The Panama Papers

Our final Central American border crossing took us from Cahuita in Costa Rica across the border right through to Bocas del Toro in Panama, both on the Caribbean side.  Lots of people (tourists included) cross between these two countries every day, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this. 

So why did this border crossing cause us so much angst in the days leading up to it?  The reason is simple: the lack of clarity surrounding exactly what the immigration officials on the Panama side want from new arrivals.  When you start talking to people about your plans and you mention that you are heading into Panama, every conversation turned very quickly to the question “do you have your flight details ready?”

L: Paying the US$8 (officially US$7) exit fee at the Costa Rica side of the border; R: the path up to the Costa Rican border officials

But what flight details are in fact required?

  • Is a flight required or is it just evidence of onward travel out of Panama?  You hear stories that land border officials are no longer accepting an international bus ticket out of Panama as sufficient evidence of onward travel (even though it is of course evidence of just that!).  And what about evidence of a booking on a sailing yacht to Cartagena: is that sufficient?
  • And to where does this flight have to be going?  A general consensus seems to be that its destination should not be in Central America but would a ticket to say Miami be sufficient?  Some blogs even suggest that it is necessary to prove that you have a ticket booked to the country where your passport was issued.  But what if you are say an Australian living in the UK who is just on holiday in Central America with no intention of popping “down under” on your return route to your home in the UK?
  • And does the flight have to be from Panama itself or is a flight from another Central American country e.g. would a flight from San José in Costa Rica suffice? But if that is sufficient, how is that “evidence” of onward travel out of Panama (you’re going to have to get back to Costa Rica to get that flight and that’s probably going to be by a public bus which doesn’t even issue a ticket let alone a ticket in advance)?
  • And what’s the time frame for this flight ticket?  Again if you read things online, some people say that the flight needs to be within 90 days of entry into Panama.  But this is a little curious given that (all being well and assuming that you are going to be let in!), you usually get a six month stay in Panama. 

Of course, I hear you say, just read the official information on the Panama government websites or the travel abroad section on the UK’s website.   Good luck with that – the problem is there’s nothing really 100% definitive on either which just means you are left in the lap of the gods.

The problem is that a lot of people who are travelling long term through Central and South America and making up their routes as they go (which is very common) simply don’t have a return flight or even a confirmed plan of their route out of Panama.  While we did have a plan to exit Panama (a 5 day sailing trip to Cartagena), this didn’t exactly fit the bill of a return flight to our home country.

L: the bridge marks the border between Costa Rica and Panama; R: the old bridge (now disused although some people seemed just to wander back and forth at will)

As well as the onward flight requirement, you also read that it’s necessary to have funds of at least USD$500 per person to enter Panama.  Again, it’s not entirely clear what this means – do you literally have to turn up with that much cash in used US dollar bills?  Or is flashing a credit card sufficient?  Some reports say that if you are going to use your credit card, you then have to show a hard copy of a current credit card statement showing sufficient available credit to meet this somewhat arbitrary financial requirement.

And then you might also need 1 or 2 (again it’s not clear how many) copies of your passport to hand over as well.  That of course means you have to try and find a copy shop that can print out all this stuff for you as it seems unlikely that just trying to show screen shots on mobile phones would be sufficient.  But again, who really knows?

The worry that we might be denied entry for failing to meet any (or all) of these specific requirements loomed over us in the days before we attempted the border crossing, the big headache being the return flight issue.  What to do?  We looked hard for “refundable” flights online but there were so many terms and conditions attached to the definition of “refundable” that our heads quickly began to spin.   After all, if you are going to book a flight back to London that you don’t need and which may not be fully refundable, that would be a rather expensive option. 

So what about reserving a flight but not paying for it?  Copa Airlines allows you to hold a reservation for up to 24 hours without paying for it: would that satisfy a border guard? Given it’s Panama’s national airline, one has to assume there might be some level of familiarity with this booking option and, to be honest you wouldn’t have to be that eagle eyed to spot that it wasn’t a fully paid for confirmed flight: so how could that satisfy the entry requirement? 

What about using a fake flight?  There’s a whole host of websites that allow you to create your own flight booking which you then print out as “evidence” of your confirmed flight.  But here’s the fly in that ointment: a US ex pat living in Cahuita to whom I was chatting a day before we were due to cross told me that the last time he had gone into Panama at Guabito (which was exactly where we were intending to enter), the border official had had taken his flight confirmation number and then actually logged onto the Delta airlines website to verify that he had a genuine booking.  Well that’s not going to work with a fake flight is it?  You’re either going to have to pull out an Oscar earning acting performance in looking surprised, angry or upset (or all 3) that there seems to be something wrong with your booking or you’re going to have to admit that you have effectively lied to the border guard by producing details of a fake flight.  Either way that looks like a recipe for a bottom clenching moment or two. 

Long queues at the immigration desk on the Panama side

Or perhaps, if challenged and you haven’t already bought a flight in advance, you need to get ready to bite the bullet and book that US$ 105 flight to Miami (the cheapest flight we could find) on the spot (assuming you have mobile data which you might not of course having just crossed into a new country) and be prepared to throw it away (if, of course, a flight to the US would work for a UK citizen).

What a conundrum.  Would excessive tears or some sort of “facilitation” payment work?  But at what point should a “facilitation” payment be offered?  And if you’ve already had to flash US$500 in cash, just what sort of size of payment are we talking about?  The whole thing potentially gets trickier and trickier.

As we approached the border, the levels of angst from the lack of clarity regarding these entry requirements were hardly assuaged by being asked both by the Costa Rican “official” collecting the departure tax of US$8 (although your receipt only shows US$7 – go figure!) and the Costa Rican border official stamping me out of the country both asking if I had my flight details for the Panamanian side when frankly it was nothing really to do with them. 

And so what happened?  Well, we got in didn’t we!  While we were both asked for our flight details, the official processing Peter’s immigration took only a cursory look at his document before returning it, while my official didn’t even pull the piece of paper through the small cubby hole in the glass that separated us and so it just sat on the counter half way between us completely ignored.  And a few finger prints, an immigration photo plus some hearty stamping of passports later, we were both in with a permitted stay of 6 months, no difficult questions asked.

So what exactly is required?  I’m afraid I’m still none the wiser – it seems that this is likely to vary on the time of day when you are crossing (although we were early it was really busy when we were there and there was quite a long queue) and how efficient and/or officious the immigration official decides to be.   Take a deep breath, stay calm, smile a lot and be patient and go with the flow!

In contrast, leaving Panama could not have been easier: we didn’t even have to present ourselves in person at the border and instead the whole exit process was handled by the captain of our yacht on a small San Blas island!

The official “border” post in the San Blas islands

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