Obtaining Your Visa or Residence in Costa Rica

U.S. and Canadian citizens do not require a visa to enter Costa Rica as a tourist. An immigration validation will be stamped into the passport upon entry, and this provides proof of legal status in the country. Your passport should be in good condition; Costa Rican authorities may deny entry if the passport is damaged and you must have at least six months left on your passport before its expiration or you will be denied entry.

You must also provide proof of onward travel out of Costa Rica within 90 days, the amount of time your “tourist visa” is valid. This could be your return plane ticket or a ticket to another country. If you would like to stay longer, you must leave Costa Rica and re-enter. You can do this by flying back to your home country or by traveling to the land border with Nicaragua or Panama. But this “border run” trick is not reliable for long-term living. At any time, government rules allowing this “loophole” can change. Or a border official can give you a shorter visa term or deny you entry altogether at his discretion, although this is rare.

Costa Rica’s immigration laws offer prospective residents a wide range of options. You don’t have to make an immediate decision on your residency status. You can renew your tourist visa as needed by making “border runs.” But if you plan to live in Costa Rica long term it is best to seek residence.

Here are some of the more popular visa options:

  • Pensionado Program: This requires proof that you have at least $1,000 a month in income from a life-long pension from some source recognized as a major entity, such as state teachers’ retirements, Social Security, etc. 401K and IRA plans are not recognized. Certain annuities may qualify. You won’t be able to work as an employee in Costa Rica, but you can own a company and receive dividends from it.
  • Rentista Program: This was designed for people without fixed retirement income. It requires proof of $2,500 monthly income for at least two years or a $60,000 deposit in a Costa Rican bank approved by immigration authorities.
  • Inversionista Program: This is for people who have the ability to invest in the country and may not qualify for the other options. The investment includes purchasing a home or business, or investing in other qualifying ventures approved by the government–such as national interest projects or reforestation. The minimum investment needs to be $150,000 (reduced in 2021 from $200,000).

How to Apply for Residency

Residence applications are processed by the Costa Rican Department of Immigration (Direccion General de Migracion y Extranjeria), which is governed by the Ministry of Public Security and Police (Ministerio de Gobernacion, Policia y Seguridad Publica).

All applications for residence must be filed in your country of origin, through your local consul, or directly with the Department of Immigration in San Jose. It is recommended you also hire an attorney in Costa Rica to handle your residence application, especially if you don’t speak Spanish.

The Department of Immigration states that it “favors applicants that can demonstrate that they will provide a financial benefit and contribute to create employment for Costa Rica citizens either in the form of direct investment or indirect investment.” “Direct” investment refers to direct investors and entrepreneurs, while “indirect” investment refers to Pensionado and Rentista visas.

The Process for Securing Residence in Costa Rica

It is possible to go through the residence process on your own. But it is recommended that you hire a reputable Costa Rican attorney to guide you through the process, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. Most of the government officials you will interact with will not speak English. Plus, attorneys are familiar with the process and will help you avoid unnecessary delays due to missing documents or other issues.

The cost of hiring a lawyer is between $1,200 to $3,000 per person depending on which category (dependents will cost less). Cheaper is not always better. And be wary of non-lawyer “fixers” who offer to shepherd you through the process for a fee. But lawyers are not just translators. They’ll take you to the right government offices to turn in the documents to the right people. In sprawling government complexes with lines everywhere, this can be a big plus. Attorneys even have a special window at the immigration office with no wait.

Doing it on your own costs around $500 per applicant for filing fees, mail services, payments to translators and lawyers (who still have to certify certain documents), and such.

Whether or not you hire a lawyer, patience is key. Immigration offices are crowded and officials overworked. There are long wait times. Whenever visiting a government office be sure to get there early. And bring a book to read.

Required documents:

It’s important that you gather all the required documents before you leave the U.S. Many will be difficult to obtain from abroad by mail. Here is the list for pensionado residence:

  1. A letter explaining why you are seeking residence, as well as personal details like nationality, occupation, age, and marital status. (Even if applying on your own, ask a lawyer for a template you can fill in.)
  2. An application form available from the immigration office.
  3. A receipt showing that you have deposited money for your application in the government account at the Banco de Costa Rica. The amount will be $50 if applying from outside the country and $250 if you apply while here on a tourist visa.
  4. Two passport photos (bring at least eight though, just in case).
  5. Proof of fingerprinting by the Ministereo de Seguridad Publica (Ministry of Public Safety).
  6. Proof of registration with your country’s embassy in Costa Rica (the STEP program in the U.S.).
  7. Birth certificate, with apostille. If you’re married and applying for residency for both you and your spouse, you also need to provide your marriage certificate with an apostille.
  8. Divorce certificate (if you are divorced).
  9. Police record, with apostille (if you don’t have a clean criminal record, your application could be rejected).
  10. National criminal report, such as an FBI report, with apostille.
  11. Certified document showing you receive at least $1,000 from Social Security or other government-guaranteed pension.

An apostille is a special stamp, usually 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 make sure those documents are being apostilled by their respective issuing states, which is not necessarily the same state as where you live. Canada doesn’t issue apostilles. So Canadians must have their documents authenticated by the government, specifically the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The list for the other 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).

There are many sites in English, run by expat “experts,” without the complete requirements. Only two sites in English come close to having the right information: the U.S. Embassy and the Association of Residents of Costa Rica. The ARCR also maintains a list of recommended attorneys and will even help you through the application process for a fee. Your home country’s embassy will not help with the residence process.

Once you have applied, your attorney will keep track of the status, but you can also check on your application online at the immigration department website. 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 you can return to your home country, or you can stay in Costa Rica without having to leave 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 at a time. 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 can apply for a Costa Rica driver’s license.

New Law to Attract Retirees and Investors (2021)

In addition to this investor dollar decrease, all categories of initial temporary residency (Investor, Renter, and Pensioner) will be able to take advantage of a number of fantastic motivators.

  • New residents will be exempt from tariffs and import taxes on a one-time shipment of household goods. Many expats choose to send a shipping container with their home furnishings to their new home in Costa Rica. The taxes can add up. So, this is a huge incentive.
  • Another favorable lure is that new residents can import up to two vehicles for personal family use exempt of VAT tax, customs fees, and import taxes. If you have researched importing older vehicles, the fees can add up to as much as the Kelley Blue Book value of the entire car’s value in the U.S. or Canada. The vehicles (including autos, planes, helicopters, boats) can be transported into the country by air or sea or driven across the border. All port of arrivals will qualify for this exemption.
  • When declaring your income to qualify for these benefits, you will not be charged income tax by Costa Rica (think Social Security check or pension payment). However, if your income comes from Costa Rica investments (for example a vacation rental or local business), then you will be obligated to pay income tax.
  • Tools or instruments necessary for a professional or scientific practice will also be exempt from any import taxes. Temporary residents cannot legally work in Costa Rica, however it is legal to own a business and therefore you can import necessary instruments. It is best to check with your residency lawyer to see what items would qualify.
  • 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.

These benefits must be requested within the first five years of the new law and will be valid for up to 10 years.

Digital Nomad Visa

For those of you who can work from anywhere with an internet connection and would like to sample life in Costa Rica without a long-term commitment, this one-year visa may be the perfect option. It is also renewable for a second year if the remote worker stayed in Costa Rica for at least 180 days the first year.

This visa offers huge benefits over the typical 90-day tourist visa. For example, this visa holder will be allowed to open a bank account in Costa Rica (which is often a difficult process prior to residency approval). This visa will also allow the individual to drive using their foreign license for the entire term. There is no need to leave the country every 90 days. If there is equipment necessary for their business, they can import all equipment tax free. Families will also be able to take advantage of the benefits.

Here’s what you will need:

  • Show proof of an average monthly income of at least $3,000 or $36,000 annually. If the entire family plans to take advantage of these benefits, a couple will need proof of a combined average monthly income of $4000 or $48,000 annually.
  • Obtain medical insurance that covers the applicant and family (if applicable) for the entire year (or two) while in Costa Rica.
  • Pay visa application and processing fees.

If you are still thinking about Moving to Costa Rica then you need to find out more about The Best Places to Live in Costa Rica: Five Top Expat Havens.

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