I recently traveled to Peru for a week’s vacation and upon returning was not let into Costa Rica because I did not have a yellow fever vaccine.
There is a surprisingly little amount of information on the web about this particular topic. Because yellow fever is not a disease risk in Costa Rica, the government requires travelers arriving from countries where yellow fever is a risk to present proof of yellow fever vaccination so that yellow fever won’t be brought into Costa Rica.
Most places in Africa and South America (except Argentina) are considered at risk.
The vaccine has to have been administered AT LEAST 10 DAYS prior to you entering the country at risk.
If you are coming from one of risk countries (Peru was one of them) and do not have a current vaccination certificate, two things can happen:
- you will be denied boarding on flights to Costa Rica from your airport of origin – so for me, would have been Lima, Peru.
- you might make it all the way to Costa Rica like I did and then be turned away
Note that the restriction doesn’t just apply to extensive travel in the risk countries, but also if traveling through them for longer than 12 hours.
Click HERE for the full list of countries as risk.
All photos taken by Miguel Irurita
The safest way to avoid complications if you are traveling to most of the countries in South America and Africa is probably to get the vaccine and carry proof with you (it lasts 10 years).
The yellow fever vaccine booklet is very unique in that it is yellow and internationally recognized, so there’s no way around it. My medical card is in Italy, and I perhaps even already have the shot even though I don’t remember ( I travelled to Africa a bunch as a kid). I offered to have my medical record scanned and emailed, but to no avail.
If you don’t have proof of YF vaccine , you will NOT be let into Costa Rica and you will be forced to exit the country. They might also threaten to send you back on the same flight you just came from as they did to me.
At that point it’s super important to keep in mind you are not being detained (even though it feels like it) and are able to CHOOSE where you will go when you leave their country. You are not obligated to board the plane back to where you came from. ( hopefully you have enough saved up for an impromptu flight).
Upon finding out that the Costa Rican officers were being serious about not letting in the country, I chose to book a flight to Miami because it’s a short and relatively cheap.
For all of 20 hours I was held in the airport for the Miami flight with a security guard by my side. The security guard confiscated my passport and kept track of my every move, including bathroom trips.
While hanging in the grey zone of the airport, you are a responsibility -and a liability- of the airline which flew you (for me it was Avianca). They are the ones who “mistakenly” brought you over so now they have to deal with you. My security guard (appointed by airport) was working with Avianca airlines to manage me until I would leave the country.(not a pleasant experience, believe me).
Avianca handed me a few food coupons but other than that there weren’t any other niceties. I paid for the VIP room one-day-pass myself ($28).
In retrospect, I could have tried asking Avianca to cover my Costa Rica exit ticket, but I ended up using my JetBlue miles to fly to Miami instead. I have a feeling that they would only boarded back to Peru free of charge.
Note that even if you are stuck at the airport in Costa Rica your passport will not get stamped, because in theory you never entered the country of Costa Rica.
If You Are A Costa Rica Citizen
If you are a Costa Rica resident or citizen you will not have any problem entering the country if don’t have the vaccine. This is because per law Costa Rica cannot turn away their own citizens.
Which makes zero sense since being a citizen does not make you immune to yellow fever.
On the other hand, I hear that the yellow fever vaccine requirement becomes very strict especially when it comes to US passport holders (not sure why).
As fate wants it, my stars that day were not aligned.
If someone had caught the non-vaccine issue in Lima, I would have had 4 hours to deal with it before boarding.
If I had entered Costa Rica with my Italian passport, maybe it would have been different.
If the woman at the passport check point hadn’t been such a ranging b***, maybe they would have let me in.
I have no idea.
When dealing with immigration you have to remember you are at the complete mercy of your “official”. Maybe he’s having a bad day and you end up paying the consequences. It’s all very random and unforeseeable.
Slipping Through The Cracks
As I said before you will normally be turned away when departing Peru, or countries such as Colombia, Brazil, if you can’t provide proof of vaccination before boarding the plane to Costa Rica.
I’ve heard many stories of people frantically looking for a clinic nearby or even inside their airport where they could get the shot, pay a little more to have it backdated by a few years, or pay even more to have a straight-out fake one made. I wish I could have taken that route.
But because I did online check in and didn’t check a luggage I slipped through the cracks. No one in Lima seemed to care even to do as little as check my boarding pass.
So there I was, in Costa Rica, ready to head to the hotel in San Jose for the night after a long two days of travel, and unable to do so because of a stupid vaccine.
The alternative to having the vaccine done is to wait to enter Costa Rica for six days or more. You can do so in a country that is not considered at risk, such as Panama, U.S. and most countries in the Northern Hemisphere and Europe.
I happen to be one of the people who would rather wait it out rather than get the vaccine. (one of the reasons: the cost of vaccine in U.S. ranges anywhere between $100 and $250).
Technically you need to wait AT LEAST 6 days (the amount of time yellow fever would require to manifest) and then you can be let back in Costa Rica.
I waited eight days in Miami before going back and attempting to re-enter Costa Rica. Even this time I was questioned a bunch and almost thought I wouldn’t be let in.
The immigration officer at the booth could see that I had attempted to enter Costa Rica recently and was turned away for lack of the yellow fever vaccine. He was insisting I show proof of vaccination but I explained to him that the law requires you to wait six days or longer and then I would be in the clear.
So he let me in, but not for what seemed interminable minutes of reading something on his screen and flipping though my passport.
The Bottom Line
The yellow fever vaccine requirement should be clearly stated on the ticket issued by the airlines.
But, for the time being, don’t make the same mistake as me and be informed before you go.
To be clear, you are not required to have a yellow fever vaccine to enter Costa Rica from the U.S., Canada or Europe. You only need the vaccine IF you have visited countries at risk PRIOR TO entering Costa Rica.
The thing is, some countries that have cases of yellow fever will let you enter without the vaccination, but then the next country you travel to will require the vaccination as a result of your previous destination. For example, I didn’t need proof of yellow fever vaccination to enter Peru, but I couldn’t travel to Costa Rica without it after leaving Peru.