Moving to Costa Rica: everything you need to know

Gabriela Peratello

Why move to Costa Rica? Tropical beaches, outstanding natural beauty, friendly people and a relatively cheap cost of living make Costa Rica a perennial favorite. Whether you’re planning to study, work or retire, Costa Rica might be a perfect destination for you.

This guide covers all the basics about moving to Costa Rica from the USA, and as relocating is never cheap, we’ll also introduce Wise and the Wise Multi-currency Account as a smart way to cut the costs of currency conversion and international transfers when you move.

📑Table of Contents

Learn more about Wise

Costa Rica quick facts

We’ll move on to more detail for Americans moving to Costa Rica in a moment, including things you need to know if you’re moving to Costa Rica with kids, and how to calculate the likely cost of moving to Costa Rica. First, some basics:

CapitalSan José
LanguageSpanish
Population5 million
CurrencyCosta Rican Colón (CRC)
Government typeDemocratic republic
ReligionPredominantly Christian, with a minority of people practising other faiths
WeatherHot year round in many areas, milder in higher areas

Moving to Costa Rica from the USA: can you do it?

Yes. It’s possible to move to Costa Rica from the US — in fact prior to the global pandemic disrupting travel and immigration, some 120,000 US citizens were thought to reside permanently in Costa Rica¹.

Costa Rica is especially popular with retirees, thanks to the good healthcare and low cost of living. In fact, there’s a specific visa for people planning to retire there to make the process even easier for expat retirees.

While the pandemic has caused changes to global travel, and disrupted immigration processes, many US citizens are still keen to travel to — and live, study, retire or work — in Costa Rica. Information in this guide reflects the pre-pandemic options and processes. As the travel situation is still evolving around the world you’ll want to double check the rules prior to making your personal plans.

Moving to Costa Rica with kids: things to keep in mind

Costa Rica is generally considered to be one of the safest countries in Latin America, making it a good place for families. Add in the lovely weather and plenty of places to play outdoors and it can be a great destination to move with kids.

Families will be able to choose from a broad range of public, private and international schools. Public schools are taught in Spanish — there will be a greater choice of English language classes in private and international institutions. If you want your child to return to the US education system at a later stage it’s worth looking for schools with a curriculum and qualifications which will be transferable.

The school year runs February through to November or December, although private and international schools may set slightly different timetables. It’s also common for public schools to run a shift system with some kids attending in the morning and others in the afternoon. This keeps class sizes small and leaves plenty of time for before or after school activities.

Can you move to Costa Rica with pets?

It’s possible to move to Costa Rica with pets — but you’ll need to take the advice of a veterinarian who has experience in relocation of animals to get all the right paperwork in place.

To take a cat or dog to Costa Rica as an example, you’ll need an endorsed health certificate for your pet which is either provided in Spanish or officially translated into Spanish. Get support from a local vet to make sure your journey — and your pet’s — goes smoothly.

Immigration and visas

US citizens don’t need a visa to enter Costa Rica for up to 90 days. You’ll need to show a return ticket to demonstrate that you intend to leave at or before the end of that period².

If you’re planning on being in Costa Rica long term you can pick from a range of visas including visas aimed at retirees in the country, and temporary residence permits for people retiring, working or studying there. Check out the details on the Embassy of Costa Rica website and plan to apply prior to travel³.

Permanent residency

There are various routes to becoming a permanent resident in Costa Rica. The length of time this takes depends on your existing visa and your personal circumstances, but you may be able to move from temporary residence status to permanent in only 2 or 3 years. You’ll also need to fulfil other conditions around things like the length of time per year you spend in Costa Rica in order to maintain your permanent resident status.

✒ Tips for moving to Costa Rica
  • Do your research thoroughly before you make any solid resolutions — moving is a big decision
  • Get quotes from different relocation services to compare options and fees
  • Take local professional advice about real estate, banking and taxes
  • Connect with expats in Costa Rica through social media and your own network to settle in more easily when you arrive
  • Open a bank account in advance

avoid-big-transfer-costs

Cost of Living in Costa Rica

The overall cost of living in Costa Rica is low compared to the US. This, plus the relatively high standard of living and good healthcare options makes it a popular place for those on a fixed income like retirees and students.

As with anywhere in the world, you can spend more or less according to your lifestyle. Rent will usually be one of the major costs you have to consider, but with a great range of housing options from beachside hideaways to city apartments, you can really pick your place according to your budget. The wealth of natural resources, beaches and outdoor activities also means it’s easy enough to have fun for free whenever you want to.

Cost of moving to Costa Rica

Relocating can be an expensive business — but the price you’ll pay overall will depend on whether you’re intending to arrive in Costa Rica with just what you can fit in your suitcase, or ship a household of belongings there.

If you want to ship all your household goods and your car you’ll need to budget for this — typically shipping space is sold by the container meaning you get either a 20 foot or 40 foot container to pack your goods in.

Costs vary widely based on the provider and specifically where you’re shipping from, but you can get quotations from international removals companies fairly easily to build a picture.

Check our guide for a complete breakdown of the cost of living in Costa Rica

Send money to Costa Rica with a secure Wise transfer

Before you relocate you’ll likely need to pay for services in Costa Rica to cover your shipping, a rental deposit or other basic charges. It’s good to know you can cut the costs of sending money to Costa Rica with Wise.

Wise international transfers use the mid-market exchange rate and low, transparent fees. Arrange your payment online for convenience, and track your transfer in the Wise app at a glance.

Payments are fast, secure, and could save you 3x compared to sending with your bank.

Get a free Wise account
in minutes 🚀

Please see Terms of Use for your region or visit Wise Fees & Pricing  for the most up to date pricing and fee information


Living in Costa Rica: the basics

Hopefully you’re getting excited about the prospect of moving to Costa Rica. Here are a few pointers about day to day life in the country, to kickstart your research. We’ll cover more detail later — including the key question: where do expats live in Costa Rica?

Housing

Housing is a major expense no matter where in the world you live. In Costa Rica the overall costs of a place to buy or rent are lower than in many parts of the US — although you’ll need to choose your location carefully based on your budget and personal preferences.

Renting

Renting a short term place in Costa Rica before you decide where to settle longer term can be a good idea. It’ll give you a chance to check out the different types of housing available, as well as exploring a few different places.

For both renting or buying a property in Costa Rica, start out searching online for a few ideas and to build a realistic budget for the specific location you’re interested in.

🎯 Some popular real estate umbrella sites to start out on include

Once you have an idea of the specific location and property type you want you might want to find a local realtor in the area you’re targeting. This will often mean you get a wider range of properties and some solid local information to help you pick a perfect place.

Buying property in Costa Rica as an expat

Expats have the same rights as Costa Ricans when it comes to buying a property, which means you can purchase a place outright in your own name.

As with anywhere in the world, there are unscrupulous realtors who may prey on foreigners who don’t yet know their way round the local system. You’ll need to read up on the process of buying a house in Costa Rica before you get started, and find yourself some good local support before you hand over any money.

Most of all remember that although Costa Rican property may be cheaper than in the US, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The health care system in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has a good health care infrastructure in the cities, but in more rural areas coverage may be limited. It’s important to have adequate medical insurance whenever you travel to Costa Rica or if you’re planning on moving there full time².

Hospitals — especially private ones — may require payment up front, or proof of insurance cover, before treating patients.

If you don’t speak Spanish you might need to take along a friend or translator to help if you’re attending a local hospital or if you’re seeking health care in a more rural area. English may not be spoken.

Banking and taxation

You’ll need to open a bank account to be able to manage day to day costs and set up basic needs like rental payments and utilities.

Do a bit of research to find the right bank and account product for your needs — good places to start your search include:

  • Banco de Costa Rica
  • Banco Popular
  • Scotiabank
  • Davivienda

Depending on the account you prefer, you may need to provide a minimum opening deposit amount, and will have to show supporting documents to prove things like your ID, residency status and address.

When it comes to paying your taxes in Costa Rica you’ll probably want to take professional advice to make sure you stay on the right side of the law.

Personal income tax is generally levied on a sliding scale based on your overall income, from 0% — 25%. You may also need to pay a social security contribution, as well as other local taxes like property taxes and VAT⁴.

🌐 Paying your taxes in Costa Rica? You need Wise
    Cut the costs of currency conversion when you pay for daily life in Costa Rica with low cost international transfers from Wise. Get the mid-market exchange rate every time on transfers which are fast, secure and convenient.
    You can also use the Wise Account to hold and exchange 50+ currencies, and send payments to 80+ countries. Low transparent fees and the mid-market rate mean your overall costs can be far less than using a bank account for international currencies — all with no minimum balance and no monthly fee.

Open an account for free

Please see Terms of Use for your region or visit Wise Fees & Pricing  for the most up to date pricing and fee information

Education

If you’re moving to Costa Rica with younger kids you’ll be able to choose between international, private and public schools. Public schools are taught in Spanish — so probably not an option unless you’re fluent in the language already.

Private and international schools may be bilingual in Spanish and English, or taught in English with Spanish as an additional language. Getting advice from other parents in the neighborhood you want to live in is the best way to find out more about the best schools available to you.

For older students and adults looking to continue their education you can also pick a local higher education institute. Prior to the pandemic, around 8,000 US citizens were studying in Costa Rican institutes of higher education. It’s also the number 1 destination in Latin America for US study abroad programs¹.

Getting around Costa Rica

The US State Department warns people headed to Costa Rica that the road quality and signage — especially in coastal and rural areas — may be poor². This means that driving comes with some additional risks compared to getting around in the US.

If possible, it’s best to avoid driving after dark due to poor lighting. If you have a flat tire or other car trouble it’s important to look for a well populated place with good visibility to stop. Some criminals can approach stranded drivers saying they want to be of assistance before robbing them — be wary of unsolicited offers of help.

Public transport is available in urban areas, along with licensed taxis. Keep an eye on your belongings when on public transport as this is a common place for thieves to target individuals.

Quality of life in Costa Rica

One of the best things about Costa Rica is that the quality of life overall is good, with high standards of healthcare, infrastructure and education for a relatively low cost. The life expectancy in Costa Rica is similar to in the US, and the crime rate is one of the lowest in the region.

Exactly how you live depends on whether you prefer to spend your time exploring, relaxing, immersed in culture or prioritising your career — but the good news is that there’s something for everyone.

More coming up later on moving to Costa Rica pros and cons, to help you decide if it’s right for you.

Connectivity: internet and mobile

Costa Rica has good coverage for both cell phones and internet. ICE is the official service provider for the country, but there are also independent services which drive competition and keep the costs on the low side.

It’s worth noting that landlines are more popular in Costa Rica than in other parts of the world which may make it worth getting one even if it’s been a while since you’ve bothered in the US.

Getting a job in Costa Rica as an expat

Costa Rica is a popular retirement destination for expats. However, if you have a work permit or visa which allows for employment, you may be able to get a job in Costa Rica.

Many expats work in Costa Rica as digital nomads, telecommuting to jobs outside of the country. Others are involved in tourism and adventure sports — a big draw for visitors to the country.

If you’re intending to work in Costa Rica you’ll usually need a job before you can get a work permit — so starting your research early and getting a permit application completed in good time is essential.

Culture and people

People from Costa Rica are often called Ticos and Ticas. Costa Ricans have a mix of roots, with a high percentage of people tracing their heritage back to Europe and particularly Spain. That makes for an interesting and vibrant culture which is celebrated throughout the country.

Is it safe to move to Costa Rica?

Life in Costa Rica is generally safe. As with most places, petty crime can be an issue, and tourists and people who are obviously carrying valuables may become targets.

The US State Department reports some incidents of armed robbery, and advises that victims do not resist if they’re confronted by an armed assailant². However, these issues are isolated, and using common sense and maintaining situational awareness will usually keep you safe while in Costa Rica.

Read further: is Costa Rica safe?

Best cities to live in Costa Rica as an expat

Let’s take a look at popular places to live as a US citizen in Costa Rica.

Central Valley — San José

san-jose

The Costa Rican capital San José is a great place for people working and studying, and offers good schooling options for families.

There’s a strong expat community to help build a network in the country, and a range of housing options in the city, the suburbs and even smaller surrounding towns.

The climate here is relatively temperate, and travel to other parts of the country is a breeze.

Gold Coast — Tamarindo

tamarindo

On the Pacific Coast, towns like Tamarindo make for a beach vibe with a relaxed atmosphere — but still have lots of amenities to offer.

Tamarindo is one of the more expensive areas in Costa Rica for this reason — but you’ll have some of the best beaches in the country on your doorstep, for surfing, fishing and relaxing.

Join in with the tourists when you want to, and still find more peaceful spots when you need a bit of quiet.

Southern Zone — Costa Ballena

costa-ballena

In the Southern Zone you’ll come across fewer tourists but with rainforests, coastline and wildlife reserves it’s a real natural paradise.

There are peaceful villages and smaller towns up and down the coast here which offer a slice of perfection at a relatively low cost.

Look around Dominical, Ojochal and the village of Uvita as a starting point.


Summary: moving to Costa Rica, pros and cons

Let’s close out with a short summary of the great — and not so great — things about moving to Costa Rica as a US expat.

ProsCons
  • Stunning natural scenery and vibrant culture
  • Relatively low cost of living
  • Good infrastructure and healthcare
  • Range of options for housing
  • English is widely spoken
  • Relocating comes with inevitable expenses
  • Some areas have lots of tourists which can mean crowds and petty crime
  • Road conditions can be hazardous

Moving overseas is an exciting prospect. There’s a lot to do, and it’s impossible to avoid some of the costs of relocating — but the opportunities presented are enormous.

Costa Rica in particular offers a great lifestyle for people who like to get out and about, and some beautiful places to explore. Add to that a strong expat community and good healthcare, schooling and infrastructure, and it’s easy to see why it’s such a popular place for US expats.

If you’re considering making the leap and starting a new life in Costa Rica use this guide to get your research started. Don’t forget you can also cut down the costs of currency exchange and international payments when you move with Wise and the Wise Multi-currency Account.


Sources:

  1. US State Travel - US relations with Costa Rica
  2. US State Travel - Costa Rica
  3. Costa Rica Embassy
  4. Tax Summaries - Costa Rica

Sources checked on 01.19.2022


Please see terms of use and product availability for your region or visit Wise fees and pricing for the most up to date pricing and fee information.

This publication is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from Wise Payments Limited or its subsidiaries and its affiliates, and it is not intended as a substitute for obtaining advice from a financial advisor or any other professional.

We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether expressed or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

Money without borders

Find out more

Tips, news and updates for your location