Obtaining Your Visa or Residence in Costa Rica
If the day comes that you decide that Costa Rica is the place for you, it’ll be a decision made only after extensive travel and visits throughout the year, in order to experience the wide range of different seasons and climates.
There are a number of different visas and residency permits to fit your individual situation and needs, and it’s important to know which is right for you. Here are some of the most popular choices when it comes to living in Costa Rica:
- 90-day Tourist Visa
- Digital Nomad Visa
- Pensionado Residency
- Rentista Residency
- Inversionista Residency
I went through the residency process by myself when I started my paperwork in 2000. I am fluent in Spanish, and although the process can be tedious and frustrating, I was always grateful for the helpful people who worked at Migración, even if it took a few tries to get everything handed in. Just when you think you have everything you need, something new always seems to be added to the list — I have found this to be the norm with all governmental agencies in Costa Rica.
It wasn’t a fast process; my paperwork was on hold for about four months since the person working on it was on medical leave, and no one picked up his caseload while he was away.
In addition, once my children were born, I had an immigration officer ask me if I wanted to change my residency from a temporary status of being married to a Tico (a colloquial name for Costa Ricans) to a permanent status of having Tico children. I chose the latter, and the process took a few months longer, but it saved me some steps, so it was nice for the worker to share my options with me.
Debbie Davis, who is going through the residency process and loves living in Samara, a quaint beach town with an amazing community, decided to use a law firm. “The process seemed too much for us, and I’m a lawyer in the US — lots of steps. When choosing a lawyer, it’s important to understand what you’re paying for and when. Also, you must understand the category you are applying for and what to expect.”
US and Canadian nationals aren’t required to obtain a visa to enter Costa Rica, all they need is a valid passport. The passport must be valid for at least one day from the day you enter Costa Rica. Residents from some countries are still required to have three months left on their passports before the expiration date, and you can find out more here.
The tourist visa entitles you to stay in Costa Rica for 90 days, and you’ll have to provide proof of onward travel out of Costa Rica within the 90 day period when you first enter the country.
This proof could be a return plane ticket, or a ticket to another country. If you want to stay longer than 90 days, you must leave Costa Rica and re-enter. You can do this by flying back to your home country, vacationing in another country, or traveling to the land border of Nicaragua or Panama.
Many people stay in Costa Rica as perpetual tourists, leaving the country every 90 days to remain legally. One only needs to leave the country and re-enter on the same day; it doesn’t require a certain amount of time out of the country. This type of trip is referred to as a ‘border run,’ Although I know many people who do this, it isn’t the most reliable method. The government could change these ‘ loopholes’ at any time, and depending on the border official you get, you may get less than the 90 days you expect.
One important reason for ‘staying legal’ is to be able to drive on your home country’s license. Once you overstay the 90 days, your license is no longer valid.
Ensure that your passport is in good condition when you arrive. Costa Rican authorities may deny entry if your passport is damaged, and an immigration official will validate your passport by stamping it upon entry.
Digital Nomad Visa
As the digital nomad visa becomes more popular, we may see some shifts with perpetual tourists. My guess is that authorities will become stricter with perpetual tourists entering the country… but who knows what will happen.
If you are considering moving to Costa Rica for a year or two and working remotely, the new Digital Nomad Visa is for you.
Obtaining this visa means you don’t have to leave the country every 90 days. If you decide that a year is not enough in Costa Rica, you can renew this visa for a second year, as long as the holder spends at least 180 days in Costa Rica during the first year.
How to Get the Digital Nomad Visa
The first step in this process is registering at the Department of Immigrations’ Tramite ¡YA! website. Costa Rica has 20 working days to review, accept, or deny your application. Once you enter Costa Rica, you have three months to bring your officially translated documents to immigration to apply for the visa.
To successfully apply for the digital nomad visa, you must provide the following:
- Proof of a steady income of $3,000 or $4,000 per month for a family (showing the previous year’s income)
- If you are a freelancer, you may decide to form a limited company and pay yourself a stable monthly income to show this proof.
- Private health insurance for the year (covering a minimum of $500,000)
- Payment of the processing fee ($190)
- A signed, translated affidavit verifying your application
Here are the most popular options and requirements to apply for temporary residency in Costa Rica:
- To apply for the pensionado residency for retirees, provide proof of a minimum of $1,000 monthly income from a retirement fund or permanent pension source.
- The rentista category includes depositing $60,000 in a local or foreign bank and setting up a monthly transfer of $2,500 into a Costa Rican account for expenses over two years. Then after 24 months, you must deposit another $60,000 to restart the process.
- An inversionista residency requires a one-time investment of $150,000 in real estate, stocks, bonds, or another opportunity. If married to a Costa Rican, you can apply for temporary residency as a spouse.
New Law to Attract Retirees and Investors
Carolina Castro González from Themis Legal in Costa Rica says that “Law 9996 was created to attract investors, rentiers, and pensioners to Costa Rica, and is planned to be available until 2030. This law applies to anyone who gets the migratory status of investor, rentier, or pensioner, and the current minimum investment is $150,000 to apply for these benefits.”
Some incentives are:
- Household items can be brought in without paying import taxes (but the benefit only applies once). This option is good news for people who want to send a shipping container with their home furnishings, since taxes can add up quickly.
- You can import two vehicles free of import tax, tariffs, and VAT. The vehicles (including autos, planes, helicopters, and boats) can be transported into the country by air or sea or driven across the border. All ports of arrival will qualify for this exemption.
- When declaring your income to qualify for these benefits, Costa Rica will not charge income tax (think Social Security check or pension payment). However, you must pay income tax if your income comes from Costa Rica investments (such as a vacation rental or local business).
- Costa Rica has a transfer tax for real estate based on price. This new law to attract investors will exonerate 20% of that total for legal purchases.
Permanent residents can legally work in the country, while temporary residents can own and run a business, but they must hire employees to do the actual labor.
After being a legal temporary resident for three years, you can apply for permanent residency.
If your child is born in Costa Rica, they are citizens, so you can apply for permanent residency as their parent. This is referred to as residencia permanente por vinculo.
As a Costa Rican citizen, you have the right to live and work in Costa Rica restriction-free, known as the Right of Abode. Your residence can’t be revoked as a citizen as it can be as a permanent residence. And you never have to renew your documentation.
Here are other benefits of becoming a citizen:
- A Costa Rican passport; Costa Rica allows dual citizenship, so you don’t need to give up your homeland passport. In 2022, a Costa Rican passport ranked 31st on the Henley Passport Index
- Voting rights; You can vote in the presidential election, the Legislative Assembly, and municipal elections.
- You can leave the country and return as you please. You don’t need to suspend your residency status if you’re gone for an extended period.
- You can get your guarantee deposit back when you cancel your residency status.
Requirements and Documentation
This part of the application process is much easier when you have a lawyer to represent you. The process isn’t necessarily difficult, but it takes a lot to organize everything you need. Making mistakes leads to longer wait times, so your goal is always to get it done right the first time.
When collecting the necessary documentation, remember the following:
Documents from another country, such as background checks and birth certificates, must be authenticated to use in Costa Rica.
- An apostille is a special stamp from your home state’s State Department that certifies the document is valid. Contact the State Department where your documents were issued for details on sending in your document to be stamped. Apostilles must come from the same state a document was issued. So, if you were born in a different state than the one you got married in, for example, you need to ensure those documents are being apostilled by their respective issuing states, which is not necessarily the same state where you live.
- Canada doesn’t issue apostilles. Therefore, Canadians must have their documents authenticated by the government, specifically the Department of Foreign Affairs.
- Certified documents must be issued at least six months before handing them in with the application.
- An approved government translator must officially translate all documents into Spanish.
The following is needed to apply for pensionado residency:
- A letter explaining why you’re seeking residence, including personal details such as nationality, occupation, age, and marital status. Even if you apply independently, you can ask a lawyer for a template to fill in.
- A completed application form available from the immigration office.
- A receipt containing the name of the person applying to show that you deposited money for your application in the government account at the Banco de Costa Rica. (The amount will be $50 if you apply from outside the country, and $250 while on a tourist visa.)
- A receipt containing the name of the person applying, showing that you deposited money for the timbres, a tax required from the government. (This costs ¢125 + ¢2,50 (less than $1) for each page you submit with your application)
- Six recent passport photos (You must attach two to your application; the fingerprinting process also requires them)
- Proof of fingerprint registration, issued by the Ministerio de Seguridad Pública, for those over the age of 12.
- Proof of registration with your country’s embassy in Costa Rica. (If you are from the US, you can register online for the US Embassy’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.)
- Birth certificate, with apostille.
- If you’re married and applying for residency for both you and your spouse, you must also provide your marriage certificate with an apostille.
- Divorce certificate (if you are divorced), with apostille.
- Police record, with apostille (If you don’t have a clean criminal record, your application may be rejected.)
- Criminal background check, such as an FBI report, with apostille.
- Certified document showing you receive at least $1,000 from Social Security or another government-guaranteed pension.
- If you have hired an immigration lawyer, include the ‘Assignation of Power of Attorney for Representation.’
The list for the other residency categories is similar. You can review requirements for all types of residence at the official government immigration office website (the website is in Spanish, but it’s the only official list).
Citizenship by Marriage to a Costa Rican Citizen
Once you have been married to a Tico in Costa Rica for two years, you can apply for citizenship. You must have lived in the country for those two years; immigration looks through your record of entries and exits to determine this time frame.
- Authenticated and translated background check.
- Authenticated birth certificate.
- Certified copy of your passport.
- Spouses’ Costa Rican ID.
- Marriage Certificate.
- Five passport photos.
Citizenship by Residence
After spending seven years living as a resident with a resident ID card (DIMEX), you can then go through the naturalization process. For this procedure, substitute your spouse’s Costa Rican ID and marriage certificate from above with the following:
- Authenticated and translated background check.
- Authenticated birth certificate.
- Certified copy of your passport.
- Five passport photos.
- Two witnesses that have known the applicant for seven years
- Proof of income
- Pass a Spanish language and History test
Once you have applied, your attorney will keep track of the status, but you can also use the online system to check the status of your application.
In general, approval can take anywhere from four months to a year, depending on the type of application and how busy the immigration department is at that time.
While waiting for approval, you can return to your home country or stay in Costa Rica without leaving every 90 days to renew your tourist visa. Having a pending residence application eliminates that requirement. However, your foreign driver’s license is only valid for 90 days. If you drive in Costa Rica, you’ll need to exit and re-enter the country every 90 days to renew your permission to drive on your foreign license. Once you are a resident, you must apply for a Costa Rica driver’s license.
Even though Migración is supposed to approve or deny residency within 90 days, in reality, it can take up to a year or more. Terry Young, who has been a resident since October 2021, lives in San Francisco de Dos Rios. “I was pleasantly shocked that the Immigration Office approved my application in two months! Some of my friends have been waiting two years.”
Throughout the application process, make sure your passport will stay active. Getting a new passport number in the middle of the process can lead to additional hassles. It has always been easy for me to renew my passport at the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica.
When hiring a lawyer for the residency process, you can expect to pay anywhere between $1,200 to $3,500.
When doing the process independently, expect to pay less than $600 per person, including the fees, certifications, and translations needed.
Once your residency is approved, you must pay around $125 for your DIMEX. The price depends on your residency category.
Although getting any government documentation can be time-consuming and a good teacher of patience, it is the necessary route to go so that you can legally reside in Costa Rica.
It’s highly recommended that you contact an immigration specialist, hire a lawyer, or extensively research this topic before starting the process. When hiring a lawyer, do your due diligence to ensure you make the right decision.
It’s always a good idea to arrive early at the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería headquarters in La Uruca or another approved office, just before the doors open. You can call 1311 for more information when in Costa Rica.
Follow the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería Costa Rica on Instagram and on Twitter for more information.
Video: Visa and Residency in Costa Rica
By Kathleen Evans