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Moving to Costa Rica

Though Costa Rica may be small in size, this Caribbean country has much to offer. The landscape is chock-full of awe-inspiring geographical features, including rainforests, beaches, canyons and even volcanos.

Expats flock to Costa Rica to enjoy an excellent quality of life in this beautiful environment. In fact, not only do expats enjoy a good quality of life, but they may even expect to live a bit longer by relocating to Costa Rica, as the country has one of the highest life expectancies in the world.

Living in Costa Rica as an expat

Expats in Costa Rica are sure to come across plenty of British and American retirees drawn to this stable democracy’s affordable healthcare, low cost of living, excellent climate, friendly locals and spectacular views. Roughly 10 percent of Costa Rica's population is made up of foreigners.

The capital, San José, boasts the best nightlife, shopping and restaurants in Costa Rica. Centrally situated, with gorgeous colonial architecture alongside modern galleries and cafes, the city offers expats an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the country, ranging from sleepy, picturesque villages to lively resort towns.

Those looking to work in Costa Rica may find it difficult to secure a work permit unless they have exceptional skills. Although pensioners are allowed to own and profit from businesses in the country, Costa Rica is not considered ideal for investment.

Cost of living in Costa Rica

Costa Rica's low cost of living is one of its biggest drawcards, especially for retirees looking to enjoy their golden years in the sun. Retired expats from the likes of the US and UK find that their pensions from back home can stretch significantly further in Costa Rica.

Housing can be up to 60 percent cheaper than the national average in the US, and healthcare is extremely affordable as well as high quality. Markets sell locally-grown fresh fruit and vegetables at low prices, so eating healthy is not only easy but also inexpensive.

Expat families and children

Though Costa Rica is largely thought of as a retirement destination, expat families can also find an exceptional quality of life here. Local schools teach in Spanish, but there are several international schools scattered around the country. The majority teach the US curriculum in English, though there are a few that offer other options such as the International Baccalaureate. 

Costa Rica’s healthcare is top quality, particularly in San José’s private hospitals, and as a result, it is a popular medical tourism destination. Residents are required to subscribe to Costa Rican social security via monthly contributions, giving them and their spouse access to free public healthcare. Many expats also take out a private insurance policy and use a mix of both public and private healthcare.

Climate in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has a favourable climate allowing plenty of sun and surf, with most days being in the range of 77°F (25°C) to 90°F (30°C). This, of course, comes in handy when exploring the country's bounteous natural beauty – just be sure to remember the sunblock and stay hydrated.

There's no doubt that Costa Rica is a fantastic holiday destination, so it's no surprise that expats frequently decide to settle down here for good. With friendly locals, good infrastructure and a stable political situation, Costa Rica stands out as one of the region's most popular expat destinations.


Fast facts

Population: 5.1 million

Capital city: San José

Neighbouring countries: Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the southeast.

Geography: Costa Rica lies on the Central American Isthmus, the narrow strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea linking North and South America. The landscape comprises peaks and volcanos, as well as lower plains and forests.

Political system: Unitary presidential constitutional republic

Major religion: Christian 

Main language: Spanish

Money: The Costa Rican Colón (CRC) is divided into 100 centimos. ATMs and card facilities can be found in all major urban centres.

Tipping: Most places add a 10 percent service charge to their bill, but extra tipping for excellent service is appreciated.

Time: GMT-6

Electricity: 120V, 60Hz. Flat two-pin plugs and three-pin (two flat blades with a round grounding pin) plugs are used.

Internet domain: .cr

International dialling code: +506

Emergency contact: 911 (general), 117 (police), 118 (fire), 128 (ambulance)

Transport and driving: Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road. Buses are the most commonly used form of public transport and the cheapest way to travel. Taxis are more expensive but more flexible than bus travel. Foreigners can drive with a valid licence from any country for the first three months of residency.

Weather in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is divided in half by an alpine spine through the middle of the country. The Pacific side has dry forests while the Caribbean side has wet, humid rainforests. As with the country's natural regions, the year is divided into two, with a rainy and a dry season.

The rainy season lasts from May to November. Expect plenty of rain, especially when there is a hurricane somewhere else in the Caribbean. The dry season lasts from December to April and is the most popular tourist season.

Throughout both seasons, there is little variation in coastal temperatures with most days being somewhere in between 77°F (25°C) and 86°F (30°C). The mountainous areas in the centre of the country are significantly colder than this because of their high altitude.

Unlike many other countries on the Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica is at little risk of hurricanes. Earthquakes and volcanic activity are more pressing environmental hazards and, while rare, have resulted in fatalities in the past. Expats should therefore make sure they are up to date and well informed about the risk of natural disasters in Costa Rica.

 

 

Embassy contacts for Costa Rica


Costa Rican embassies

Embassy of Costa Rica, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 499 2980 

Embassy of Costa Rica, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7629 3111 

Embassy of Costa Rica, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 562 2855

Embassy of Costa Rica, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6113 0271 

Honorary Consulate of Costa Rica, Johannesburg, South Africa: +27 11 486 4716 


Foreign embassies in Costa Rica

United States Embassy, San José: +506 2519 2000

British Embassy, San José: +506 2258 2025 

Canadian Embassy, San José: +506 2242 4400

Australian Consulate, San José: +506 2201 0000 

South African Consulate, San José: +506 2221 1470

Healthcare in Costa Rica

With Costa Rica being a popular destination among retirees, quality of healthcare is something at the forefront of people’s minds when considering whether or not to make the move. Thankfully, the standard of healthcare in Costa Rica is good. In fact, the country boasts some of the best facilities in Latin America.

Costa Rica has two healthcare systems, both of which are accessible for expats. There is both a government-run universal healthcare system and a private healthcare sector. Both systems are constantly being developed and improved and the majority of expats tend to use a combination of the two.

Compared to most developing countries, the cost of healthcare in Costa Rica is low across the board, and many doctors, particularly those working in the private sector, speak good English.


Public healthcare in Costa Rica

The government-run universal healthcare system in Costa Rica is called the Costa Rica Social Security fund or Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS). The system is most commonly referred to as 'Caja'. Through its network of hospitals and clinics, CCSS is responsible for providing cost-effective healthcare to the population. Although the system is often overstretched, it has served Costa Rica well.


Private healthcare in Costa Rica

While many expats have access to public healthcare in Costa Rica, most opt for private services or a combination of public and private services. These offer speedier services and a higher standard of care. Although more costly than public services, private healthcare is still highly affordable compared to what expats may be used to paying in Europe and North America.


Health insurance in Costa Rica

Expats who are legal residents of Costa Rica are required to sign up for Caja and make monthly contributions based on a percentage of their income. This will give them access to free treatment for everything from a check-up and prescription drugs to major surgeries under the CCSS. While dependent spouses are also covered by CCSS, other visitors and tourists will only have access to public healthcare services in emergencies. 

Under the Costa Rican private healthcare system, patients have the option of paying cash for their treatments or using insurance. For peace of mind, most expats opt for private health insurance so that any and all healthcare costs will be covered.


Pharmacies and medicines in Costa Rica

Pharmacies in Costa Rica are known as farmacias and can be found scattered all over the country. They tend to be well stocked and most medicines can be ordered if they aren't immediately available. Prescriptions are generally only required for antibiotics and psychotropic drugs, so regulations are far less restrictive than in Europe, North America or Australia.


Emergency services in Costa Rica

The main emergency number in Costa Rica is 911. This connects the caller to the police, fire department and emergency medical services. Emergency lines are manned by bilingual speakers of Spanish and English. Ambulance services in Costa Rica are relatively fast and efficient and paramedics are well trained.

Transport and Driving in Costa Rica

Getting around in Costa Rica, be it by way of driving or public transport, can be a frustrating endeavour. Streets aren’t always named or well signposted and, in most cases, locals will give directions using well-known buildings, stores or landmarks as references instead of street names. For this reason, it is advisable that expats keep a map on hand until they've found their bearings.

The public transportation infrastructure in Costa Rica is poorly developed. There are a handful of commuter train lines still in operation, but buses are the main mode of public transport. While journeys are long and can be uncomfortable, the network is extensive. Taxis are relatively inexpensive and are often the least stressful way to get around in Costa Rican cities. Driving in Costa Rica is also something that will take expats a while to get used to.


Public transport in Costa Rica

Buses

Buses are a cheap mode of transportation and Costa Rica’s bus network is extensive, but long-distance routes can be time consuming due to frequent stops and slow driving. Only a few bus services allow in advance reservation of tickets, so during peak season, it's best to get to the bus terminal early to secure a seat.

Trains

Costa Rica's railway system is still largely underdeveloped, but there are plans to introduce an electric passenger train service that runs between east and west San Jose. This project is nearing completion and should be running in the near future.


Taxis in Costa Rica

Taxis are a good transportation option in Costa Rica and are available in most large cities. They are inexpensive but expats should be sure to always ask the driver to put the meter on when getting into the vehicle. Alternatively, if outside the capital city, agree on a fixed price before starting a journey.

Official taxis in Costa Rica are red vehicles with a yellow triangle on the side. These taxis are regulated and required to use the meter. Unlicensed taxis are prevalent in many Costa Rican cities and expats should avoid taking taxis other than the official ones. 

Ride-hailing services such as Uber and local equivalents are also available.


Driving in Costa Rica

Expats in Costa Rica are allowed to drive with their existing driving licence issued in their home country for the first three months, after which they’ll need to convert it to a local licence. The process can be complicated, so it’s best to get it done as soon as possible.

Driving one’s own vehicle is a convenient way to get around Costa Rica, as it allows expats to explore far and wide and on their own time. That said, those who decide to drive should do so with caution. Road infrastructure in many parts of Costa Rica has been poorly developed. Roads are often unpaved and potholes are common. Streets tend to be incredibly narrow and signage isn't always clear. Local driving behaviour can be erratic, so it's important to be alert at all times and drive defensively.


Domestic flights in Costa Rica

By far the quickest and easiest way to travel in Costa Rica is by flight, but domestic airlines tend to only service major tourist hubs, so the network is somewhat limited. Expats travelling to these destinations will find that domestic flights are fairly cheap, especially when booking in advance.

Expat Experiences in Costa Rica

When considering a move to a new city, there is nothing more useful than hearing real-life stories and unique experiences from other expats who have lived there. We'd love to hear about your expat experiences. Please contact us if you live or have lived in Costa Rica and would like to share your story.


Jason is a Canadian expat living near Jacó, Costa Rica. He shares what he enjoys most about living in this coastal paradise and the unique lifestyle it offers. Read more about his life as an expat in Costa Rica.

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Jenna is an American expat currently living in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. Read about her experiences in Costa Rica and how it differs to back home, as she shares her useful advice on meeting people and adjusting to a new way of life.


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Christopher Howard is an American expat who has lived in the Central American country of Costa Rica for almost 35 years. He is now a citizen of the country and runs a tour business. Read about his expat experiences in Costa Rica.

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