CA-4 Visa for Central America Explained
FLORES, Guatemala- I sit one tick from exiting Guatemala after a five and a half month stay in the CA-4 region. The CA-4 is an agreement between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua to decrease their internal borders and pull together into one region for immigration. So if you enter Guatemala, you get a visa that is good for the other three countries, and vice-versa. The standard tourist visa length for all four countries together is 90 days.
This means that if I spend a month in Guatemala, I only have two more in the other three countries before I need to renew the visa.
Like most multi-country immigration agreements, each country in the region has their own take on the regulations for the tourist visa. Some countries, like Guatemala, allow most foreigners to renew their visa internally, apparently, for as many times as they would like by paying an additional 300 Quetzales per extra 90 days; while some countries, like El Salvador, do not allow internal renewals, and you must exit the region entirely for at least three days before returning; in Honduras, renewals are not allowed and you can only do three visa runs out of the CA-4 before you are denied re-entry.
In point, by the rules of the CA-4 agreement, it looked to me as if I had overstayed my visa by two and a half months. I entered the region through Guatemala and traveled down to El Salvador, not leaving the CA-4, for around two months. Upon leaving El Salvador I re-entered Guatemala — again, not leaving the CA-4 — but when I did I was re-stamped in with a fresh 90 day visa.
I did not honor this visa, I took it to be an immigration formality — just as when travelers exit and return to Europe’s Schengen zone within a 6 month period they are stamped out and back in but they are still on their first visa. In fact, I did not honor this new Guatemala stamp to the point that I went to the immigration office in Livingston to get a renewal a few days before it would have been 90 days since I first entered the region.
300 Quetzales per passport were slapped down onto the immigration official’s desk, he picked up his stamper and prepared to renew the visas. But then he stopped. He saw the second entry stamp from when I had re-crossed into Guatemala from El Salvador.
“These visas are good until the end of August,” he spoke as he laid down his stamper. “I would just be giving you the same stamp as you already have.”
He then continued to explain how Guatemala grants one free visa renewal upon re-entry from El Salvador or Honduras. This seemed suspect to me, but the immigration official refused to take the money, and this was a sign that he was serious. It is well spoken of in Livingston that visa renewal money ends up in pockets, so his ambivalence meant something.
Against better judgment, I accepted his word. The prudent traveler never accepts the word of any immigration official or consulate when they speak of the visa rules of their own country — they cannot be trusted, they are often wrong. Many travelers have found this out the hard way — “But they told me in Livingston that . . .” just does not cut it. A traveler must know the official visa rules and make the officials abide by them. Period.
But what about when there are unwritten visa rules?
I was in such a predicament. It was true that the immigration official was just going to stamp my passport with the same type of stamp that I had already had — which was a stamp that said that I left and reentered the country — so what would be the point of getting another?
I saved my 900 Quetzales.
I held my breath when exiting Guatemala at Technica two and a half months later. The fee for a visa overstay in Guatemala is 20 Quetzales per day. For my entire family of three, if our entry stamps that we received when crossing back into Guatemala from El Salvador did not hold their weight, we would be looking at a fine of $615.
Again, I held my breath when I passed our passports over the immigration counter.
The immigration official hardly even glanced at anything other than our less than smiley mug shots.
Stamp. Stamp. Stamp. Get out of here.
Apparently, additional entry stamps renew a CA-4 visa in Guatemala.