Living in a country chock-full of beautiful beaches, rainforests, and incredible wildlife where you can adopt a simple, relaxed lifestyle is not beyond reach, believe me.
The first time I visited Costa Rica, I stayed 5 days, most of which were spent thinking that I should pack up and move to this beautiful Central American country — so I did. Turns out, it is super simple to do and incredibly cheap once you’re there (you can live for less than $40 a day).
Here’s how you, too, can move to Costa Rica and live there for next to nothing.
How to move to Costa Rica:
1. Do I need a visa? Which one am I eligible for?
There are a few ways that you can move to Costa Rica as a foreign citizen. According to the Embassy of Costa Rica in Washington, DC, you can enter the country as a permanent or temporary resident; on a tourist visa; or after receiving a permit for working, volunteering, or studying. Because you’ll want to test the waters before committing to living permanently in Costa Rica, we will focus on perpetual tourist visas, and working/studying/volunteering permits.
- Tourist visa and perpetual tourism
When tourists from the United States, Canada, and many other nations (check out the tourist visa requirements for your country here) enter Costa Rica, they are granted a tourist visa of up to 90 days. After these 90 days are up, you are required to leave the country.
However, “A Canadian person, for example, can leave across any of our land borders and return immediately without affecting her ability to enter the country, so long as she has left the country within the period of stay previously granted,” said Costa Rican Immigration Administration spokeswoman Andrea Quesada.
In other words, if you have plans of staying in Costa Rica for more than 90 days, you will have to leave Costa Rica, enter another country (typically Nicaragua or Panama), and then re-enter Costa Rica for a brand new 90-day visa.
My expat friends and I call this a “visa run” — it’s nothing more than weekend getaway to a neighboring country.
I’ve met many people who’ve lived in Costa Rica for years as perpetual tourists before going the more permanent residency route.
Note that, as a tourist, you will not be allowed to work in the country unless you have a location-independent job that allows you to work anywhere.
For my time in Costa Rica, I went with the perpetual tourism option because it’s cheaper, easier, and you don’t have to commit to anything. The only downside is that you’re at the mercy of the immigration officer. It’s their right to give you a shorter visa if they feel like it. Fortunately, this is rare and I’ve never been given anything less than 90 days.
- Work/Student/Volunteer permits
If being a perpetual tourist does not fit your needs, can also apply for a special temporary permit that allows you to work, study, or volunteer in the country.
- Work permit
There are certain trades that the Costa Rican government gives priority to — you can find a full list of jobs that receive priority here. Note that foreigners will be able to obtain work permits only if their future employers are able to prove that there are no Costa Rican available or qualified enough to fill in the position. According to Expat.com, “The work permit can be issued both to employees and entrepreneurs who are able to justify, to the Immigration Department, the fact that their qualifications and skills are required in Costa Rica. It will allow you to live in Costa Rica as long as your employment contract is valid.”
You can start looking for job offers on the following websites:
- Volunteer permit
You will need to get accepted into a volunteer program before applying for a volunteer permit. As part of the volunteer permit application you will be required to present a certification issued by the volunteer program, signed by their legal representative, and describing the project you’ll partake in or tasks that you will perform.
- Student permit
For a student permit you’ll also have to be accepted into a program in Costa Rica before applying for the permit. As part of the student permit application, you will be required to present certification issued by the educational institution indicating that you will be studying there.
In order to be eligible for a work/student/volunteer permit, you will have to submit a letter indicating why you’re requesting a special permit.
In addition to the work/student/volunteer specific letters and proof of employment/enrollment, you’ll also need to provide several documents including:
- A copy of all the pages of your passport and your birth certificate (authenticated at the Costa Rican consulate or embassy in your home country)
- A certified copy of your fingerprints. Usually, a visit to the local police station is the place to get one of these, but it depends on countries, so make sure you do a quick Google search before you set off.
- A proof of your criminal record
You can find the full list of documents required for work permits here, volunteer permits here, and student permits here. Note that they are only available in Spanish, so have a Google Translate tab open or brush up on your language skills — you’ll need to improve your Spanish eventually.
Once you have all your required documents, you will have to present yourself and all your documentation at the Costa Rican consulate or embassy in your home country. After your office visit, you should expect to hear back after approximately 90 days.
- Work permit
2. How do I find a place to live?
- Choosing a town
Costa Rica is a country with a very diverse landscape — rainforests, mountains, beaches, and cities. Choosing the part of the country you want to live in is an important decision that will shape your experience.
When picking a town you should consider three things:
Each can vary greatly depending on the part of the country you find yourself in, so I strongly recommend a visit before committing to a move. You’ll need to get a real-life feel for the climate, price, and infrastructure in your soon-to-be town.
If you chose to live by the beach or the coast, you should expect temperatures in the high 90s with very high humidity.
Costa Rica’s rainforests typically have a milder climate with averages hovering in the 80s; however, as the name implies, you should expect plenty of rain.
Finally, the mountainous regions of Costa Rica will be the coolest place in the country with temperatures averaging in the 70s and dropping down to the 50-60s at night. This is the one place in Costa Rica where you’ll want to bring a sweater.
As expected, the touristy beaches, rainforests, and mountain towns will come at a premium.
Manuel Antonio (beach), Arenal (rainforest), and Monteverde (mountain), are some of the most popular towns in Costa Rica and people living there certainly pay extra because of that.
Nevertheless, there are deals everywhere and you can expect to find rentals for as cheap as $400/month for unfurnished apartments with basic amenities.
Costa Rica’s infrastructure can also vary. Yet, in the more popular tourist and expat towns you can typically expect to find paved roads, public buses, and medical clinics.
Of course, there are exceptions. Dominical is a popular town with expats and the main street is a long dirt road. Monteverde, is one of the most popular tourist destinations, and the road up to the mountain town is also a dirt road.
Costa Rica did complete construction of its Coastal Highway in 2010 which made the southern area of the country much more accessible.
I lived in Manuel Antonio which is on the South Pacific coast about 10 minutes away from the beach. Rent was approximately $500 for my apartment, and that was a fantastic deal for the area. The climate consistently hit the high 90s and humid. In terms of infrastructure, there were public buses running every 15 minutes, multiple clinics in town, and every main road was paved.
- Finding a place to live
There are several websites devoted to apartment rentals in Costa Rica:
However, it should not be the only avenue you explore. Once you decided on the part of the country you would like to settle in, one of the easiest ways to find your future apartment is by using the “shoelace express”. In other words: walk around and look for rental signs on houses/apartments.
I recommend getting an AirBnB for your first week. During that week, speak to your hosts, local real estate agents, expats, and locals in the area. People on the ground are one of the best sources of information and leads. Speaking to people face to face will also help you get the best deals.
3. Eating well and for cheap
One of my favorite parts about living in Costa Rica was being able to walk over to the weekly farmers market, grab all my groceries, support local farmers, and do so for under $50.
I’d be eating delicious, locally-grown fruits and vegetables that would last me all week. When I didn’t feel like cooking, I’d go into town and visit a local “soda”, i.e. a locally-owned restaurant that serves typical Costa Rican food for under $5.
4. Getting around for next to nothing
- Public buses
If you’re looking to get around cheaply in Costa Rica, public buses will be your best option. Costa Rica has an extensive bus system than can get you around the country safely and cheaply. I always use Tracopa. Tracopa is safe, fairly reliable, and operates in most parts of Costa Rica.
A one-way ticket for a three hour journey from San Jose to Manuel Antonio will cost you under $10 and the local buses will take you from one side of town to the other for 60 cents a ride.
- Shared shuttles
If you’re looking to travel a little more comfortably within the country you can do so with a shared shuttle. These shuttles will cost you around $30 for a one-way ride but will come with air conditioning. The two most popular companies in Costa Rica are Interbus and Gray Line.
- Domestic airlines
Finally, the last option to get around the country would be flying the domestic airlines of Nature Air and Sansa Air. Flights are obviously more expensive than buses and could cost around $50-100 for a one-way flight. This is a great option when you have some extra money because cut down that 3-hour bus ride to a 20-minute flight.
5. Enjoy, Pura Vida!
Costa Rica’s unofficial motto is “Pura Vida”, which literally translates as “Pure Life” and conveys the laid-back approach to life everyone seems to have adopted here. Costa Ricans use “Pura Vida” to say “hello”, “goodbye”, and “everything is awesome”. Get used to saying it often!