How to Renew a U.S. Passport in Costa Rica
Entering Costa Rica with an almost expired passport
As I stood in line at immigration the last time I came back from the states, I practiced my Spanish explanation for how I planned to handle my soon to be expired passport. Yo voy a la embajada Diciembre 17 por mi pasaporte. Tengo cita. Gracias. I kept reciting it over and over until I got to the officer who very kindly told me there was no reason for an appointment as my flight back to the U.S. was scheduled before the actual expiration of my passport.
Seeing no reason to out myself as a perpetual tourist with an obligatory (and arbitrary) last minute one way flight, I smiled and said thank you and moved on with my new stamp.
However, I did have an appointment to renew my passport in the U.S. Embassy in San Jose scheduled. Thank goodness I thought to schedule it several months out, because when I checked to reschedule, there are no available appointments until April 2022. I am here to share this experience with you, so when you live here, you will know how to renew your passport when the time comes. Scroll all the way down for my quick takeaways.
Making the appointment and getting ready
I made my appointment online here, and printed the form I needed from this site also. There are a variety of forms depending on your situation, but mine was pretty basic as all I need is to renew my current passport set to expire in February 2022.
I booked my flights to and from San Jose on Sansa for less than what I could hire a driver. Book ahead if you need to fly because flights during the busy season fill up quickly and there’s only a few per day. I couldn’t risk taking a shared shuttle that might run late, and I needed to do this in one day. Fortunately, I know a guy in San Jose who drives Uber part time. The rest of the time he’s a PE teacher in the schools and a personal trainer. Super nice guy.
The week of my appointment I had passport photos made in town for about $12.00, stopped by the Correos (post office) to pay ahead for shipment of my passport from the embassy back to my locality in Guanacaste, filled out my paperwork, and called my driver friend to confirm details.
Getting to San Jose for the appointment
On the morning of the appointment, I caught the 7:00am flight through Liberia to San Jose. If you’ve never flown out of our little airport in a cow field, you must! It’s a treasure. Upon landing, Stephen came and fetched me from domestic arrivals and off we went through endless construction traffic to the area of town close to Geroma.
In my research I discovered that there were little shops across from the U.S. Embassy that will do passport photos, visa paperwork, and have lockers so you can store all your stuff. The Embassy has very strict rules about what you can come into the facility with and it does not include cell phones, computers, bags, purses, smart watches, etc. I asked Stephen to drop me at the shops so I could rent a locker for about $3.00 for the day.
I locked up my stuff, finished a coffee and headed across the street. I am not joking about what they allow in the building. I got sent back to my locker for my apple watch. Thankfully, I was fifteen minutes early.
Walking through the process
You arrive, walk down the street to the U.S. Citizen Services entrance, buzz the door and go through security. Once inside, you stop at the desk on the left to go over paperwork, then you head to a different office with tellers where you pay your fees.
An Enlightening moment: Here is where I presented my receipt from Correos. I was told I could either have my passport canceled (hole punched) and the new one shipped to me in four weeks via Correos OR I could keep my passport intact (no holes punched) and then come back to San Jose to pick up my new one in two weeks. Um. With no cell phone to consult anyone, I made the decision to keep my passport intact. Otherwise, I couldn’t fly back to Tamarindo. No airport for me.
The good news is, I was told, that you can simply write a letter and have a friend pick up your passport for you at the Embassy. I said, “Is that form on the website also?” My very busy teller friend replied, “Oh no, you can just write your own letter, no big deal.” I also asked this teller what I should do when I realized if I had my passport canceled I wouldn’t be able to catch my return flight. She empathetically shrugged, with very light emphasis on the empathetic part.
In her defense, I’m sure she sees a barrage of people like me all day long who didn’t completely think through the return options. At this point, I plan to return in person. This handwritten letter option seems like it could go tits up.
I digress. After you pay, (and contemplate your lack of options for passport pick up) you head outside to wait in some chairs for them to call your name. At this point, they have collected your passport, money, photos and paperwork. This is kind of a fun experiment in what will people do when they don’t have a cell phone on which to focus? There were several of us waiting together and we chatted each other up.
This is also where Costa Rica nationals go to get their visas for U.S. travel so it’s pretty busy with people in line to apply. After about 20 minutes, they called me back to a different teller who returned to me my still intact passport. Phew. As much as the convenience of having it shipped via Correos is appealing, the convenience of a flight back from San Jose to Tamarindo, rather than a drive, is more appealing.
On the other side
After obtaining my passport, I walked back through the security area, back across the street, and picked up my stuff from the locker. I called my friend Stephen who came to pick me up, found us an amazing lunch spot, and drove me back through construction traffic to the airport where I worked online until my flight back in the afternoon.
Normally, I’d have used this time in San Jose to shop, but I am shopped out, and I have everything I need because of my two recent trips back to the states. Here’s my little shout out to the domestic terminal at the San Jose airport - it’s wireless gets bogged down, but it has comfy seating, lots of charging areas, decent food items, and very clean bathrooms. It’s not a terrible place to spend a few hours working. (Or watching Lost in Space - no judgment)
That’s it. Here are my big takeaways from this experience of renewing my U.S. passport in Costa Rica:
Book ahead. Like way ahead, months ahead.
Organize your materials locally and ahead of time.
Have your transportation nailed down.
Make an advanced plan for how you’ll get your new passport to you.
Do not wear your smart watch when you try to go through security. Dur.
I hope this experience helps you when you need to get your U.S. passport renewed while living in Costa Rica. I have to get my kid’s done this coming summer, so that will be another new experience for us to pass along in the coming months.