The Ultimate Backpacker Visa Guide to Central America
Climbing the crumbling steps of Mayan ruins in the Mexican sunshine while tropical birds squawk in the treetops. Sinking your toes into the sugary sand of a beach in Belize.
Swaying slowly in a hammock in a hostel in the Guatemalan jungle. Surfing on a black sand volcanic beach in a sleepy seaside town in Nicaragua. Watching monkeys swing through the canopy of a Costa Rican rainforest. Watching skyscraper-sized ships squeeze their way through the locks of the Panama Canal.
Central America is full of unforgettable travel experiences. It is an endlessly fascinating part of the world to explore and it offers everything from ancient ruins to mouthwatering street food to gorgeous natural parks and much more. It’s possible to backpack Central America on a very modest budget as there are many options for affordable accommodation. It’s also much safer than you might think.
To make your trip around Central America a little bit easier, I have created this guided to the travel visa requirements for each country.
Of course, this is just to give you an idea of what you can expect when you visit each Central American nation. Please be aware that the visa information is subject to change, so it is recommended that you double check the requirements before you go through the border yourself.
The Global Goose Guide to Travel Visas in Central America
Now, without further ado, here is what you need to know before traveling to all of these Central American countries:
*All Visa Fee Amounts are in US Dollars*
The perfect mix of lush Central American jungles and stunning Caribbean beaches, Belize is the best of both worlds. It is a fantastic destination for nature lovers, as there are many wildlife sanctuaries and natural parks teeming with creatures like tapirs, howler monkeys and jaguars. The underwater wildlife is also pretty dazzling – the Belize Barrier Reef is home to more than 500 species of tropical fish.
You’ll also discover stone temples built by Mayans and ancient tombs covered in elaborate markings. After a day of hiking through jungles, exploring ruins, scuba diving, kayaking or swimming, you can watch the sunset with a cold drink at a chilled out beach bar.
All visitors to Belize will need to have sufficient funds ($75 USD per day) as well as ongoing travel booked to their next destination. Citizens of the European Union as well as the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries do not need a visa to visit Belize.
Here is the full list of countries that are visa exempt:
Andorra, Barbados, South Korea, Swaziland, Suriname, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Antigua and Barbuda, United States, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Vatican City, Argentina, Australia, the Bahamas, Canada, Chile, Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica,Grenada, El Salvador, Fiji, the Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Honduras, Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Venezuela, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Japan, Kiribati, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Tuvalu, Uganda, Lesotho, Malawi, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia, Monaco, Namibia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia.
Also, all visitors with a valid visa for the Schengen Area are visa exempt for a maximum of 90 days. If your nationality is not on the list of visa exempt countries above, you will need to obtain a visa before your visit to Belize. This can be obtained at a British or Belizean embassy. If you are a national of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Haiti, India, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, North Korea, Lebanon, Libya, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Thailand you will require clearance in addition to a visa.
Lush jungles, thundering waterfalls, empty beaches… Costa Rica is an adventure waiting to happen. During our visit we saw wildlife nearly every day – from the sloth that slowly made its way across the street via the telephone wire while we ate dinner on a restaurant patio to the enormous iguanas that liked to lounge by the hotel pool.
Bright hued birds and butterflies soar over your heads and if you peer beneath the waters you’ll be dazzled by schools of rainbow-tinted fish. A quarter of the land in Costa Rica is under some type of environmental protection, so the biodiversity is incredible and it is a nature lover’s dream come true.
Most people who visit Costa Rica are able to enter without a visa and stay for a maximum of 90 days. Here is a list of the visa exempt countries, which include Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Canada, UK and the USA.
Although Indian visitors require a valid visa, visitors of any nationality who hold valid visas for Japan, Canada, US, South Korea or the Schengen do not need a prior visa. The visa should be valid for at least three months and should be stamped in your passport.
When you enter Costa Rica, make sure that you are able to show proof that you have onward travel booked out of the country as well as having the right travel visas for Central America. It is especially likely that you will be asked to show this if you are entering by land. This could be a flight out of the country, proof of passage on a cruise ship or a bus ticket out of the country. While it is likely that the immigration official will not ask you for this, it is still important to have it ready just in case.
You may also be asked to provide proof of a Yellow Fever vaccine if you are arriving from most neighbouring countries. Also, in some situations the Immigration official might ask you to show that you have enough funds to support yourself during your stay in the country.
Aside from the hats and the canal, most people haven’t heard very much about what Panama has to offer. However, this Central American destination has recently been named a hot destination by the New York Times and Conde Nast Traveller.
Panama City is a swanky metropolis with historic cobblestone streets, stylish restaurants, chilled out bars and elegant boutique hotels. However, it is the wild side of Panama that is getting a lot of attention. Head to the Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro to find sloths lounging in the trees, porpoise in the water and crabs scuttling along the beach.
Panama has 125 endemic animal species and whether you are into bird watching or snorkeling you will likely be rewarded with glimpses of rare and colourful both above and below the water. With two very long coasts and huge rainforest natural parks, this tropical destination has plenty to explore.
Citizens of several countries including the UK, Uruguay, Switzerland, Sweden, Singapore, San Marino, Portugal, Netherlands, Malta, Israel, Germany, Ireland, Brazil, Bolivia, Belgium, Austria, Argentina and Andorra do not require a visa to enter Panama if their visa is valid for at least six months. Visit the website of the Embassy of Panama for more details.
Those who have a valid passport for at least three months and a valid visa from either Canada, the UK, the USA or one of the member countries of the European Union (that has been used at least once to enter those countries) can enter the Republic of Panama regardless of their nationality, by purchasing a Tourist Card.
Also, citizens of certain countries such as the USA, Japan, Canada and Australia can enter Panama with a tourist visa that will be stamped on arrival. The cost will be automatically included in your airfare and it is valid for a stay of 180 days.
When you enter the country, make sure that you have a return ticket out of Panama and proof that you have at least $500. However, if you are a clean cut traveler coming from the USA or another developed country it is unlikely that you will be checked.
Mexico already feels familiar, due to the way the culture has been spread throughout the world. You’ve probably eaten Mexican food, listened to Mexican music – perhaps even attended a Cinco de Mayo festival or a Day of the Dead celebration.
However, there’s nothing like experiencing it firsthand. The tacos are fresher, tastier and more authentic, the colours are brighter and more vibrant, the sand of the beaches whiter and softer than you could have imagined.
From crumbling ancient Mayan ruins to enormous theme parks to traditional colonial towns and clear freshwater cenotes in caves – Mexico is packed with adventure. You could go hiking through a jungle, wildlife spotting in the desert, snorkeling on a Caribbean reef, bar hopping with hipsters in Mexico City and so much more.
You could stay at an all inclusive resort in Cancun, but if you want to experience the real Mexico it is entirely possible to travel independently on a budget.
If you plan to stay in Mexico for fewer than 180 days for the purpose of tourist or 30 days for business, you can obtain a tourist card at the border or on arrival at the airport. You will need to pay a fee of $22. If you are flying into Mexico, this is usually included in the price of your fare. The visa for tourists in Mexico will be valid for six months for single entry and there is the possibility to extend it in some circumstances.
Citizens of the following countries are eligible for this tourist card:
Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Andorra, Belize, Argentina, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Hong Kong, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Slovakia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Ireland, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Sweden, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Monaco, Netherlands, Singapore, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Romania, San Marino, Slovenia, Spain, South Korea, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, United States of America, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Make sure that you hold onto your tourist card during your stay so that you can present it when you leave. Keep in mind that you will need to show that you have a return ticket out of Mexico.
Citizens of Russia, Turkey and the Ukraine are eligible for the Electronic Authorization System, which is an online system that allows citizens to obtain their authorization to travel online. It is valid for 30 days and when you arrive you will be allowed to stay in Mexico for up to 180 days.
The Central America 4 Border Control Agreement (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua)
If you are from the USA and traveling to multiple countries in Central America, read up on the Central America 4 Border Control Agreement. This means that US Citizens who enter either Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua or El Salvador legally will also be able to travel freely within the other three countries for up to 90 days. However, if you are expelled from one of these countries, you will not be allowed to enter any country in the region.
It is even possible to request an extension if you want to stay longer in these four countries. Here is a helpful guide to extending your CA-4 Visa in Guatemala City.
If the thought of visiting El Salvador makes you nervous – you’re not alone. This underrated Central American country experiences a lot of bad press and the gang violence in international news keeps many travellers away. However, the truth is that the vast majority of this country is untouched by these issues and is quite safe. Most of the crime is concentrated within the gangs and tourists are not the target.
If you make the journey, you will discover lush coffee plantations growing in the shadows of volcanoes, excellent surfing on beautiful dark sand beaches and brightly hued Spanish colonial towns. There are very few crowds, so whether you are relaxing in your hammock or hiking through a national park it will be quiet and peaceful.
If you are a citizen of one of the following countries, you will not need a visa to enter El Salvador for a total of ninety days:
South Africa, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada, Chile, European Union/EFTA, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Macedonia, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Bahamas, Brazil,Bahrain,Mexico, Barbados, Belize, Brunei, Colombia, Costa Rica, Turkey, Ecuador, Fiji, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Monaco, Madagascar, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Nicaragua, San Marino, Panama, Paraguay, Qatar, Sao Tome and Principe, Russia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States/American Samoa, and Vatican City.
You will need to purchase a tourist card for 10 USD when you arrive in El Salvador. However, if you are of some certain nationalities you will not need to purchase this tourist card, including if you are from Argentina, Colombia, Chile, the European Union, New Zealand, Turkey and South Africa. This card is valid for 90 days. Also, all visitors to El Salvador must have a passport that is valid for at least 6 months and should have proof ready to show that they have ongoing travel booked.
El Salvador is part of the Central America 4 Border Control Agreement.
With a Pacific coastline on the Southwest and a little slice of the Caribbean in the east, Guatemala has an abundance of natural diversity. The dramatic volcanoes, lush jungles and huge lakes will take your breath away – only 2% of the land is urbanised here so there is plenty of nature to explore.
Spend a while sitting on the shores of the volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan and admiring the sunlight on the water, or go spelunking and tubing in the rivers and caves of the gorgeous swimming hole at Semuc Champey. In Antigua you will find colourful crumbling colonial architecture and winding cobblestone streets, lined with welcoming coffee shops and restaurants.
Guatemala is also home to stunning Mayan ruins – the remains of a powerful ancient civilisation. It’s worth a visit to Tikal, a huge and impressive site that will feel familiar to you if you are a Star Wars geek.
If you have a passport from one of the following countries, you will be able to visit Guatemala for up to 90 days.
Andorra, Argentina, Australia,Taiwan, France, Turkey, The United Kingdom, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, Belize, Brazil, Chile, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, El Salvador, Finland, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Russia, San Marino, Sweden, Switzerland, United States of America, Vatican City and Venezuela.
Keep in mind that your passport should be valid for at least 6 months after the day that you plan to enter Guatemala. If your country is not on this list, you should contact the embassy to check the visa requirements for Guatemala. If you wish to extend your visa and stay longer, make sure that you contact the Migration Directorate in Guatemala City. If you do not do this and you overstay on your visa, you will need to pay a fine when you leave the country. The fine cannot be paid at the border or the airport, it must be paid at the Migration Directorate in Guatemala City.
Guatemala is part of the Central America 4 Border Control Agreement.
Although Honduras has had a dangerous image in recent years, it is much safer than you would think – and also cheap and beautiful too. You’ll be able to enjoy fantastic experiences, such as exploring Mayan ruins at Copan, diving in the Bay islands or hiking in national parks, for a fraction of what you would pay in other Central American locations.
You can also explore the colonial towns of Comayagua and Gracias and the gorgeous Caribbean Coast. Or, head out on a 4×4 trail into the dense cloud forest from San Pedro Sula and explore lush Cusuco National Park. Honduras is also a very popular location for scuba diving and it is home to the second largest coral reef in the world. Several great diving schools can be found in Roatan and Utila.
Citizens of Japan, Malaysia, Norway, India, Switzerland, the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, the European Union and most Western countries do not need a visa to enter Honduras. Here is the official list of countries. Although you will likely not need a visa, it is a good idea to have proof that you have booked onward travel.
It is also important to note that there is a 3 USD fee for any citizen of a non Central American country when entering via land. Your passport should have at least six months of validity and you should have one page free for the entry stamp.
When you arrive in Honduras, you will be given an entrance permit which you will need to hold onto because you will return it when you leave. Don’t lose it, or you will need to pay a fine. If you want to stay in Honduras for longer than 90 days, you will need to request an extension (known as a prorroga) from the local immigration office (which can be found in most cities and towns).
Honduras is part of the Central America 4 Border Control Agreement.
The largest country in Central America, Nicaragua has coastlines on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean and is known as the “Country of Lakes and Volcanos.” It also offers stunning beaches, pristine forests and colonial architecture.
There are several impressive volcanoes that you can visit in Nicaragua, including Volcan Concepcion, Volcan Mombacho and Volcan Masaya. You can also enjoy the black sand surfing beaches near Leon and the elegant architecture of Granada. Also, it can be a lot of fun to participate in the the “Fiestas Patronales” or Saint Festivals that take place almost every day in some village or town in the country.
Citizens of the following countries will be able to enter Nicaragua without having to obtain a visa. All other visitors should contact Nicaragua in advance of their trip to apply for a visa.
Andorra, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bulgaria, Australia, Denmark, Austria, Bahamas, Cyprus, Bahrain, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Finland, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, Estonia, Falkland Islands,France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Holy See, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Latvia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macao, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Panama, Poland,Singapore, Portugal, Slovakia, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Saint Helena, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, San Marino, Solomon Islands, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Swaziland, Slovenia, Turkey, Switzerland, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, the Vatican City (Holy See) and Venezuela.
When you enter Nicaragua you will need to pay $10 for a Tourist Card which is valid for anywhere from one month to three months depending on where you are from. For example, Canadians and Americans are allowed 3 months. You will require a valid passport with at least 6 months of validity.
There is also a departure tax upon leaving the country of $32, although this is often included in your airfare if you are flying with the major airlines such as Copa Airlines, American Airlines and Avianca.
Nicaragua is part of the Central America 4 Border Control Agreement. When you purchase your $10 tourist card here, it is valid in the other CA-4 countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) as well.
A Note on Border Document Requirements
There are many borders in Central America (as well as around the world) in which the official regulations will require you to have certain documents such as proof of an ongoing flight, a recent bank statement to prove you have funds to support yourself, etc.
Now, that’s not to say that you will always be asked for these items. Lee and I have been through many borders where we printed off the necessary information and had it ready to show the immigration officers, but they never asked us for it. It’s hard to know what to expect at each border – sometimes you are questioned closely and sometimes you get a cursory glance and a stamp and you are sent on your way.
However, just because there is a chance that the immigration officer might not ask for your documents doesn’t mean that you don’t need to bother with them at all. If they are listed as required documents, you still should have them just in case they ask.
It’s much better to have the documents ready but not have to use them, than to have an immigration officer ask you for them and not have them. It can cause a huge hassle and you may not be able to enter the country.
Monteverde, Costa Rica
Any Questions about Travel Visas in Central America?
If you still have questions after reading this ultimate guide to visas for traveling Central America, please leave them below in the comments and we will do our best to answer them!
How I can apply for backpacker visa from Vietnam..? I’m Pakistani passport holder with TRC (Temporary Residence card) which is valid until March 2019.
Thanks for your replies.
Thank you so much for publishing! So nice to have all of this useful information in one spot.
Hi! I have an English passport and I am travelling to Central America next week for a total of 4 months. I have only booked my outgoing flight landing in Cancun on the 4th of feb 2020 and flying back to London from panama 4 months later on the 2nd June 2020. I plan to just buy bus tickets as I go and flow through the countries as I am a solo traveller. Do you know if I need to book buses out of the countries before I enter the countries or is my ticket out of panama valid to prove I am leaving CA? It is however 4 months later which I know exceeds the 90 day limit in certain countries! I’m just a bit confused by the visa policies! Thank you for any help you can provide!
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