Cost of living in Costa Rica: your 2021 guide

Gabriela Peratello
13.07.21
9 minute read

As a tourist destination, Costa Rica is famed for its warm welcome, beautiful natural resources and opportunities for adventure. Some 1.7 million visitors head to Costa Rica annually¹ — with the vast majority coming from the US and Canada. Eco-tourism is the draw for 80% of these lucky vacationers — but no matter what your ideal travel experience looks like, you’ll find it somewhere in this diverse and impressive country.

If you’ve fallen in love with Costa Rica and are considering making a more long term move there, you’re in the right place. There’s a large and lively expat community — and thanks to the cheaper cost of living in Costa Rica compared to US daily life, many who settle there are retirees, digital nomads and others on fixed incomes.

This guide covers all you need to know about the cost of living in Costa Rica — with some handy ideas about how to save money as an expat, with Wise. Let’s get started.

📑 Table of Contents

Costa Rica currency

Basics first — how to pay your way in Costa Rica. The official currency in Costa Rica is the colón (plural: colones).

On menus and in stores you’ll see the currency denoted with the sign ₡ — and in currency exchange stores you’re looking for the currency code CRC.

The value of the colón changes all the time with the market — however at the time of research, the mid-market exchange rate is:

1 USD → 619.915 CRC

To keep up to date with the live USD-CRC rate, use a reputable online currency converter tool — you can also sign up to get alerts when the rate changes or hits your target value.

Don’t forget, though, that currency converter tools will show you the mid-market exchange rate — but banks and currency exchange services don’t always offer this to retail customers. Instead there may be a markup added which means you get less for your money. More on that — and how to avoid excessive fees when converting your USD to CRC, coming right up.

Banking in Costa Rica

One thing that will really help you hit the ground running in Costa Rica is having a bank account. You’ll need one to access essential services and find a long term place to stay. If you’ve already got residency in Costa Rica, finding an account won’t be a problem — although you’ll need to assemble some paperwork to make your application.

State owned Banco de Costa Rica² is a good place to start when looking for an account which suits your needs. You can find the documents required online, along with the eligibility criteria and minimum deposit amounts³. Alternatively, check out the accounts available from these institutions — some of the biggest banks operating in Costa Rica:

  • Banco Popular⁴
  • Scotiabank⁵
  • Davivienda⁶
💡 One smart way to get started before you even land in Costa Rica is to open a Multi-currency Account, so you can top up in USD and switch your funds to CRC to spend once you arrive. Take a look at the Wise Multi-currency Account and card as a low cost way to access mid-market exchange rates, hold, send and spend money all over the world.

Sending money abroad? Save with Wise

As an expat living abroad, you’ll need to send money to Costa Rica and receive foreign currency payments from time to time. Maybe that’s to deposit money into your CRC account from USD savings, or to sending money from Costa Rica to the USA to loved ones who are still in the US.

Making international payments with your regular bank can be costly. But with Wise you can skip the high bank fees and access the real mid-market exchange rate every time. You’ll only ever pay a low, transparent conversion fee, leaving you with more money to spend on yourself in the end.

Make life even easier with a Wise Multi-currency Account and card. Hold 50+ different currencies and switch between them when you want to, with no exchange rate markups or hidden fees. You can then spend any currency you hold for free with your linked Wise card. Simple, cheap and effective.

🚀 Join Wise and start saving

Cost of living in Costa Rica compared to the US

Now onto the key question: what is the cost of living in Costa Rica?

The easiest way to build a picture of your daily costs is to compare a few cities, both at home and in Costa Rica. These figures come from Numbeo.com - where expats enter live cost of living data to create a dynamic picture of everything from the cost of buying a coke to the price you’ll pay to buy a new home.

Take a look at these averages, and then check out Numbeo for up to date details when you’re ready.

CityOne bed city centre apartment - rent/monthMid-range, 3 course meal out for 2One month’s public transport ticket500g loaf of bread
San José, CR⁷580.60 USD40.42 USD31.64 USD1.36 USD
San Francisco, CR⁸485.09 USD30.72 USD84.36 USD1.05 USD
Alajuela, CR⁹333.09 USD30.72 USD40.42 USD1.09 USD
New York, US¹⁰3,028.19 USD100 USD129 USD3.99 USD
San Francisco, US¹¹3,060.83 USD85 USD83.50 USD3.84 USD
Chicago, US¹²1,848.57 USD75 USD105 USD2.85 USD

Note: data throughout this article is drawn from sites using live costings. That means the information is dynamic and can change over time. Data is correct at time of research — 6 July 2021. Check out the most up to date details before you plan your move.

Can US citizens live in Costa Rica?

US citizens do not usually need a visa to enter Costa Rica as a tourist. However, you’ll need to show your return ticket to prove you plan to leave the country after your vacation is over.

If your intention is to move to Costa Rica for a longer period, you’ll need an appropriate visa. There are several different visa options for US citizens looking to live in Costa Rica, depending on what you’ll do during your stay. The processes to apply will also vary depending on whether you’re in the US, or Costa Rica at the time of your application.

Get all you need to know about picking the right visa for you from the US State department website¹³, the US embassy in Costa Rica¹⁴, and the Costa Rica immigration services website¹⁵.

uvita-aerial-view

Main cities in Costa Rica

The capital of Costa Rica is San José, and this is a natural place for many expats to start their exploration of the country. The cost of living is somewhat lower than in the US — here’s an illustration from Numbeo⁷:

CityCost of living, family of 4, excluding rentCost of living, single person, excluding rent
San José2,332.42 USD/month643.71 USD/month

As the capital, San José is naturally home to a lot of expats, and also offers a wide variety of options for entertainment, culture, and necessities like healthcare. You’ll benefit from a temperate climate here in Costa Rica’s Central Valley — with expats choosing to live in the city, the suburbs and even smaller surrounding towns. Because Costa Rica is relatively small, travel to other cities and resorts doesn’t take so long — meaning you can adventure whenever you want to.

If you’re looking for more of a beach vibe, consider the Gold Coast. Tamarindo is a popular destination with a relaxed atmosphere and lots of amenities. It’s good to know though, that you’ll pay a premium for being in this popular resort area — costs of living here are somewhat higher than elsewhere in Costa Rica.

Finally, another place to check out is the Southern Zone — this has fewer tourists but still is popular with expats and locals alike. You’ll find rainforests, coastline, wildlife reserves and everything you need if you’re looking for a real natural paradise. Look for property ideas around the village of Uvita as a starting point.

fruit-market

What are the average monthly expenses in Costa Rica?

The actual cost of living in Costa Rica depends a lot on your lifestyle preferences and choices. However, to help you build a picture, let’s look at some basics¹⁶.

CountryCost of living, family of 4 excluding rentCost of living, single person, excluding rent
Costa Rica22,323.94 USD/month644.57 USD/month

These are the average costs from Costa Rica as a whole — tourist areas and bigger cities may cost more, but you'll also find cheaper average prices in less well known areas off the beaten track. Here’s a little more detail.

Item/ServiceAverage cost in Costa Rica
McDonalds meal7.28 USD
330ml bottle of Coke/Pepsi1.50 USD
Liter of milk1.32 USD
Utilities for 85m² apartment67.41 USD/month
Fitness club membership47.04 USD/month
International primary school7,032.99 USD/year

What’s the average wage in Costa Rica?

If you’re thinking of working in Costa Rica you’ll need to consider the likely average wages you can command for your role type. Luckily, there are resources out there to help you. Get live data on average salaries in San Jose from Teleport.

Here’s the current picture for a few select role types¹⁷:

JobAverage Salary - San Jose, Costa Rica
Physician55,102 USD
Copywriter45,089 USD
IT Manager34,669 USD
Web Developer30,480 USD
HR Manager23,371 USD
Graphic Designer20,861 USD
Data Analyst19,983 USD

san-jose-aerial-view

How expensive is living in Costa Rica?

Ready to get stuck into some detail? Here are some of the key costs you’ll need to think about when setting your budget for Costa Rica.

Housing and accommodation

There’s a broad range of housing options to choose from, and of course location makes a massive difference when you think about this outlay. Typically, Western-style accommodation in cities is going to be more costly, but you can also find great places a little off the beaten track. There are a few popular locations just outside of San José where expats choose to live to get the best of both worlds — slightly cheaper rents, with easy access to the capital’s amenities. Check out Grecia as an affordable choice close to the city.

Rent and utilities

Here’s a rundown of the cost of renting and running a few different types of home in Costa rica.

Accommodation typeAverage monthly cost in Costa Rica
1 bed apartment - city centre501.33 USD
3 bed apartment - city centre839.93 USD
1 bed apartment - outside city centre353.82 USD
3 bed apartment - outside city centre630.65 USD
Utilities for 85m² apartment67.41 USD

Buying a house in Costa Rica

An alternative if you’re planning on moving permanently to Costa Rica would be to buy a property. In this case you can expect to pay the following:

  • Price per m² in city centre: 1,679.23 USD
  • Price per m² outside city centre: 1,354.52 USD

Transportation and travel

Whether you choose to drive or take public transport options, you’ll need to budget for transportation and travel.

Here’s what you need to know.

Service/itemAverage cost in Costa Rica
1 way public transport ticket0.81 USD
1 month public transport ticket34.97 USD
1 liter gasoline1.03 USD
New car - Volkswagen Golf 1.4 90 KW Trendline or equivalent22,637.45 USD

Food and entertainment

Eating out in Costa Rica is likely to cost far less than in the US — with a 3 course meal for 2 in San José coming in at about 40 USD compared to 100 USD in New York. Local food and grocery items are also significantly cheaper than in the US, although premium and imported goods will cost more. If you’re working to a budget you’ll do well to live like the locals and learn some of the delicious dishes which are popular in Costa Rican cuisine.

For entertainment, you’ll have plenty of choices if you’re in a larger town or city. Seeing a popular movie at the cinema will cost about 6 USD, or if you’re into fitness you’ll be able to rent a tennis court for around 22 USD an hour at the weekend.

Health and dental care

The infrastructure in Costa Rica is generally pretty good, so if you’re in a major city you’ll find private healthcare options including hospitals affiliated with US hospital services. These are likely to cost around a third of the costs of equivalent services in the US, with doctors who can generally speak English and who have experience abroad¹⁸. Medical tourism is growing in Costa Rica, and this is only likely to improve the range of services on offer for private healthcare.

If you’re planning to live in Costa Rica you’ll likely have to pay into the national healthcare system on a monthly basis. However in return this will reduce the costs of medical support and drugs while you’re there.

Studying in Costa Rica

For younger school age children, there are international schools which are taught in English in most major cities. However, fees may be high, so check this out before you plan your budget if you’re arriving with family.

For higher level study, there are over 60 universities to choose from in Costa Rica, including some which rank among the top in both Latin America and the world¹⁹.

What are the taxes in Costa Rica?

If you’re resident in Costa Rica for tax purposes you’ll pay tax there on your income. There’s a progressive tax system which means you’ll be taxed a different amount based on your income levels. The top rates of personal income tax for higher earners are 25%. You’ll also have to pay social security contributions of 10.5% for employed persons — rates can vary if you’re self employed²⁰.

Other taxes to know about include VAT which is set at 13% for most items, and real estate transfer tax which is 1.5% of the value of any property you buy²¹.


So there you have it, the full 2021 guide to the cost of living in Costa Rica. Use this guide as a jumping off point if you’re thinking about a long term move abroad, and you’ll be able to draw up a budget, research destinations and start to figure out how to make the most of your new adventure.

And wherever you finish up, don’t forget to choose Wise and the Wise Multi-currency Account and card, when you travel, study, live or work abroad, to save money on currency conversion fees, and make sending and spending in foreign currencies easier.


Sources:

  1. Costa Rica embassy
  2. Banco BCR
  3. Banco BCR - General requirements
  4. Banco Popular
  5. Scotia Bank
  6. Davivienda
  7. Numbeo - Cost of living in San José
  8. Numbeo - Cost of living in San Francisco (Costa Rica)
  9. Numbeo - Cost of living in Alajuela
  10. Numbeo - Cost of living in New York
  11. Numbeo - Cost of living in San Francisco (US)
  12. Numbeo - Cost of living in Chicago
  13. Travel.state - International travel to Costa Rica
  14. Costa Rica Embassy - Residing in Costa Rica
  15. Migración - Personas extranjeras
  16. Numbeo - Cost of living in Costa Rica
  17. Teleport - San José salaries
  18. UMHS-SK - Health care around the world: Costa Rica
  19. Top Universities - Where to study in Costa Rica
  20. Tax Summaries - Costa Rica: taxes on personal income
  21. Tax Summaries - Costa Rica: other taxes

Sources checked on 07.13.2021


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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