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Moving to Costa Rica

Expats moving to Costa Rica will find a small, popular tourist destination known for its year-round tropical climate, impressive natural scenery (including rainforests, beaches, canyons and volcanos) and great quality of life. In fact, not only do expats enjoy a good quality of life, they may even live a bit longer by relocating to Costa Rica, as the country has one of the highest life expectancies in the world.

The country also has plans to become carbon neutral by 2021 – happy news for expats with fears of irresponsible tourism practices.

Expats in Costa Rica are sure to come across plenty of British and American retirees and tourists. It is estimated that more than 30,000 US retirees call the tiny country home, drawn to this stable democracy’s affordable healthcare, low cost of living, excellent climate and spectacular views.

Those looking to work in Costa Rica will 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.

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 access to free public healthcare. Many expats also take out a private insurance policy as well as use a mix of both public and private healthcare.

Despite a favourable climate allowing plenty of sun and surf, there are downsides to living in Costa Rica. The country is at risk of seismic activity, making earthquakes and volcanic eruptions an ever-present danger. Hurricanes and flooding can also occur in the rainy season. Although still fairly rare, violent crime against foreigners and tourists is steadily rising, and burglaries and theft are also a source of concern, but expats can avoid falling victim by staying aware of their surroundings and taking basic safety precautions.

Most tourists tend to steer clear of urban centres and instead flock to the country’s natural surrounds, which range from sleepy, picturesque villages to lively resort towns. The capital, San José, boasts the best nightlife, shopping and restaurants in Costa Rica. Centrally situated, with gorgeous colonial architecture alongside modern galleries and cafés, the city offers expats an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the country.


Fast facts

Population: Around 5 million

Capital city: San José

Neighbouring countries: Nicaragua and Panama 

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. Bordered by Nicaragua in the north and Panama in the south, it also has a number of islands in the surrounding waters. The landscape is comprised of 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. Like the country's natural regions, the year is divided into two, with a rainy and 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 the range of 77°F (25°C) to 90°F (30°C). The mountainous areas in the centre of the country are significantly colder than this because of their higher 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 2991

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

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

Costa Rica Consulate-General, Sydney, Australia: +61 2 9262 3883

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 4700 6400

South African Consulate, San José: +506 222 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 by expats. There is both a government-run universal healthcare system and private healthcare options. Both systems are constantly being developed and improved and the majority of expats and wealthier locals 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 Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS) and is more 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.

Expats who are legally resident in 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. 


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. In the grand scheme of things, private healthcare is still highly affordable compared to what expats may be used to paying in Europe and North America.

Under the Costa Rican private healthcare system, patients have the option of paying cash for their treatments or using insurance.


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. Expats are often surprised to learn that a prescription is 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 always have 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

Unfortunately, expats moving to Costa Rica won't have an abundance of transport options. Despite major improvements to the railway system, buses still provide the most accessible way to travel around the country.

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 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. There are a handful of commuter lines running between San José city centre and outlying suburbs of the greater metropolitan area. These only run from Monday to Friday at peak times to accommodate those travelling to and from work.


Taxis in Costa Rica

Taxis offer a good transportation option and are available in most large Costa Rican 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. Expats should avoid taking any other kind of taxi because of the prevalence of ‘pirate’ taxis in many Costa Rican cities. These taxis are unlicensed and have been associated with criminal activities in the past.


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. However, 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 is 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. However, 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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