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More and more people from the U.S. and Canada are trading in their winter boots for sandy toes and sunshine. The turquoise water and lush mountains of Costa Rica have a magical effect on foreigners looking to start a new life. If you’re considering moving to Costa Rica, this guide has everything you need to know.

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moving to costa rica

The Basics

Costa Rica has a population of over 5 million people, with nearly half a million expats. The country is split into 7 regions, called provinces, and most people live in the Central Valley surrounding the capital, San Jose. 

Unlike some other Central American countries, Costa Rica has a very high literacy rate of 97.8%. The country has an excellent education system, no army, and stable democracy that makes it the peaceful nation that it is.

The incredible biodiversity of Costa Rica is something we never get sick of. Every area has its own unique landscape and lifestyle to go with it. The country aims to protect this as much as possible with its focus on sustainability and environmental awareness. Costa Rica is on a path to becoming carbon-neutral and shows other countries that a greener future is possible.

Tourists, retirees, and families all agree that Costa Rica is a little piece of paradise and we definitely concur! We love the laid back lifestyle and can see why it’s one of the happiest places in the world.

moving to Costa Rica
Aerial View of Jaco, Costa Rica

The Weather

The temperate climate in Costa Rica makes it one of the most comfortable year-round destinations in the world. Residents of the Central Valley rarely have to worry about heating or air conditioning thanks to the high altitude of the Costa Rican mountains.

The golden beaches of Guanacaste, the Central Pacific, and the Southern Zone are always hot with a distinct rainy season. Costa Ricans don’t call the rainy season their “winter” because it’s a far cry from what most American and Canadian expats are used to!

On the west coast, the warm and calm waters of the Pacific mean that hurricanes aren’t an issue. The Caribbean coast is more susceptible to hurricanes but they’re still uncommon—the country has only had 18 recorded hurricanes to date.

San Juanillo Beach, Guanacaste

Cost of Living

How much does it cost to live in Costa Rica? While the cost of living in Costa Rica is affordable, it’s not the cheapest country in Latin America. Depending on your lifestyle, you can live comfortably on US$1,500 per month. Things like meat and special products are pretty comparable to costs in the United States. But, you can always keep your grocery bill low by buying fresh local produce and fish from a market.

Rent prices vary from the capital city to smaller communities but are generally much lower than in the U.S. For instance, you can rent a small apartment in San Jose for US$500 or land a pretty nice house on the beach for US$1500.    

One thing is for sure, healthcare and dental work are significantly less expensive. Having access to affordable healthcare is a main driving factor for many American expats in Costa Rica. 

Looking for more information on Costa Rica budget planning? Check out our full breakdown of the cost of living in Costa Rica

Working on the porch of our house in Playa Avellanas, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Safety

In our travels, we’ve been to many places where safety is constantly on the mind when exploring a city or landmark. In Costa Rica, with a bit of common sense and awareness, things are impressively safe. Outside of the capital city of San José, crime is rare and is usually petty. In fact, Costa Rica is considered to be the most peaceful nation in all of Central America.

Costa Rica has no army and focuses its federal funding on healthcare and education. Despite being a developing country, Costa Rica is an inspiring example of a forward-thinking and politically stable nation.

costa rica backpacking
Tamarindo, Costa Rica

Culture

If you’ve ever read anything about Costa Rica, you’ve encountered the term pura vida. It’s hard to describe exactly what pura vida means until you come here and experience it for yourself. We’ve done our best to sum it up, but what you really need to grasp is that the local culture is very laid back. Things move slowly here and quite frankly, that pace is what makes Costa Rica so special.  

Cultural Close-up: What does Pura Vida mean?
Feeling the Pura Vida spirit on Playa Lagartillo, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Connectedness and Internet

Like other amenities, internet speeds vary across the country and can range from sloth-speed to 100mbps. Overall, Costa Rica is a well-connected place with accessible internet and 4G cell networks that many expats rely on for work. 

Naturally, there are more options—including fiber internet—around major cities like San José and large beach towns like Jaco and Tamarindo. Some mountain and remote towns by the ocean still struggle but things are progressing. We currently have 5mbps download speeds in Playa Avellanas but fiber is on the way!

moving to costa rica
Oxana and Max working on a laptop.

Healthcare System

Costa Rica’s healthcare system is considered to be one of the best low-cost systems in the world. Universal healthcare (Caja or CCSS) is accessible to all permanent residents with a small monthly fee based on income. This gives residents access to medical care at any of the 30 hospitals and 250 clinics throughout Costa Rica. 

Nevertheless, private health care is still much better. We learned this first hand after breaking my leg in a freak surfing accident (don’t worry, no sharks or riptides were involved). My experience at the private hospital was much more comfortable than at the public one. Of course, private care comes at a price so it’s important to not make the mistake we did and have private health insurance while in Costa Rica! Many expats go with companies like Blue Cross, but we recommend Safety Wing!   

As an expat living in Costa Rica, you’ll find that dental care is very good here too. Prices are reasonable and dentists are very well trained. If you do decide on relocating to Costa Rica, you can buy private insurance specifically for expats that includes medical and dental care.

Allianz travel insurance is a must for any US citizen
Oksana’s broken leg in a cast. Nicoya Hospital, Costa Rica

Quality of Life

Costa Rica boasts a life expectancy of 80 years, one of the highest in the world! The Nicoya Peninsula in particular is one of the world’s five Blue Zones and is home to 44 centenarians. A balanced diet, active lifestyle, and strong relationships are attributed to this revered quality of life.

Road to Mal Pais, Nicoya Peninsula. Costa Rica
Road to Mal Pais, Nicoya Peninsula. Costa Rica

Visas

The requirements to move to Costa Rica make for various ways for expats to get a visa. Most people start with a tourist visa and apply for residency once they’ve settled on where they want to live.

Minimalism: passport stamps

Tourist Visas

With tourist visas, expats have to do border runs every 90 days to exit the country and re-enter Costa Rica. Even though thousands of people have made this part of their routine, it can be a bit inconvenient. If you move to Costa Rica and decide you want to stay more than 90 days, consider becoming a legal resident through one of the following ways.

Permanent Residency

Pensionado

Expats who retire to Costa Rica can obtain temporary residency with a pension of at least US$1000 per month. The money must be converted to Costa Rican Colones and your temporary residency will last 3 years. After 3 years, you can apply for permanent residency.

Rentista

With a Rentista visa, expats must prove that they will have US$2,500 per month in income for 2 years. Often, an expat will deposit the lump sum of US$60,000 into a Costa Rican bank account. The bank will then write a letter stating that this total covers the $2,500 for all 24 months. Alternatively, you can submit a letter from your employer stating that you’ll earn at least US$2,500 monthly for the next 2 years.

Inversionista

If you plan to buy a property or a business when you move to Costa Rica, the Inversioista visa might be your best option. Expats who invest US$200,000 in a business or in real estate will get temporary residency for 3 years. After 3 years, you can apply to be a permanent resident.

Having a Child in Costa Rica

In addition to the above methods, having a child in Costa Rica is also an avenue for residency. This means that once you receive a birth certificate, the parents can become residents along with the child. It’s one of the easiest and cheapest way to obtain Costa Rican residency and a VERY popular choice with expat families residing in the country. 

Buying Property in Costa Rica

After moving to Costa Rica, you’ll probably fall in love with the beaches and rainforests like we did and want to buy property. The good news is that foreigners and locals have the same property rights so you can even buy land with a tourist visa. 

All inclusive Drift Away Eco Lodge in Costa Rica

People of Costa Rica

Because there are so many Europeans and Americans living in Costa Rica, there is a unique mix of people. In fact, only 2.4% of the population are Indigenous Costa Ricans. There are lots of expats, predominantly from North America, who call Costa Rica home alongside the local ticos. Most Canadians and Americans moving to Costa Rica are retirees but the international schools attract many families too.

And of course, the healthy lifestyle and world-class surfing invite young adventurous types from across the globe. 

A Costa Rica backpacking trip is the perfect adventure
Old post office in San Jose, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Speed of Life Tours via Flickr CC

Schools

Unlike other tourist destinations, the education system in Costa Rica makes it an attractive choice for expat families. The country has some of the best schools in Latin America and puts a large focus on education and human development. The biggest concentration of private and international schools is in the Central Valley around San Jose

If you’re moving to Costa Rica with family, the proximity to schools will be an important factor when choosing where to live. The American International School and Country Day School are two popular international schools for children north of San Jose. Outside of the Central Valley, there are many English-speaking private schools scattered around the country.

Language

Thanks to all the expats and the strong tourism industry, Costa Rica has tons of English speakers. In most bigger towns, you don’t need to know Spanish but you should still try to learn. Speaking Spanish is a great way to integrate into the local community and make life easier.

Learning Spanish with Duolingo
Learning Spanish with Duolingo

Getting a Job as an Expat

Jobs in Costa Rica for expats aren’t plentiful. Don’t expect to arrive and pick up an expat job right away. There is plenty of local talent and it’s best to leave the jobs for them. So, if you are wondering, can I move to Costa Rica and still make money? Of course!

Expats moving to Costa Rica should find ways to earn money online, live off retirement, or start a business here. One of the reasons that Costa Rica is such an expat hotspot is because you can start a business on a tourist visa. This opens up the potential for a non-resident to work in tourism or open a hotel or restaurant. 

When we opened up our hotel, Drift Away Eco Lodge, we got first-hand experience of what it’s like to open a business outside of your home country. Even with the many challenges and headaches, it’s been an amazing journey!   

Lastly, it’s important to note that work permits can be hard to qualify for. Foreigners must prove that they are filling a position that a Costa Rican is not qualified for or is incapable of doing. To receive the work permit, your employer must sponsor you, and the process is slow and filled with paperwork!

Instructors and students from Surf the Jungle Surf Camp. Photo courtesy of Surf the Jungle Costa Rica
Instructors and students from Surf the Jungle Surf Camp. Photo courtesy of Surf the Jungle Costa Rica

Buying a Car

While public transportation is an option in San José and other big cities in the country, it’s not always reliable. Plus, you’ll surely want to explore all of the wild places where buses don’t go. So, if you decide to move to Costa Rica, you’ll probably want to buy a car. 

Buying a used car here will be expensive and not a great deal. Import duties are high. For example, vehicles brought in from the U.S. are taxed at 50-80% of the car’s value. Most expats buy a used, undervalued car in the US and ship it down to Costa Rica. Older cars in good condition have a lower “black book” value and thus pay lower import tax. 

Importing an electric car is a win-win. There are no import taxes, there’s a country-wide network of charging stations, and you’ll be helping to contribute to Costa Rica’s carbon-free vision for the future!

  Downtown Playa Guiones. Nosara. Costa Rica

Deciding Where to Live in Costa Rica

The beauty of moving to Costa Rica from Canada or the U.S. is that you don’t need to decide where to live right away. You can make your way around the country by staying in different areas for a few months at a time. Why not try out beach town living or see if a mountain town is calling your name. 

A great way to start your relocation is with a research trip. You can visit lots of different areas, from cities to beaches—and beach cities too. See where you feel most comfortable and use this as a guide to planning your move. Based on your budget, the activities you like to do, and which conveniences are important to you, each area will make its own impression. 

There’s no one best place for expats to live in Costa Rica because there are so many amazing options! But, keep in mind that every location has its own vibe and unique housing market. Some towns have booming expat communities while others are further off the beaten path. 

To help narrow down the choices, we put together a guide to the best places to live in Costa Rica. It’s filled with helpful information for expats seeking some guidance on what Costa Rica’s towns are all about.

Moving to Costa Rica

Moving doesn’t have to be complicated. You can just pack a few bags and fly down! Let’s face it, all you’ll really need is a few bathing suits and some personal items anyway. Just rent a house or an Airbnb and start living. You really don’t need all the furniture and household goods from back home to start your new Latin American life. 

There are plenty of shops and other city amenities where you can find everything you’d need for your apartment or house. Shopping in town is a great way to integrate the styles and materials of Costa Rica into your living space while supporting local businesses. But, if you do decide to bring things down, you can load a container from your home country and ship it. Just keep in mind that import taxes for some items can be quite high.    

If you’re traveling with furry friends, there’s no need to worry about quarantine periods for pets. Dogs and cats just need a valid rabies vaccine within 30 days of your departure. Likewise, getting a travel letter from your vet stating that your pet is in good health is always a good idea. 

READ MORE: Buying Property In Costa Rica: What You Need To Know

Advice on How to Move to Costa Rica

If you’ve decided, “I want to move to Costa Rica!” and aren’t sure how to go about it, just start with a trip. Once you spend time in the local communities, you’ll get a feel for the pura vida lifestyle and see if it’s for you. Tourists flock to Costa Rica from all over the world but living here is a decision that only you can make. Things move slowly here and you’ll soon find out that pura vida is not just a saying!

Have unanswered questions about moving to Costa Rica? Let us know in the comments and we’ll fill you in

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