The CA4 Countries - the confusing immigration & customs rules of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras & Nicaragua
Disclaimer: This information is based on our experience gathered during our trip through Central America in 2021 and 2022 entering from Mexico. Things tend to change, check with authorities on latest guidelines and regulations and always keep in mind that this is just our personal experience and not a recommendation on how to do things or not.
Few people have heard of the CA4 (Central America 4), in fact even many people we asked in the countries making up the CA4 are not aware of this "union" that poses quite some challenges to the typical overlander who wants to spend time in these beautiful countries.
CA4 is technically a border control agreement between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua and came into effect in 2006. It is somewhat similar to the Schengen area in Europe as it should allow for free movement of people between these countries (it is NOT a customs union, see more below). However, reality looks somewhat different, especially for foreigners and even more though, if you travel with your own vehicle.
We have learned some of the stuff the hard way and found very little useful information out there on how to navigate the rules of the CA4, especially with respect to permit extensions, visa runs and customs rules which is why we decided to write it up here, hopefully for the benefit of others. We have not included any Covid-related rules as they tend to change quicker than me hitting the Save button.
Immigration: Based on the border control agreement entering any of the members of the CA4 makes you enter the CA4. This may sound obvious, but is quite important to understand as your permit clock for ALL 4 countries starts ticking when you enter the first one. In our example we entered Guatemala from Mexico and this triggered the 90 days countdown of your typical permitted stay in all of the CA4 countries combined. Make sure to check that you were stamped in with 90 days just to be sure. It doesn't matter where you spend your 90 days (eg just in Guatemala or in all 4 countries or any combination thereof) as long as you leave the CA4 before your time is up.
As a true overlander you probably already identified the problem: 90 days for 4 countries, even if they are small ones, is simply not enough! But more on that later.
Temporary Vehicle Import: Another important point to understand is that all this does not apply to customs aspects, including the temporary import of your vehicle into the CA4. The temporary import of your vehicle is managed individually by each country of the CA4 which means you will have to obtain a TIP from Guatemala, another one from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. That's a lot of papers (and fees) but the good thing is, that the combined time your vehicle can stay in the CA4 is much longer than the 90 days you have. We are not sure how consistent the respective TIP durations are, but here what we received:
Guatemala: 90 days
El Salvador: 60 days
Honduras: 90 days
Nicaragua: 30 days
Permit Extensions (prórrogas): If you want or have to stay longer, the obvious thought is to apply for visa or permit extensions (called prórroga in Spanish and a useful search term if you want to navigate the respective government pages). All 4 countries offer the possibility to extend your stay beyond the 90 days. Officially to a maximum of 120 days but this is where it really becomes confusing as some of the CA4 countries (see below) consider the extensions to be valid only for the country that issued it and not the combined CA4. We still don't really understand this process so we can just report on our experience here.
We really enjoyed Guatemala and stayed over 2 months. Knowing that the remaining month will never be enough to visit the other 3 countries of the CA4 we started looking into extension options in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The process in Guatemala is quite time consuming and requires you to go to Guatemala City twice, once to apply and a week later to collect your passport. You may also use an immigration lawyer to do so (eg in Rio Dulce where many sailors make use of it) but this comes at extra cost of course.
While in Guatemala we contacted the immigration office in San Salvador by email and directly received competent replies. As El Salvador was next on our list, we decided to apply for the extension there. By the way, El Salvador does not stamp your passport as they rely on the entry stamps from other CA4 countries (I assume they stamp you in if you fly into the country).
The immigration office in San Salvador is very modern, well organized and very friendly. We received a 90 days extension (!!) on the same day for a cost of USD 25.-. Happy we left without worrying about our future plans - this is until we entered Honduras...
We also looked at the option to extend in Honduras but only found a 30 days extension for about the same cost as in El Salvador.
Thinking we have a total of 180 days in the CA4 (this is also what we understood from the friendly officer in the immigration office) we took our time in El Salvador before entering Honduras. The surprise came when the immigration office at the border stamped us into Honduras for 30 days. We tried to understand why, but his explanations did not fit our understanding ;-). We had planned to stay a bit more in Honduras, also visiting Roatan. 30 days would be tight but ok we thought so we stopped worrying and arguing.
Once on Roatan we encountered a technical issue with our Rouletout and soon it was clear that the 30 days for Honduras wouldn't be enough, so we went to talk to immigration and explore our options. After long discussions immigration made it clear that we can not get an extension as we already were granted 120 days in total in the CA4 (not counting the extension from El Salvador), removing our time in El Salvador (which they agreed to do as we had the extension from there) we lacked 6 days to receive another extension. The suggestion by immigration was to pay a fine on exiting Honduras (see fine schedule). Puzzled we left the office.
At the border to Nicaragua the Honduran officers told us, that we have to pay the fine (as expected) and that we will only be granted 5 days to exit Nicaragua for Costa Rica. Sad we made our way to Nicaraguan immigration where to our surprise, the extension from El Salvador was accepted without any discussion. Seems like only Honduras is not following the rules set by the CA4 agreement. In short (and in our case), if you time your stay in Honduras correctly, you may stay 180 days in the CA4 countries...
Other Options to stay longer:
We had also looked at other options to "extend our stay" in Honduras and avoid the fine. A visa run (or border run) from Honduras is quite difficult as you have to leave the CA4 countries for at least 72 hours. This means flying out and staying in Mexico, Panama or wherever for 3 days which makes it more expensive than paying the fine.