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Living Abroad in Costa Rica: Making the Move

© Erin Van Rheenen, from Living Abroad in Costa Rica, 1st Used by permission of Erin Van Rheenen and Avalon Travel > All rights reserved.

Living Abroad in Costa Rica
"No paperwork, no job, no muss, no fuss—nice work if you can get it. And it can be that easy, though recent crackdowns have put the fear of expulsion in the hearts of long-term expats who’ve never bothered about renewing visas or getting residency. A side note: It used to be that people from Canada, the United States, and Panama could enter and exit Costa Rica without a passport, though they did need some form of identification, like a driver’s license. As of April 30, 2003, however, all visitors to Costa Rica must travel with valid passports."

Visas and Immigration

"Costa Rica is making a real effort to streamline its immigration process, and everyone agrees it’s high time for a change. Even with all the flux, the categories of residency are fairly straightforward, and not apt to change significantly anytime soon. What may change is where you apply for residency and how quickly your papers are processed."

Immigration policy in Costa Rica is a moving target, but the good news is that North Americans are for the most part given a warm welcome. A Nicaraguan day laborer will be treated differently from, say, a retired couple from Vermont who just invested in a seaside bed-and-breakfast. North American and European visitors, in most cases, have a fairly easy time of it immigration-wise; the most that a law-abiding visitor will have to deal with are bureaucratic headaches.

The agency that enforces immigration law is the Department of Immigration (Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería), which in turn is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Security (Ministerio de Seguridad Pública). There is also a National Immigration Council (Consejo Nacional de Migración y Extranjería), charged with review of residency petitions.

Though the processes may seem arbitrary, there are official policies in place, replete with stamps, seals, and much waiting in line. Still, even seasoned expat organizations like the ARCR (Association of Residents of Costa Rica) warn that immigration laws are hard to fathom and even harder to keep up with. But one thing is for sure: In August 2002, the Department of Immigration issued a statement saying residency applications should be made in the applicant’s country of origin rather than here in Costa Rica. It is much easier, with these new regulations, to begin the residency process in your home country. It’s not impossible to do it from Costa Rica, but you would need to confer power of attorney on someone back home and have him or her act on your behalf. It’s much easier to start before you move here.

Still, policy is anything but crystal clear. Regulations and laws are one thing; enforcement (especially consistent enforcement) is quite another. Students of Costa Rican policy will find many contradictory statutes; it’s often up to the individual official to play judge and jury, choosing which of the many laws he or she will enforce on any given day. An editorial in the February 2003 Tico Times, entitled “Fix the Immigration Mess,” takes on the government’s first attempt since the 1980s to overhaul immigration policy. “The current system,” writes the editor, “in which processes are at the whim of the transitory official holding positions of power, needs to be reformed to one in which, from the start, applicants know what the requirements are and when they need to comply with them.”

Lest you dismiss the situation as hopelessly third world, remember that at least two U.S. agencies—the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) and the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service)—have been shown to operate in a similarly heavy-handed and arbitrary fashion. Big government means lots of laws; some are bound to contradict others. And then, “public servants” around the world are often anything but, wielding their tiny swords with surprisingly lethal effect. When confronted with such officials, make nice. Count to ten, then grit your teeth into a smile. For the moment, they have the power and you don’t. Save your rage and dreams of revenge for later, over a drink with friends. Then order another round.

But I digress. Costa Rica is making a real effort to streamline its immigration process, and everyone agrees it’s high time for a change. Even with all the flux, the categories of residency are fairly straightforward, and not apt to change significantly anytime soon. What may change is where you apply for residency and how quickly your papers are processed. The ARCR is a good source of up-to-date information.

One more thing you should know is that if you gain any type of residency or even citizenship in Costa Rica, your U.S. or Canadian citizenship is not affected. And there’s no problem on the Costa Rican end of things, either. Since 1996 this country has recognized dual citizenship. The change in policy came about when Dr. Franklin Chang, Costa Rican–born scientist and NASA astronaut, became a U.S. citizen and was consequently stripped of his Costa Rican citizenship. There was a public outcry—the country didn’t want to lose such an illustrious Tico to the United States—and in response the policy was changed.

Tourist Visas

No paperwork, no job, no muss, no fuss—nice work if you can get it. And it can be that easy, though recent crackdowns have put the fear of expulsion in the hearts of long-term expats who’ve never bothered about renewing visas or getting residency. A side note: It used to be that people from Canada, the United States, and Panama could enter and exit Costa Rica without a passport, though they did need some form of identification, like a driver’s license. As of April 30, 2003, however, all visitors to Costa Rica must travel with valid passports.

Here’s how the perpetual-tourist thing works. Visitors from Canada, the United States, and most of Europe don’t need to apply for visas in their home countries but instead receive, upon arrival in Costa Rica, a stamp on their passport authorizing a 90-day stay. When that 90 days is almost up, you leave the country for at least 72 hours—maybe you’ve always wanted to visit the colonial city of Granada in southern Nicaragua, or snorkel at one of the Bocas del Toro islands in northern Panama. After your three-day vacation, you cross back into Costa Rica and get another 90-day stamp on your passport. This category of visa is called the B1, or tourist visa.

Some people do this for years, but it’s not an ideal solution. Although not strictly illegal (you’re not overstaying your visa), the practice is considered a little shady by Costa Rican officials—a way of getting around the law. What you’re doing and how often is visible in full color—soon your passport will be a riot of blue, red, and purple stamps and seals that mark you as a come-and-goer. And who knows when the government will decide to crack down on this category of tourist?

If you have anything to lose in Costa Rica—a house, a business, a family—this gray-area existence is apt to make you a little bit anxious. Not to mention that leaving the country every three months gets to be tiresome and expensive. There are shady ways to skip the trip, but they are truly back-alley and indisputably illegal. A guy knows a guy who can take care of it—and suddenly your money and passport are long gone. On the open market, U.S. and Canadian passports are said to fetch around US$5,000.

Even if you don’t have anything to lose in Costa Rica, there are reasons to apply for residency. “I’m not sure why I was so into getting those papers,” says Peggy Windle, who in 2002 took early retirement from her teaching job in Arizona and moved to Costa Rica. “I want to belong somewhere, I guess. To not be 100 percent vagabond.”

If you’re not planning to stay more than four months in Costa Rica, there are a few ways to legally extend your 90-day visa that don’t involve a trip out of the country. You must be sure, however, to start these processes well before your visa has expired. These solutions only give you 30 additional days, are often more trouble than they’re worth, and probably will not work more than once. One way is to apply at the immigration office (Migración) opposite Hospital Mexico in the La Uruca section of San José. The office is open 8:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. You may also be asked to obtain an affidavit, in which you swear that you have no dependents in Costa Rica, from the Justice Tribunal (Calle 17, Avenidas 6/8, tel. 506/223-7555, ext. 240 or 276, fax 506/221-2066). The results of a blood test to see whether you have AIDS or HIV may also be required. To apply for the extension you’ll need three passport-sized photos, a plane ticket out of the country, and funds judged sufficient to see you through your proposed stay. This procedure also involves multiple forms, stamps, line waiting, and fees. Another possibility is to see if a travel agent can get you an extension. This way is usually easier but is not something you can keep doing every 30 days.

What happens if you skulk around Costa Rica with an expired 90-day visa? It depends just how expired it is. If you’re a few days or weeks in arrears, you’ll probably get off with some smooth talking and the payment of a fine. If you arrived in 1985 and haven’t thought about visas since, you’re still okay—until someone checks your passport. Then you’ll most likely get a free trip home, a.k.a. deportation. If you’re deported, you can’t legally return to Costa Rica for ten years.

One more thing—when you enter Costa Rica (each time), you could be asked to prove that you have sufficient funds to support yourself for the time you intend to be here. They may also ask you to show a return or onward plane or bus ticket. In practice, this rarely happens.

Types of Residency

"Ways of obtaining permanent residency include being a citizen of another Central American country or of Spain and having lived in Costa Rica for five years; marrying a Costa Rican citizen; or having a child in Costa Rica. I know an unmarried couple whose decision to have kids was helped along by the fact that their Costa Rican–born child automatically conferred permanent residency upon both (foreign-born) parents."

There are countless types of residency, from refugee to diplomatic status, but for the purposes of the average North American or European, four of these will be of interest: permanent resident, pensionado (pensioner or retiree), rentista (loosely translated as “small investor”), and inversionista (large investor). In the shorthand of immigration agencies, the permanent resident visa is an A1 visa; pensionados and rentistas are subcategories of the A2 visa, and inversionistas have A3 visas.

Permanent Residency

After two years, pensionados, rentistas, and inversionistas can apply for permanent residency, which gives you all the rights a Costa Rican citizen enjoys, save voting. Other ways of obtaining permanent residency include being a citizen of another Central American country or of Spain and having lived in Costa Rica for five years; marrying a Costa Rican citizen; or having a child in Costa Rica. I know an unmarried couple whose decision to have kids was helped along by the fact that their Costa Rican–born child automatically conferred permanent residency upon both (foreign-born) parents.

Applicants for permanent residency must demonstrate that they will make a positive contribution to the country. Benefits of permanent residency include being able to work (rather than just own a business, as is allowed under temporary residencies), reduced fares on air travel within Costa Rica, and much-reduced admission to national parks and reserves. Permanent residency also offers up the same sort of safeguards extended to citizens, such as protection against extradition (except in high-profile cases, like when drug lords or big-time financial scamsters try to hide out in the wilds of Costa Rica). As a permanent resident, you don’t need to worry about remaining in the country for four months (to maintain pensionado or rentista status) or six months (to maintain inversionista status) out of each year. Your only obligation as a permanent resident is to visit Costa Rica at least once a year.

Pensionado (Pensioner)

Most retired people opt for this category, which requires you to prove at least US$600 a month in pension income. The income can come from a public source, like the U.S. government, or a private source, like the brokerage house that administers your IRA account. You must document that you will be receiving at least US$7,200 a year, and arrange to have the checks deposited to a Costa Rican account in colones, not dollars. For a married couple, the spouse with less (or no) retirement income is considered a dependent, and a dependent need show no proof of income—they ride free on their partner’s US$600. Children under 18 (or a child between 18 and 25 enrolled in university) can also be claimed as dependents, and receive the same immigration status as their parents.

The downside is that two people’s incomes cannot be combined to make up the required US$600 a month, though the combined income sources of one person will do the trick. If the pensioner is a little short of the US$600 a month, the balance can be made up by depositing five years’ worth of the difference in a Costa Rican bank. So if your pension is US$545/month, you could make up the extra US$55 a month (for five years) by depositing US$3,300 in the bank.

Pensionados need to spend at least four months in the country a year, though the time need not be contiguous—you could spend January, February, October, and November here, for instance. You can’t work as an employee, but you can own and receive income from a business.

When the Costa Rican government created the pensionado and rentista immigration categories in 1971, the idea was to attract foreign capital, and certain tax breaks were given to holders of these temporary residency visas. Pensionados and rentistas were allowed to bring in all their household goods, appliances, and one car duty-free, which with Costa Rica’s high import duties was a very nice perk. But in 1992, in need of greater tax revenue, the government abolished the tax benefits associated with pensionado and rentista status.

Rentista (Small Investor)

For those who have not yet reached retirement age but have managed to make investments that bring in regular income, the rentista option is an attractive one. You’ll need to prove a monthly income of US$1,000 (usually a CD or annuity), guaranteed by a banking institution. Another option is to deposit US$60,000 (US$1,000 a month for five years) in a Costa Rican bank, which will authorize you to withdraw US$1,000 of your money each month. If, after two years of rentista status, you apply for and receive permanent residency, you can withdraw all the money out of the account.

Other details of the rentista visa are similar to those of a pensionado: You can own a business but not work as an employee; you need to be in the country for at least four noncontiguous months each year, and dependents, whether spouse or child, enjoy the same immigration status as is awarded to the applicant.

Inversionista (Large Investor)

Although you can legally own and operate any sort of business in Costa Rica even if you only have a tourist visa, an investment of at least US$50,000 in a sector the government deems a priority will get you inversionista temporary resident status. Costa Rican officials have declared as priority businesses related to tourism, forestry, and low-income housing. Non-priority reforestation projects will require US$100,000 in order to qualify you for inversionista status, and any other business ventures will call for US$200,000 or more. Inversionistas must stay in Costa Rica six months out of every year, though as with other categories of temporary residency, the time need not be contiguous.

For any investment, please exercise extreme caution—many people who come to Costa Rica seem to leave their common sense at home. Perhaps lulled by the tropical climate and the friendliness of the people, they trust too easily and don’t do their due diligence—checking out every facet of the project before putting any money down. While living in the tropics is relatively easy, making a business profitable here is perhaps even more challenging than it would be at home.

Other Temporary Residence

Other types of temporary residency usually require a sponsor, and may be the way to go for:

• Anyone who renders special services to governmental, international, or educational institutions in Costa Rica.
• Highly specialized technical or professional workers granted prior authority by the Ministry of Labor. Managers and executives of multinational corporations with branches in Costa Rica often fall into this category. The company that sponsors these workers must meet certain qualifications, such as having at least 50 million colones in real capital investment and employing a labor force that is made up of at least 90 percent Costa Rican citizens. Companies that routinely sponsor their workers are likely to be already registered with the Department of Immigration.
• Students at public or private schools or universities recognized by the government.
• Domestic servants.

Sometimes the company that employs you, the institution you are rendering services to, or the school you attend will take care of the paperwork. Make sure that is the case, and/or contact your Costa Rican Consulate or Embassy for the latest on the above categories of temporary residency.

Paperwork for Residency

"You can file the paperwork on your own, you can hire a lawyer to do it for you, or you can fill out the forms and gather the necessary documents yourself, then pay a tramitador to stand in line for you. The whole process will be much easier if you start it in your home country, working with the nearest Costa Rican consulate."

Whether you’re applying for permanent or temporary residency, much of the process is the same. You’ll need:

1. An application that is filled out and filed with the Costa Rican consulate in your country of origin, or directly with the Department of Immigration in Costa Rica if you’re in the country. (There is some question as to whether it will continue to be possible to apply for residency while in Costa Rica; right now people are still doing it, but the situation may change.)

2. If not within Costa Rica at the time of the application, you must appoint a representative and grant special authority to this representative (apoderado). You’ll need to provide a San José address where the representative will receive mail pertaining to your residency application.

3. Birth certificate, marriage license if you’re married (if you’ve divorced and remarried, no divorce papers are required), copies of academic or professional degrees (if you plan to practice your profession in Costa Rica), and a police certificate of good conduct from the last place you’ve lived for at least two years. The police certificate should be obtained last, as it is only good for six months and may expire while you wait for your other documentation to come through.

Note: All of the documents in Item 3 must be translated into Spanish (by the office of the Costa Rican consulate), then submitted to and authenticated by the Costa Rican consulate officer in the country where the documents are issued. Having your documents authenticated by a Costa Rican consulate is not the same as having them notarized. Documents that are not “public documents” must be certified by a notary public of the state where the documents were issued. Public documents (those issued by a governmental institution) do not need to be notarized.

Authorization means that the consulate makes sure the documents are valid and belong to you; the consulate will also make sure the notary who notarized your documents is fully certified. There is, of course, a fee for each document authorized, at present about US$40 per document.

You can begin to see how it might be easier to apply for residency in your country of origin. Ask a good lawyer, the ARCR, or other expats what they would recommend for your particular case.

4. An authenticated copy of your passport (every page).

5. Authenticated copies of dependents’ birth certificates (spouse and/or children) if they are to be included in the residency application. You’ll also need police certificates of good conduct for dependents over 18 that you’re including in your application.

6. Four passport-sized photos.

7. Your fingerprints—the Ministry of Public Security will run them through Interpol, who will do an international background check on you.

8. You may be asked to provide proof of a doctor’s exam. There are laws on the books allowing Costa Rican officials to refuse entry into the country to people with AIDS, although I’ve never heard of that happening.

9. Proof of income. This is the most important part of your application. The more income, the better; the government wants to be sure you have enough money to support yourself while in Costa Rica.

If you’re going for pensionado or rentista status, you’ll need a letter from your financial institution saying that you will be receiving at least US$600 a month (for pensionados) or US$1,000 a month (for rentistas). The financial institution must be an “internationally recognized entity,” listed in Polk’s International Banking Directory. If your income is from a brokerage or insurance company, you’ll need to submit a copy of its annual report along with your residency application. The letter issued by your financial institution is supposed to say that your income is “permanent and irrevocable” for at least the next five years. Since it is the client who ultimately controls the investments, some financial institutions balk at using the phrase “permanent and irrevocable.” The usual way around this is to have them add in their letter a line that states, “in the event the funds invested or on deposit are reduced in any manner, the bank shall notify the Costa Rican Tourism Institute,” which, along with the Department of Immigration, has a say in residency issues.

For inversionista applications, you’ll be submitting business rather than personal financial records. If you invest in an already existing business, you’ll need to provide balance sheets and profit-and-loss information along with your residency application. For a new business, especially if you’re hoping your enterprise will qualify as “priority” and thus allow you to invest US$50,000 rather than the usually required US$200,000, the forms and documents needed are beyond the scope of this book. A good accountant and a lawyer familiar with the Costa Rican business world will be your best resources. Starting a business in Costa Rica need not be bound up with a residency application. Many people start businesses with far less than US$50,000, and do so while here on a 90-day tourist visa. This is perfectly legal.

Whatever category of residency you’re after, the application and supporting documentation are submitted to the Department of Immigration (when you apply from your country of origin, you apply at the consulate, which sends your documents to the Department of Immigration in San José). The Department of Immigration issues a receipt of filing to the applicant. If all is in order and the application is complete, it is forwarded to the Immigration Council, where it may languish for months or even years. While they consider your application (or let it sit on someone’s desk), you are legally allowed to remain in the country.

For permanent residency, the applicant (or her lawyer) will eventually receive a resolution (resolución) detailing the finding of the Immigration Council. If the resolution is approved, authorities will issue a residency card (cédula de residencia). Before the applicant can pick up this card, she must pay the government US$300 for its trouble. Residency must be renewed each year, but is usually a matter of going into an office and getting a new stamp.

Check the closest Costa Rican Embassy or Consulate for information on current visa requirements.

Getting Help

You can hire a reputable lawyer, or go through the ARCR (Association of Residents of Costa Rica), which has a very good reputation and has helped many an expat through the residency maze. Right now it charges US$735 for processing pensionado or rentista applications, and US$1,000 to process an inversionista application. If you’re applying with dependents, spouses will cost an additional US$365, and each child will be US$155.

Moving with Children

"If you move here with kids, you’ll be in the majority—almost all Costa Rican couples have children—and you will have an edge in making friends with locals. An expat mother in San José told me that her social life consisted mostly of children’s birthday parties, where the kids would go outside and play and the mothers would stay inside, gossip, and eat cake."

Entering and Exiting

Costa Ricans love children, and the society as a whole is more kid-friendly than the United States. Even unplanned children are cherished, and motherhood is still seen here as a woman’s highest calling. Many family decisions—like where to live—are heavily influenced by what would be best for the children.

Ticos are indulgent parents, and kids are often given a lot of freedom, their misdeeds ignored. An interesting historical explanation of this phenomenon is offered up in The Ticos: “Until half a century ago, many children died very young, and parents let small children enjoy what might be a brief stay on earth. Infants and toddlers are still allowed much free rein.”

If you move here with kids, you’ll be in the majority—almost all Costa Rican couples have children—and you will have an edge in making friends with locals. An expat mother in San José told me that her social life consisted mostly of children’s birthday parties, where the kids would go outside and play and the mothers would stay inside, gossip, and eat cake.

Non–Costa Rican Children

In an effort to foil traffic in human beings (child prostitution rings often operate internationally) and to prevent international child abduction, many governments have special rules for minors entering and exiting their countries. For children traveling with one parent, Costa Rica officially requires evidence of relationship and permission for the child’s travel from the parent or legal guardian not present.

Parents must take this very seriously if they don’t want to be refused entry or exit; they might miss their plane while scaring up the necessary forms and signatures. To be on the safe side, parents should carry the child’s birth certificate, along with a notarized copy of a letter that says both parents agree to this particular trip.

For more information and for downloadable forms, visit

Costa Rican Children

If your child was born in Costa Rica, or if one or both parents is a Costa Rican citizen, the child will automatically be a Costa Rican citizen. So even if your child travels on, say, a U.S. passport, if she or he qualifies as a Costa Rican citizen, in effect the child has dual citizenship and will need to comply with entry and exit requirements applicable to Costa Rican children. To exit Costa Rica, she or he will need an exit permit issued by the Costa Rican immigration office. This office may be closed for several weeks during holiday periods.

It is also imperative that if a Costa Rican–born child is visiting Costa Rica with only one parent (even if the child lives full-time in another country, and his or her parents are not Costa Rican), the child must have the permission of the absent parent (signed in the presence of a Costa Rican consulate) to leave Costa Rica.

The rules are complicated, inflexible, and they change often—a bad combination. Parents of kids born in Costa Rica are advised to consult with the Costa Rican embassy or consulate in the United States about entry and exit requirements before travel to Costa Rica. Also check the Costa Rican embassy website for more information:

Moving with Pets

"Although Costa Ricans love their pets, they think of them differently than do most North Americans. Dogs are valued for their ability to protect people and property, and are often not let into the house. The U.S. practice of letting dogs sleep on the sofa or even the bed would be considered in Costa Rica hopelessly cochino (which literally means piggy, and is used as a synonym for dirty)."

Jerry Ledin arrived in San José in 1998 with six black duffel bags and Piper, his Scottish terrier. “It was crazy to think I could bring my dog along,” admits Jerry. “But I never considered not bringing him.” It was easier than Jerry imagined. Unlike in other countries, there is no quarantine period; Jerry could take Piper with him right from the airport. “Everything turned out just fine,” he says, “and Piper adjusted faster than I did—he’s converted to Catholicism and now speaks fluent Spanish.”

Even if your pet is not good with languages, bringing cats and dogs into Costa Rica is a fairly simple procedure. Bringing cows, horses, and other livestock is a bit more complicated, and if you want your snake or parrot to accompany you, you’ll have to jump through some hoops, especially if your scaled or feathered friend is on any endangered species list.

Dogs and Cats

For dogs and cats and other small pets, you’ll need to prove to both the airlines and Costa Rican customs officers that your animal is healthy. Schedule an exam with your local veterinarian a week or two before your departure date—the vet should fill out a health certificate stating that the animal is disease-free and has been vaccinated against distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus, and rabies. The rabies vaccination is supposed to be more than 30 days but less than a year old, and is necessary only for animals 4 months or older. The health certificate should then be endorsed by a Veterinary Service (VS) veterinarian, but need not be notarized. The Costa Rican consulate says the examination for the certificate must be conducted within the two weeks prior to travel to Costa Rica, though anecdotal evidence suggests that a certificate up to 30 days old will do the trick.

Pet owners also need to get authorization from the Costa Rican Health Ministry; go through your nearest Costa Rica consulate or embassy to obtain this permission.

When you arrive in Costa Rica, the customs officer will do a visual inspection of your pet (for which you will be charged US$1), and look over the health certificate and the authorization from the Costa Rican Health Ministry. If all is in order, you’re through, and can find a pet-friendly taxi (not an easy task) and stuff your Irish wolfhound in the backseat. Some people traveling with pets report that they weren’t even asked for their documents, but you can’t count on encountering such relaxed attitudes yourself.

If you’re missing any documents or the officer decides your pet looks ill and might transmit disease, the animal will either be temporarily released to your care (kind of like being out on bail) or (if the official decides there’s a real health risk) kept in a state kennel for up to 30 days, until you work out what to do next—arrange for the necessary paperwork, or contact a local vet if your animal needs care.

Holsteins, Thoroughbreds, Vipers, and Macaws

Livestock will need permission from Costa Rica’s Agriculture Ministry’s Animal Sanitation Department to enter the country. Ask your Costa Rican consulate or embassy how to go about getting this authorization, or, if you speak Spanish, call the San José office at 506/253-5605. More exotic animals, like lizards, will be allowed in if they have a clean bill of health from a vet—you’ll need to check what diseases might affect your particular creature to know what vaccinations will be required. If your pet is on the endangered species list, the paperwork will be more complicated (from both the Costa Rican end and from your country of origin, which may have even stricter regulations); required information may include the animal’s country of origin and permission to take it out of that original country. Such regulations aim to protect against illegal traffic in endangered animals. Again, the Costa Rican consulate in your country of origin is your best source of information for up-to-date specifics.

Flying with Pets

Most likely you’ll bring your pet with you on the plane. Most airlines allow seeing-eye dogs in the cabin, and some allow small pets to accompany you in your seat. I know a few women who always carry their little dogs with them in big purses; sometimes the flight crew doesn’t even realize the animals are along for the ride. I never asked these women what they do about letting the animals relieve themselves on long flights. Bigger animals (or all animals, on some airlines) will need to ride in the cargo hold or even on a separate cargo flight. Some airlines will not accept pets as checked baggage May 15–September 15, since the cargo hold is not air-conditioned. Depending on the animal’s weight and size, airlines usually charge between US$70 and US$100 one-way.

Animals checked as baggage need to travel in leak-proof cages that have handles, so baggage handlers will be able to easily lift and carry the cage. The cage should be just large enough for the animal to turn around. Vets say animals should fast for six hours prior to the flight in order to reduce nausea. If the flight is longer than four hours, the animal should eat a few hours before takeoff.

The bottom line is that each airline has a different policy regarding pet transport, and those policies often change. Set aside some time before your departure to research which airlines offer the best deal for your needs.

Pets in Costa Rica

Most buses and taxis will not welcome animals, though they must, by law, accept seeing-eye dogs. Some hotels accept pets—check ahead of time. There are plenty of vets in Costa Rica, especially in the Central Valley area. Vets in more rural areas will probably specialize in livestock. Vets will often board pets for around US$10 a day; animals stay in cages but are supposed to be exercised daily. Check out the K9 Country Club in Ciudad Colón, 20 minutes outside of San José (tel. 506/249-3539, Also try the newish Villa Felina (for cats only), also in Ciudad Colón. Owners Yadira Jiménez and Claudio Pujol have converted their house into cat heaven, where boarding felines have the run of the couple’s home. Call 506/249-0228 or email them at

Pet food is easy to come by in Costa Rica, even upscale brands like Iams and Eukanuba.

Costa Rican Attitudes Toward Pets

Although Costa Ricans love their pets, they think of them differently than do most North Americans. Dogs are valued for their ability to protect people and property, and are often not let into the house. The U.S. practice of letting dogs sleep on the sofa or even the bed would be considered in Costa Rica hopelessly cochino (which literally means piggy, and is used as a synonym for dirty).

You won’t see many cats out and about in Costa Rica, maybe because the street dogs would consider them tasty morsels. Walk down any street or along any beach with your dog at your side, and a motley crew of other canines will rush out to see who dares to invade their territory. In the dog world there is a complicated pecking order that is given freer reign here than in other countries; you better not stand in the way as the dogs work out for themselves who’s on top. Each block has its neighborhood bully dog, so if you’re going to let your beagle roam free, she or he better be street-wise. There aren’t as many mangy street dogs in Costa Rica as you see in other developing countries, but they do exist, and it’s best to give them a wide berth—they’ve had to adapt to a life of people kicking them and throwing rocks at them, so they’re not likely to be too friendly.

That said, there are many good things about bringing your pet to Costa Rica. Especially if you move here with children, your dog or cat could be that living, breathing piece of home that helps its human owners adjust to their new environment. And there’s nothing like a big dog—however sweet-tempered—to discourage burglars and other scoundrels. Dogs also have such keen senses of smell and direction that if you get lost in the jungle that is your new backyard, your dog will almost certainly know the way home.

Leaving with Pets

Animals leaving Costa Rica require exit permits. You’ll need a local vet to fill out a health certificate; often she or he will accept the original health certificate from your country of origin as proof that the animal is in good health. For a fee, the vet can take care of all the paperwork, or you could check in with the Department of Zoonosis at the Ministry of Health, located in San José (tel. 506/223-0333, ext. 331).

What is likely to be more of a hassle is getting the animal back into your country of origin, which may have stricter regulations about animals entering their territory. England, for instance, has a mandatory six-month quarantine for most dogs; owners have to pay their pet’s boarding fees, of course, and there are special visiting hours where you can come and play with your incarcerated pal. It’s best to check out your country’s regulations even before you leave for Costa Rica.

What to Take

"Costa Rica is making a real effort to streamline its immigration process, and everyone agrees it’s high time for a change. Even with all the flux, the categories of residency are fairly straightforward, and not apt to change significantly anytime soon. What may change is where you apply for residency and how quickly your papers are processed."

Most people—even adventurous souls who decide to pick up and move to another country—have a lot of stuff that they’ve accumulated over the years. Even if you consider yourself non-materialistic and have made an effort to keep your possessions to a minimum, chances are that what you own is more than you could check as baggage on a flight to Costa Rica.

And this method—bringing in your possessions as checked baggage—is by far the cheapest and easiest option. As long as you can convince customs officials that everything you bring is portable, for your own personal use, and necessary for your enjoyment or for the practice of your profession while in Costa Rica, you will pay no duties (taxes on imported goods) and there will be no bureaucracy save filling out the usual customs form that flight attendants hand out just before the plane lands.

The second-easiest option is to send a small shipment as air cargo (not as luggage accompanying you on your flight)—at least some of the shipment will be taxed, and there will be forms to fill out and lines to stand in.

The third option is to ship your possessions by boat; the container will arrive at a port on either the east or west coast of Costa Rica. In terms of customs, hassles, and duties, this is the most time- and money-intensive option, but it’s the way to go if you really want to bring your entire household with you: books, CDs, stereo, sofa, bed, stove, and refrigerator—even your car can go in the shipboard container.

But why lug your old life with you to a new country, especially when you have to pay so dearly for the privilege? If you’ve lived in one place for more than a few years, I’ll bet that you’ve been meaning to purge your belongings—to have a garage sale or take a few trips to the Salvation Army drop-off station. It feels good to pare down, and a lot of people who move to Costa Rica do so in part because they want to simplify their lives. You can start simplifying even before you get here, by thinking carefully about what possessions you can’t live without, then selling or giving away the rest. “I thought about selling all my favorite things, all the great stuff I’ve collected over the years, and I just couldn’t do it,” says Mary Ann Jackson, who planned to move to Costa Rica in 2004. “But I wasn’t going to lug it all with me, either. So I gave it all away to friends. Now I can visit my stuff in their houses.”

You may be tempted to bring your appliances, but I would advise against it. You will pay high duties on these items (sometimes more than 50 percent of the item’s value), and it’s easy to buy appliances here. You’ll probably pay about what you’d pay in the United States, though the selection isn’t as good down here. The best deals are in the Pacific coast port of Golfito, near the border with Panama. There Ticos and tourists alike can buy up to US$500 in duty-free goods every six months. Many people hang around the area, selling off their buying rights to the highest bidder. Golfito is near the legendary surf spot of Pavones, and close to the Osa Peninsula, home to magnificent Corcovado National Park. You could do worse than head south for a week of surfing, tapir-watching, and appliance-shopping.

Furniture is another thing that it’s easy to come by in Costa Rica. In fact, many newcomers have pieces custom-made for not much more than they’d pay for ready-made items in the United States or Canada. Costa Rica is known for its gorgeous tropical hardwoods and for its tradition of woodworking. Even if you don’t want to spring for a custom-made dining room table or a hand-carved headboard, there are plenty of ready-made items that show the local materials and skills to good advantage. The Central Valley town of Sarchí, for example, is known for its lovely wood-and-leather rocking chairs, which are very comfortable and will look great on your tiled front porch with volcano view.

Things that are hard to come by in Costa Rica:

• good books in English (they exist, but the selection is small)
• non-mainstream videotapes, DVDs, and CDs
• high-quality hand tools
• low-priced or highly specialized vitamins and nutritional supplements
• good chocolate (something bad happens to chocolate in the tropics, and even high-end brands here often have turned partially white)
• the latest technology, like the newest laptops and their accessories (you can often get these in Panama, however).

On the Plane

As discussed above, bringing used goods and personal belongings with you as checked baggage is your first and best option. Some airlines allow you to pay extra and bring a little more than the usual two-bag, 66-pound limit. It’s worth checking as much luggage as possible, as this is the only way to import your belongings without duties and customs hassles. Everything you bring must be for your own personal use (not intended for resale), be portable, and be a reasonable quantity for the duration of your stay. Most people, even those who plan to stay years, first come in on a 90-day tourist visa, so what you bring in as luggage should look like a reasonable amount of goods for that amount of time.

On the other hand, consider the case of Brenda Burnside, a former professional boxer who moved to the Pacific coast town of Nosara. When she saw the reduced circumstances of the local public school, she wanted to help. Enlisting the help of eight members of her church back home in Nevada, she offered them a free place to stay in sunny Costa Rica if they would fill their luggage with books, school supplies, and sports equipment. When Brenda lugged the precious cargo to the school, the teacher cried in gratitude—she couldn’t believe such generosity. Now, a persnickety customs official at the airport could have challenged the travelers’ need for so many pens, notebooks, geography textbooks, and soccer balls for a stay of just a few weeks. As luck would have it, all of the do-gooders got the green light at the airport. That’s how customs decides whose bags to check at the San José airport: You push a button, and if the light comes up red, they search your bags. If it comes up green, you’re on your way without even a glance inside your luggage.

What you’re allowed to bring in as luggage includes:

• Clothing, jewelry, purses, umbrellas
• Medicine and medical equipment if necessary for personal use (such as a wheelchair or oxygen tank)
• Sporting equipment, including surfboards, kayaks, golf clubs, fishing poles, etc.
• One video camera, one still camera, one portable tape recorder, one portable computer, one portable telescope
• One portable television, one portable radio
• One portable typewriter, one calculator, one portable printer
• Paint and canvases
• Tools, supplies, and manual instruments pertinent to the trade of the traveler, as long as these do not constitute a complete set for an office or laboratory
• Portable musical instruments and accessories (no pianos!)
• Books, tapes, photos, CDs, if for non-commercial use
• 500 grams (1.1 lbs.) tobacco, five liters (1.3 gallons) of wine or hard liquor (per adult traveler), two kilos (4.4 lbs.) of candy, baby food (an amount “sufficient for your proposed stay”)
• Tent and other camping gear
• Up to four hunting or marksman rifles and 500 rounds of ammunition (subject to additional regulation by the Firearms and Explosives Department of the Ministry of Security).

If you arrive at the airport with items that don’t qualify as luggage, don’t despair. There’s a duty-free exemption of up to US$500. So if you bring, say, two portable TVs instead of one, if the second one is worth less than US$500, you’re still okay. Customs will stamp your passport, and you’ll need to wait six months to take advantage of that US$500 exemption again.

If the US$500 exemption isn’t enough, and you get slapped with some duties, you have two choices: Pay the bill right then and there if you think the amount is fair, or leave the goods in question at the airport (ask for a receipt), and return the following day to argue your case (bring along someone who speaks Spanish).

Air Cargo

You can send up to 500 pounds as air cargo. Duties for items sent air cargo differ from those of items carried into the country as luggage, though personal clothes, shoes, purses, books, hand tools, and some sports equipment will still be duty-free. Everything else will be taxed—each item has its own duty, from paintings at 15 percent to pots and pans at 54 percent of declared value. You will even be taxed on the freight charges you pay, and on any insurance, which is why some customs brokers suggest you forgo insurance.

When your shipment arrives in Costa Rica, it will be sent to a bonded customs warehouse. To pick up your shipment, you will need:

• Your passport (copy the main page and the page with your last entry into Costa Rica, proving you’ve entered the country within the last 90 days)
• The Air Way Bill, which the freight handler you contract will have given you
• Packing inventory that includes declared value of contents.
Then you pay the duties assessed, the Terminal Handling Fee, and the bonded warehouse fee. You can do this on your own, hire a customs broker, or bring along a calm, savvy, Spanish-speaking friend who can help you out.
Very important: For claiming either an air cargo shipment or a surface (boat) shipment, you need to prove (by the stamp on your passport) that you have entered (or re-entered) Costa Rica within the last 90 days. If you’ve been here longer, your shipment will be considered a commercial one, and all hell will break loose. You’ll have to pay duties on everything, even books and clothes, a health certificate will be required for used clothing, and you’ll need invoices for everything shipped. And if you don’t have the necessary invoices and certificates? Good luck trying to claim your stuff.

Shipping by Boat

If you have a lot you want to ship, you can pay for a quarter, half, or full ocean container, which is a steel box 20 by 40 feet. The box will be loaded onto a ship, which will eventually dock on either the Atlantic or Pacific coast of Costa Rica, depending on where it’s coming from. You can fit a great deal in one of these containers—even a car—but every item needs to be numbered and inventoried, including the serial numbers of all appliances and electronic items. And you can’t just dump it all in—you need to pack carefully, because it will need to withstand a lot of moving around and perhaps a lot of heat. Experienced movers recommend putting any heat-sensitive items in the middle of the load. Most people hire professional movers and so don’t need to worry about packing the box themselves.

It’s important that you ship only used items (more than six months old); otherwise you may end up paying duties on new items, which are much higher. The serial numbers on appliances and electronics allow customs agents to know exactly how old they are and what their average prices are.

If you choose to go it alone, you’ll either meet the ship to pick up your possessions or ask that the container be trucked to a warehouse in San José. The documents needed to claim the shipment are:

• Your passport (copy of the main page and of your last entry into Costa Rica, showing you’ve entered the country within the last 90 days)
• Inventory list with declared value of container contents
• Original Ocean Bill of Lading.

Driving to Costa Rica

If you’ve got some time on your hands, are good at talking your way in and out of rough spots, and don’t really mind if you lose some or all of your cargo en route, you might want to drive all the way from North America to Costa Rica. You could load your car or truck with all your worldly possessions, then hit the road and see what happens. You’ll pass through some gorgeous country and will cross many borders, all of which will be enforcing different regulations concerning what you can and can’t bring into their country. It’s not for everyone, but it’s not a trip you will soon forget. ¡Buen viaje, y buena suerte!

Related Topics
Key Resources and Links for Living in Costa Rica
Moving to Costa Rica
 Visas and Immigration
 Types of Residency
 Application Process
 Moving with Children
 Moving with Pets
 What to Take
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