An Expat’s Guide to Moving to Costa Rica

Costa Rica enjoys a tropical climate all year round, boasts perfect white sandy beaches, rainforests thick with wildlife and an abundance of adventure activities for the adrenaline junkies amongst us.

It may be small, but Costa Rica’s complex and unusual geography helps to make it one of the most varied and biologically-diverse regions on the planet. It has coastlines on both the Caribbean and Pacific, a large mountainous range running down the centre of the country creating unlimited variations of weather, climate and wildlife.

It’s no surprise that over 489,000 expats already call this place home, making up around 9% of the population. If you’re thinking of moving to Costa Rica, read our guide on what you can expect.

Moving to Costa Rica as an Expat

Costa Rica is vibrant, in nature, colour and culture. It’s influenced by Spanish colonial, Jamaican, Chinese and a variety of other cultures.

The Costa Rican natives, known as Ticos, are a laid-back and friendly country with strong traditions. They love to dance, which is noticeable immediately in its larger cities. Ticos learn several traditional dances from a young age and these are usually a significant part of national holidays.

They live the Pura Vida (pure life) and even use the phrase as a greeting or farewell. The phrase, which has become their way of life evokes a carefree, laid back and optimistic perspective.

What are the pros and cons of living in Costa Rica?

There are many advantages of living in Costa Rica that make it a good decision to move there. However, like any destination, there are also some disadvantages.

Pros of living in Costa Rica include a relatively low cost of living, with a low crime rate. There are beautiful natural landscapes and a warm climate year-round, plus a variety of interesting wildlife to be observed.

Another advantage of living in Costa Rica is the large expat community, which can make settling into a new country and finding friends easier. Locals are generally friendly and welcoming and there is a focus on community.

Cons of living in Costa Rica include how everything can move quite slowly. While the Pura Vida, laidback lifestyle can be a draw for many, it can also mean there are inefficiencies and inconveniences. People and processes can be slow, with little urgency to get things done “on time”.

Another con of living in Costa Rica is that travel can be tricky. Roads are generally poorly maintained with potholes and insufficient lighting. Another thing that expats can struggle with is the climate. While it is sometimes temperate, it can also be extremely hot and humid, and sometimes downpours can cause flooding.

Can a UK Citizen move to Costa Rica? 

Yes, UK citizens can move to Costa Rica, with a variety of visa options. People who can prove a minimum pension income or savings can easily retire to Costa Rica. There are also visas available for UK citizens who want to invest in business or property in Costa Rica, as well as working visas and digital nomad visas.

Where do most expats live in Costa Rica?

Many expats choose to enjoy the gorgeous beaches of Costa Rica and live in towns and cities by the coast. These include the town of Uvita on the southwest coast, which has golden beaches and lush rainforests and is relatively quiet during tourist season. There’s also Playas del Coco on the northwest coast, which is known for getting a lot of sunshine, even during the rainy season.

For the expats who don’t want to live on the coast, Atenas is a popular town, especially for retirees. Located in the mountains, it’s less than an hour’s drive from San José and offers small town living with easy access to the excitement of the big city.

Do they speak English in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica’s official language is Spanish with around 99.2% of the population being Spanish native speakers. The variety that is spoken there is Costa Rican Spanish, which is a form of Central American Spanish.

Many of the expat community will speak English, and in the popular tourist areas, many locals will also speak some English. However, it’s advised to learn a degree of Spanish before you move, as it will make communicating much easier.

Costa Rica Visa Requirements

There are many options for visas if you want to live and work in Costa Rica – if you plan on staying in the country for longer than 90 days, you will need to apply for one of these temporary residence permits. The process can sometimes be complicated, and it can be beneficial to gain professional help to guide you through the applications.

Moving to Costa Rica to work

When you move to Costa Rica to work, you’ll have to first apply for temporary residence and apply for a work permit once you are already in the country, at the Immigration Department. If you already have a job, the company can apply for your permit on your behalf. 

If you only have temporary residence, you will also have to prove why your role couldn’t be filled by a local Costa Rican citizen, i.e. because you have specialist skills, experience, or qualifications for the role. If you have permanent residence, you will be able to work with no restrictions.

You can also apply for a digital nomad visa, known as a rentista visa, which allows freelancers and self-employed people to live and work in Costa Rica for businesses based outside of the country. You will have to prove you earn at least $2,500 per month and have $60,000 deposited in a bank account. 

Once you have your work permit, you will also be able to bring dependents with you to live in Costa Rica, such as your spouse and children.

Moving to Costa Rica to study

If you want to study in Costa Rica, you’ll need a student visa. You’ll have to first apply for a provisional student visa in your home country and can then apply for a proper study visa at the Immigration Department once you’re in Costa Rica. You’ll have to apply within 60 days of entering the country.

You’ll only be able to stay in Costa Rica for as long as your study programme lasts. If you wish to stay longer, you can apply for a temporary residence permit and work permit.

Moving to Costa Rica to retire

The pensionado visa is specifically for people who want to retire to Costa Rica. There is no minimum age to apply for this visa, but you will need to submit evidence that you are receiving a pension and will need to prove you will continue receiving this pension.

You will need to have a monthly income of at least $1,000. You can apply for the retirement visa as a married couple and only one person needs to have the monthly income.

Can I live in Costa Rica permanently? 

Yes, you can live in Costa Rica permanently after you have lived there for a certain period. Usually, if you have had a temporary residence permit for two or three years, you can then apply for permanent residence.

You can also apply for permanent residence if you have a family member who is a citizen of Costa Rica.

Employment in Costa Rica

Finding a job in Costa Rica as an expat can be difficult. The country has a high unemployment rate and so there is high competition over jobs. Locals are highly educated and favoured for positions and protected by law. However, with the right experience and qualifications, you can successfully find a role.

It is also possible to work on a self-employed basis or as an entrepreneur in Costa Rica, with specific working visas available for each of these.

Another challenge with working in Costa Rica is that salaries are generally low. The average salary is around £40,000 per year but cost of living is also low, so expats can typically enjoy a good quality of life.

Can you move to Costa Rica without a job? 

You can move to Costa Rica without a job, as long as you can prove you have some other form of income. If you want to look for work in Costa Rica, you can stay in the country for up to 90 days without a visa, which could give you time to find an appropriate job.

However, with such high competition, it can be better to secure a job before you move. The organisation that employs you will also be able to support your application for a temporary residence and working visa, which can help simplify the process.

How to make a living in Costa Rica

Many expats move to Costa Rica through an inter-company transfer. This is where international companies move employees to one of their offices in another country. This can make it easy to obtain a work permit in Costa Rica, as you will have the experience and skills that a Costa Rican citizen might not have.

Expats also often obtain a living in Costa Rica through teaching English as a foreign language. Hospitality and tourism are other popular industries for foreigners. Many expats find work in IT or call centres, although a good level of Spanish will be required for these sorts of roles.

Cost of Living in Costa Rica

The cost of living in Costa Rica is generally very low. Prices can vary across the country, specifically in the larger cities and the more rural areas, but most things will be affordable, including accommodation.

According to Numbeo, a family of four will need around £2,279 per month to cover all costs except rent, and an individual will need around £627 per month to cover costs aside from rent.

Is Costa Rica more expensive than England? 

According to Numbeo, the cost of living in Costa Rica is 16.2% lower than in the UK. This includes things like utilities, groceries, and transport. Rent in Costa Rica is, on average, 49% lower than in the UK.

What is the average price of a house in Costa Rica?

Property is generally affordable in Costa Rica. The average price per square metre to buy property in a city centre is £1,498 – in the UK, it is £4,437. Outside of a city, it costs around £1,012 per square metre to buy property in Costa Rica, and in the UK this is £3,354.

Renting is also cheap. A one-bedroom home in the city centre in Costa Rica costs around £457 per month, and the same size property outside of the city will cost around £317 per month.

Healthcare in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has generally good quality healthcare. It’s often seen as the country with the best healthcare system in Latin America. The country has great facilities with modern equipment and highly-trained healthcare professionals.

Some downsides of healthcare in Costa Rica is that the public health system is often swamped with patients, meaning long wait times. It can also be difficult to find a specialist healthcare provider, and often patients will be seen and treated by a general practitioner. As such, many expats choose international health insurance to avoid long wait times and give them more choice and flexibility.

Is healthcare free in Costa Rica?

Healthcare in Costa Rica is free for Costa Rican citizens who can’t afford to pay for it themselves. Non-citizens and those who are working will be required to pay for their healthcare. How much they pay will be based on their income, whether from a salary or pension.

Do they have good hospitals in Costa Rica?

Hospitals are generally of good quality in Costa Rica and are well equipped. There are around 30 public hospitals across the country, with 16 located in the Central Valley, where 50% of the population lives. There are only three private hospitals in the country, mostly around San José.

Health Insurance Costa Rica

Costa Rica offers both public and private healthcare. Its universal healthcare system, equivalent to the NHS, is called Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (known as the CCSS or Caja).

The CCSS offers 100% coverage to citizens, permanent residents and visitors for a monthly fee that depends on the individual’s income. The public healthcare system in Costa Rica is of excellent quality, however, if residents want more they can opt for private healthcare.

The only downside to the healthcare in Costa Rica is that hospitals and private doctors expect payment up front, even if you already have health insurance. But most surgical procedures cost only a fraction of what they do in the UK or US, so they’ll usually be affordable.

Can foreigners get health insurance in Costa Rica?

Yes, foreigners can get health insurance in Costa Rica. Once you have been approved for your temporary or permanent residence visa, you can sign up to the Caja at a local office. You’ll need to bring your passport and proof of residency, as well as a registration request form filled out by your employer if you’re working in Costa Rica.

You will need to sign up for the Caja and bring your receipt with you when you pick up your residence card.

Do you need health insurance in Costa Rica? 

Every expat who lives and works in Costa Rica must sign up to the Caja, the public healthcare system. This is a requirement of obtaining a residence permit.

What is the best health insurance for expats in Costa Rica?

Many expats in Costa Rica choose international health insurance to give them access to Costa Rica’s private healthcare facilities. This gives them more flexibility in their healthcare provision and also helps them to avoid long wait times and delays for treatments that often occur in the public system, as well as access to English-speaking healthcare professionals.

Safety in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is generally a very safe country to visit with a low crime rate. According to the Global Peace Index, Costa Rica is ranked 39 out of 163 countries in the world. Expats are advised to take the usual precautions and common sense, such as not displaying valuables and being careful after dark.

What is crime like in Costa Rica?

Some of the most common crime in Costa Rica targets tourists and includes pickpocketing and muggings. There have also been instances of violent crimes, including murder. Costa Rica also has an issue with organised crime and drug trafficking, largely due to its location and maritime network.

However, on the whole, expats are safe in Costa Rica and unaffected by crime. The Costa Rican government is taking steps to reduce the issue of crime in the country, including legislation to prevent crimes and increasing the number of police.

Is it safe for elderly people to move to Costa Rica? 

Yes, Costa Rica is generally a safe place for elderly people to live. In fact, it’s a very popular destination for people to retire to. Senior citizens in Costa Rica are typically well-respected and valued and young people will demonstrate this respect often, such as offering their seats on public transport.

Where is the safest place to live in Costa Rica?

The town of Atenas outside of San José is typically very safe and good for both families and those who are retiring. Heredia is another town near San José that gives a safe, slower pace of life while still giving access to the facilities of a large city.

Tamarindo is a city on the Pacific coast that is generally very safe for expats. It can be popular with tourists, which means pickpocketing can be an issue during the high season though.

Money in Costa Rica

The currency used in Costa Rica is the Costa Ricans colones (CRC), which is actually named after Christopher Columbus. As well as this the country also widely accepts US Dollars and ATMs, which can be found easily in urban areas, dispense both types of currency.

Credit cards are generally accepted everywhere with the usual transaction fee on international cards. This is why it is advised to open a bank account once arriving in the country so that you can avoid the extra charges.

There are a lot of choices for which bank you can open an account with in Costa Rica, including three state-owned banks – Banco Nacional de Costa Rica (BNCR), the Banco de Costa Rica (BCR) and Banco Crédito Agricola de Cartago (BCAC). There are also private banks. Typically, the state-owned banks are seen as more reliable and offer more protection, although they can come with more levels of bureaucracy.

You can open a bank account in US dollars or CRC. You’ll need your residency card, proof of address, proof of income and often a minimum deposit to open an account.

Taxes in Costa Rica

People do not have to pay tax on income earned from foreign sources, so those who are working as a digital nomad in Costa Rica and retired people are exempt from income tax. However, they may still be liable to pay tax in the country that the revenue has been earned.

Expats may be liable to pay property taxes, sales tax, and import tax. Property taxes are very low – less than 0.5% and can be paid annually or quarterly. Sales tax is the equivalent of VAT and paid on items that are bought at the point of sale. If you are moving your belongings to Costa Rica, you will have to pay import tax, which can range from 1% to 15%, depending on the item.

Education in Costa Rica

Education is compulsory for children aged between 6 and 13 and the Costa Rican education system is considered both robust and high quality. The country has a literacy rate of over 98% and the education system in Costa Rica is seen as being the best in Latin America.

Thanks to the widespread use of English in the country – particularly in schools – expats may choose to enroll their children in local state-run schools, which are free to attend. Realistically though many expats opt to send their children to one of the many high-quality privately-run schools instead, where English is the primary language.

Weather in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has a temperate tropical climate. Due to its location, nine to ten degrees north of the Equator the weather is tropical all year round, however, it has many microclimates.

The plains and coastal areas remain hot all year round, while in the plateaus it’s milder but temperature variations are very slight the main thing that separates seasons is the rain.

The year has two distinct periods, the dry season (summer) which runs from Dec-April and the rainy season (winter), which runs from May-November.

San José

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Moving to Costa Rica Checklist

If you are moving to Costa Rica, you will need:

  • Valid passport
  • Money for flights and initial costs
  • To work out your monthly budget to cover accommodation, groceries, utilities
  • Flights to Costa Rica
  • Employment contract, (if you will be working)
  • Health insurance policy
  • Provisional residency/working visa application
  • Enrolment in school for your children
  • Proof of accommodation (such as a tenancy agreement or property purchase)
  • Local SIM card or mobile phone
  • To learn some basic Spanish phrases
  • Arrange furniture for the new home
  • Arrange Wi-Fi for the new home
  • Tie up loose ends at home, such as closing utility accounts and informing the tax office

Expat Questions

We answer your questions:

I am from India and I want to move to Costa Rica. Is that a good idea? ~ Rishita, India

Moving to Costa Rica from India is a great idea. The cost of living in Costa Rica is generally more expensive than in India, and Indian citizens looking to work in Costa Rica will have to prove why they are better for a role than a local Costa Rican. However, once these challenges are overcome, Indian citizens can enjoy a good quality of life in Costa Rica.

What is the hardest part of moving to Costa Rica? ~ Tina, Canada

The hardest part of moving to Costa Rica will be securing a job. As local law protects Costa Rican citizens, expats will have to prove they are more suited to a role than a local. This means proving you have better experience, skills, or qualifications. This can make finding a job difficult.

I’m thinking of moving to Costa Rica. Can I drive from the US? ~ Jerry, US

Yes, you can drive from the US to Costa Rica. You will need the necessary paperwork to pass through the neighbouring countries, including your passport and vehicle registration. Crossing the borders can be complex and an understanding of Spanish can be helpful to navigate through the processes of each country. You’ll also need a list of everything you’re carrying in your vehicle. It’s advised to not drive at nighttime in some areas of the connecting countries, as it can be unsafe to do so.

What are the best real estate resources and tips for moving to Costa Rica? ~ Jim, UK

It’s best to rent a place in Costa Rica before you buy. This allows you to view property in-person before you purchase it. It also gives you the opportunity to experience life in Costa Rica before you commit to living their full-time.

Another tip is to hire a reputable lawyer. Look online at client reviews or ask a local friend for their recommendation. Many lawyers in Costa Rica do a great job but there have been instances of expats being scammed or receiving a low quality service.

You should also be aware of fake real estate agents. The real estate industry in Costa Rica is not regulated, so its easier for scammers to take advantage. Again, look for recommendations and check online client reviews for authenticity.

Is Costa Rica a good country to raise a family? ~ Simon, UK

Costa Rica can be a great place to raise a family. There is a huge variety of outdoor activities to give children a great quality of life. There is also good healthcare and education available, and Costa Rica is a generally safe country. It can be beneficial to live in more developed areas, to guarantee access to quality healthcare and educational facilities.

If I already own a company, can I move to Costa Rica and become a resident? ~ Lance, US

Yes, you can move to Costa Rica if you own a business. You can apply for an investor residency permit if you invest over $50,000 in a government-approved industry in Costa Rica, which includes tourism and reforestation. Once you’ve held this investor visa and lived in Costa Rica for three years, you can apply for permanent residency.