Ask Dr. Sabelotodo: Visa Runs

By Dr. Sabelotodo

Dear Dr. Sabelotodo, I’ve been in Guatemala 3 months now and my visa is about to expire. People here say it´s not a drama — I just have to do a “visa run.” Can you please explain? — Anxious Ex-pat

Dear Illegal Alien,

Firstly, let me congratulate you on your decision to flaunt local immigration laws. The good doctor has friends who have been popping out of the country every few months since time immemorial — the most impressive stint being 13 years.

The bad news is that Guatemala is part of CA4, which should be a boy band, but is actually a trade agreement between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Part of CA4 guarantees freedom of movement of goods and people throughout the region, so if you’re an Alannis Morrisette fan, you’ll probably think it’s ironic that the same agreement actually makes it harder for tourists to get around. Before the agreement, we were allowed 90 days in any of the 4 countries, renewable simply by sliding over the border. Now we’re only allowed 90 days in the entire region, which brings me to your question.

The classic destination for a border run from Xela is Tapachula in Mexico, both because of its proximity and because they have cheaper beer than the Belizeans. The easiest way to get there is to take a bus to San Marcos, then another to Malacatan and then a final one to El Carmen.

The first thing to note while on a visa run is that leaving Guatemala by land, there is no Departure Tax. Border officials will, however, often charge Q10 “departure tax.” Confusing, but simple: Paying a Departure Tax, you know the money you’ve spent goes toward building schools, hospitals, etc. Paying “departure tax”, on the other hand, guarantees the immigration official and his friends an extra beer after work.

It’s up to you to if you want to pay your Q10, but bear this in mind: coming back from Mexico, if you use the same border crossing and haven’t been out of Guatemala for (the legally required, but universally ignored) three days, you may bump into the same border official, who will not have forgotten you, and will ask you to pay an “entry tax”. This will be substantially more expensive than the “departure tax”.

The smart thing to do is either chill in Mexico for three days or use different border crossings to exit and enter. The other possibility is going to Immigration in Guatemala City, filling out the forms and waiting around a day and a half for a 90 day visa extension, a plan so obviously riddled with imperfections that the good doctor prescribes it to no one.

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