You can get into serious trouble with authorities when you make the mistake of trying to leave Costa Rica with a minor who is registered in Costa Rica but is lacking the required travel permit, authorizing you to take the child out of the country.
Isabella, our three-year-old toddler, was born in Atlanta and is thus a United States citizen. My wife is Costa Rican, and I am Austrian, so she was eligible to apply for citizenship in those two countries as well. For Isabella to become a Costa Rican citizen, we had to register her with the “Registro Civil,” which we did after she was born. At the time, relatives from Costa Rica advised us to look into a so-called “travel permit for Costa Rican minors to exit the country” but we ignored the advice because we figured that Isabella was also a U.S. citizen and they could not possibly prevent her/us from going home to Atlanta. I assume, the law that requires parents to apply for a travel permit exists to protect minors from human trafficking and to make sure only the birth parents or legal guardians can take children out of the country.
Everything went well until it didn’t
For three years we had traveled back and forth from Costa Rica without any issues. Sometimes, an agent at the check-in counter asked us if we had registered Isabella in Costa Rica, and we just said no. I guess due to her US passport they didn’t ask us any further questions. But during the last trip to Costa Rica, things turned ugly. We checked in as usual and headed towards the security line. At Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) there is a dedicated security line/passport control for families traveling with minors under the age of 18. As always, we took that line and presented our passports. When the officer looked at Isabella’s US passport and started typing on his computer, we both knew that bad things were about to happen. The officer then said, that we had registered Isabella in Costa Rica and needed to get a stamp from a dedicated counter that deals with Costa Rican minors who wish to leave the country.
Costa Rican minors who wish to leave the country must have a travel permit issued by the General Directorate of Immigration. The Minor Exit Permit must be requested by the minor’s parents and may be obtained either at the General Directorate of Immigration’s central offices in San José or on the day of travel at Immigration’s airport office. Both parent’s signatures and official identification documents are required.
No travel permit
It didn’t sound like a problem, but the officer assumed we already had obtained a permit and were just lacking the stamp required to exit the country. We had about 45 minutes left before our flight started boarding, and I was hungry like a bear, which didn’t put me in the best possible mood. After clarifying what we had to do to get said stamp, I ran back to the check-in counter to fill out a form. With that form, we went to the counter that dealt with exit permits for minors. After ten minutes of waiting in line, we were up to present our paperwork or lack thereof. The officer at the counter asked for the travel permit, which we didn’t have. She then explained the necessary paperwork (birth certificate, a copy of Isabella’s registration, etc.) and steps to get a permit. Needless to say, we didn’t have any of the required documents (other than in electronic form in Dropbox) nor the time.
Running out of time and patience
I ran out of patience and told the officer, more often than she cared to hear, that Isabella was a foreign citizen, and that I didn’t understand what the problem was. She looked at me like she knew what I was saying but didn’t care anyway. Kathy, however, played “good cop” and tried to find out what we would have to do to leave the country. The officer’s responses were vague, at least to me, and that drove me even more nuts. In retrospect, she may have done that on purpose, to obfuscate what she probably wasn’t supposed to do: issue a permanent travel permit for Isabella. All it took was a photo of Isabella that I snapped with my iPhone and that I sent to her via email, and a copy of our passports.
Minutes before our plane started boarding; we had all necessary paperwork in hand and presented it to the officer at the passport control checkpoint. Without further questions, the officer waved us through, and we were on our way to the gate. While Kathy was changing Lucas, I went with Isabella to a kiosk and bought something to eat. We didn’t have time to look for Paleo-compatible options, so I bought three bananas and two chicken sandwiches. Like Isabella’s favorite character from Frozen would say: “For the first time in forever” we had bread. May the Paleo gods forgive us 🙂
If you have registered your child in Costa Rica, regardless of the child’s citizenship, make sure you get a travel permit before you visit the country. Local authorities at the airport may not have been able to look up the registration status in the past, but they now have that ability and won’t let you leave the country without the proper paperwork. Lesson learned!