Costa Rica and Nicaragua are both fantastically beautiful countries with fascinating histories, welcoming people, and amazing nature. While Costa Rica has more of a reputation as a safe and welcoming eco-tourist destination, Nicaragua is far more affordable and has much quieter beaches and volcanoes to hike. In short, if you’re visiting one, there’s a good chance you’d enjoy visiting the other in the same trip. This involves crossing a land border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Crossing land borders can be a somewhat lengthy and paperwork-heavy process, but does not have to be painful!
I’ve crossed the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border three times so far, each time in a vehicle and with a dog. As I’ve worked on driving the entire Pan-American Highway, I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at crossing international borders by land. The Nicaragua-Costa Rica border can be a headache in both directions; Nicaragua is the last CA-4 country and has a strict government/police force to be aware of at the border for both entering and exiting the country.
If you decide not to fly from Costa Rica to Nicaragua (or vice versa), your options are to drive or take a bus. This article will focus on driving yourself, but the immigration steps should remain the same if you’re on a bus.
This information is correct as of January 2023.
Basic Tips for Crossing the Nicaragua-Costa Rica Border:
- As a general rule, don’t leave a window until someone gives you a clear hand signal or verbal confirmation that you’re done.
- Keep careful track of your originals – don’t accidentally leave them anywhere!
- Bring photocopies and originals of all documents: passport, license, COVID vaccination, title, registration, pet vaccines.
- Sort all of your papers in plastic protectors and tabs in a 3-ring binder. This is a lifesaver! I have separate tabs for me, the vehicle, the pets, original documents, and past countries. I carefully keep copies and originals separate and NEVER throw out ANY receipts or slips of paper I’m given. Never.
- Bring water and snacks in a bag. These borders can take AGES and sipping on water or munching some chips can really save your mood and patience.
- Have $100 in cash in a variety of small bills – ideally USD for this border. This is more than you’ll need, but that’s better than not having enough. There are no ATMs at the border and they will not take card.
- Have a pen in your bag.
Driving from Costa Rica to Nicaragua (Or Nicaragua to Costa Rica): FAQ
What are road conditions like in Nicaragua and Costa Rica?
I’m happy to report that most of the driving on the Pacific side of Nicaragua and Costa Rica is quite safe and pretty. The Nicaraguan side of the Pan-American Highway tends to be well-shaded, with gorgeous trees arching over the road. You’ll pass the enormous Lake Cocibolca, often covered in whitecap waves due to the strong winds that power wind farms. On the Costa Rican side, the road gets a bit windier but is still well-maintained.
The roads to Tamarindo and San Juan del Sur, two of the biggest tourist destinations on either side of the border, are also well-maintained. That said, roads to minor or less-discovered towns can be in varying stages of disrepair. I’ve encountered plenty of flooded roads (even in the dry season), construction delays that last hours, and just plain dusty, potholed roads to gorgeous surf spots.
How long does it take to get from Nicaragua to Costa Rica (or Costa Rica to Nicaragua?
I’ve compiled a small table of driving times for major cities and destinations around the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border on the Pacific side. These are driving times only and do not account for border crossing times, delays, or bus timetables.
Orange indicates a timetable that starts or ends at the border while red indicates an estimate that crosses the Peñas Blancas border. See below to read more about the border crossing time.
How long does it take to cross the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border by car?
This border generally takes between 3 and 5 hours to cross. Assume that crossing the border will delay you by 2-3 hours if you arrive early and are well-organized on a quiet day; it can take 5 hours or more if you arrive at late morning and are behind a lot of Tico buses.
What paperwork do I need to cross the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border?
- Passport + copies
- Vaccination card
- Driver’s license + copies (if you have a car)
- Forma migratoria from the country you are leaving, plus exit stamps
- The online form to enter Nicaragua (fill out ~1 week before you travel)
- A receipt that you’ve paid your exit tax from Costa Rica, which you can do online ($8)
- $12 USD for entrance
For your vehicle:
- Title + copies
- Registration – they’ll want to see your license plate (placa), which doesn’t appear on US titles. Show your registration instead.
- Import form from the country you’re leaving, plus exit stamps
- $18 in USD – $3 for fumigation and $15 for vehicle import
- $12 in USD or Cordoba for insurance
For your dog or cat:
- A health certificate that is less than 10 days old. Despite extensive Googling in English and Spanish, I wasn’t able to find these forms online. Go to a SENASA vet in the country you’re leaving and ask for the export permit paper; they should be able to help you out.
- Copies of vaccinations
- $10 per pet
Crossing the Border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua with a Car and a Dog: A Step-by-Step Guide
I will start by describing the northbound (Costa Rica to Nicaragua) border crossing. Scroll down to find the southbound instructions for the Nicaragua to Costa Rica border.
Most people will cross at the Peñas Blancas border, which is located on the Pan-American Highway along the Pacific side of Lago Cocibolca. This is the only Nicaragua-Costa Rica border that I’ve personally crossed, so we’ll focus on that here.
Northbound Costa Rica to Nicaragua Border Crossing with a Van and a Dog: Step-by-Step Guide
Step 1: Get to the Border
While heading north on the Pan-American Highway towards Nicaragua, you’ll hit some rolling hills where you lose cell service. As you approach the border, you may start to see semi trucks backed up. Follow the other small cars that pass them on the right. Do not wait in line with the 18-wheelers.
Step 2: Legally exit Costa Rica
First up, you’ll go to “Migracion.” Park your vehicle inside the chain-link fence and head towards the line. Make sure you pay your $8 exit tax (link here) before you reach the window.
You’ll show your passport and answer a few quick questions, then you’re done.
Step 3: Export your Vehicle from Costa Rica
Now you’ll backtrack a bit towards the “Aduana” area – ask for directions, as it’s a bit hidden. I think you can do steps 2 and 3 in either order, but I did Migracion first and Aduana second. Show your vehicle import papers and insurance. They’ll give you a little slip of paper and stamp your documents – do not lose it.
Step 4: Pass Costa Rican exit checks
As you edge your way past the semi trucks, you’ll be stopped at least once (maybe twice) by Costa Rican officials. I was stopped by a police officer and then a man in a polo and a lanyard. The policeman checked my passport and the polo-wearing man took the tiny slip of paper from my vehicle export.
Step 5: Show COVID vaccination proof and get your Aduana form
Next you’ll be stopped by Nicaraguan health officials and Aduana officials. Show your COVID vaccination card and ensure you get an Aduana form to fill out for yourself and your vehicle.
Step 6: Fumigate your vehicle
You’ll kind of veer right, then left as you leave the health checkpoint. Aim towards the big carwash-looking thing, where your vehicle will be rinsed with pesticides. Nothing more to do here, just drive through and then park by the big immigration/customs building.
Step 7: COVID clearance, again
After parking, head towards the giant building – but don’t go in! Right as you approach from the Costa Rican side, you’ll need to veer right to another health check. Here they check your COVID vaccination card again and give you another slip (don’t lose it).
Step 8: Migration into Nicaragua
Enter the big building and get in line. You’ll need to show your passport and answer a few basic questions about where you’re going (they’ll want an address, even if you’re in a camper van), final destination, length of stay, and profession. You’ll pay $12 in USD (or Cordoba but with a markup) – keep your receipt!
At this point, if you have two people, it might be nice to split up. The line to import your vehicle can be LONG, so one person can handle pets, Aduana outside, fumigation, and import fees (steps 9-12) while the other person waits in the final import line. The import line (step 13) took me 90 minutes the 2nd time I crossed this border.
If you have baggage, you MAY need to scan it after migration. If so, make sure they sign and stamp that Aduana form. A friend had a rolling bag in my vehicle once, and they had to scan it. They didn’t make me remove anything else from the vehicle.
Step 9: Import your pet(s)
You probably can do this step at any stage after migration, but I did it right after migration and before dealing with the car. Head directly towards Nicaragua, past the luggage scanners. In the far corner of the building (as far to the right as you can go while facing Nicaragua, and as close to Nicaragua as you can get), you’ll find the Agropecuaria/SENASA/Cuarantena office. Show them your pet’s paperwork and pay $10 per pet (they want USD).
They wanted to see my pet’s vaccinations, the SENASA or USDA APHIS form, my passport, and my vehicle title. The exact documents seemed a bit random; they’ve changed each time I’ve crossed this border. Just have them ready.
NOTE: when I crossed on Christmas Eve, I had to do all of this paperwork in the Transit area with the big truckers. This took much longer and was pretty annoying, but the agriculture office was closed. If this happens to you, ask for directions to the “tranmite” or “cuarantena” area, which is across a big parking lot to the right and back if you’re facing Nicaragua. The process was broadly the same, just slower.
Step 10: Go through Aduana with your vehicle
Now head BACK OUTSIDE towards your vehicle. There are these little kiosks in the parking lot with more officials. Approach them for Aduana. They’ll want your original passport and driver’s license, as well as original title and registration. They may take copies, so have them ready.
They’ll then go inspect the vehicle with you to confirm VIN and license plate. 2 out of 3 times I’ve crossed this border, they’ve also inspected the vehicle. They checked my spices (sniffing oregano and salt to confirm they’re not drugs), opened a few drawers, pointed at a few areas and asked what they stored. They also asked if I had a drone – drones are illegal in Nicaragua, period.
They’ll stamp and sign that Aduana paper you got at step 5. As always, keep ALL papers they hand you, no matter how small.
In 2018 at this border, I had to drive the car into an x-ray and let the car be searched by a dog. I think we were unlucky with a random search, as I haven’t had to do that since.
Step 11: Pay for fumigation of your vehicle
Head back inside and past migration and bag check area. A bit to the left of agropecuaria (in the back right corner of the building) is the fumigation window. Pay $3 and get your receipt. I cannot remember if this happens before or after step 11 below; I believe I did it after.
Step 12: Pay vehicle import permit.
Now head to the back left area of the Nicaragua entry. There’s a gap between the final window to the left and the wall. This leads to a glass-walled office with 3 desks and some tourism info. Here you’ll pay your $15 import fee for your vehicle. Again, get stamped/signed and keep any receipts given here.
Step 13: Fully import your vehicle
Now you’re finally ready for the big line by baggage check. Only the driver should get in line; they don’t want multiple people from the same party here. This line took 90 minutes once, but has also been abandoned at times. Hopefully you’ll get lucky!
You’ll need to show your passport, license, title, registration, fumigation receipt, Aduana form, and import permit receipt. They’ll stamp you out and you’re ALMOST DONE!
Step 14: Show final papers as you drive out
You’ll be stopped as you drive out of the border at least once. Be ready to show your vehicle import papers and passport.
Step 15: Get insurance
Insurance is required to drive in Nicaragua. A “Seguros America” person was right after the papers check. Pay $12 and get those papers! You may need to show them to the police later. NOW YOU ARE DONE!
At many borders, you’ll hit 1-3 police checkpoints in the first half hour of driving after the border. Keep your papers handy.
Southbound Crossing the Border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica with a Van and a Dog: Step-by-Step Guide
The process for crossing into Costa Rica from Nicaragua (southbound) is broadly similar, but the order of operations is different. I last crossed this border on December 26 2022, so the offices were very understaffed and things were chaotic with holiday travel. This border took me over 5 hours – 3 hours just to exit Nicaragua!
I will update this article when I next cross this border (March 2023) as things may be different during non-holiday travel.
Step 1: Get to the border
The Pan-American Highway approaching the Peñas Blancas border from Nicaragua is gorgeous – straight, windy, and shaded with huge trees. As you approach the border, carefully pass the long lines of trucks. Do not wait in line with the semis. You’ll be stuck for DAYS.
I had a cop stop me and ask for $5 as I did this; he told me it was illegal. I pointed to the other vehicle ahead of me and said I was just following them, and told him “No” when he asked for $5. He laughed and waved me on. You may not be so luck in avoiding bribes.
As you enter the lot, try to get someone to give you the migra/aduana form – they should be available at the kiosk in the parking lot. Fill it out as you approach the big building.
Step 2: Legally exit Nicaragua
Once you’ve parked, grab your documents and head into the giant customs/immigration building. There may be a SUPER long line, but we paid $1 to an official in a polo and a lanyard and she waved us in ahead of the busses. Show your passport and answer a few questions about where you’re coming from, where you’re going, your profession, etc.
Step 3: Export your pets
From here, you’ll need to ask for SENASA/agropecuara/cuarantena for your pets. This is in the far left side of the building when facing Costa Rica; you’ll have to pass through a “do not enter” area to get to the Nicaragua side. Just get help finding it if you need it.
The day after Christmas, this office was closed. We had to head to the cuarentena/SENASA area for big transit (semis). This is across the big parking lot to your left. Just keep asking and people will point you there.
I have never had to do this at another border, and honestly I think the agents were playing hardball with us here. But we had to do it. We showed our import papers from when we originally crossed the Honduras/Nicaragua border, got stamped, and were on our merry way.
Step 4: Export your vehicle from Nicaragua
Take all your papers to the line to export from Nicaragua. You’ll need your passport, license, import papers from when you got into Nicaragua, and that Aduana form (stamped and signed by a variety of people depending on the day and mood of officers). This step is pretty arduous and frustrating; it took us several tries to get it right.
On December 26, I had to wait in a HUGE line on the Nicaragua entry side. This line took 90 minutes because there was one woman working BOTH lines and there was no dedicated desk to exit Nicaragua.
Step 5: Prove to the kiosk you’re ready to leave Nicaragua
There’s a kiosk in the parking lot. Take your papers there. They’ll inspect your vehicle, search it, and confirm VIN and license plate. If you’re missing anything here, they’ll send you back for more signatures and stamps.
We had to show that Aduana form, passport, license, and title at this step.
They’ll give you the final sign-off to head to Costa Rica.
Step 6: Drive out of Nicaragua
As you head to Costa Rica, you’ll be stopped AGAIN for papers. Show them everything you’ve got; mostly they want that damn Aduana paper. If the kiosk in step 5 cleared you, you’re probably ready for this step.
They’ll take the Aduana paper away from you here.
At first they wanted me to return to the border area to pay an export fee for driving a minibus, but after a brief argument it was agreed that the van was not a minibus and that I did not have to pay. It’s a “casa rodante.” Phew.
Step 7: Fumigate your vehicle
Follow directions to the right and drive through the pesticide carwash. Remember to close your windows. This is free and your first step in Costa Rica.
Step 8: Costa Rican Migration
Now head to the left and up a little rise towards migration. Park in the shade or in the big parking lot just past migration. Backtrack and get in line.
This line moves quickly but can be long if you’re behind a tourist bus. You’ll have to show your passport and answer some basic travel questions. Pretty smooth.
Step 9: Import your vehicle to Costa Rica
If you’re not Costa Rican, you can’t go to the Aduana that’s right next to the migration building. Sorry.
Now get BACK in your vehicle and drive about 300m (maybe 500m) up the road towards Aduana. This is kind of tucked off on the right side of the road past migration. Park in the shade on the side of the road.
A guard will be managing a line by a chain-link fence. Tell them you’re here for seguaros (insurance) and importing a vehicle (importacion de un vehiculo). They’ll wave you in when they’re ready for you, and you’ll sit in a chair with all your papers.
You’ll be called up first to insurance, where you’ll pay a nominal fee to insure your car.
Then you’ll be called up for imports. These two processes were smooth but a bit slow.
Step 10: Pass your pets through agriculture
In the same building, but back and to the right, you’ll find cuarantena/agropecuara/SENASA. Show them your vaccination papers and import/export papers for the pets, get signed and stamped, and you’re done.
Step 11: Exit the border area
Collect all your papers and drive out of the border area. You’ll have to show them at least once on your way out.
I hope you find this information useful. If you have any updates or additions after your own experience, please comment below! I am also happy to answer any questions you have about the process if you ask in the comments area. Follow along with all of our Pan-American Travels on YouTube or Instagram.