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How to Move to Costa Rica and Live There on the Cheap

Costa Rica Budget Travel
by Eric Christian Claire O'Brien Dec 21, 2021

Moving to Costa Rica, a tropical paradise full of empty beaches, jungles, and volcanoes is easier than you think. After our fourth visit to Costa Rica, my husband and I packed up our dogs and moved there. And if we did it, you can do it, too.

Costa Rica’s cost of living might be higher than other Central American countries, but here you’ll find a stable, flourishing economy, excellent and affordable healthcare, convenient public transportation and still spend far less than you would in most US cities. Plus, you might have toucans in your backyard.

Here’s how you, too, can move to Costa Rica and start living the Pura Vida on a budget.

How to move to Costa Rica:

1. Do I need a visa to live in Costa Rica? Which one?
2. Best places to move to in Costa Rica
3. Can I move to Costa Rica with my pet?
4. Eating well and for cheap in Costa Rica
5. Finding a doctor in Costa Rica

Do I need a visa to live in Costa Rica? Which one?

As a foreign national, there are a few different ways you can move to Costa Rica. 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
  • After receiving a permit for working, studying, or volunteering

Not yet mentioned on the Embassy website is the brand-new digital nomad visa, which was approved in October 2021, and will likely be implemented for qualified foreign nationals in early 2022.

You’ll undoubtedly want to test the waters before committing permanently to Costa Rica by filling in a residency application (a very doable, but time-consuming process), so we’ll focus on the tourist visa, work, and study permits, and the soon-to-be-implemented digital nomad visa.

Tourist visa

Many long-term travelers and expats (including myself) have simply moved to Costa Rica as a “perpetual tourist.” It doesn’t get easier: you arrive in Costa Rica with proof of an onward destination and you’ll typically be granted a 90-day tourist visa upon entry to the country. For stays longer than 90 days, you just have to complete a “border run” which means heading over to the Panama border or taking a short flight to a neighboring country and returning as soon as the next day for a new entry stamp.

Many long-term expats use this exact process to stay in the country for years (and as an excuse to visit Panama and Mexico for long weekends every 90 days). I intend to live in Costa Rica permanently, but I went with the perpetual tourist option while pursuing my legal residency status because it’s the easiest. The only downside is that it can be a hassle to travel every 90 days and upon re-entry 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.

Work, study, and volunteer permits

If your move to Costa Rica is the result of a work, study, or volunteer project, you can apply for a temporary permit that allows you to stay in the country. Before arriving in Costa Rica, you will need to apply at the nearest Costa Rican consulate and must be able to produce your acceptance letter from a recognized Costa Rican institution stating your admission as a student, volunteer, academic, or researcher. You must also be able to prove you have the economic means to support yourself during the intended duration of your stay in Costa Rica.

Work permits for Costa Rica

In July 2022, the Costa Rican government launched a new digital nomad visa scheme. To be eligible for the visa, you must make a minimum income of $3,000 per month, or $5,000 if you are looking to relocate with your family. The regulation has been designed to protect the jobs of local Costa Rican workers from foreigners, so you must be employed by an international company. To find out more about the scheme and application process, go to the government’s website.

However, if you are highly skilled in an area where that skill is in demand by an employer who cannot find a Costa Rican for the job, you or your employer can apply for a work permit for one year. If you want to explore the work permit option, you can start looking for job offers on the following websites:

Study permit for Costa Rica

If you are a foreign national wishing to pursue your studies at one of Costa Rica’s public or private universities you will need a Costa Rica student permit. But before you apply, you’ll need to be accepted into a program in Costa Rica. Upon applying for a study permit, you’ll need to present your offer of acceptance issued by the educational institution where you have been accepted.

Digital nomad visa

In October 2021, Costa Rica passed legislation for a new digital nomad visa, which will enable visitors that earn their income abroad to remain in the country legally for one year. While the Costa Rican government has announced the new digital nomad visa in the summer of 2021, at time of writing, it’s not yet been implemented. Costa Rica’s digital nomad visa is to be rolled out in early 2022, so keep your eyes peeled for an announcement on Costa Rica’s immigration website.

Best places to move to in Costa Rica

While a relatively small country, Costa Rica has a very diverse landscape that includes beaches, rainforests, mountains, 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: Climate, price, and infrastructure.

Each can vary greatly depending on the part of the country you find yourself in, so it’s generally recommended you visit a few different areas before committing to a move. You also might fall in love with a rental house that has epic volcano views, but then discover it’s 45 minutes along bumpy dirt roads to the closest bank, which might work for a two-week vacation, but could prove inconvenient for your six-month lease.

Climate in Costa Rica

If you choose to live by the beach, you should expect temperatures in the high 80s with very high humidity. Popular beach communities include the Southern Zone (including the towns of Dominical, Uvita, and Ojochal), the Central Coast (Manuel Antonio, Quepos, and Jaco), and the Gold Coast (Playa Hermosa, Playa del Cocos, Tamarindo, and Nosara). These regions are typically the hottest in the country but within each you can expect to find microclimates.

I live in the Southern Zone where temperatures are often in the high 80s, but just a few miles up the mountain, the ocean breezes bring the temperature down considerably. The general rule is: the closer to the beach, the hotter it’s going to be.

If you can’t stand humidity and don’t mind driving an hour to the beach, consider Costa Rica’s Central Valley. The towns of Atenas and Grecia have a near-perfect spring climate year-round, as well as stunning views of the surrounding mountains studded with coffee plantations.

Price of living in Costa Rica

Even within the same town, prices can vary dramatically depending on the size and quality of the home. The available rentals in your target area could range anywhere from $500 to $5000 a month, depending on what amenities you require. Prices during the high season (December and January) can increase in beachside locations, so plan ahead or be prepared to make some compromises. That being said, there are deals to be had everywhere, so don’t be shy about skipping a few North American luxuries in order to afford your dream pad.

Infrastructure in Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s infrastructure can also vary considerably. In the more popular tourist and expat towns, like Jacó, Manuel Antonio, and Uvita, you can expect to find paved roads, public buses, and medical clinics. Your rental might even have high-speed internet. Of course, there are exceptions.

Where I live is popular with expats, but there’s only one ATM in town and it’s frequently out of commission. Often I need to travel to Uvita, about 20 minutes away, to run errands like going to the veterinarian, bank, or hardware store. Also, the driveway up to my house is an extremely rough, 4×4-only adventure. However, there are tons of restaurants, pristine beaches, and amazing wildlife, even a handful of yoga studios nearby, so I am happy with the compromise.

Another consideration should be how close you need to be to the airport. While the Gold Coast and the Southern Zone are at least a three-hour drive from Juan Santamaría International Airport, Jaco is only 90 minutes and the Central Valley is less than 30 minutes. Consider this if you need to leave every 90 days on a perpetual tourist visa and you don’t plan on buying a car.

Finding a place to live in Costa Rica

There are several websites devoted to real estate rentals in Costa Rica:

Costa Rican Craigslist and the classified section of local newspapers like Tico Times and La Nacion also have rental listings.

However, once you decide on the part of the country you would like to settle in, one of the easiest ways to find your future apartment is by visiting the local Facebook group online (such as Costa Rica House & Apartment Rentals) and asking the community if anyone knows of a rental available in your budget.

Lining up an Airbnb for your first week (or month) is also a great idea. During that week, speak to your hosts, local real estate agents, expats, and locals in the area. Costa Rica is a small country and after you’ve been here for a little while, you’ll realize that everyone knows somebody with a house to rent or a car to sell. Speaking to people face to face will also help you find the best deals.

Can I move to Costa Rica with my pet?

Don’t let your love of Sir Barks-A-Lot and Princess Whiskers keep you from moving to Costa Rica. While it takes a little legwork to get all the paperwork complete, it’s certainly doable to move to Costa Rica with your pets.
There are two ways to bring your pet into Costa Rica:

  • Bringing your pet as excess baggage on the flight you are traveling on
  • Flying your pets separately as cargo

Both methods will require a health certificate and the appropriate vaccinations. The Costa Rica Embassy in Washington, DC, has outlined the requirements but the easiest way to get your furry crew on the ground in Costa Rica, is to employ a Costa Rican pet broker to help you with the paperwork, permits, and logistics. I used PetLoungeCR. After I loaded my four furry first-time flyers onto a DHL cargo jet in Fort Lauderdale, I was reunited two days later in my Airbnb with some confused but perfectly happy pups.

The best ways to get around Costa Rica

Public buses in Costa Rica

If you’re looking to get around cheaply in Costa Rica, public buses will be your best option. Costa Rica has a modern and extensive bus system that can get you around the country safely and cheaply. Check out Tracopa’s website for schedules and fares. 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.

Uber in Costa Rica

Uber isn’t available everywhere in Costa Rica, but it’s certainly very practical for getting around San Jose. Not only is it incredibly convenient, but the ride can be significantly cheaper when compared to a regular city taxi. A ride from Juan Santamaría International Airport to a hotel in Santa Ana costs about $8 with Uber, but nearly $14 in the city taxi.

Shared Shuttles in Costa Rica

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. Two popular companies in Costa Rica are Interbus and EasyRide Costa Rica.

Domestic airlines in Costa Rica

Another way to get around the country is flying the domestic airlines of Costa Green Airways and Sansa Air. Flights are obviously more expensive than buses but they allow you to save some time by cutting down a three-hour bus ride to a 20-minute flight.

Purchasing your own car in Costa Rica

The car purchase process in Costa Rica is a little more complicated than in the US, but it can be a relatively affordable way to see the country on your own schedule.

Websites like CR Autos offer thousands of listings all over the country, so you can get an idea of what your budget will get you. We recommend that you get a real 4×4, rather than AWD. Costa Rica’s dirt roads demand it and getting stuck on a jungle track in a rainstorm isn’t a good time. Also, get your vehicle inspected at a mechanic before purchasing it. Most sellers should be agreeable to this as you’ll be paying for the inspection (about $120).

Eating well and for cheap in Costa Rica

There’s no chance of you moving to Costa Rica and not eating well. But if you want to keep it cheap, the trick is to eat and shop like a Costa Rican. Visit the weekly farmers market, known locally as “la feria”. If you keep your purchases simple and unprocessed, you can support local farmers and buy a week’s groceries for under $50. If you don’t feel like cooking, visit a local “soda”, i.e. a locally owned restaurant that serves typical Costa Rican food for under $5.

A few of Costa Rica’s most interesting regional ferias are:

San José Province:

  • Feria del Agricultor Zapote: The largest feria in San Jose and, probably in Costa Rica.
  • Desamparados: Large San Jose market known for high-quality meat.
  • Feria de Pavas: Popular capital region market where you can find organic products, as well as Colombian imports.
  • Feria del Agricultor Pérez Zeledón: The largest agricultural market in the Brunca region.

Alajuela Province:

  • Feria del Agricultor Grecia: Well-run market with parking, bathrooms, and a lunch cafe.

Cartago Province:

  • Feria del Agricultor Oreamuno: The largest farmer’s market in Cartago province.

Limón Province:

  • Campo Feria Del Agricultor Limón: Enormous selection of fruits and several lunch cafes.

Puntarenas Province:

  • Uvita Farmers Market: Fun, local market with artisanal products.

Guanacaste Province:

  • La Paz Feria: Organic and artisan market held under a massive Guanacaste tree.

Finding a doctor in Costa Rica

The Costa Rican healthcare system is fantastic. Medical clinics and laboratories are found all over the country and the range and quality of services are not only superb but cost far less than in the United States. To find a recommended doctor in your local town, ask on Facebook in your region’s expat group or stop by the local pharmacy for a suggestion.

Some of the more active Costa Rica Facebook groups for expats are:

Costa Rica doesn’t require prescriptions for many of the same drugs that require a doctor’s authorization in the US, so make sure you visit the pharmacy before you book a doctor’s appointment.

If you are looking for a specialist, or any kind of doctor in the San Jose area, look on HuliHealth, a service which allows you to filter by medical speciality and languages spoken, as well as book and manage your appointments online. Expect to pay from $30 for a simple lab visit to $100 for an appointment with a specialist.

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