CA-4 Travel Realities

I just completed a trip to Guatemala and back. I will be posting some items about the trip here and others on this week. This post is specifically about CA-4 travel as things don't seem right. That is, what happened, doesn't make sense.

Here are the parameters. I was traveling on a US passport (because my Nicaraguan cédula was expired -- itself another story). I paid an overstay fine and headed to Guatemala by air. When I entered Guatemala my Passport was stamped and I was given a 90 day visa (and no fee to enter). So far, that made sense.

I left Guatemala by bus (another story). On exit, my passport was stamped as leaving Guatemala (which surprised me as I had assumed once in the CA-4 on a tourist visa there would be no passport stamping until I left the CA-4. There were no passport stamping entering or leaving El Salvador. Thus, my passport looked like I was nowhere.

Honduras is where things get really strange. First, there was an entry fee of $18 (for usanos or Canadians, $3 for citizens of Nicaragua and other countries). TicaBus collected our passports before entering Honduras and they were returned to us, with Honduras entry and exit stamps, by Nicaragua at El Espino. We never even set foot on Honduran ground. There was no Nicaragua entry stamp and no Nicaragua fees.

At this point, here is how things look:

  • The last stamp with a visa attached was my entry into Guatemala.
  • I have no entry stamp that does not have an associated exit stamp.
  • If CA-4 travel works I should not have had to pay a fee for Honduras.
  • If CA-4 travel doesn't work I should have had to pay a fee to enter Nicaragua.

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My late 2011 and early 2012 trips: I flew into Honduras both times. In the Honduran airport, no arrival fees (never had one in 20 years) but I got an entrance stamp and a free 90 days on the stapled into passport, piece-of-paper "tourist visa". When I left Honduras I was charged $2 or so via a NicaBus trip, though there is no exit stamp in the passport proper and they did not remove the Honduran paper visa from the passport. To enter Nicaragua minutes later I got a passport entrance stamp, and also a new piece-of-paper tourist visa stapled in – with a fresh 30 days on it; for this I was charged $12 or so (I recall recent blogs per backpacker, backpack forever and elsewhere, where authors claim their HN=NI border was $12, too. We asked Nicabus and were told the amount was correct and, in fact, the driver's assistant quoted us the price before we bought the ticket and again when he collected passports; these same blogs also have accounts of huge 90-day overstay fines per leaving Honduras - though these people admit they did overstay the visa by weeks, etc).

When it came time to get back to Honduras, I was charged $2 to leave Nicaragua, and they removed their tourist visa from my passport, though there is no exit stamp. Via local bus trips to/from the borders I was charged $8 or so to get back into Honduras, and a new entrance stamp. My tourist visa is replaced with a new one, so I have another 90 days in Honduras via a trip to Nicaragua. Nevertheless, at the borders I was told, more than once, to be sure not to lose the paper tourist visa stapled into my passport. Curious instructions, given that the entire process is computerized. In all, weird, but not any weirder than when my Honduran wife had Honduran tourist visas in her Honduran passport. It is worth noting that my Honduran wife, Honduran nephew and Nicaraguan friend and his kids, did not pay entrance-exit fees on this trip. The 4 North Americans and a Dutch guy were the only ones charged in our group, and from what I could tell other foreigners paid the same or slightly more, and those who paid more might have done so via their bus service, etc.

I am not so sure your assumption of CA-4=free- borders for all is correct. It might have been the intention of the law, but the original law was not set up to deal with foreigners, not really. As I understand it, CA-4 guarantees that citizens of the CA-4 countries have free border access within the region. This "free" part might not extend to foreigners (though a cedula might work to some benefit?). What CA-4, primarily, did for/to foreigners was make it a single-visa region, so once inside you do not need new visas for each country. But, a visa and a border fee or tax might not be the same thing, legally (one might not entail the other - and the law might not comment on this, and silence on it could mean almost anything). The trade off for that is that you are tied to your original 90 days and border hopping within CA4 will not itself renew a tourist visa.

Irrespective of the actual laws, real world practice tells me: (1) CA-4 only applies to land and sea borders, not airports; (2) At many borders the border agents haven't a clue what they are doing and might not know of CA-4; (3) At borders in Guatemala and Honduras, if you flew into either country as your entrance to CA-4, then they renew your 90 days by border hopping – and least a few times; (4) Some Honduran borders still have the 1998 Border Regulations framed and hanging on the wall (almost always with: a not-so-nice looking $0.50 Chinese frame, a nail half driven into the cement and bent over, and cracked and mostly missing frame glass - since neither the frame nor the nail actually kept it on the all on the first try); (5) You can easily find improper stories per any country/border, though I suspect Honduras has more than others and El Salvador has fewest - and this isn't all due to the coup. The 90 days and fines for brief overstay make little sense and are applied haphazardly. I know or know of quite a few people who have paid much more for being in 125 or so days on a 90 day visa at a land border than people who have been in Honduras 7-12 years, never went to immigration or got a cedula, and paid a "fee" at the airport.

Great Information, Thank You

The devil is always in the details.

I went back and forth a lot to Mexico from the US when I was building my house down there several years back. After a while it got routine, customs people got to know me, would usually accept my declaration without walking out to the truck and checking.

I DID have some "interesting" experiences, however. Courtesy, patience, and a "token of friendship" solved many problems.

More information

My goal here is to try to decipher how this works as information fpr NL readers. Clearly expecting it to work the same each time/for everyone is not realistic. I think the best we can hope for is a list of recent common experiences.

I do want to make it clear that when the TicaBus dude was explaining the fees for Honduras, he very specifically said "citizens of" rather than "resident of". Thus, my assumption is that had I been traveling on my Nicaraguan cédula that I still would have been charged $18 rather than $3. (A Nicaraguan resident cédula clearly identifies your country of citizenship.

When flying, the immigration form has a section called "Travel document" where the choices include CA-4 (cédula) and Passport. As Guatemala didn't charge any fees this is probably a non-issue for them but I wonder if things would be different depending on which you chose if flying to Honduras?

I'll Be Driving

back and forth a bit next year, so I should have some information on how it works with a vehicle. I want to see coffee plantings in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador; that seems the easiest way to do it, and travel to and from the US at the same time. I'll probably do some local driving from Nicaragua into Honduras and back as well.

Brief aside: I did some IT work last week for a guy in Kenya who has both coffee and tea plantings. We're supposed to trade beans down the road.

It's hard to know how it works exactly with Tico Bus, since they did the border interaction instead of you. They are going to err on the conservative side, collect your money; whether it was required might be another story.

Another related question: when you register your US origin vehicle in Nicaragua, do they take your existing license plates? I would like to maintain a dual vehicle registration. I see many vehicles going back and forth between Mexico and US with both countries' plates. I understand that I will have to give up the title, but I can always get a duplicate title. This would NOT work in the US (and really no reason for it) --as everything is computerized these days. You are not even asked for an insurance card anymore, that shows up on the computer when the plate is run (probably along with your entire life history).

The Nicaraguans are used to seeing Usano tourist plates. Coming back into the US I would be automatically diverted to secondary if I didn't have a plate that showed up in the computer.