Have you ever lost your passport or got it stolen? Ever needed something notarized? Well those are probably the main reasons any US citizen would visit their embassy in Costa Rica. I just went to renew my passport and want to share some of my experiences about renewing and what Costa Ricans go through to solicit a visa to the United States.
Always check online first for your service and see if you need an appointment. In order for me to renew my passport I had to schedule an appointment online. Even though all I had to do was turn in two pages of paperwork, a passport photo, and pay $110 I still had to get an appointment.
Try to get into the embassy without an appointment unless it is an emergency. The security guards are super friendly to US citizens however they don’t let anyone by unless you are on the list.
Leave as much as you can at home. If you have a phone you have to leave it with the guard and if you bring a purse be prepared to have it completely emptied out in front of everyone and passed through a metal detector. You literally feel like you have arrived to the US with the amount of security to get into the building. It is just like the airport except you keep your shoes on, for now at least.
Bring pepper spray or guns to the embassy. After a very pleasant greeting from the security guard I was immediately asked if I was packing heat or carrying mace. “Excuse me, what?” I had to clarify. I was pretty sure I was in a safe neighborhood but I was pretty puzzled, they must ask that for a reason, right?? It’s illegal to carry firearms in Costa Rica so even if I was it would have been in my best interest to say no. Well, if it is on the guard’s script something must have happened before. They should do it Minnesota style and put paper signs on the front doors of public buildings saying “NO FIREARMS PERMITTED”. Gotta love that constitution.
Get your picture at the embassy. I paid $2 for two passport size photos inside the embassy. I only needed one and I probably paid more than I should have but the peace of mind knowing that it is going to meet their requirements is worth it. I’ve tried to go in San Ramon and get passport pictures and they don’t seem to understand that it must be a white background, looking straight ahead etc. The one time I went in town I came back with high school yearbook style photos.
You can try to take your own with a digital camera but if you only need a few copies really $2 can’t be beat.
Try to help your Costa Rican buddies at the visa interview at the embassy. In the past I’ve been able to go in with my friends and accompany them right to the interview. The agent would even ask me questions to vouch for their character. That is not the case anymore, hence the prior point about not trying to enter the embassy unless you have some type of appointment. Now they give you a piece of paper right when you enter explaining if you try to accompany them they will deny everyone’s visa in the group.
Enjoy first class service. US citizen? Please pass go, collect $200, enjoy complementary champagne while relaxing in the jacuzzi. They really have signs that say “If you are a US citizen, do not wait in line, go directly to window…” For anyone that has ever had to deal with Costa Rican bureaucracy this is a breath of fresh air. If you are not a US citizen you have to stand in line and get shifted from station to station, answer repeated questions about why you are here what you are doing etc etc. I felt like a king to be able to walk around freely.
Take pictures. Ref: this blog entry.
Encourage your Costa Rican friends to adapt this level of efficiency and organization. What takes thirty minutes here would take 2 hours at any Costa Rica government agency. Trust me, I’ve woken up at 4am to get to Costa Rican immigration at 6am to wait in line till it opens at 8am, then wait another couple of hours just to be able to turn in a handful of documents (which coincidentally have been sitting in their office now for about a year with no activity, but that is another post in itself). The embassy cuts out all the BS. No phones, entrance restrictions, guards at every station constantly making sure people are moving from station to station to get through the process as quickly as possible. To renew my passport it took 30 minutes and that was because one of the agents called in sick. The lady at the counter even apologized for the delay. I was more concerned about my friends trying to get visas. There were about 50 people ahead of them however they got through all of them in about an hour.
Schedule an appointment in the afternoon in the rainy season. When you get there you’ll probably have to wait outside a bit and there is no shelter from the rain (which I’m sure there is a very good reason for not having a covered area). The sooner you identify yourself as a US citizen the sooner they’ll let you in. If you’re not a US citizen, bring an umbrella and a plastic bag for your papers as they do check them in the street.
Support your tico friends. Help them navigate the online visa application process (not everything is translated to Spanish). Keep in mind they are probably not used to this kind of no BS organization and if they do something wrong the penalties are enforced.
Reiterate the following:
-The cost for completing the whole visa process is currently $160. If you ARE NOT approved for a visa you ARE NOT REFUNDED anything. This is for Costa Ricans asking for a travel visa to the United States.
Consider it a donation to the US government. So make sure you qualify. I’d be willing to bet that most days at least one person leaves the embassy in tears. One twenty something year old girl there was an assistant at a daycare center who had only been working there for three months, single, no university degree, no car, no property. She didn’t leave crying but seriously I could have saved her $160 with a quick conversation, I know people with more qualifications than her and still get denied.
If you live in Costa Rica and rarely/never go to the embassy then you are probably staying out of trouble and living the good life. Or, you’re probably in a lot of trouble 😉
Did I miss anything? What has your experience(s) been like? Let me know in the comments!