This post is for those of you who are pondering a longer stay in Nicaragua past the standard three months tourist visa granted to you upon arrival.
First visa upon arrival
So when you arrive by air or over the border to Nicaragua you will find that obtaining a tourist visa is a remarkably easy and inexpensive task to accomplish for you and your family. You will fill out one brief immigration form for yourself and any family travelling with you. Additionally, you will then pay $10 by air and $12 by land for each visitor in your group to the immigration official who checks your paperwork.
Will they grill me on my assets and intentions?
Most Nicaraguan immigration officials at border entries and airports are extremely relaxed and amiable and respond very kindly to smiles and pleasantries. Tourism is a well-oiled machine that consistently provides Nicaragua with abundant access to dollars and Euros. Entering Nicaragua as a tourist should constitute only a brief encounter with an immigration official. Having said that…
Dressing the part
In my personal opinion, when travelling in Latin America, particularly Costa Rica and Nicaragua, your physical presentation is either an asset or a hindrance to your progress with immigration. Dress as a Nica or a Tico would when travelling: arrive to do your immigration exchange clean, ironed and smartly-attired and you will sense a special appreciation for your efforts.
How much baggage can I bring without looking like I am immigrating?
Airport officials are rarely suspicious of large families or groups arriving with mountains of luggage. You may be sweating thinking that your excessive baggage is a clue to your intention to stay longer then you are owning up to at the moment. However, your heavy cargo is quite common.
The Nicaraguan official assumes that you have brought gifts and donations that you have wisely brought yourself instead of shipping. While baggage is now scanned before departing the baggage terminal, they are primarily looking for an unusual quantity of commercial items that contain metal and electronics, not your personal items or gifts.
What your visa allows you
A tourist visa in Nicaragua will give you 90 days of unhindered access to the country. Your visa, entry point and date are registered in a central network that keeps the immigration ministry and its outposts up to date.
What to do when the 3 months departure date is upon you
Should you decide that wish to continue your stay in Nicaragua beyond the initial tourist visa you have three options. It is mandatory that you must either apply for a three month extension at an office of Migración y Extranjería or you must exit the country by air or at the southern border and reenter as a tourist. The first option of a visa extension may be done only once and then you will have to exit the country after the extended three months on your visa expire.
Leaving the country for the purpose of regaining entry must be done either by flying out of Managua or crossing the border in the south of the country at Peñas Blancas. For those expats that reside in the south of the country this border run to procure a visa is done ritualistically and at very little expense. It is strange however, how quickly these three months can pass and then the race for fresh passport ink must take place before one has overstayed their welcome.
A really nice way of making the most of these trips to the south is to plan a mini-family retreat around the journey. It can be good to get out of Granada or whatever town you are in to reconnect with your family away from it all. When we cross over the border we love to head to a special Andaz resort property that is about 25 minutes from Liberia.
Well, what happens if I overstay my visa?
Currently, as of this writing, you will be charged $2 a day per overstayed visa. While that can add up over the months, some expats in the north choose to eat the cost to avoid expensive or inconvenient travel to Costa Rica. However, you should carefully consider that overstaying your visa is a legal crime which can banish you from the good graces of Migración y Extranjería.
Overstaying a visa, can result in same day expulsion from the country (though this is unlikely). Another view to regard is that there may come a day when you wish to apply for a 5 year residency and you would prefer to have a clean immigration record to help you present your best law-abiding image.
Some holes in your pocket
Keep in mind that if you travel over the southern border, there are more costs to assume on the Costa Rican side. Happily, there are no entry fees into Costa Rica but they often demand to see proof of onward travel. Costa Rica is mindful of perpetual tourism and will demand to see a paid return fair by air or bus to prove that you do not intend on setting up shop permanently on their side of the border.
This demand for proof of departure can be pressed upon you even if you intend to walk back across the border to drive your own Nicaraguan vehicle back home. One strategy is to buy an open-ended return bus fare for around $30 USD for each family member at Nicabus before you leave Nicaragua. You can reuse this ticket several times as your proof of intent to exit Costa Rica. The ticket will expire after a year, but should provide adequate documentation for several border runs.
Departing Costa Rica will cost each member of your family an official $7 exit fee and is paid in advance near the official immigration office at any of the small private offices dedicated to this endeavor, who will charge you an extra $1 for the transaction.
Reentering Nicaragua will require you to start from the beginning in filling out an application for a three month tourist visa which will cost you $10 by air and $12 by land per person.
What should I say about my reentry?
It is probable that Nicaraguan officials will not ask you anything about your decision to return to their country so soon after leaving it (3 hours ago!) If you are asked any additional questions about your new extended stay, your best answer is flattery:
How can one begin to see a country as immensely interesting and beautiful as Nicaragua in just three months? Besides your volunteer work is not yet finished and it is obvious that Nicaragua is the happiest, safest place to travel – with the best gallo pinto– and you will be ultimately devastated when it is time for you to really go.
Of course, all this flattery is genuine– which is the whole point of all this effort to extend your visa!
In the case that they say no
Understand that kindness, courtesy and admiration for the Nica way is a currency in Nicaragua that buys you more influence than some of your deepest bank accounts. It is a country that operates primarily on social capital, a network of people who feel a shared accountability to each other. By showing them emotionally that you want to be a part of their team, you have invested more than money can buy in your partnership shares.
In a pinch, do not argue your position. Do not try to advance it through bribes. Share your heart and your love for Nicaragua and this they will understand more than anything.
How long can I keep this up?
There are many expats that continue year after year to make their quarterly border runs without seeking official residency. However, at some point your status in the country for your own security should become more clearly defined.
If you have really built up some kind of life in Nicaragua and want to make sure that you can return to it when you leave the country for any reason, you must secure your status with the Nicaraguan government. There may come the day when the immigration officials say they can only give you one more month or no time at all. What would you be leaving behind? A home? A family? A pet? Your heart’s work?
Residency has its privileges and its rights. For me, it was absolutely worth the effort and expense to obtain it and I am looking forward to writing about that adventure soon….