa Rica
If you’re returning to Costa Rica after your visit to Panama, you’ll just go through the process in reverse.
- Get stamped out of Panama: Go to the same office and get stamped out of Panama. This is usually a very straightforward process and there are no fees. We weren’t asked any questions other than for a copy of our passports.
- Get stamped into Costa Rica: Go back to the Costa Rica Migration office. They’ll have you fill out the same form you did before. Costa Rica requires proof of onward travel out of the country through a plane ticket back to your home country within 90 days. We were asked for this ticket and also where we were going in Costa Rica. Standard visas are 90 days, but the exact amount is up to the discretion of the immigration official.
Directions from Costa Rica
Getting to San Vito and then on to Sabalito is fairly straightforward, but the road to the border isn’t well marked. Once you enter downtown Sabalito, you’ll pass some small stores and restaurants and then come to an intersection with a road going to the left (near the gas station). Continue straight/right on the main road, passing the supermarket BM on the right. In about 50 meters, as you go up a small hill, you’ll see a large sign on the right that says Zona Comercial 5 Esquinas. Take the dirt road on the left across the street and follow it all the way to the border (about 5-10 minutes). There are a few twists and turns but it is easy to tell which dirt road is the main one. It is bigger and in better condition than the offshoots.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for a place to stay on the Costa Rica side, San Vito is a good option. It has several local restaurants (and some good Italian ones), grocery stores, and shops in the busy downtown. The downtown also offers some inexpensive hotels, and on the outskirts of town are a few bed and breakfasts. Hotel Cascata del Bosco and Casa Botania are two charming B&Bs that are just a short drive from the Wilson Botanical Gardens. The town of Sabalito, closer to the border, also has a few simple accommodations if you’re getting in very late, like Cabinas Talinda.
On the Panama side, one of the closest towns is Volcan, about 45 minutes from the border. Volcan is near the Baru Volcano, Panama’s highest peak, and is great for outdoors’ enthusiasts. It is often compared to the popular town of Boquete, but is less developed and more reasonably priced. If you’re looking for lodging near Volcan, a couple of good options are Cielito Sur Bed & Breakfast Inn in Cerro Punta, close to the volcano, and Hostal Victoria Volcan Chiriqui, a budget hotel located in the downtown.
If you’re looking to avoid the busy Paso Canoas border, we highly recommend the Rio Sereno border crossing. In addition to being much easier to navigate, the Rio Sereno border is nice because it’s close to the picturesque town of San Vito and the beautiful landscapes of Costa Rica’s southern zone.
Have you done this border crossing recently? Leave a comment below with your experience to help other travelers know what to expect.
Matt and Jenn this is REALLY good to know and so timely!
We are living in Rivas now, 20 minutes from San Isidro. We planned to cross the Sixaola crossing but changed plans and now are really pretty darn close to this formerly unknown crossing….at least to us 😉 This is uber helpful. Stored if we do Panama at the beginning of next month.
Thanks for sharing!
Yeah this crossing would be a lot closer to you if you are in Rivas now and we have heard that it isn’t a bad drive to get to the Bocas, Panama if that is what you were thinking. Have fun!
Hello! We want to cross the border from the Caribbean side to Panama, heading to Bocas. Do you know of any safe parking for rental cars on the Costa Rica side? Thanks!
Hi KP, Sorry, we don’t know of any options for secure parking.
Hola Jenn/Matt –
Great article as usual!
Quick question about “onward travel” – you mention that Panama wanted to see your tickets –
“The last requirement is to show proof of onward travel out of Panama within 180 days. This requirement has changed over the years and even differs by border. Bus tickets out of the country sometimes work, but lately Panama has been requiring a plane ticket back to your home country (country that issued your passport). At Rio Sereno, we were asked for our plane tickets and gave them our tickets from Costa Rica to the US.”
Do they not care that your flight was leaving COSTA RICA instead of leaving Panama? Does “onward travel” just mean travel back to your home/passport country? I’m assuming your CR->US flight was actually within 90 days since you would be leaving CR within 90 days of going back into CR (since that’s the limit?)
Hi Alan, Yes we showed Panama our flight info for CR back to the US. At this border crossing it wasn’t an issue but at the Paso Canoas crossing they have made us purchase bus tickets from Panama to San Jose, CR to prove that we were leaving Panama (even though we told them we had a car). Basically you have to be as prepared as possible and you never know what they might require next 🙂
I’ve had to pay for a non-transferable bus ticket from Pa so Canoas (or was it David?) to San Jose a couple of times in the last couple of years even though I have a RT plane ticket back to the States within a few days and a rental car. This is the most annoying and useless piece of burocracia I’ve ever come across in my travels to over 30 countries. I really think the agents in Panama are getting a kickback from Tracoma Bus Lines.
What’s the best bus scenario from Rio Serena to Gyancaste. Coming from Volcan and going to CR for week so we can recalibrate drivers licences
Hi Bill, We’re not totally sure because it’s a long trip from Rio Sereno to Guanacaste. You could check out this site with bus schedules to see what they suggest. If you’re just coming to renew your license, you might want to stay somewhere closer to the border like on the Central Pacific Coast.
Great article, hope others try out Rio Sereno.
Love the pictures to help people, great border crossing at Rio Sereno. You have a good run down of the process. Mostly our experience has been similar at Rio Sereno except the Panama agent once told us don’t come back for 3 hours and when we came back at 3 hours, he tried to say come back tomorrow. Thankfully we had our Tramite (paper showing we applied for residency in CR, we were in the system and now waiting) so we could gently argue our case. After some back and forth, he accepted the Tramite paper and actually said “sorry” and stamped our passport. If one has the Tramite paper, we highly suggest you travel with this paper, it often meant something to agents that were ready to make us stay longer across the border. We always had the same grumpy guy on the Rio Sereno Panama side so his “sorry” was much appreciated. We have always had to show 500 dollars, he didn’t want to see a credit card, we tried that first.
Hi Diane, Thanks for your comment, we had actually seen a Facebook thread about this border crossing that you commented on before we left and what you said gave us a good overview of what to expect. And thanks for the tip about the Tramite paper too, we hope to have that soon so will definitely carry a copy with us. Good to know also about the $500 cash, we didn’t get asked for that but would have had to go back to Sabalito to an ATM if we had.
I will be making the crossing this coming Sunday. We are just planning to stay for a few hours, buy some cheap alcohol, have lunch, and head back into Panama. Do we have to stay over night?
Hi Dennis, We’re not sure what this border requires as far as staying out. There isn’t much info out there, but we did see some stuff on the Facebook expat groups. One guy said that he didn’t get a 90 day stamp from CR when he stayed out for only a couple of hours. As Diane said above, the immigration agent in Panama gave them a hard time once when they tried to stamp out after 3 hours until he found out that they had done their residency paperwork. Our guess is that it probably depends on who you get. The border is really small with very few people coming in and out so it might be a little weird checking back in right away if the same person is working. Not like at Paso Canoas where there are a million people being processed every day and they probably won’t remember you. It could be fine though, who knows. Let us know how it goes if you have a chance so that other people can be prepared.
Well, it looks like we are going to shoot for the crazy border after all. We want to get in and out so “The busier, the better”. Thanks for your info.
We postponed our crossing until next Sunday, the 21st, but I will update you on what our experience was like.
Thank you for this information. Love this website. It’s been very helpful to my family and me over the past few months, as we’ve relocated to Uvita for the time being. Three quick questions about the Rio Sereno crossing: 1) We were considering driving to San Vito and taking the bus from there to the border. Is there a good, safe place to park near/at the bus station? We hope to return the same day…one overnight at the most. 2) Does the border ever close? I ask because you’ve mentioned that it’s so much smaller than the others. We hoped to arrive early to mid morning on a Saturday. 3) Anything else a family of five should know aside from what you’ve listed:-)
Hi JC, Welcome to the Southern Zone! Glad our site has been helpful with your family’s move. On your questions: 1. We aren’t sure about parking at the bus station. We didn’t see the bus station in San Vito. There is one in Sabalito too, but we don’t remember much about the parking situation because we drove all the way to the border. There is a parking lot right at the border though if you decide to drive there- it’s across from the Costa Rica buildings right as you enter the border. There wasn’t a guard when we were there but there was a sign saying something about the parking situation. Sorry that isn’t more helpful! If you do find out about parking, it would be awesome if you let us know so we can update this post. 2. For hours, Costa Rica is 8:00-4:00 and we didn’t see any hours for Panama but we’d assume it’s similar. They also both take an hour for lunch. The day we went, it was 11-12 in Costa Rica, and the Panama side was open at that point. Best to arrive early so that you aren’t waiting on lunch breaks. Don’t forget about the 1 hour time change. 3. That’s all we can think of- good luck!
I am in San Jose Costa Rica; so glad to read your sharing article!!
Most of Panama border ALL ask for enter/exit fee varies from US$1 -US$5…..
However You did not mention it when entering/exiting Panama??
Can you please advise?
Hi Linya, We have had to pay fees at other borders too, but did not have to in order to enter or exit Panama at the Rio Sereno border. The only fee we paid was Costa Rica’s exit tax for when you exit by land of $8.
Does a legal resident of Costa Rica have to show an onward ticket when entering Panama?
Hi Susan, We’re not totally sure, but think you probably do. Since you’re only a resident of CR and not Panama, it seems like Panama would require proof that you’re exiting their country within the required timeframe. If you have a chance, let us know if you find out for sure.
It depends if you are a resident of the Zona Sur or another part of Costa Rica. I crossed the Paso Canoas border with my Tico husband who’s cédula says he lives in San Jose and my Tica mother-in-law who lives in Rio Claro de Golfito half an hour up the road from Paso Canoas. Panamá required my husband (Costa Rican citizen with residency in the US) and I (US citizen living in US) buy the bus tickets to San Jose even though I showed them the rental car reservation with Paso Canoas pick up and San Jose drop off. My mother-in-law did not have to buy the bus ticket. The difference for my husband was not that he has residence in the the US, but that his cédula and passport have him listed as living in San Jose.
What about the Yellow Fever vaccination? We are going to Boca Del Toro Panama from Costa Rica and then return to Costa Rica to fly back home. The area of Boca Del Toro doesn’t have Yellow Fever but Panama has Yellow fever in the Eastern border (Panama City). Did you have to show proof of vaccination at the border? According to the website Costa Rica doesn’t allow travelers back who have gone to Yellow Fever countries without proof of vaccines but Panama is in that gray area depending on what region you go to. Please advise.
Unless there’s been a recent change, I’ve never had that problem on my numerous trips back and forth from Panama to Costa Rica. My last trip from Panama to Costa Rica was January 2016.
Hi Aileen, According to the Costa Rica Tourism Board website and Costa Rican Embassy, you only have to show proof of a yellow fever vaccine if coming from certain countries in South America and Africa. Maybe the website you were looking at was out of date? We have never had to show this before either and have come in and out of Panama many times at multiple borders. We have even come in from the Bocas and Panama City without a problem, so I think you’re all set. The big thing is Panama will want to see the proof of funds and plane ticket.
Thanks for the info. I recently entered rio sereno through the panama side, my first entry through that crossing. My wife is from bugaba and we have always entered through pasos canoas and wow what a difference! Also I might add the drive from rio sereno to bugaba or david is absolutely breathtaking! Maybe one day I’ll leave the states and buy some property there:)
Hi Adam, It really is a different world at Rio Sereno, isn’t it? We applied for residency in Costa Rica a few months ago but still need to leave for our drivers licenses and won’t ever go back to Paso Canoas I don’t think. It’s just so nice and quiet at Rio Sereno, and no lines! So glad to hear that you and your wife had a good experience too. Thanks for letting us know 🙂
My wife and I would like to cross at this border from Panama. Very interesting website and comments but no information on public transport. Is there a bus service to the Panama side and a bus service to San Vito.
Hi Richard, Not sure where you will be coming from in Panama, but we know there is bus service from both Volcán and the city of David to the border. There are probably many other bus routes too but we aren’t sure as we focus mostly on travel in Costa Rica on this website. From the border, there is a bus to San Vito on the Costa Rica side. It will stop in Sabalito, the small town nextdoor, to pick up more people before continuing on to San Vito. There isn’t a bus station at the border, but we have seen people get picked up right outside the main soda at the border (the most noticeable one in the area, just down the hill from the Migración buildings. There aren’t very many so it is obvious.). Costa Rica doesn’t have the bus schedules online, but this website is usually fairly accurate.
Thanks. I spent ages trying to find data on the internet and kept being referred to Lonely Planet/ Rough Guide – not helpful . The bus schedule website is excellent – also found an equivalent for CR. I have booked accommodation in San Vito and the owner has promised to collect us from the border. Looking forward to visiting Wilsons Botanical Garden. We are in our sixties but still enjoying “independent” travelling.
Thanks fot the excellent help! We printed your post and used it to make our first border run yesterday. At the Costa Rica office the inspector began by telling us that the new rule is that we must stay in Panama for at least 1 day. We pulled out our temporary residency documents (Residency application on file) and he immediately said that we could come back through without a wait. I have a strong vision impairment and was struggling with the form that he provided, so he offered to fill it out for me. Pura Vida!
The Panama office was closed for lunch so we wandered the town a bit and found a place to eat. It was Sunday and many people were really dressed up, especially the Indians. Great people watching! Back at Panama immigration, he told us that we could not enter the country until we showed him a bus ticket back out. We said ok, we’ll just go across the street to the bus stop and buy a ticket at the store. He said we couldn’t do that because the bus stop was in Panama and he would not give us permission to enter. We had just wandered the whole town while he was at lunch! We reminded him that Costa Rica had already checked us out, so we were in no man’s land (about 50 meters from our car, which was still in Costa Rica). Finally he relented and said that just this once he would make an exception, but next time we would need to show a round trip bus ticket from Sabalito.
He asked us how long we wanted to be in Panama and we said just long enough to be stamped in and out by him. So he did that, both sets of documents, back to back, no wait at all. Then back to the CR guy, he was all smiles and helped me with the form again. Less that 2 hours elapsed time, including lunch!
This is the most open border town I’ve ever seen! No crossing gate for vehicles, no baggage check. Costa Rican trucks coming and going, often filled to the brim in back with a dozen or more passengers. Wild West!
We stayed overnight at Cascata del Bosco and George was as always the generous and caring host. We are planning to build a guest hose and he answered lots of questions about fun things like welding, tile work, faux finishes, outdoor kitchen construction, etc. A great day for us!
Hi Nyle and Roxanne, Thanks for the detailed report, I’m sure it will be very helpful to people. We’re updating our post with the changes you noted. I wonder if the new 1 day requirement is being consistently enforced. In our experience, the rules change frequently and a lot of it depends on who you get. Did you have a plane ticket to show Panama? We always have one showing San Jose to US within 90 days. Now that we have our residency paperwork in too, border crossings are a lot easier. We went to Rio Sereno for a visa renewal a few weeks ago, and Costa Rica made us stay out only a couple of hours and was very nice about it. We stayed at Cascada del Bosque also so it felt like a mini-vacation. Lovely place. Good luck with your guest house. We’d love to know more details once it gets built!
es, we did have the plane ticket from San Jose to Miami. The Panamanian official said that we needed to show a ticket out of Panama. He suggested a bus ticket to Sabalito from Rio Sereno, but as we noted, he would not permit us to cross the street to buy one.
Yikes, okay. This is the first we’ve heard of them wanting a bus ticket out of Panama at this border so we wanted to be sure. We’ll make a note of it in the post and see if it happens to us when we go again in December if our residency applications still aren’t approved. Thanks again for the info!
The Panamanian border agent was in his early 30’s, fluent in English, and was listening to American pop oldies in English on a radio in his little office. He had absolutely no interest in how we would exit Costa Rica. He had no interest in the fact that we owned a car parked 50 meters away in front of the Costa Rica border station (God forbid we had parked by mistake in Panama!). He had a blank to fill in with a ticket number and insisted on it. Then, for some reason, he did a complete 180, but he said it would only happen once. For the record, we are retirees well-humbled by life and not in any way pushy or “ugly Americans”. Pura vida!
Hi. I truly appreciate your border crossing information. I will be traveling with my daughter from Puerto Jimenez , Costa Rica to Guadalupe, Panama. Would the Rio Sereno border crossing be my best bet? If so, can you please tell me how to get from Golfito to the Rio Sereno border? We do not have a car. Can I take a colectivo and if so how long will that take? Also, once we cross the border, how can I get from the border to Guadalupe? Do buses leave from the border?
Thank you so much. I feel a little worried about crossing here with just me and my daughter, so your detailed help would be most appreciated.
Hi Kathy, It looks like there’s more than one Guadalupe in Panama, not sure which one you’re going to. One of them is closest to the Rio Sereno border, but the other on the coast is closer to the Paso Canoas border. Paso Canoas is a bigger, much busier border. You can get a bus from Golfito to either border (the bus to Paso Canoas is more direct; the one to Rio Sereno requires a change in Ciudad Neily and then another one in Sabalito near the border). Use this website to find a bus time and more info about trip time, etc. A commenter above said he found a similar website for Panama too. We tried this one but it doesn’t seem as detailed.
Buses leave from both borders and continue on to Panama. They are mini buses that sort of look like vans. You can catch them at Rio Sereno just down the hill from the migración offices near duty free. At Paso Canoas, they leave from a few different points on the Panama side. We’re not sure of bus times for Panama since our website focuses on Costa Rica, but any good guidebook would have info. Good luck!
Thank you for this detailed post and helpful follow-up comments about the border crossing at Rio Sereno. I came to western Panama to pet-sit two months for a friend and fell in love with the area. A US tourist may stay up to 180 days in Panama but driving privileges expire after 90 days. I have been planning and dreading a border run across Paso Canoas from Panama and back to renew my driving privileges. Info about alternate crossing points is scarce or out-of-date. I will follow up if I find anything new to add after crossing.
I so happy that I found your website — what a great bonus!
Hi Todd, Rio Sereno is a dream compared to Paso Canoas, which we also try to avoid. The area around the border is really nice too if you make a trip of it. Would love to hear how your crossing goes if you do it. Thanks for reading!
Hi Jenn & Matt. Read your excellent website & all comments. But there are a couple things I’m not clear about. I’m planning to cross the border from Panama to Costa Rica at Rio Sereno. Then will be returning to Panama after several days for another tourist stay. I have a plane ticket from Panama to U.S. in June (about 6 months after I plan to enter Costa Rica). Will that be okay for Costa Rican immigration when I enter CR? Or do I need to change the date of my plane ticket from Panama to U.S. so I would be leaving for U.S. in under 90 days from date of entry to CR? Or does it not matter? Also does Costa Rican immigration require that I pre-purchase a bus ticket from Costa Rica to Panama in order to enter CR? Finally, are the buses from David, Chiriqui to Rio Sereno regular buses or mini-vans? Could you please email me a reply as I’m leaving in less then a week.
Hi JB, Technically the requirements for Costa Rica are that you show a plane ticket leaving CR within 90 days but they might be okay with what you have. People who do overland travel don’t have a ticket for every country they enter so maybe if you explain your situation, what you have will work. Having hotel reservations for when you go back to Panama or something like that might help too. Of course, it often depends on who you get at immigration so it is hard to say what will definitively happen. That is how land border crossings go, unfortunately.
We think the buses from David are mini buses from what we have seen at the border.
Hi Jenn & Matt,
My husband and I moved to CR 2 months ago and our first border run is fast coming up. Instead of us all doing our first border run together my has to return to the states two weeks early so I need to do the run on my own with our two young children. I’m a bit nervous about it and wanted to check in with you guys and see if you did your December run or if anyone else went recently (aside from the October update) to see if anything has changed? Thank you!
Hi Kim, We decided to go to Paso Canoas for our last crossing so don’t have any updates about this border, unfortunately. I think you will find, though, that having young children with you will make everything a little easier. We have definitely noticed things going smoother since we have been going with our son. Even at Paso Canoas last time the guy next to us in line had to buy a bus ticket to get entry into Panama and we didn’t. Hope it goes smoothly and try not to worry!
I’m sure things will go smoothly. Thank you for your help. 🙂
We are headed for our border run this weekend and have decided to go to Paso Canoas. Did you guys drive down there when you went? We are thinking about driving down and wondering about parking. Do you happen to know if there is secure parking available?
Hi Kim, Yes, we always drive our car to Paso Canoas and park it at the border. There is a secure lot on the right just after you pass the Costa Rica immigration office/across from the bank. Stay right as you come in, passing cars parked in the middle of everything, and look for the big ‘parking’ sign. The lot is covered and set back a bit. I think it’s next to a small barber shop. We have never had any problems with things being taken and the people are friendly. Can’t remember the exact price, but it’s always less than $10 for us to go for the day.
Perfect! This is exactly what we needed to know. I appreciate your help!
Have a great day.
Hi Jenn and Mat, i really appreciate the usefull informations above ! I will be travelling to CR then Panama in next March, but i do need a visa to enter Panama territory, do you have any idea if they grant visa in the border by just showing the round trip ticket ?or should I contact the Panama Embassy in San José ?
Hi Ghassen, We are not sure if they do visas right at the border so I would definitely contact the embassy in advance. Good luck and hope it is an easy process.
This is a great site. Going to cross Rio Sereno with a car from California. Will be shipping the car from Colon Panama to Cartegena Columbia. Obviously no proof of Panama departure. Have you heard of any special requirements for overland travelers needing proof of departure.
Hi Jack, We don’t know much about overlap travel so can’t be of too much help. We have seen a small building at the border where you go to get the permit to bring the car. We would assume not having a proof of departure under these circumstances would be okay but are unsure. You could look at The Long Way South’s website
Thanks for the blog post. my wife and I with our twin 4 year old daughters are planning a border crossing this week coming week as we have been in Dominical for 83 days. We were planning on crossing at Paso Canoas until we read your post. Now we are inclined to cross at Rio Sereno. The question you left unanswered for us in your post is how to bring our car through to Panama at Rio Sereno? If we do need to be out of Costa Rica for an overnight like we learned from your post, we would be want to drive to the town of Vulcan in Panama. Thanks in advance for your response.
Hi Luke, We have never taken our car out so aren’t totally sure. From what we have heard, if your car is registered in Costa Rica, you need to get permission to take it across the border. There is an office in San Isidro where you can do the paperwork for this (it’s supposed to be easy), but we think you can also do it right at the border if you’re not sure you will need to. You also have to pay for insurance. This topic has been covered on some of the Facebook expats groups as well if you want more info.
Hope you don’t end up needing to stay overnight, but if you do, we would love to hear how it goes with the car. Hope your family has a smooth crossing!
Is there a place on the Panamanian side of Rio Sereno and park my car, go through immigration and take a bus to San Vito or is it better to just have a round trip ticket from David to Rio Sereno and then cross from there?
We have never noticed a parking area on the Panama side and have walked around that area a bit. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but the safest bet is to just take the bus from David. There is a lot near the immigration offices, but it is on the Costa Rica side.
Hi there, just wanted to clarify if possible. So, worst case, the Panama official may ask (in addition to Passports, proof of $500, and plane ticket) for a bus ticket showing travel from Panama back to CR? If so, is that something we can purchase online or in CR before crossing?
Also, do we bring copies of passports in addition to the actual passports? My wife and I will have 2 kiddos in tow, so we want to make sure we get it right the first time!
Thanks so much. I just started reviewing the site and it’s fantastic.
Hi Myles, Yes, we added that information about needing a bus ticket after a reader told us that the Panama official required it. Read the comment from Nyle and Roxanne on October 3, 2016 for more. This has never happened to us and we haven’t been told of it happening again. This is all second-hand information, but the border official told them that they should buy a roundtrip ticket from Sabilito (town in CR right next to the border); I assume from Sabalito to Rio Sereno and back. So you could do that if you didn’t want to deal with any problems once you get there. But again, not sure that they are consistently requiring this so you could buy it without needing it. We’d love to hear back from you about how it goes.
You need two copies of each of your passports to give to Panama. I would get these done beforehand if you can, but the libreria (office supply store) next to the Agroquimicos store where you pay your exit tax has a photocopy machine too.
Were you able to use your phone to show proof of airline ticket out of Costa Rica or do they require a print out of it?
Hi Lori, A printout is best. Some agents may allow a phone but we have heard of others not accepting that so better to be safe than sorry.
Thank you so much for the insight of Sereno Rio crossing. It was perfect, simple and actually fun. There is one person working for each of the processes and all with good attitudes. We took our own vehicle which added a few steps but going to Panama it took less than an hour and the return was ½ hour.
Lunch is shut down time from 12 -1.
Since we had our vehicle we were not asked for plane ticket info or requested to buy bus tickets in/out of Panama. Fumigation costs a $1. Our vehicle is a restored 1974 CJ5 which cost us $46.80 for insurance, not the $15US. 1980 is their cutoff date for $15.
All of the locations needing to process the paperwork were all within mere steps of each other.
On the return after to CR there were two police stops but never asked for paperwork or info about purchases.
Again, thank you for the info. While the road travel was a little longer it was rewarded with ease.
Jen and Lori,
Do you know if passing through on a motorcycle will be an issue if a bus or plane ticket is not available? My son will cross this border and load his motorcycle on a vessel onto Colombia. Does he need to show proof of his reservation?
Thank you for this most useful information!
Hi Cecilia, We’re not sure what is required for overland travel, but do know a couple of people who have done this and wrote about it on their blogs. One is the Long Way South (overland from Maine to S. America in a pickup truck) and the other is the Live It Right Dream (same but on motorcycles). I know the Live It Right Dream wrote about their experiences passing the Panama-Costa Rica border, so definitely check that out for first-hand information.
Thank you for your reply! He left Agua Buena this morning around 9 am local time through this border to paradise inn in las lajas, Panama and have not heard from him in almost 8 hours. I am a little concerned about him. Hope to hear from him soon!
Jenn and Matt,
My son made it through but it took him 3 hours, the last office was closed for lunch but no big hassle. It’s rainy season this time of year and needless to say he arrived at the hotel soaked, even though his clothes are water proof! He has a YouTube channel “motor bike explorer” filming UNESCO World Heritage sites and his experience riding through north, central and soon South America.
So glad he made it! Yes, we have been having a lot of rain lately so I’m sure that slowed him down. Thanks for sharing his You Tube channel so we can check out his adventures!
Thanks for this post, and the blog. It has been helpful in our relocation process. We are going to head to Rio Sereno next weekend from San Isidro. Wondering if you have any advice on how to get to El Volcan from Rio Sereno if we’re not taking our car?
Also wondering if the border offices are open on the weekend?
Hi Katherine, We have seen the mini-buses that you find in Panama going to Volcan waiting near the border (walk down the hill away from Migration and they are usually there on the left side (Panama side) near the duty free liquor store). This would be the cheapest option. You could also take a taxi- they are always around.
And yes, the border offices are open on the weekend.
Hi we crossed Panama to CR the end of August and just wanted share something, even though im sure its been mentioned before, hours of operation. We had started the day in Santiago and underestimated the time of travel and arrived at border approx 4.30pm without photocopy of passports. I misunderstood directions to get said copies and ran back down the hill into town to get copies by the time i got back it was 4.55pm and the immigration guy said we are closed as is the CR office. Being well mannered calm Brits we sauntered off to look for accommodation for the night. There is only one Hotel in Rio Sereno but sadly the owner had died and it was closed down. We asked around for shelter but there was nothing until someone suggested and old lady who lives in the “green house” might help. There are many houses that are green but somehow we found the right one and after kicking the chickens out of the room and lighting a mosquito coil we had a pleasant stay. We are on the back end of 10 months travelling and it was just another day and another lovely story. But the border crossing is great and amazing countryside, we have now been housesitting in San Vito for two months. Good blog great info
Simon and Rosie
Thank y’all SO much for this info! After visiting Rio Sereno yesterday for my family’s most recent border run, I can’t imagine getting through the process without some direction.
As you approach the “border,” it’s difficult to tell where the respective countries start and end. Although there are signs outside both customs buildings, it is much easier to enter CR customs around back (turn left between Panama customs and the police station, when the road T’s). On our trip, the waiting area pictured above was “closed,” however, the windows located immediately to the right of the building (from the rear) had the answers we needed. (Picture available)
I got ahead of myself and forgot to pay our exit fee at the Agroquimicos prior to visiting CR customs. Luckily, it’s only a short walk down the main dirt road and problem solved!
After paying the $8 (per person) at Agroquimicos, and then showing our passports to CR customs to get our Salida stamps, we walked down the road (once more) to the Panama customs office to get our Entrada stamps.
The officials from Panama were a little more apprehensive in this office, but we were never asked for ANY of the “required” documentation. Ever.
After the three trips, we parked our FJ at the grocery store parking lot across from the CR customs office, double-checked with an employee to make sure we were allowed to park there, and then walked into Panama for lunch and “window” shopping.
Once again, the system was respected despite my personal suspicions that NONE of the bureaucracies involved had an active hand in any real border security that day.
Hope this helps!
-The Panama customs sign is now Blue instead of yellow.
-Although we had all required documents, i.e. flights to US, $500 (in colones), etc, we never had to provide it or fill out any forms.
-To get permission to enter in personal vehicle, visit the Banco CR in San Isidro.
-Restaurants, hotels and internet are very limited around the border, so plan appropriately.
I really appreciate all of the info you have shared, and the constant updates through these comments have been helpful.
Do you typically take your car across the border from Costa to Rio Sereno in your travels? I ask because I’ve made note of the Panama insurance rate (seemingly varying from $15-48), but we are borrowing a friend’s car to make the border and back trip. I’ve read a few things about needing to have matching information to the ownership of the vehicle, but I would love to get your take on it.
Additionally, we are two Americans working toward citizenship in Costa, with an Indian friend who is doing the same. So we’re hoping things are easier at Rio Sereno than Paso Canoas for all of us, and that he doesn’t get held up especially since his visa doesn’t have the longevity ours does in either place.
Thank you for your time!
Hi Nicholas, We have never taken our car into Panama so aren’t sure but think they would probably require the owner of the car to be present. Good luck! We hope that none of you get held up. We have always had a good experience at this border so hopefully you will too.
Hi Jenn & Matt,
Thanks for the very helpful directions!
My husband and I crossed from
CR to Panama and back this morning (at Rio Sereno). Process was as described although we were not asked for proof of funds nor were we required to show more then an electronic airline ticket home to Canada. CR immigration stamped us through (stern fellow) and we crossed to Panama. The friendly officer asked how long we would be in Panama and when we said just for the day he asked us to seek permission from the CR officer first, as overnight was required. We then returned to the CR side and asked for permission to which we were told we would need to spend the night in Panama. We tried to explain why this was not possible and after a few minutes he decreed “una hora”. We proceeded to Panama side where we were quickly processed, and after wandering around the little town for an hour we retraced this process without issue. All together we were in and on our way in about 2 hours.
Of note: we understand and speak very little Spanish; we have not yet initiated the process to gain residency although we plan to; this was our first border crossing for the purpose of extending our stay.
Your photos and detailed description were spot on!
Judi, This is a great recap of what you went through- and sounds so typical! Thanks for sharing for everyone.
Thank you for this great article. Is there any public transportation to reach the borders from each side? I’ll travel without a car so I wonder if I could do it by public transportation.
Hi Amine, Yes, there’s a bus that leaves from Sabalito to the border on the CR side. When you get to the Panama side, there are mini buses that leave for Volcán, David, and elsewhere right from the border.
Did anyone bring a personal car from Costa Rica to Panama at the Rio Sereno crossing. Just want to make sure they will process the car and sale insurance.
Did this today, armed with a printout of your feature. What a breeze. Zero queues. Totally relaxed experience.
Turns out we were over- prepared (no bad thing).
We drove down from Perez Zeledon. Beautiful scenery. 4 year old slept almost the entire way.
Stopped for coffee in Sabalito in a place that was abt 50meters short of the signboard where the turn off is.
That road is now sealed (not dirt). It is already potholing up nicely.
Paid impuestos is the Agriquimico place. Guy offered to make photocopies of passports for us (we already had).
Back up the hill to Salida de Costa Rica door. Showed our Expedientes (awaiting cedula) and were open that we were only crossing for driving licence reasons. Easy. Friendly guys.
Had lunch until Panama office reopened at noon. That yellow sign is now BLUE. Went there – again no queue. Friendly guy. Again showed Expedientes, said we would be back in an hour. No probs.
It was not clear where Costa Rica ended and Panama began. You go in and out the same door of the Panama office. Never over a line. No guys with guns or stern looks. Just took a stroll and then seemed to be in Panama!
Played in the park with our kid. Bought some snacks for the drive. A quiet friendly place. Not a sketchy border town at all.
Back to the same Panama office. Guy happily stamped us out. Same at Costa Rica re-entry. A few minor questions but mostly we talked football (aka soccer).
We had bestonwardticket flights ex Panama (to UK). And ex CR to UK. And 500 USD cash. No-one ever asked to see any of it. And we still have 1 copy of our passports!
Our pre-border run anxiety (virgins) eased by your excellent post was replaced by disbelieving hi 5s at the ease of it all. Never been at such a laidback border (except between EU states).
The experience of others may differ but for us it was, almost literally, a walk in the park.
My girlfriend and I crossed at Rio Senero today, based on your blog post to avoid the busy paso canoas. We stayed the night in a little hotel in San Vito (hotel pittier, 20 bucks for a double room). The bus to the border was a yellow school bus with a sign RIO SERENO and it stopped right infront of our hotel. We were informed it passes every 30 minutes. We took it at 8.30 for around 3 dollars, an hour later we walked out of the Panama immigtation office with our stamps. No hassle, no questions. We didnt have to show proof of onward travel, nor proof of sufficient funds. Just a photocopy of our passports (1, not 2).
We went prepared and brought everything, the cash, the documents copy, the plane ticket back home and a solid story that we were coming for 4 days to Panama and would be returning to Costa Rica via Paso Canoas. Our main concern is that they would ask us to buy the bus ticket back to San José, which we didn’t want to.
The visit to Costa Rica exit post was easy and chill, and the officer politely asked us to go to the shop to pay the exit fee. We were the only ones there doing this. Later at Panama customs the officer was a bit more serious, but didn’t ask any questions. Just took the passports, asked for the copies, told us to sit and took our picture and fingerprints and stamped the passport.
For notice: we are a italian/dutch couple aged 29 and traveling with our backpacks. We had visited Bocas del Toro just the week before and had stamps from Panama. I do think he could see we are backpackers roaming around, and didn’t care much for us.
Finally, as we wanted to reach the city of Boquete we walked down to Rio Sereno village and took a small bus to David which took 2.5h though astonishing landscape. From david we changed buses and in 1 more hour we have reached Boquete. The total duration of the trip from San Vito to Boquete was around 8h shared in 3 buses and waiting time, but we didn’t rush at any time and really enjoyed the trip and experience.
Thank you, crossed a couple of days ago (Aug 2021) and found your instructions extremely helpful. Most things stayed the same. Extremely slow mainly due to covid (but even paying taxes was somewhat slow going). For Panama you need to have 2 copies of covid test results printed and 1 passport copy to enter and a passport copy on exit. Both sides for the entrance require return ticket to the country of residence. Both sides ON EXIT, before “stamping you out” require that you check with the other side that they would actually let you in. This back and force does add quite a bit of time…. so, only once you get OK from the entrance side, you can go back to “origin” country and get stamped out, then go back to your “destination” country and they will fill in tons of paperwork to get you in. We were a group of 3 and with all the printing/copying/Johnson&Johnson vaccine-resulting-in-orange-instead-of-green-QR-HelathPath-scan-on-CR-side and other tiny issues it took us 1.5 hours to cross to Panama and 2 hours to cross back to CR. There was nobody else in line in front of us… With all the copies of the documents ready (highly recommend!) and allowing for going back and force to double-check that the destination country would let you in, entry to Panama could be 25 minutes and entry to CR (with vaccine that has 2 shots or health insurance) 10-15min for one person. It seems almost no tourists are crossing the border now and agents seem confused and call offices in respective capitals for advice… Also there are MANY taxis on the Rio Sereno Panamanian side, you can get to Volcan/Paso Canoas for $30.
Hi and thanks for your helpful blog!
Planning a trip with pets from the US to Panama through Costa Rica, and wondered if you knew the current (August 2022) requirements for pet health certificates from Costa Rica. Does CR require a different or separate Pet Health Certificate from the one Panama requires, which is stamped by the USDA and validated by the Panamanian Consulate?
Also helpful would be if you know a place to park at Paso Canoas on the Panamanian side?
Hi Rob, We aren’t sure about the requirements for pet health certificates.
At Paso Canoas, the only options for parking that we know of are on the Costa Rica side – sorry! There is probably somewhere secure, though. Good luck.
Is there any disadvantage to doing the border run at Rio Sereno? According to Google Maps this is actually closer to us than Paso Canoas, and it sounds a lot nicer…
Hi Billy, Rio Sereno is an easier border crossing. We have heard that they are still making people stay in Panama at least a night right now, though.
Hi, I was wondering if for a border crossing CR-Panama in Rio Sereno, you can get stamped out CR, get stamped in Panama, spend the night in San Vito CR and the next day get stamped out from Panama and get stamped in CR. It would be easier for us to stay overnight on CR side, in San Vito.
Hi Annie, Once you are stamped out of Costa Rica, you’re legally not supposed to be there until you have a new stamp readmitting you. So technically you aren’t supposed to do that and should stay in Panama. People do it, especially at the Paso Canoas border because the Panama-Costa Rica line is more muddled, but the way Rio Sereno is set up, you have to go back into Costa Rica quite a ways to find a hotel. Unless there is a hotel close to the border that we don’t know about. San Vito isn’t that close to the border. Could be nerve wrecking in case you happened to get pulled over by the police in CR and they asked to see your passport.
Here’s an update of today, 22/11 2022: The entire way from San Vito is paved, also the Sabalito – border part. However, there are some potholes in this section – a slight nuisance but not normally dangerous. As the article says, this road (Sabalito – border) turns off to the left, and there is even a sign saying ‘to the border’ (gist of it). But it is not very conspicuous, so you have to be quite watchful not to miss it. What adds to this inconvenience is that this road is largely hidden behind some kind of crest – I know it sounds silly but this is the situation, as I would describe it after having passed it once. Sorry I am not usually prepared to take photos. Good luck!
PS The length of the Sabalito – border part is 6 km
Further to my yesterday’s comment: I have a dashcam, so I would assume the turn-off sign in Sabalito is visible. If you’re interested in this photo, let me know shortly, because the dashcam keeps on writing…
Hi Michael, were you required to stay overnight? Anyone else?
Your question sounds as if you assumed that I wanted to do a U-turn at the border, in order to obtain an extension for Costa Rica? That was not my situation
Angie, did you ever receive an answer to your question from someone other than Michael?
No, I’m sorry I didn’t.
Hey Jenn and Matt. Thank you so much for this useful guide! I am cycling from Cancun to Panama City, and this was super helpful for this border crossing! I had it all downloaded to my phone and just matched up the pictures to the buildings! A few comments though: Indeed, It is all paved there from San Vito. There is a new Costa Rica immigration building now, right next door to the one you have pictured (that one still looks the same!), and then as a note to pay the tax at the Agroquimicos store, it is just as you start to go downhill officially into Panama from the intersection and Costa Rica Police station. Everything else is still exactly as mentioned!
Thank you for sharing this border.
Just stayed at the most incredible Airbnb during my recent Costa Rica border run! Roberto’s agritourism haven in Rio Sereno made the entire process so smooth and stress-free. It’s the perfect spot for anyone looking to renew their visa – a game changer compared to the chaos of Paso Canoas.
Roberto provided exceptional services, including secure parking, assistance at the border, and transportation within Panama. Seriously, I cannot recommend this place enough for your next border run!
Not only is the accommodation comfortable and well-equipped, but the estate is also a paradise for families with young children. My toddler had a blast exploring and playing with the toys and tent provided. Plus, Roberto’s mother Enith made us feel like part of the family with her warm hospitality and scrumptious traditional Panamanian meals.
During our stay, Roberto took us on a tour of his charming town and shared his inspiring vision for agrotourism and community development. It’s evident that his passion and determination are resonating with the locals.
If you’re planning a border run or just looking for a memorable escape in a picturesque mountain setting with a focus on sustainability, be sure to check out this enchanting agritourism haven. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed!