Move to Costa Rica From the USA – The Ultimate 10 Step Guide
Costa Rica has long been a hotspot for Americans to move to, but these days, more Americans are moving to the country than ever! And with good reason. Saying farewell to a fast-paced life in the United States and starting fresh in a tropical paradise is a goal for many Americans; be they retirees, young families, online entrepreneurs, real estate investors or students. Costa Rica has repeatedly been cited as one of the world’s happiest countries with an exceptional quality of life. Newer legislation has helped make it a highly expat-friendly destination, with great incentives for foreigners to move there. Increased immigration has significantly helped to boost the local economy and fund improvements in infrastructure. Expat communities in Costa Rica are flourishing with the arrival of new immigrants from around the world each and every day, presenting both opportunities and challenges that growth introduces for expats and locals alike.
Whether you are curious about making a move to Costa Rica from Canada or are already determined to do so, the following 10 steps will be very important to help you finalize your decision, prepare for your move and succeed once you arrive.
- Spend Time Visiting Costa Rica
The first recommended step to moving to Costa Rica is to spend some time there. Americans can explore Costa Rica for up to 90 days as a visitor with a valid passport, proof of return/ onward travel and an accommodation address. Moving to a new country is a big decision and many aspects of life are significantly different in a new country. So investing in visiting Costa Rica before committing to a move is key. Some Americans considering the move can skip this step if they have already traveled to and explored Costa Rica for extended periods. It’s important to note that vacationing in a country is an entirely different experience than residing there, so spending a couple weeks in a beach resort doesn’t really count. The best way to get a true sense of what it’s like to live in Costa Rica is to avoid being a tourist for a few weeks and try renting a home in one (or more) of the towns that appeal to you. To save money on accommodations, you may consider a house sitting gig or two. Approach your stay as if you are living there: get groceries instead of eating out, explore areas that are not tailored to tourism, spend time with locals that are Ticos/Ticas, try using local transportation, find local stores for things like furniture and household goods, visit post offices, medical clinics and professional offices that you would need to if you were a resident and practice your spanish! There are significant (and some challenging) cultural differences between the USA and Costa Rica. The climate can also require some adjusting to for most people coming from the USA. Learning about these differences in daily life first hand is very helpful. Alternatively, you could also hire someone to take you on a relocation tour. There are a number of companies that offer such services for expats, to help them with the details of their relocation. Taking this first step will help you choose your location, determine your budget and learn about the culture of your potential new home.
- Research Immigration Options for Costa Rica
Once you have decided that a permanent move to Costa Rica is in your stars, it’s time to do due diligence on the nitty gritty details and legalities. This starts with looking at the residency options you can apply for as well as the process involved. You could already involve support at this point and hire an immigration service to fast-track your move. These service providers interview and educate you directly and then assist in all aspects of the immigration process, for a fee of course. But if you are still in the exploratory phase and not in a rush, much of the necessary immigration info can be found online.
If you simply wish to work, study or volunteer in Costa Rica as a Canadian abroad, you can apply for a special visa or permit for these. If you don’t plan on ever working in Costa Rica, the most simple and affordable approach to move there from the USA is as a perpetual tourist. It involves entering Costa Rica as a tourist and renewing your tourist visa every 90 days. To renew, however, does require leaving the country and re-entering by land, sea or air. Perpetual tourists also can not take advantage of Costa Rica’s health care or educational programs, so medical insurance is a must. If your ultimate goal is acquiring Costa Rican citizenship or residency for tax purposes or if handling border runs or health insurance is not appealing then applying for residency is the best option. You can start with applying for temporary residence by visiting a Costa Rican embassy or consulate office in the USA. Many expats who choose this option first enter on a 90-day tourist visa and then file a residency application while they are in the country. Heads up, the cost to change your visa from tourist status to residency applicant status costs US$200. Costa Rica offers different temporary residence options, each with different requirements for the following:
- Rentiers (those on a fixed income)
- Digital Nomads (online entrepreneurs or employees)
- Spouses and family of Costa Ricans
- Executives, Educators or Highly Skilled Workers with job offers in Costa Rica
Application for the first four categories usually involves proof of income (between US$1000-$4000 depending on the option), proof of investment (US$150,000 for Investor and US$60,000 for Rentier), valid certified document submissions, fees and a criminal record check.
Most of these temporary residencies include the spouse and dependent children of the applicant. They are good for 1-2 years and can be renewed before expiry. Typically, application for permanent residency is permitted after 3 years of living in Costa Rica. After living in Costa Rica full time for 7 years, expats with temporary or permanent residency can apply for citizenship.
Take some time to investigate the requirements of each residency option to select the one that is the best match for you!
- Research Public and Private Systems in Costa Rica
Part of daily life in a new country involves interacting with the public and private systems there. Although it can be a dry undertaking, it is critical to acquire a good understanding of the following in Costa Rica:
- Business and Tax Laws
- Policing and safety
Of course, following the first step above may already give you a first hand experience of these institutions and systems. However, there is a huge advantage to some deeper investigation of these to help you prepare before you go and prevent any hiccups during or after your move.
- Determine a Budget and Income for Yourself
Moving to Costa Rica is a unique journey depending on the person. There are many different ways to experience a relocation there, and different budgets for each! Costa Rica is relatively affordable compared to the United States, especially when you avoid expenses designed for tourists. What we will cover here are the basic costs involved for life in Costa Rica. Of course, one can invest a huge amount of resources in living in Costa Rica; so once the minimum costs are understood, the sky’s the limit.
Completing the second step above and making a decision on which immigration option you choose lays the groundwork for a budget. If you are going for the Investor residency for example, you won’t need to worry about rent or leasing, only taxes and utilities. But not everyone has US$150,000 to put towards buying a home so let’s start with the cost of housing.
The first consideration is that living near tourist areas will be more expensive than less trendy spots. Prices in areas with beaches, lakes and rainforests have jumped in the last few years due to the rising popularity of Costa Rica as a vacation destination. Outside of a tourist area, a single person can typically find a private one bedroom rental from US$450/month. A three bedroom house starts at around US$1300/month. Rates go up from there depending on location and level of luxury. For city lovers, a 1 bedroom apartment in San Jose rents for an average of US$800/month and a 3 bedroom will run around US$1200/month. Rents decrease about 25% in the city outskirts. Expats can always save on rent by opting for a room in shared accommodation. Air BnBs and hotels are a temporary option as well, but will be more expensive. Some hotels will offer private rooms for US$1000/month.
Utility costs average about US$150 for a single person per month and are listed below:
Expect electricity and water costs to increase with additional people living in the accommodation and with an increase in home size, as they are charged by use.
Grocery costs also vary, but can be as low as US$300 per person per month when shopping at conventional grocery stores, produce vendors and local butchers. Supermarkets conveniently located in tourist areas (or tailored to North Americans, like Pricesmart) and specialty, imported or organic food stores will all be more expensive. Eating out varies as well and can be very affordable at the local “sodas” but outrageous at beachfront tourist spots.
As for transportation, if you are not living in the city it is extremely helpful to have a car that can handle unpaved roads in Costa Rica. Car rentals are expensive so having your own car is recommended for a long term stay. Buying newer cars is more expensive in Costa Rica compared to Canada due to import fees and buying old cars can be risky, so it is best to take advantage of the new law that allows temporary residents to import their own vehicle without import fees. The gas prices at the time of this writing is about US$5.25/ gallon, so you can calculate your gas costs based on how much you plan to drive. Vehicle insurance in Costa Rica is less than in the USA and depends on the age of the car and coverage. You can drive legally using a foreign license for 90 days with your valid tourist visa. You must get a new tourist visa before the 90 days expires by doing a border run or you can visit a COSEVI office and apply for a local translated license. Digital nomads are exempt from this. Once your temporary residence goes through you can apply for a driver’s license in Costa Rica. There are other modes of transportation available in Costa Rica. Some regions have good public transport, Uber/Didi, taxis, shuttles and collectivo (local ride shares) and some areas are conducive to using smaller vehicles locally like golf carts, atvs, scooters or motorcycles.
Healthcare costs will also vary depending on your immigration status. If you are not a resident, or waiting to become a resident you will need to purchase independent medical coverage. The cost of this will depend on the insurance provider, the plan and your age. Once you have residency status you are covered by the universal healthcare system in Costa Rica called the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS). You will be required to register and pay a monthly fee as a percentage of your declared income. Fees have recently increased and range from roughly 7% to 18% for new immigrants. Although Costa Rica has the most highly-rated public health care system in Central America, wait times can still be long and newer treatments and technologies are not available. Many expats opt to continue with some form of voluntary private health insurance to access private hospitals and clinics that rival facilities in the US, but are approximately a third to a fifth lower in cost, depending on the treatment.
In a nutshell, a single person can live well, albeit simply, with a basic budget (for rent, utilities and food) of about US$1400/month, a retired couple with about US$2000/month and a family of four with about $US3000/month. Add monthly transportation, healthcare, education and leisure costs accordingly.
Working in Costa Rica as an employee is not legal unless you are a permanent resident or citizen, so it is important to set up some kind of income from the US that you can earn remotely. Temporary residents (and applicants) can own businesses in Costa Rica. So if you require an income outside of what you may be earning remotely from the USA, starting a business locally is viable. If this is of interest, the first step is finding a reliable and trustworthy notary or legal firm to work with who can advise and guide you as in setting up a corporation.
Lastly, don’t forget a budget for the travel and relocation expenses including your flights, shipping costs, possible initial accommodation as you search for and finalize a home anplusd set up expenses!
- Choose Your Location and Home
If you’ve completed the first step above you may already have an idea of where your ideal location is. There are many things to consider, for instance, do you prefer the bustle of the city or the peaceful countryside? Will it be a vibrant beach community or a remote mountain village? How much convenience and how many amenities do you require? What about accessibility from an airport? What kind of budget are you working with?
There are many beautiful places to call home in Costa Rica, each with its unique qualities. The country is divided into 7 provinces: Alajuela, Cartago, Guanacaste, Heredia, Limón, Puntarenas, and San José.
One of the most popular regions for expats is the Central Valley, which offers a more temperate climate and easy access to healthcare facilities, international schools, cultural events, nightlife, recreational activities and modern conveniences without necessarily having to deal with the higher cost or pace of being in the city. Towns like Atenas, Escazu, Grecia, Heredia and of course for city lovers, San Jose, are on the top of many lists.
Another popular option for ocean and heat lovers is living close to the beach. Temperatures here can reach the 90s with high humidity. Towns along the west coast like Tamarindo and Flamingo in the Guanacaste region or Dominical, Uvita and Jaco in Puntarenas, as well as smaller towns along the vast stretches of coastline in between, are all very attractive for expats. On the east coast, the less expensive Puerto Viejo is a good choice.
For those who want to spend a lot of time outdoors, the cooler, higher elevation of mountains or rainforests are a great option. Many expats are drawn to Nuevo Arenal which sits on a man-made lake and has a quiet, remote feel but still has markets, restaurants and shops. Monteverde is another beautiful mountain town for expats, known for its lush cloud forests.
You can begin your research by reading about each region in some good old travel books or head online and search. There are droves of people sharing information online daily about their experience of living in the different regions and towns of Costa Rica. Once you know a bit about what kind of living experience you want you can find the neighborhoods that are a match and dial in your research with a local realtor or on location-specific social media groups or online forums for expats.
If you want to start out by renting before you buy, start perusing rental listings with an agent or on your own online, on sites like Encuendra24 or Mercado Libre. If you are interested in buying remotely or upon arrival you can find many listings online as well as companies and agencies that help foreign real estate buyers. It is highly recommended to see any property first hand during your due diligence period before committing to a purchase, as online listings can sometimes be misleading.
- Prepare Your Documents, Fees and Legal Support
If you are planning to move to Costa Rica as a perpetual tourist, the only documents you will need are a passport (valid for as long as possible to make border runs easy), proof of the address you will stay at and proof of return or onward travel. You won’t need to worry about fees unless you do a border run to a neighboring country before your 90 days are up, which incurs minimal fees and required payment is US cash. As for general payment methods, you may wish to use US credit or debit cards. It is, however, possible to open a bank account at certain banks and get a local debit card if preferred.
If you are staying in Costa Rica on a Digital Nomad visa, you will need documents like proof of medical insurance, proof of on-going employment and proof of income from the USA for the duration of your stay. When applying for this visa online or at an embassy in the USA, there is an application fee of US$100.
When applying for Pensioner, Rentier, Investor temporary residencies, the immigration part of your move will go much more smoothly if you prepare your documents, fees and finances before you leave the US. If you have already left you can hire a company to help out. Required documents include at least the following, most of which need to be apostilled:
- Valid passport (ideally more than 6-12 months before expiry)
- A birth certificate issued within 6 months prior to residency application
- A federal criminal record check issued within 6 months prior to residency application
- Proof of income documents – different requirements based on residency type
- Recent bank statements, proof of origin of funds and a letter of good standing from your bank if wiring large sums of money into the country (Rentier and Investor)
- A valid driver’s license
- Four passport size photos, which can also be taken in Costa Rica
- Marriage certificate – if applicable
Applying for residency involves a number of fees. If you apply before leaving the USA through the embassy, you avoid the US$200 fee to convert your tourist status to a residency status. A US$50 application fee and smaller fees for document processing apply as well.
If you are the spouse of a Costa Rican citizen or permanent resident your temporary residency application will require a marriage certificate.
Less commonly, foreigners may have a job offer from a Costa Rican entity and move there under a “special category” immigration permit. This includes categories like educators, athletes, executives or “highly-skilled” individuals. The application process for this category is much more complex, and time-consuming plus it involves the employer and an exhaustive list of documents (plus fees) from both sides.
At this stage in moving to Costa Rica it is extremely helpful to find a notary or legal representation that has an excellent reputation and that you trust. The country requires registration of any ownership which you must have done by a legal representative. Having someone advocate for you legally is critical to so many aspects of your move, from facilitating a smooth immigration process, to buying or renting a home or vehicle, to investing or setting up bank accounts, tax payments and corporations. If you have not yet joined local expat groups or forums online or on social media, this would be the time to introduce yourself and ask for review and recommendations. The nitty gritties of your move and immigration may take time, possibly several months, and having someone walk you through the legalities will help it go much more smoothly and expediently.
- Prepare the Logistics of your Move
There are some key logistical aspects of your move to Costa Rica that you will want to make sure go as smoothly as possible. Regardless of how much preparation goes into moving to a new country there are always hurdles, so the more you can plan out the “moving parts” in advance the fewer delays you will encounter!
The first thing to consider is what to bring. In some instances, if you are not moving a family, just bringing a couple suitcases and starting from scratch is the simplest and most hassle-free approach. Most homes in Costa Rica are sold or leased furnished, so if you like the existing furniture in your accommodation you may not need to ship any furnishing either.
If you have furniture or household items that you are certain you’d like to bring then it is important to arrange for them to be shipped to you. It can be challenging and expensive to find high quality furniture, decor, housewares, appliances and electronics in Costa Rica but shipping personal goods from the USA is expensive, often costing thousands of dollars and taking weeks or months to arrive. This is another great reason to visit for an extended scouting period first, to see which of your needs is available to buy locally. There are many expats online giving exhaustive lists of what to bring and what not to bring when moving to Costa Rica, which can still be very different from location to location.
In the past, expats and their families have been able to check multiple containers of smaller items onto their flight, often chartered. Recently though, due to immigration delays caused at airports, new legislation has come in which no longer permits expats to bring more than a certain number of items on a flight. This is where shipping or international moving companies can come in.
Updates in legislation to encourage new immigrants now permit the import of used personal belongings and vehicles without import fees, which were previously extremely high percentages depending on the type of item. There are specific companies that specialize in shipping cars but vehicles, furniture and household goods can also be shipped together in a shipping container. Shipping companies will charge for the cost of shipping by container, which includes inspection and custom fees. The price depends on distance and total weight and size. A list of all contents and their value will be required. Ask for up-to-date recommendations on companies in the online groups and forums. Get quotes (for air and/or sea), check customer reviews and ensure they are insured, registered and licensed to avoid scams.
Bringing pets with you to Costa Rica also requires significant planning. Costa Rica doesn’t require quarantine for pets but it has a very strict import process for animals through their national animal health service, SENASA. There are specific, time-sensitive vaccination and treatment requirements that must be documented by a licensed vet in the US, further digitally validated by a national vet authority and presented upon arrival. If these are not met, pets are not permitted entry. Some veterinary clinics offer streamlined exportation service packages that handle this for owners, usually costing US$400-$600 per pet. The logistics of transporting your pet can also be complex. Small pets can be brought “in-cabin” for a fee (usually US$100-150) in an appropriate soft sided kennel. Dimensions vary from airline to airline. Larger dogs must travel in the checked luggage or cargo compartments, again for a fee. There are blackout periods for this service on many airlines due to seasonal extreme temperatures in the checked baggage compartment or due to peak travel times. Each flight also has a restriction on the number of animals permitted onboard, so checking for availability and then booking pets alongside your own flight is important. Families with more than one large dog sometimes opt to fly with a private charter to make this process easier, as flying commercially with pets can be stressful for both owners and pets. Another option is to hire a pet relocation service to move your pet for you, but these are costly at around US$5000 and require additional paperwork.
- Manage the Transition out of the USA
With the excitement of moving to a new country, especially if it is a permanent move, many people overlook tying up loose ends in the USA. If you are not planning a return to the USA anytime soon after your move, there are a few things to consider doing in person before you leave:
- Sell, giveaway or donate your remaining items
- Set up cancellation dates for utility or phone accounts, although you may want to keep your cell phone plan and use roaming until you can set up one in Costa Rica
- Close bank accounts that you will no longer be using
- Clear off any debt and tie up any financial obligations if possible
- If you have already retained a notary or legal firm, meet with them remotely to confirm all required documents and verification steps. If you are moving a large sum of money in Costa Rica (for an investment, a house, a car) forward as much documentation to them in advance and wire the necessary funds to their recommended escrow service, or have someone who can do this on your behalf after you leave
- Inform your bank of your move and ask if you can execute transactions with them remotely, like sending wires for you etc.
- Learn how to transfer funds (for example using the Remitly app) and familiarize yourself about limits on funds you can move
- Make sure you have an updated will and POA for any assets left in the USA
- Confirm any tax implications of your move with your accountant and handle any filing and taxes owning
- Understand the implications of losing your green card if you’re not a US citizen
- Have a final check up with your doctor, dentist, optometrist etc. before you leave
- If on medication, ask your doctor to give you an extended supply to last you until you source it in Costa Rica – most medication can be purchased over the counter there
- Get your travel and medical insurance
- Forward your residual mail to a friend or family member who can handle it or send it to you
- Arrange for any car rental or lease in advance
- If you haven’t already, join as many location-specific expat groups and forums online as you can
- Appreciate quality time with your loved ones in the USA and set up ways to easily stay connected after you leave, like Zoom, Telegram, Whatsapp etc.
- Manage the Transition into Costa Rica
Once you have your feet on the ground in Costa Rica, it’s time to execute some final basic steps for a smooth integration:
- Settle: pick up your car rental or lease, land at your initial accommodation and get groceries
- Make sure you have your rental agreement, your passport and driver’s license on you when you drive
- Meet in person with your notary or legal representation to get detailed next steps on the following that apply to you:
- Investing (short or long term, high interest)
- Purchasing a property (realtor is not necessary)
- Purchasing a vehicle
- Home insurance
- Setting up a will (you need a separate one in Costa Rica from the one in the USA)
- Opening and using a bank account
- Making payments
- Receiving important mail on your behalf
- Secure and/or finalize long-term accommodation, personally examine and complete all due diligence steps on property you are buying
- Set up services like internet, garbage pick up etc.
- Find a local mobility provider, like Kolbi, and get a Costa Rican phone/data plan and SIM card for your phone (WhatsApp is the preferred communication app in Costa Rica for businesses and individuals)
- Locate your spots:
- Grocery stores, butcher, bakery etc.
- Medical clinic and pharmacy
- Bank machine
- Hardware store
- Gas station
- Insurance provider
- School (if applicable)
- Hair stylists, barber
- Gym, skateparks, recreation facilities
- Mechanic, tow truck
- Pool supply (if applicable)
- Furniture and housewares stores
- Use common sense and exercise more caution than you deem necessary as you get oriented to avoid petty crime, scammer and unsafe situations – don’t trust strangers, don’t flaunt wealth, avoid being out at night in unfamiliar areas, carry minimal amounts of cash, don’t resist robbery, double check restaurant bills and pay in cash etc.
- Seriously Consider Leaning Spanish
This may be last on the list but, truthfully, it may be one of the most important. Many Costa Ricans, especially outside of tourist areas, don’t speak English. In fact, only about 10% of adults in Costa Rica speak English. There is a fascinating economic phenomenon in Costa Rica, especially in tourist areas and outside of major cities and towns where there exist two economies: one for locals and one for immigrants. Sometimes referred to as “gringo pricing,” locals will unfortunately take advantage of foreigners and charge significantly more when they can. Speaking Spanish gets you one step closer to being treated fairly and equally in Costa Rica. Not to mention the time and energy saved and the sheer convenience of understanding the world around you and communicating with ease. Finally, learning Spanish, wil make your experience of living in Costa Rica more authentic and rewarding!