Illegal Immigrants and Perpetual Tourists in Nicaragua

Last week, I went to Granada to visit friends. Not only were there throngs of tourists, but there appeared to be many new foreigners moving to the Granada area. Fancy hotels and condos sprung up in Granada, practically overnight. New restaurants and bakeries cater to the tastes of foreigners. Relaxing spas and swimming pools bathe and soothe foreign bones and tired muscles.

I wondered how many of the new foreigners moving to Nicaragua were pursuing legal residency in Nicaragua and/or their reasons for not choosing the legal path to residency. Ron and I lived in Nicaragua two years before applying for residency. We got tired of crossing into Costa Rica every 90 days to renew our visas. For us, the process was a bureaucratic nightmare, mainly from the U.S. side; however, for many the process to legal residency is almost impossible.


It is difficult to find reliable and current statistics on the number of foreigners living legally and illegally in Nicaragua. In 2012, when we received our pensionado visas, I peeked at the list of names of foreigners who received cedulas that year, while we were interviewed by the immigration official. I would guess there were about 50 names on the list. I heard, though I am not sure of the reliability of the information, that there are fewer than 500 expatriates who got residency in the last four years.

The number of U.S. retirees receiving Social Security checks in Central America and the Caribbean – one gauge of how many people live outside the US – rose 26 percent between 2005 and 2012, to 28,126, according to the Social Security Administration. It jumped 112 percent in Panama and 32 percent in Costa Rica.

To encourage foreign investments, the Nicaraguan government passed Law 306 that gives a 10-year tax exemption from income and real estate taxes. There are about 6,000 American expatriates and retirees living in Nicaragua, and the number is rising. (2008)

A blog by Darrell Bushnell says, “There are not that many resident expats in Nicaragua. According to my sources there are less than 1300 expat residents in Nicaragua [in 2013] and only 62 new ones last year which means they process a residency application a little more than once a week. This means the majority of expats in Nicaragua are on tourist visas.” Getting Residency in Nicaragua Darrell has detailed information in this article about the types of residency and the process of applying for residency in Nicaragua.

Why do foreigners living in Nicaragua choose to live on tourist visas? We call them perpetual tourists because they have to cross into Costa Rica every 90 days to renew their visas. The reasons are many, and some may surprise you.

1. It may be a frustrating bureaucratic battle to apply for residency. Corrupt and unreliable people exist. Choose an experienced person in Nicaragua who understands the process, has the right connections and good references, and gives you a time frame for the steps to residency.

2. Some foreigners are too young to apply for residency. A pensionado visa requires an applicant to have a lifetime income from a pension or social security.

3. Foreigners that do not qualify for a pensionado visa, can apply for several other types of residency, but they all involve an initial investment of money. Lots of money! Many younger foreigners do not have the money to apply for these types of residency.

4. There are many snow birds who come to Nicaragua and live here during the winter months. It is much easier for them to renew their tourist visas in Nicaragua or by crossing the Costa Rica border, than to apply for residency.

5. Some foreigners do not have clean police records. If this is the case, they cannot apply for residency if they have been convicted of a felony and have a police record.

6. Applying for residency is expensive. It requires diligent planning and gathering required documents before coming to Nicaragua. Since Ron and I applied for residency two years after living here, we had to make several trips back to the U.S. to gather our time sensitive documents. Our estimate for the cost of residency was approximately $2,000 excluding our airfare.

Perpetual tourists are not illegal immigrants. They renew their tourist visas by crossing the Costa Rican border every 90 days or fly out of the country to visit friends and family. Depending on the custom agent at the border crossing, it can be a simple one day turn around process, (for us, in the past) a fun two-day vacation and shopping trip in Liberia, Costa Rica, or a threatening experience if the custom agent has a bad day and warns perpetual tourists to apply for residency or they won’t stamp their passports again.

Nicaragua is cracking down on perpetual tourists. I can understand the reasoning because they have no background information on the foreigners living in Nicaragua and it’s difficult to track the bad guys.

Illegal immigrants are those who live in Nicaragua without the proper documentation, and do not cross the border to renew their visas every 90 days. No one really knows how many of them are living in Nicaragua. Whether out of ignorance, poverty, laziness, fear of bureaucratic hassles, or a desire to stay hidden from the world, illegal immigrants are rarely punished or deported from Nicaragua. As long as they have not committed a crime, if they are caught overstaying their 90 day tourist visa, a fine is issued and they can stay in Nicaragua. It’s called amnesty.

I understand that there are circumstances beyond our control that make it extremely difficult to apply for residency in a foreign country. Yet, my advise to foreigners moving to Nicaragua is to plan ahead, gather documents, explore the process, and talk with other expats who have been through the process…either successfully or unsuccessfully.

Our lives in Nicaragua with residency are so much easier. Take a deep breath and jump into a new world legally. In the long run, through many costly mistakes and bureaucratic nightmares, it was the right decision for us.

Below is an interesting article on American Retirees in Mexico.

Mexico has its own immigration problem: American Retirees

22 thoughts on “Illegal Immigrants and Perpetual Tourists in Nicaragua

  1. Our “border run” is coming up in a month and I’m starting to get really nervous about it.
    My husband and I have lived here for almost 5 years, but we’re not retired and don’t have $35,000 saved up for the investor’s residency so there are no options for us.
    I keep hoping they’ll add another type of residency that people in our situation would qualify for.
    Someone said the $35,000 doesn’t have to be invested into one spot and can just be “invested into the country” over a period of time (which we’ve definitely done over the past few years paying for rent and groceries) but I haven’t been able to find anything from an official source to verify that.

    • Hi Alex,
      Unfortunately, you are at the whim of the Nicaraguan government. Sometimes there are no problems crossing the border and at other times you get a person who is having a bad day. I wish you luck in your next border crossing and hope that there will be more options for people in your circumstances. Let me know how it goes.

  2. I live in thailand with a retirement visa. I think about living in central america, p.e. nicaragua.
    But i havent been living in the country (netherlands) for the past 5 years where my passport and nationality has been issued.
    So i have no residence country the same as my nationality.
    So do i need a retirement visa and how to require this?

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, you will probably need residency in Nicaragua because they are cracking down on perpetual tourists who cross the border to renew their visas. Since we got residency, so much has changed, so I think it is best to do a google search for how to get residency in Nicaragua. Our residency is up for renewal this year and I think the process is much easier.

  3. Would you say it is easier (I use the word lightly) to get your pensionista/rentista residency while in Nicaragua on a tourist visa or while in the USA? Thanks for your advice.

    • Jen, I am not sure how to answer that question because we got our pensionada visas before Nicaragua became a member of the Hague Convention. Now the entire process has changed. We were required to have all of our documents authenticated, which meant that we took them to a notary, had them all stamped by the same notary, then submitted them to the State Department of Florida, where the notary lived, and they authenticated that he was a certified notary. We chose the state of Florida to get all of our documents notarized because they seem to understand latin logic better than Pennsylvania, where most of our documents came from. Then, we took them to the Consulate of Nicaragua in Miami and had our papers all stamped again and certified. Then,they were ready to take to Nicaragua to complete the process.

      Now, you are required to have your documents apostilled. The process is a little different, but I think it is easier. If you are making a trip to the states, I would gather all the required documents there, and see how to get them apostilled in the states. Some of the documents are time-sensitive. For example, your original police report can be no older than 6 mo. But, again, I think you can get that done in Nicaragua now.

      I wish I could be of more help, but everything has changed since we got our pensionado visas. Now, it is time for us to renew our 5 year pensionado visas, and I am going to work with Patricia Sanchez to help walk us through the process. I have heard excellent things about her. She is fast, efficient, and trustworthy. Good luck and if there is anything I can do to help, let me know.

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  5. It has gotten a lot easier to get your resident visa’s here in Ecuador and the cedula has also been slimmed down on what paper work is needed. Still took us 10 months to get the visas ( in spite of having a lawyer , he messed up) and another 5 months for the cedulas. Back in 2011 you needed a lawyer. For the past year as long as you have the needed paperwork in order a person can get it all done in less than a month. There is a facilitator here in SC who does an excellent job and earns every penny that he charges. He gets the documents translated and also insures your paper work is complete AND in the proper order before going to the immigration office. Plus the laws can change , and have changed, monthly. Thankfully it’s been to ease the process of obtaining a residency visa. Ecuador wants the money that new residents will spend here. At least for now.

    • That is similar to Nicaragua. The laws change frequently. Nicaragua is now part of the Hague Convention, which means that all documents need to be apostilled, instead of authenticated. When we received residency, our documents needed to be authenticated. Basically that meant that we had to have a notary stamp all our documents and send them into the State Department so they could certify that it was a legal notary. It took me several tries to figure out that the best state to get this accomplished was in Florida, where they understood Latin logic. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  6. There is a list of requirements for applying for residency, and though it might seem daunting at first glimpse, it CAN be accomplished without a lawyer! Since there is not a “student” visa in NIcaragua yet, we must encourage our students to take a border run or pay the extension for 30 days more to complete the semester length.

    • Exactly, Mary Helen. We’ve learned that if you take baby steps, it is possible, but frustrating because we learned through many mistakes. Now, the whole process has changed again. I’m not sure what to expect when it’s time for us to renew our residency in 2017.

    • That is right and the person to write it would be someone in the immigration department of Nicaragua. They are missing an opportunity, the facilitators don’t want this information out or they would be out of their ‘easy money’ business. One charges $500 and what do they do to earn it? That is a months salary for a government worker. Lawyers charge $700 and up. I wish Ron and Debbie would describe step by step what needs to be done and which papers you need and what ‘authenticating’ needs to be done to them. They have been there and done that!

  7. This really is interesting. One question I’ve asked myself (in regard to Panama and Costa Rice, too) is this: if guaranteed income, as from Social Security or pensions, is a requirement, what happens when those funds no longer are flowing in? I can imagine a day when Social Security bites the dust, for example. Could that citizenship be revoked? I know that’s a hypothetical, but it’s interesting to think about.

    • I’ve asked myself those questions, too. What if a law is passed where you can only receive Social Security if you live in the United States? I can see it happening because our money is no longer spent in the the U.S. That’s one of the reasons we have a U.S. bank account and our pensions and SS are direct deposited in the U.S. account. We’ve tried to think of every possible scenario that could occur. If SS bites the dust, we have our investments to fall back on and a house in the states in which to return. Moving abroad requires much forethought. The “what-ifs” could drive us crazy, but we have back-up plans for most scenarios like an eruption of the active volcano in our backyard, solid financial security, wills for Nicaragua and the U.S., and plans for health emergencies. Of course, always expect the unexpected in the land of the not quite right. 🙂

      • Did you inform SS that you are residing out of the country? (a requirement) I haven’t decided yet if I will do that when I expatriate.

        • Dean, notifying SS about living abroad is only a requirement if you open a foreign bank account and have your SS check deposited in the foreign bank. When we file our income tax, now because of the Affordable Care Act, we have to report that we are residents of Nicaragua, so as not to receive a penalty for not enrolling in ACA.

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