Visas and other Nonsense
Visas can be frustrating, and El Salvador is no exception at times. There are two immigration offices in San Salvador, the central office which deals with all immigration, and one called the Direccion General de Migracion y Extranjeria, which is solely for foriegn tourists, where you'll find a majority of the officials speak a little English to help your Spanglish. It is almost always better to go to the Extranjeria on Paseo General Escalon in front of the Gallerias shopping mall. Here's some general visa information they won't tell you on other sites:
In June 2006, El Salvador made an agreement with Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua as the Central America-4 (CA-4), which means that citizens of the four countries may travel freely across land borders from one of the countries to any of the others without completing entry and exit formalities at immigration checkpoints (yea for all our CA-4 friends, this makes their lives much easier!). Unfortunately, for foriegn travellers, this causes some problems. Upon arrival, you are granted a visa for up to 90 days for the CA-4. This means you can visit all four countries for a total of 90 days. Being that El Salvador is bordered only by other CA-4 countries, for us that means tourists' nearest options for a border run are Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica. If you overstay your visa, we've been told it's approximately a $100 fine ($114 to be exact but we assume that number will be changing soon). This is the fine regardless of how many days you overstayed.
UPDATE: We've been hearing rumors about this for the last six months and finally confirmed it this week. Honduras has decided that they are no longer a part of the CA-4, not legally of course, it sounds like they just changed their minds. So now they are issuing new visas when a tourist crosses into Honduras. This is great for travellers who are coming from Guatemala and want to renew their visas by hopping the Honduran border and go back into GUATEMALA. However, El Salvador does not recognize that Honduras is not part of the CA-4 and will NOT accept their 90 day visa. This has caused many tourists a lot of trouble.
For example, say you enter Guate and spend 90 days in the country and do a visa run to Honduras and get another 90 day stamp. You can then go back into Guate for another 90 days (because they are recognizing Honduras's new stamp). BUT if you try to come into El Salvador after you get the new stamp from Honduras, you will be denied entry until you leave the CA-4, which at that point is a very long trip to either Belize, Mexico or Costa Rica. Keep this in mind as you travel Central America! And contact us if you have any questions and we'll try to help you out.
When you enter the country by air or sea, you are charged a $10 fee for a tourist card. They will ask you why you are travelling in El Salvador, and oddly enough the answer, "because I want to see the country," will usually make your time in immigration even longer. Immigration officials don't seem to believe that people would come to the country just to explore and the most easily accepted answers seem to be "to surf" or "to visit family". Make your life easier and go with one of these! Make sure you ask for the full 90 days, as sometimes officials have been known to arbitrarily pick a number, and check your visa before you leave immigration. If you enter by land, you will still need to check-in at immigration, but since you will have recieved a visa in Guate, Honduras or Nica already, you won't need to pay a fee. They will probably stamp your passport though and enter your details in the computer, so make sure you stop. El Salvador has really cracked down on corruption at the immigration level and chances are you won't be asked to pay a "fee". If you are, ask for the officer's name and ID number and tell them you're going to call the anti-corruption number that is usually posted on the wall of the immigration offices. You won't be this lucky in any of our neighboring countries, unfortunately!
If you want to remain in the four-country region beyond the 90 days, you also have the option of requesting an extension for a maximum of 90 more days. This process can be super simple or extremely complicaded, depending on the agent you end up talking to. This is the information that you usually need to provide:
1. A form they will give you to fill out about why you want to stay. This form needs the name and contact info of a Salvadoran that will vouch for you, and this Salvadoran must accompany you to the immigration office. In our experience, if you don't have family here and you are a tourist, one of the few acceptable reasons to stay in El Salvador is that you've fallen in love and want to stay with your boyfriend or girlfriend, then have that "boy/girl friend" come with you to the office. Officially, this form needs to be certified by a lawyer; however, depending on who you're dealing with, sometimes just filling out the form will suffice. Try it without the certification to see if it works, if it doesn't you're off to find a lawyer...
2. One passport-sized photo.
3. Proof of funds - often this can just be a copy of a credit card.
4. One copy of the photo page and visa page of your passport.
5. Pay $25.
There are copy services available in both immigration offices for a small fee.
Usually, this is all you need. However, legally, they are able to ask you to provide the following:
- A copy of your flight itinerary
- A copy of all used pages in your passport
- Documents proving your need to stay in the country (this is why the relationship excuse works well)
- Proof of an job you hold in your home country
- Documentation proving your activities in El Salvador (if, for example, your reason for staying was to work with a non-profit or something of that nature)
It takes a few days to process the paperwork, so don't wait till the last minute for this! On the other hand, if you get someone who's super efficient and they grant your visa right away, your extension will start that day, which may take away from the few days you had left on your old visa. 2-3 days in advance should be enough time.