Costa Rica is a Central American country neighbored by Nicaragua and Panama to the north and southeast respectively. To the west of the country lies the expansive Pacific Ocean while the Caribbean Sea lies to the east. Breathtaking beaches, rainforests, active volcanoes, and hospitality are some of the features that attract tourists to Costa Rica in large numbers.
With a small population of around 5 million people, Costa Rica is probably the most prosperous country in the Latin American region. The propelling factors of the country’s economy are agriculture, tourism, mining, exports of medical & surgical instruments, and electronic components.
Costa Rica has a democratic presidential form of government, very similar to the United States of America. The official language of the state is Spanish, the biggest city San Jose, is also the country’s capital. Besides the usual politics and economic progress, Costa Rica is also committed to preserving its natural resources, especially the forests and rivers. To this effect, the state has declared 25% of the country as protective land where any kind of interference is completely forbidden.
Many US citizens aspire to relocate to Costa Rica due to its favorable environment, natural beauty, and peacefulness. There are a number of options available for US citizens to temporarily or permanently relocate to this beautiful country. We explore these options in detail here along with areas that should be considered before taking a decision.
Types of Immigration and Visas for US Citizens
To start with, a US citizen having a valid passport does not require a visa to enter and stay in Costa Rica for up to 90 days (03 months). However, the traveler must provide the below:
- Proof of return (return tickets) or onward travel before the 90-day period
- Proof of sufficient funds to cover the stay in the country (hotel stay, meals, transportation, etc.)
In case of stays longer than 3 months for purposes such as education, medical treatment, employment, etc. a relevant visa or residency must be obtained. Such a visa must be obtained from the Costa Rican consulate or embassy in the US before traveling to Costa Rica.
Costa Rican immigration offers 05 types of visas for longer stays to US citizens, as listed below:
- Pensionado Visa
- Rentista Visa
- Investor Visa
- Spousal Visa
- Work Visa
Pensionado Visa (Pension based visa)
As the name suggests, a ‘Pension based Visa’ is aimed at retirees who receive a steady pension monthly. A US citizen who receives and has been receiving a minimum of US$1,000 per month for at least 2 years qualifies for this visa. The visa allows the holder to reside in Costa Rica indefinitely as long as the conditions are met.
The conditions are that the holder must provide and resubmit the proof of income annually. Secondly, the holder can’t stay away from Costa Rica for more than 2 years at a stretch, however, he/she can travel in and out of the country whenever needed.
The documentation requirements to apply for the Pension based Visa are listed below:
- Valid passport: Must have 6 months before expiry at the time of application
- Police verification certificate: Certifying that the applicant has no police record or criminal inquiry in progress
- Birth certificate
- Marriage/Divorce certificate: Whichever is applicable
- Declaration of dependents: This could be a spouse, or kids under 18 years of age
- Proof of income: Pension of at least US$1,000/month | investment returns of the same amount | social security, etc.
- Medical certificate: Certifying that the applicant does not carry any contagious disease and bears good health
- Photographs: 02 passport-sized photographs that are most recent and preferably with a white background
- Application form: Duly filled “Visa de Residencia Temporal para Pensionados” form
The process to obtain the Visa de Residencia Temporal para Pensionados is very simple and straightforward. It generally involves the steps mentioned below:
- The process starts with gathering and preparing the documents stated above, and others that might be required by the consulate.
- Submit application.
- Pay the state fees as per the following structure:
- Visa application fee: $250
- Processing fee: $210
- Biometrics and background check: $50
- Medical examination fee: $80 – $100
- Police clearance certificate: $50 – $100
- The Department of Immigration of Costa Rica will review the application which may take several weeks to a few months, depending on the application and the backlog.
- Once the visa is issued, the applicant may travel to Costa Rica and initiate the process for temporary residency.
- To gain permanent residency, the applicant must register with the Costa Rican Social Security System, obtain a driver’s license, and attend the permanent residency interview while staying in Costa Rica.
A Rentista Visa is similar to the ‘Pension based Visa’ but caters to aspirants who do not receive a pension or have a retirement income. To qualify for this visa, the applicant must prove a monthly income of $2,500 steady over the period of 2 years.
The visa allows the holder to reside in Costa Rica for up to 2 years at a stretch. At the end of the initial 2 years, the applicant may apply for an extension for another 2 years. At the completion of the second 2-year stay, the visa can be extended for one more year before it exhausts the limit, which is 5 years.
While the Rentista Visa does allow for a longer stay, it does not permit the holder to work or engage in commercial activities. To do so, the applicant must apply for a work visa. The details of the work visa will come later in this article.
Besides the usual visa requirements such as passport, photographs, etc. other documentation requirements are as under:
- Proof of income ($2,500)
- Police clearance certificate
- Payment of application fees i.e., $250
- Proof of stable financial means
- Passport (valid for 6 months at least)
- Health certificate
- Declaration of purpose
- An affidavit claiming that the applicant will not take up employment or engage in commercial activities unless a work permit is obtained.
Please follow the process provided for Pension based visa applications other than the fee structure. The fees applicable generally are given below:
- Application fees: $250
- Visa fees: $50 per month as long as the applicant resides in Costa Rica (if for 24 months then the visa fee will be $1,200)
- Caja fee: Every resident of Costa Rica, whether citizen or otherwise, is obligated to enroll for the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, which is the equivalent of the US National Health Insurance System. The applicable fee varies depending on the resident’s income and may range between $50 – $500 per month.
For US citizens, Costa Rica presents a number of opportunities for investment. Interested individuals can invest in the technology sector, agriculture, real estate, power and energy, and various other sectors according to their liking and available capital.
The Costa Rican government facilitates and encourages US investment by offering an “Investors Visa” based on a minimum investment of US$ 200,000. The visa is valid for 2 years. The extension and renewal policies applicable to an investor visa are exactly the same as a Rentista visa.
The documentation requirements for an investor visa are similar to the Rentista Visa. Additionally, the following documents shall be attached with the appropriate form called the ‘Solicitud de Visa Temporal por Inversionista’.
- Proof of investment: Bank statements, investment plans, or other such documents that prove that the applicant has the wherewithal to qualify for the visa. Note that the minimum investment to qualify is $200,000.
- Business plan: A plan that describes the industry, sector, or areas of investment. Moreover, whether the applicant will participate in the business or act merely as an investor.
- Financial stability: The applicant must prove that he/she has sufficient financial means to support a decent livelihood in Costa Rica besides the investment they bring. The business may take a while to reach profitability, but the expenses are incurred from the outset.
The process begins with compiling and preparing the right documents for the application including investment proofs, plans, passports, etc. The application once submitted at the consulate (before traveling to Costa Rica), awaits approval and further process. An additional step is that the applicant is called for an interview where inquiries are made as to the source of investment, reason, objective and purpose, etc.
The applicable fees generally are as follows:
- Application fees: $250
- Visa fees: $200/year throughout the stay
- Caja fees: $50 – $500/month
A work visa is available to US citizens who gain employment in Costa Rica. The process begins by applying for a job position in Costa Rica while staying in the United States. Once the job is secured, an application is moved by the employer who sufficiently satisfies the Costa Rican immigration that the position could not have been filled by a resident or citizen.
A work visa allows the holder to reside and work in Costa Rica as long as the employment continues with the employer that sponsored the visa. In case where the duration of employment expires, or the employee wishes to switch to another job, he/she will require a fresh work visa. The process for a fresh work visa is similar to the initial application process.
Apart from the basic requirements such as a valid passport, police certificate, health certificate, photographs, application form, etc. The additional documents required are as under:
- Employment contract: Detailing the duration of service (if applicable), remuneration, position, accommodation details, name of the company, registered office, terms of service, etc.
- Criminal background check: A certificate ensuring that the applicant has a clear criminal record from the applicant’s last country of residence (where the applicant has lived for the last 3 years or more).
- Fees: Fee payment proof as per the below structure:
- Visa fee: $250
A spousal visa is granted to US citizens who are married to either a Costa Rican citizen or a permanent resident. Apart from the usual steps involved in the previously discussed visa types, the additional step involved is the legalization of the documents. Legalization of documents means that the documents proving a spousal relationship with a Costa Rican citizen or resident are authenticated by the Costa Rican embassy or consulate.
This step may take several weeks to a few months depending on the complexity of the case. Usually, the fees are $200 to $250 but may change with time and case.
The process to become a naturalized citizen
When a non-citizen of a country acquires nationality or citizenship of another country through the determined process, he/she is said to be a naturalized citizen. It is possible for a US citizen to gain nationality in Costa Rica through a complex process and fulfill several requirements.
Some of the most important requirements are:
- The age of the applicant shall not be less than 18
- Must have lived in Costa Rica legally for 05 consecutive years
- Must be able to speak and write in Spanish
- Does not have a marred criminal record (in the US and Costa Rica)
- Must showcase good moral and ethical characteristics
The process for naturalization is initiated by the aspirant by filling out an application to the Civil Registry. Proof of residency, background check, mode of income, minimum monthly income statement, and other relevant documents shall be submitted along with the application. It must be noted that Costa Rica does not allow dual nationality, hence in order for a US citizen to gain citizenship of Costa Rica, he/she must forfeit their US nationality.
Things To consider before moving to Costa Rica
Gaining legal immigration or long-term residence in Costa Rica is a major but just one part of the relocation process. Associated aspects to consider primarily include:
- Living arrangements
- Child education
- Health and insurance
- Cultural assimilation
Real Estate & Living
Speaking strictly from the perspective of a US citizen, Costa Rica offers a peaceful and more affordable living. A decent number of US citizens have immigrated or relocated to Costa Rica in the past few years.
Here are some of the places that aspirants should consider for accommodation purposes:
|Estimates based on ONE BEDROOM apartment
|Atenas Centro, Barrio Mercedes, Lomas del Paraiso
|$100,000 – $170,000
|Small town. Mild climate. Peaceful. Popular among retirees.
|Tamarindo Centro, Langosta, Playa Grande, Rancho San Fransisco
|$800 – $1,500
|$150,000 – $250,000
|A coastal town with beaches. Lively atmosphere, bars, and nightlife.
|San Antonio de Escazu, Jaboncillos, San Rafael de Escazu, Guachipelin
|$1,000 – $1,800
|$100,000 – $300,000
|Suburban living. Very modern lifestyle. Shopping centers, malls, multiplexes, & international schools.
|Los Angeles, San Isidro, San Fransico, San Roque, San Miguel
|$500 – $800
|$90,000 – $200,000
|A small town in central Costa Rica. A scenic, welcoming community, and peaceful living.
|Manuel Antonio Beach, Quepos, El Cerro, Playa Biesanz
|$800 – $1,500
|$150,000 – $300,000
|Tourist destination. National parks, stunning beaches, jungles, warm climate, friendly locals.
The tabulation above presents localities and neighborhoods with various characteristics and features. Some people may wish to live closer to nature away from the city such as Atenas, while others may prefer Manuel Antonio. And still, others may choose something in-between.
Areas to avoid in Costa Rica
Wholistically, Costa Rica is a very peaceful and safe country having a negligible crime rate. However, there are a few areas that are better to avoid if the person plans to live for a longer period in the country.
- San Jose city center: The area is not unsafe, but overly crowded and always chaotic. Especially at nights and weekends when people from nearby areas plunge into the center for entertainment activities.
- Limon: Port cities are often comparatively vulnerable to petty theft, mugging, and other minor incidents. The same is the case with Limon, which lies on the Caribbean coast.
- La Carpio: Lying on the outskirts of San Jose, La Carpio is populated by the low-income segment of society. Though it offers cheap accommodation, offers very few amenities such as schools, hospitals, etc. Additionally, the area is also a safe haven for gangs that occasionally indulge in violent activities.
- Pavas: Another area that should be avoided is Pavas. Another locality lying in the suburbs of San Jose. Though it is safe in the day timings, at night walking alone is akin to inviting muggers and looters.
- Jaco: For partygoers and nightlife lovers Jaco is a favorite spot. Liquor runs rampant, and mob fights are common occurrences.
Cultural Aspects of Costa Rican Society
Costa Ricans are friendly, warm, and welcoming people by and large. The majority of the population prefers a simple life and does not indulge in extravagance. Societies are clusters of different ethnicities, cultures, religions, and idiosyncrasies that have gelled and blended together over hundred of years to present one common culture, and several sub-cultures.
Some very apparent differences between the social norms in the US and Costa Rica are provided here. It is important to understand these differences before relocation to ensure cultural assimilation. After all, when in Rome, do as the Romans do is a very wise adage.
- Pura Vida: Literal translation of this word is “Pure Life” or “Simple Life. This Costa Rican principle to lead a happy, peaceful, and simple life is very well ingrained in society. This principle assists society to keep the ambitions of the people within respectable limits.
- Family & Community: Modern societies and neighborhoods, seldom pay attention to immediate neighbors, people mostly go on about their business in isolation. The Costa Rican society, however, puts great emphasis on family and neighbors. Sending and receiving edibles to neighbors is commonplace in Costa Rica. Americans who relocate to Costa Rica should be mentally prepared to welcome these actions and reciprocate accordingly.
- Environmentalism: Another very prominent aspect of Costa Rican society is the collective effort to preserve and protect their environment. Be it forests, beaches, parks, or other public places, are always clean and pristine. Costa Ricans take pride in the country’s natural beauty.
- Social Harmony: Costa Ricans highly value social harmony avoiding social conflicts. Speaking politics, religious beliefs, or personal differences, in a public place is discouraged and considered disrespectful.
- Language: Costa Ricans value their national language (Spanish) as an integral part of national harmony and culture. It is difficult to carry out day-to-day affairs without a basic understanding of Spanish. Hence it is suggested to all US aspirants be able to speak and understand the Spanish language. This will greatly expedite the process of cultural assimilation too.
Healthcare System in Costa Rica
The US citizens planning to relocate to Costa Rica shall feel relieved to know that the healthcare system of Costa Rica is one of the best in Latin America. This fact is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as well and is presented as a model for other countries to follow.
The healthcare system is based on public and private facilities. The public healthcare system is called Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS) and provides comprehensive coverage to all legal residents of the country. Every resident is obligated to pay a certain fee (based on the income bracket of the person) to the Caja account monthly.
The CCSS takes care of preventive healthcare, hospitalization, prescription drugs, and outpatient check-ups. The System is funded by residents as well as the government of Costa Rica.
Some of the major healthcare facilities of Costa Rica are listed below:
- Nacional de Niños (National Children’s Hospital)
- San Juan de Dios
- Hospital Mexico
- Clinica Biblica
- CIMA Hospital
US citizens who relocate to Costa Rica can also obtain global health insurance coverage that includes medical evacuation and repatriation if need be. Some of the reputable health insurers are:
- Cigna Global Health Options
- Geo Blue
- IMG Global Medical, etc.
The education system in Costa Rica
Similar to the healthcare system, Costa Rica’s education system too is very well-structured and recognized as one of the best in Latin America. Children between the ages of 6 and 15 receive free mandatory education. A significant state budget is dispensed for the promotion and development of schools, colleges, and universities. Additionally, research-based education is also encouraged and emphasized.
A three-tier education system is followed in Costa Rica; primary, secondary, and higher secondary education. Primary education includes basic education such as mathematics, language, ethics, civics, science, etc., and is usually spread over a 6-year period.
Secondary education takes another 6 years and includes two cycles; the basic cycle and the diversified cycle. The basic cycle imparts basic education in subjects such as mathematics, science, social studies, etc. Whereas in diversified cycle lets the students choose a specific field of study as per their aptitude and liking.
Lastly, higher education is optional and includes university education, technical and vocational schools, and research facilities.
For newly relocating Americans who are accompanied by school-going children there are various options that can be compared to the schools back at home.
- Lincoln School
- The British School
- Country Day School
- Panamerican School
- Lighthouse International School
Relocators who seek higher education in Costa Rica may explore the below-mentioned universities to pursue their field of interest.
- University of Costa Rica (UCR)
- Costa Rica Institute of Technology (TEC)
- National University of Costa Rica (UNA)
- Latin University of Costa Rica (ULatina)
- Autonomous University of Central America (UACA)
The transportation system in Costa Rica
The transportation system in the country includes public buses, taxis, rental cars, and domestic airlines. Generally, buses are the most common mode of transportation within cities. The bus network is very detailed and is divided into two types; domestic bus service, and long-distance bus service.
Domestic buses can be used to travel within cities, while long-distance buses are an efficient mode of transport to other cities. Even a person who does not own a private vehicle will not find it difficult to move around in Costa Rica. Similarly, the road network in Costa Rica is quite extensive including paved and unpaved roads.
Moreover, 02 international standard airports facilitate international flight operations to Europe, the USA, and South American Countries. The two airports are Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) and the other is Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR).