COSTA RICA RELOCATION FAQS
The Answers You Need
The questions below are based on the most commonly asked questions I receive and will answer most of the basic questions you will have about moving to Costa Rica. I am not an expert on Costa Rica but I have answered questions to the best of my ability based on research and personal experience. If you find something is different or has changed since this section was last updated, please send me an email to let me know so that I can keep the page current. Thank you
1. COSTA RICA ENTRY REQUIREMENTS
Depending on your country of citizenship, you may stay up to 90 days as a tourist using your passport (valid 6 months beyond intended stay in Costa Rica).Proof of onward travel is required. After 90 days you must exit the country for anywhere from 3 hrs to several days.
Entry requirements vary in each country. You will need proof of onward travel to re enter Costa Rica (although not always requested). Re entry can vary with each immigration officer so better to be on the safe side and have it with you. Please check for border requirements before your exit to insure that you have proper documents for re entry.
Link: How to Renew Your Passport in Costa Rica
2. WHAT IS THE COST OF LIVING IN COSTA RICA?
It has been said that it is expensive to live in Costa Rica. My answer is "compared to what?" It really depends on where you are coming from and how big your budget is. Although it is the most expensive country in Latin America it can be affordable. Many people live on social security alone. If you’re retiring with a partner or spouse who also earns Social Security benefits, your housing options will increase dramatically. The average social security benefit is right around $1,200 per month. It is quite possible to live very comfortably for around $2,000 per month for a family of 2.
You may need to make some lifestyle changes but most people are not expecting to completely duplicate their current lifestyle. Rentals start as low as $300/month and go up into the thousands. Near the beach and in tourist areas you will find the highest prices. In the mountains and in rural areas is where locals live and you will find these areas to be the cheapest.
Groceries are comparable to the US but fresh produce is very inexpensive at farmers markets (feria), which you can find in almost every community. Electricity is somewhat expensive (ours is still way less than what we paid back home) however you will need to take that into consideration if you’re moving to the beach and plan to use the AC a lot (you will need it). Restaurants, except for those serving typical Costa Rican food, are about the same as the US.
3. WHERE SHOULD I LIVE?
Costa Rica offers a wide variety of housing options, ranging from modern cities and suburbs to laid-back beach towns and mountain communities. Cost is also key – some areas, like the upscale suburb of Escazu or the developed north Pacific coast beaches, are pricier options and so may not be affordable for everyone. We originally wanted to live in Escazu with its beautiful condos, malls, upscale restaurants and Beverly Hills like neighborhoods but quickly found out that those areas cost almost as much as the areas we just moved from in northern California. We now go there to visit when we need a fix and return home to our more Tico like town which offers us everything we need but for far less money.
When deciding where to live, think about what is important to you. What kind of climate do you like and how close you want to be to amenities. If you do not have a car, you'll want to be situated close to public transportation. The beaches are much hotter and more humid than the mountains, and for this reason, many people prefer to live in the Central Valley outside San José.
In the end we opted for the Central Valley with its milder weather. These areas (Grecia, Atenas, Heredia, etc.) are also closer to shopping, restaurants, and major hospitals. In rural areas, it can be more difficult to find things, there are fewer restaurants, and buses run less often so be sure to take this into consideration.
4. BUYING VS RENTING
Whatever your preference, it’s usually better to rent first! A large percentage of people who move to Costa Rica leave within the first year or two, so before you completely turn your life topsy turvy, visit a few different areas ( the main reasons for leaving are people missing family back home, cost of living is higher than expected and they are having trouble finding ways to make money, and culture differences- they didn’t realize they would miss the ways things were back home). If possible come on vacation a few times first, to get a feel. We only visited once before we decided to move because to be honest, we just didn't have the time or the budget to come here several times a year and I know what I like, but it all depends on you. YOU are the only one who knows what you like and what you can live with.
Pick an area and rent for at least a year. That will allow you to figure out exactly where you want to live and feel out the climate in all seasons. In most places the weather can vary even from one side of town to the other. In Grecia, for example (a popular expat town in the Central Valley), there are 5 ridges and the climate differs on each one of them. Communities all have different quirks like this and until you spend some time there, you won’t know what’s right for you.
If you are moving on a really limited budget, Grecia & Atenas might be good options for housing as you can find simple Tico-style houses (without North American conveniences - they will be smaller with possibly no hot water running through out the house, no bathtub, suicide shower ). I guess it's not as bad as it sounds because many expats are living in these types of homes or cabinas and loving it!
Also a friend who is just moving here wanted me to be sure to add a note regarding toilets --
BIG Tip in Costa Rica (due to their septic system) you are not to flush any toilet paper in the toilets. Instead, the used toilet paper is deposited in the garbage can next to the toilet. Have to admit, this practice takes a little getting used to!!! Before 1975 Costa Rica had mostly clay pipes connecting the toilets to the septic tank and toilet paper would get easily stuck in those pipes, even though Durman started to import PVC pipes in 1963. Toilet paper, in those days, would not dissolve as easily as it does now, but I wouldn’t run the risk flushing it down the toilet in such an older home if I were you. ASK before you go! There will usually be signs posted in business establishments such as hotels and restaurants.
Many people move here and instantly become excited about the inventory, the deals and the low housing prices, but remember, in Costa Rica it is very easy to buy, but hard (to impossible) to sell. Make sure you are committed to living here BEFORE you buy. Also from what I understand, most expats don’t take out mortgages through Costa Rican banks because interest rates are really high. However, I know several people who have purchased houses shortly after arrival (and one person who did a house deal from the states) All are very happy. So, again it just depends.
A word about renting: I know people also get exited and often find rentals online that seem perfect but It's probably a good idea to not commit to anything long term until you get to Costa Rica. Prices are often inflated online and through real estate agents, so if you can come down and talk to people in the community, you can usually find a better deal. Plus, you obviously have the benefit of seeing the place for yourself. Many people choose short term rentals at first in the area they want to live, then start their search for a long-term rental when they get here.
5. IS IT SAFE TO LIVE IN COSTA RICA?
Costa Rica has a stable democratic government and is known as one of Latin America’s most peaceful nations (and one of the most politically stable). It has functioned peacefully without an army for more than 60 years. That was a huge selling point for us! In 1948 Costa Rica abolished its army in favor of providing education to its people. At the end of the 44-day Civil War a constitution was drafted guaranteeing free elections with universal suffrage. Unlike many of its neighbors, Costa Rica never had another civil war!
Another plus is that Costa Rica has a large middle class. This is not the case in most other Central American countries. There is a low incidence of violent crime and outside the capital city of San José, there isn’t much crime of any kind. (crime generally consists of petty theft)
*UPDATE Jan 2019 - Unfortunately over the last 5 - 6 years with more tourists visiting and expats relocating to the country, the incidents of crime outside of San Jose has increased and the violence has escalated to include a number of armed home invasions. The local police depts are underfunded and understaffed and the conviction rate is almost non existent. Women traveling alone should be aware and take extra safety precautions and those moving here should research the areas where they plan to reside and make sure that there are adequate security measures in place to protect your home against burglary or invasion. Look in to joining the local "neighborhood watch" or other organized crime prevention groups.
6. RACIAL DISCRIMINATION IN COSTA RICA
Ticos are a very friendly, helpful and extremely polite people. They hold good manners as such an important social grace that its very rare for visitors of any color to have first hand experience of racism in the country. Discrimination in Costa Rica is mainly against the indigenous people (which includes the Afro Caribbeans who reside on the Caribbean Coast), Africans and lately the Nicaraguans. African Americans however will feel little if any discrimination (as they will know your nationality as soon as you open your mouth). Any discrimination is more economic than racial.
7. HOW EASY IS IT TO GET AROUND COSTA RICA?
Public transportation is excellent in Costa Rica. The buses are cheap and extremely reliable. It is the primary means of transportation for the natives. They run just about everywhere (although in the countryside, buses may run less frequently). We take the local bus from our house on the ridge into town for less than 80 cents (about a 25 min ride). Most buses are very clean and comfortable and so far we have not encountered any unruly or rude teens on the buses.
On the local buses, the people all seem to know each other and the atmosphere is very friendly and chatty (bus drivers even make stops to deliver and pick up packages to the people in the neighborhoods on the route). Older children will get up to offer their seats to women and the elderly. The children are quiet and well behaved. Usually there will be music playing as well. Quite a shock to us, having moved here from the Bay Area. Also as a senior (65+) you can obtain a pass that allows you to ride for free. You'll need to take your passport to the Seguridad Social and complete a form - process takes about 3 months.
Taxis are also relatively inexpensive (less than half the cost of taxis in the US). Red taxi are abundant. There are also other taxis available which are not officially sanctioned by the government and Uber. A commuter train runs within San Jose and connects to Heredia, a city just north of the capital. There are plans to expand the service within the next few years.
8. CAN WE DRINK THE WATER?
Yes, except where expressly posted (mostly in rural areas). The water tastes very good, is potable and safe to drink. This can save you a ton of money if you have been existing on bottled water from the states.
9. WHAT KIND OF JOBS ARE AVAILABLE? HOW CAN I WORK IN COSTA RICA AS A FOREIGNER?
You cannot legally work in Costa Rica unless you’re a permanent resident or citizen. Costa Rican law strives to protect its citizens by securing as many local jobs as possible. However there are exceptions to this rule but they are not common. It may be possible to obtain a work permit with local companies, such as bilingual schools or international corporations.
A company in Costa Rica has to show that there is no Costa Rican who can do the job so that’s why they need you. The company then gets a work permit for you through the government. It’s very rare.
So for most people, you have to become a permanent resident or a citizen. Becoming a permanent resident takes time, though, for most people. Unless you’re a first degree relative to a Costa Rican (through marriage or by having a baby in Costa Rica), you can’t get permanent residency without first being a temporary resident for a certain number of years. After that period, you can apply to be a permanent resident and can work legally for Costa Rican companies. Some people who move here do find businesses that will hire them even without the proper work permit. This of course is illegal and not a good way to start your new life here, especially if you get caught since you may be deported.
Working online, or telecommuting are other options and what a lot of expats do. It is legal as long as the money is coming from a company or clients outside Costa Rica.
There are five types of residency: temporary (through marriage to a Costa Rican), rentista (annuity), inversionista (investor), pensionado (retiree), and permanent (usually through first-degree blood relationship with a Costa Rican). Each residency type has its own requirements.
The rentista seems to be the most difficult way to obtain residency. It has has taken some applicants as long as 3 years. Be sure that you really understand how Caja payments work. Rentista pays the highest percentage (it’s based on your income), and people are often surprised at how much they have to pay. And, yes, you do have to be a resident to use the Caja.
– One of the ways to get residency is through making an investment, so yes, purchasing property could satisfy that. It is only for temporary residency though, not permanent. You have to wait and be a temp resident just like with the others before you can apply for permanent.
– Residency: If you go through a lawyer, residency can be quicker and easier but will usually cost a couple thousand dollars per person.
- Caja (medical coverage) payments are an ongoing monthly expense.
- After you obtain Residency - In Country Requirements
11. HOW GOOD ARE MEDICAL SERVICES IN COSTA RICA?
Costa Rica is internationally recognized for its top-notch medical services, both public and private, thanks to its wealth of skilled surgeons and state-of-the-art facilities. The country’s top private hospitals – CIMA, Clinica Biblica and Clinica Catolica – offer complete services including ultrasound, X-ray, emergency and intensive care, and bilingual staff. The United Nations ranked Costa Rica’s public health system within the top 20 worldwide.
Health care in Costa Rica is very good and sanitary standards are high. First class hospitals are found throughout San José and some of the other largely populated areas. Long ago diseases such as malaria, paludismo, and yellow fever were eradicated in Costa Rica. There are no plagues like in other countries, and no special vaccine recommendations for travelers more than the influenza and the tetanus vaccines. Hospitals and the Red Cross will provide any medical treatment to visitors in case of emergency.
Because the country has no army to support, it is able to provide money for universal medical care and free and subsidized educational programs. The well-run national healthcare system means that the country’s people are strong and healthy. The health care in Costa Rica is focused on prevention rather than treating symptoms after the person is ill.
The country has an up-to-date medical system with hospitals, clinics, and complete medical services in all major cities and some towns. Costa Rica is considered to have one of the best low-cost medical care systems in the world. Dental care and cosmetic surgery is affordable, and Costa Rica’s plastic surgeons are considered among the world’s best.
12. WHAT IS THE CLIMATE LIKE IN COSTA RICA?
Located just a smidgen north of the equator, Costa Rica has a temperate tropical climate marked by two seasons: dry (December- April) and wet (May-November). When considering a move, location is a big part of the equation — choose from balmy, hot/humid beaches, cool mountains, or the spring-like weather of the Central Valley. My suggestion is to experience the rainy season BEFORE committing to living here permanently. We moved here in June and expected the rainy season to wind down in Nov, but it is Jan and we are still getting rain (though a lot less frequent). Costa Rica is outside the hurricane belt but after 178 years a hurricane hit the country in 2016. Costa Rica is also in the Ring of Fire, so you will probably experience some quakes although major quakes hit about one every decade.
13. IS THE INTERNET RELIABLE?
This is a major concern for most people moving to Costa Rica. Internet varies across the country from a crawling less than one MB to a zippy 10 MB. Some towns have only a Wi-Fi connection (you connect with a 3G USB stick), which is generally less reliable. Cost is around $25-30/month for 2 MB speed. We opted for 10MB. We find the service fast and reliable. The cost for us is about $80/mo (the includes deluxe cable package with 10 HBO options (although a majority of the shows are in Spanish)
If Internet is important to you, find a town that has cable Internet through Tigo Star (which is our provider), Cable Tica or another provider. It’s much more reliable and you can pay extra to have a faster speed. The Central Valley is a good place to start, but many other communities have cable as well (e.g., Nosara; Manuel Antonio; Tamarindo; Lake Arenal area (Tronadora and Puerto San Luis); and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, just to name a few).
One other thing to keep in mind: Don’t assume that just because most of a town has a 3G connection that you can’t get cable. If a hotel, development, etc. has paid to get a cable line put in, the houses near there might be able to access it too.
The Central Valley (San Jose area) is most likely your best bet for finding reliable internet and affordable housing. Grecia and Atenas are good places to look and there are lots of other smaller towns as well. Make sure to find something with a cable Internet connection, through Tigo, CableTica or otherwise.
14. CAN I GET CABLE TV AND PROGRAMMING FROM THE US?
Most developed areas offer cable television, cell phone service, and some form of high-speed Internet. Recently some US channels like ABC and NBC are no longer available.
15. BRINGING SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN TO COSTA RICA. WHAT IS THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM LIKE?
I do not have school age children but I get questions so I am sharing this information from The Real Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is touted as a highly literate country, and it is. Ticos are well educated and can read and write well. What is not discussed is that the public schools are generally dirt poor. Some schools, especially in the rural areas, have but one classroom. Even those in the more populated cities lack the "things" that nearly all suburban schools offer in the USA and most parents take for granted.
Textbooks are copies. (they have actually photocopied the books and rebound them. Most kids never see a book) There are few if any extracurricular activities of any kind. No after school stuff. No sports, other than futbal (soccer) are offered and sports facilities (pools, running track, etc) do not exist Few public schools even have computers and computer labs are non existent.Playgrounds, if there is one, are not much more than large areas to run around. Stuff like jungle gyms etc, are few.
Get the point? Further, the public school system in Costa Rica often ends at the 9th grade. Schools that offer courses beyond the 9th grade are required to offer the Bachillerato de Educación de Diversificada or National Baccalaureate. These National Baccalaureate school end at 11th grade. Their calendar year is from February through November.
For this reason, most expatriates who move to Costa Rica with school aged children will send them to either a Catholic Schools or to a wide variety of Private Schools. Most opt for the private schools.
The main function of the public schools is to provide basic literacy not preparation for university here nor college or university elsewhere. Those students who do have their eye set to higher education will always elect to continue though 11th grade which makes them eligible for admission to most colleges and universities in this country but not in the USA. Source
16. SHIPPING HOUSEHOLD GOODS TO COSTA RICA
We came to Costa Rica with 8 suitcases. We shipped 2 wardrobe size boxes through a local shipper.
That is enough for us for the time being, however if you are going to ship your household items
understanding the rules here is important.
Your goods will have to clear customs and are subject to Import duties (taxes), so you need to learn how to pay as little as possible. The Costa Rican Customs Law has three articles that cover the importation of USED household goods and personal effects and the duties will vary depending on how and when you import your goods. This means that the same items will be exonerated under one article and will be taxed under another article of the Customs Law. The difference depends on how and when you import them. It's important to understand each article in order to take advantage of them and to not incur needlessly high import duties.
It can be quite complicated, (I have not figured it out yet myself) so my suggestion is to contact a shipping broker. A good organization to help you with this (and other related moving questions) is ARCR. It is a membership organization that provides help for people moving to Costa Rica.
Should you bring your household goods or not?
Estimating what size container
17. SHOULD I BUY A CAR THERE OR BRING MY OWN?
Driving here is often described as an adventure sport in itself. Stops signs are only a suggestion! Drivers are honk happy and assertive to say the least. The country’s main highways are in decent condition, though all are susceptible to landslides and sudden flooding in the rainy season.
Here is what you should be be prepared to encounter
Narrow roads, one lane bridges, no street signs, landslides, potholes, dangerous curves and slopes, people (there are few sidewalks), loose animals, insane rain, shoddy road repair, and other Costa Rica drivers!
However after a bit of an adjustment period, most people don’t think twice about hopping in the car.
Cars are expensive whether you bring your own or buy one here, but really nice if you want to see the country. You don’t have to be a resident to buy one; you just need your passport and an address in Costa Rica.
Cars are also very expensive due to high import taxes. As an example, a 15-year-old SUV typically costs $8,000-12,000, depending on make and model. Gas is pricey too.
Instead of buying one here, a lot of people ship their old car from the US or elsewhere. This has its advantages as you know how the car has been treated. Many cars in Costa Rica have had a hard life, been beat up on rough roads, in floods or other natural disasters, and have even had their odometers turned back. Bringing your own ensures that you don’t get a $10,000 lemon, but it does have its disadvantages. The biggest is that you’ll have to pay import taxes to get it registered in Costa Rica. These duties are extremely high and can be 50-79% of the value of the car (not what you paid for the car but what the Costa Rica government deems it to be worth). So if you buy something for a few thousand dollars and pay for shipping and taxes, you might just end up spending about the same or more than if you bought a car here.
Drivers License - In Costa Rica, anyone can drive with their home country driver's license as long as they have a valid “tourist visa.” Make sure to have a color copy of your passport and the stamp or you can bring your original passport. If you have an accident, call your rent a car company immediately
Should I buy a car or bring my own?
18. USING YOUR CELL PHONE
You should definitely get a phone plan here if you’re moving because it will be cheaper. It’s easy to do by getting a chip for your phone from Kolbi or one of the other cell phone providers (Claro, Movistar, etc.- research which one has best service for where you’ll be living). Movistar has worked best for our location in the Grecia.
You need an unlocked quad band phone for it to work in CR. For calls out of the country, you can do Magic Jack or something similar very affordably. If you’re coming from the US, the Magic Jack app for iPhone works well if you have a good Internet connection and is actually free for calls to the US.
Tourists and residents alike may purchase Kolbi prepaid cell phone service, a GSM and 3G network that’ll cost you about $5 per month. The service offers both national and international SIM chips in several denominations. If you are a tourist, simply present your passport and two copies of your photo and entry stamp pages to obtain the Kolbi plan.
Tip If you don't have a sim or a burner phone you should disable the roaming on your phone lest you incur some pretty hefty data charges (I also put mine on airplane mode). There are lots of WiFi spots available for checking email. You can also try MagicJack (although we could never get ours to work) Get the WhatsApp and use Imessage if you have an iPhone. Also Google has an option to make calls over the internet anywhere is the US for free. I use it often when I am home and in WiFi area,
A 10% tip/gratuity is already included (usually) in the bill total so don't make the mistake of tipping again. If you decide to tip more at a restaurant give it to the waiter and do not leave on the table. Taxi drivers generally do not receive a tip. If you are satisfied with the service you receive, private drivers, tourist guides, maids and bell boys would be glad to receive a tip. The amount would be totally up to you.
There are several public and more than 20 private banks in Costa Rica, all with services open to foreigners. Be prepared with original identification, a utility bill and minimum deposit. Some banks also require references.
ATM's are everywhere and most establishments take cards ATM fees are about $3 per transaction and also subject to your bank fees. Credit Unions generally charge less and Capital One and Charles Schwab are a couple of companies who also charge less fees.
There is no denying that Costa Rica is an incredibly beautiful country with much to offer. It has been a popular place for travelers and expats to relocate, set up businesses, and retire, for decades.
However living in Costa Rica is not always a bed of roses.
Bugs Are Unavoidable!
Costa Rica has 4.5% of the biodiversity on planet EARTH...of course there are bugs. If insects particularly bother you, you may struggle with the creatures that can sometimes overtake your home, such as mosquitoes, ants and spiders. Mostly it depends on where you live. Here in the Central Valley I see a few spiders, ants and other small insects inside the house, but it really isn't that bad -- and trust me -- I am NO bug lover. The landlord keeps the insects down out in the yard and the house was fumigated about 6 months ago. You will just have to learn to live with it, if you want to live in this beautiful country. Consider it a trade off!
Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR): Great forum for questions on moving, real estate, internet, phone, etc.
InterNations: An online community for expats around the world, including a specific Costa Rica section that has a blog, forum, and featured expat events happening in CR.
Facebook Expat Groups: There are several but a couple of really active ones are Black Expats Living Life Abroad, Black Expats in Costa Rica, Expatriates in Costa Rica and Gringo Expats in Costa Rica. Areas with a big expat population often have town-specific groups too so be sure to do some searching. These groups are a great place to ask questions to those who know it best.
The Video Hub and if you have not seen it yet, checkout my Relocation Webinars listed on the Video Hub page. Also our videos from the 1st 3yrs are here.
Questions & Answers about Our Life in Costa Rica (the 1st 3 yrs) see The Aspiring Expats