After spending almost three years in Costa Rica, coming and going on a tourist visa, we have decided to apply for residency. This is a big step for us as it means we’ve committed to staying here permanently, at least for an extended period of time. While most people use a lawyer for the residency process, we had heard mixed reviews about the results. Inspired by others who had done it alone, we felt that this was something that we could probably handle ourselves too. In this post, we’ll cover our experience applying for residency in Costa Rica without a lawyer.
IMPORTANT: We applied for residency in May 2016. Keep in mind that the requirements are constantly changing and people’s experience with the process can differ. Use this article as a guide, but always refer to the Migracion website for the most current information. If you have applied for residency yourself and something was different for you, leave a comment below to help others who will be applying.
Types of Residency in Costa Rica
Before moving to Costa Rica, we did a lot of research about the different types of residency available. We won’t go into detail about all the options here, but there are three types that most people consider.
(1) Pensionado: Applies if you are getting a certain amount of pension or retirement money on a monthly basis.
(2) Rentista: Applies if you put a certain amount of money in a Costa Rican bank to live long-term.
(3) Inversionista: Applies if you invest a certain amount of money in Costa Rica by purchasing a property, business, or making another type of large investment.
These types of residency, if granted, require that you be a temporary resident for three years before you can apply for permanent residency. Permanent residency comes with more benefits than temporary residency. For example, with permanent residency, you have all the rights of a citizen (except voting rights) and can work legally in Costa Rica as an employee. Temporary residents can own/run a business, but must hire employees to do any labor. Both temporary and permanent residents must pay into the Costa Rica health care system called the Caja.
There is also a way to obtain permanent residency without having temporary residency first. Residencia Permanente Por Vinculo requires that you have a first-degree blood relative (e.g., parent, child, or sibling) who is Costa Rican. Because our son was born here and was thus given immediate Costa Rican citizenship, this is the way we applied. Residencia Permanente Por Vinculo also applies if you marry a Costa Rican, but you are only granted temporary residency and must wait the three years to apply for permanent status.
Note: While our application process may be a little different than yours if you are applying other than through a relative, much of the paperwork and process is the same. Hopefully our experience will help you get started, but don’t rely on our information alone.
Overview of the Application Process
Applying for residency in Costa Rica is done through the Direccion General de Migracion y Extranjeria (the General Directorate of Immigration and Nationality), better known as Migracion. Information about the different types of residency and how to apply can be found on their website under the Residencias tab. This should be your main guide in figuring out what you need for your application. The instructions are quite detailed, and while they are all in Spanish, Google Translate or a friend who speaks Spanish can help you work through them. Sometimes, even with translations, the instructions are not clear. Asking others who had completed the process helped us, and we will try to clarify whenever possible. The application instructions we followed for Residencia Permanente Por Vinculo can be found here.
Applying for Residency in Costa Rica: A 10-Step Guide
One thing that we wished we had when starting this process was a step-by-step guide, mostly because the timing of when to do things was not clear. We couldn’t find one, so we made our own:
SEVERAL MONTHS BEFORE APPLYING
Step 1: Check Your Passport Expiration Date
Make sure that your passport will not expire during the application process. Although Migracion is supposed to approve or deny residency applications within 90 days, sometimes it can take a year or more so you want to have enough time on your passport for delays. A different passport number halfway through the process could potentially cause problems. Matt renewed his through the US Embassy in Costa Rica, and it came in about two weeks.
Step 2: Gather Documents from Your Home Country
Request the necessary personal documents from your home country. They are valid for only six months from the date of issuance according to Costa Rican requirements. The timing can be critical, as we note below with respect to the FBI background check.
You might need more documents than this depending on your specific circumstances, but in general you will need:
(1) A criminal background check from where you lived for at least three years prior. If you are from the US, to our knowledge it is now better to get an FBI background check, rather than one from the state where you lived. We have heard that sometimes they will accept state background checks. Other times, they will notify you later that you need to obtain the federal background check, causing your application to be delayed. We went to a local police station in Costa Rica (OIJ) and had them take our fingerprints on the form, then mailed the application to the FBI. See the FBI website for instructions. The background check will then need to be apostilled. In the US, that meant mailing it to the US Department of State.
(2) Birth Certificate: You request this from the state/place of issuance and then get it apostilled. In the US, each state has a different process. For Jenn’s, we had to request it first then send it back to a different office for the official apostille. The state where Matt was born did both at the same time.
(3) Marriage/Divorce Certificate: Request from the state of issuance and then get apostilled. Note: This was not a requirement for our residency application, but we included our marriage certificate anyway, just to be safe.
IMPORTANT: This is one instance when the timing is critical. Our FBI background checks took almost 15 weeks because processing was so backed up. Because of this, we had to request a second set of state documents (marriage/birth certificates) in fear that they would expire. Make sure to check the FBI website for the processing time before applying for the rest of your documents, which generally take only a couple of weeks.
Step 3: Register with Your Consulate
Register with your home county’s consulate in Costa Rica. For us, this was the US Embassy in Costa Rica. We were easily able to register online for the STEP program and print the form. It does not need to be notarized or apostilled, just translated (see Step 5, below).
SEVERAL WEEKS BEFORE APPLYING
Step 4: Notarize Your Passport
Have every page (even blank ones) of your passport copied and notarized by a Costa Rican notary public. In Costa Rica, lawyers are also notaries so we went to a local lawyer’s office. He put his seal on the copies and signed each page. He then glued them together like a booklet and added timbres.
Timbres are inexpensive stamps that you apply to official documents in Costa Rica. They are usually sold by street vendors outside the offices where you will be applying or picking up documents. The person selling them will know the amount you will need when you tell them the type of document you have.
Step 5: Translate Documents
Get all documents that are not already in Spanish translated by an official translator. Here is a link for the list of official translators. This includes the required documents from your home country (Step 2, above) as well as the consulate registration (Step 3, above). We used Tiger House Translations in San Jose. They made it very easy. We emailed them scanned copies of everything because we live far from San Jose. A few days later, our translated documents were ready for pick-up. They can also mail or send them by courier service.
Step 6: Complete the Rest of Your Residency Packet
This will include:
(1) Application Form: The form from Migracion (Formulario de Filiacion), which asks for general information like your name, age, etc. Note that the application form has a place to put a fax number so that they can contact you if there is a problem or they need more information. We think that an email is now sufficient if you do not have a fax. Migracion’s current regulations state this. We also asked the official at Migracion when we submitted our application, and he said it was fine.
(2) Letter: A letter to the Director of Migracion, typed in Spanish, with information including: your full name, why you are applying, nationality, age, occupation, full address where you live, and means for notifications. We used this template, which was posted on a local Facebook group and made a few changes to personalize it. Don’t sign the letter. The letter must be signed in front of the Migracion official when you make your application.
(3) 2 Passport-Sized Photos (Costa Rica size, which are a little smaller than US ones). Purchase at any photo shop.
(4) Pay Application Fees: As instructed, we paid $50 each for the application fee and $200 to change our status from a tourist visa to a visa for permanent residency. These funds were deposited into the bank account provided in the Migracion instructions. Be sure to make separate deposits, in colones, based on the exchange rate the day you go to the bank. The receipts, which will have your name on them, are included in your application.
(5) Registry Documents: If applying for residency through a direct relationship with a Costa Rican, you will need the document proving this (e.g., birth certificate, marriage certificate) with timbres. See our post about Baby Paperwork in Costa Rica for information on how to obtain a Costa Rican birth certificate. The Registry document must not be more than two-months old.
(6) Additional Documents: Other applicants may have to provide additional or different documents. For example, proof of retirement funds if you are applying for Pensionado status, investment documents if you are applying for Inversionista, etc.
DAYS LEADING UP TO APPLYING
Step 7: Fingerprinting
Register your fingerprints with the Ministerio Seguridad Publica (Ministry of Public Security) in San Jose. The Ministry website says that an appointment is required, but we couldn’t get anyone to respond to our emails or pick up the phone. We ended up just showing up the day before submitting our completed application to Migracion, but have heard that other types of residency require that you apply first, get a document number, and then get fingerprinted after. If you have recent experience with this, let us know by commenting below.
The Registro Dactilar building is located on Av. 8 between Calle 31 and 33 (map). When you arrive, they will give you a form to fill out your basic information. It is in Spanish and English, but they will want you to write your responses in Spanish. The questions are fairly easy, but you will need to know your height in centimeters and weight in kilograms. You will also need a couple of passport-sized photos, your passport, and we needed a copy of our son’s birth certificate. After you fill out the form, you will have a short interview with a Ministry official who will put your information into the computer. Then your prints will be taken, and the officer will give you a document that you attach to your residency application.
Step 8: Make Copies of Your Completed Application
Make photocopies of everything that you will be submitting. We have heard horror stories of Migracion losing applications.
Step 9: Get Timbres
Purchase timbres for the entire application. This can be done the day you apply. There is a vendor right outside the Migracion office (he has a stand that sells snacks), and he will sell you the proper number of stamps (around $3 or so). Paperclip them to the front of the application.
Step 10: Apply
Submit your application at the Direccion General de Migracion y Extranjeria headquarters in La Uruca (map) or another approved location. The Migracion website lists the other locations in their frequently asked questions section, such as Liberia, Puntarenas, Paso Canoas, Golfito, Limon, and San Carlos. We have heard of people using some of the smaller offices with luck since they are generally a lot less busy. You can apply at a Costa Rica consulate in your home country, however, you will need to have your fingerprints taken physically in Costa Rica (Step 7, above).
Migracion is open from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. The La Uruca Migracion Office is closed the last Friday of every month.
If you are traveling from outside San Jose and looking for a hotel the night before, we stayed at Hotel Plaza Real. It is a five-minute drive away, clean and comfortable, and very affordable.
We arrived shortly after 8 a.m. at the main headquarters, which was busy, but not as busy as we expected. The guard at the door directed us to the special assistance line since we had our baby with us. Others should arrive earlier to get in line. We have heard that wait times can be extremely long, and Migracion stops taking new tickets at noon.
After about a 30-minute wait, it was our turn. We went up to the window and the Migracion official processed our applications. He sifted through our papers, checking the documents that we included, and put our information into the computer. The process took about 15 minutes for each of us. At the end, he gave us a printout with our file number (numero de expediente) and a checklist of the documents we submitted. The applications were kept separate and we have different expediente numbers even though we are one family.
Once you have the file number, you can check your status online on the Migracion website. Within a day, our information was in the system and the status was showing that it was being processed. If Migracion needs additional information, they are supposed to contact you using the means you provided (e.g., fax, email) and you have 10 days to supply it.
Associated Costs (per person, estimated)
- Application Fees – $250
- Birth Certificate with Apostille – $25
- Marriage Certificate with Apostille – $25
- Criminal Background Check (FBI) with Apostille – $26
- Translation of Documents into Spanish – $82
- Passport Photos – $8 (we suggest you have extra, just in case)
- Legal Fees (notary for passport pages) – $30
- Mail Services (from Costa Rica to the US) – $50 (note: we visited the States once and had visitors bring documents, which helped limit this)
- Photocopies – $10
- Timbres – $3
Total – $509
Five hundred dollars per person isn’t too bad for applying for residency in Costa Rica, especially when you consider the benefits we’ll get. We won’t have to leave the country to renew our visas every three months anymore and will be able to work as an employee here if we want. It will also be a lot easier to open a bank account, get a Costa Rican driver’s license, etc.
Now the only thing we can do is wait to see what happens. Migracion is supposed to notify us if there is anything missing or further action is required. They are also supposed to make a determination within 90 days. As we said, though, we have heard that months, and even years, can pass without hearing anything at all. We’ll be sure to update this post with our status as soon as we can. Hopefully that will be soon!
- US Embassy in Costa Rica: The US Embassy has general info on the requirements for getting residency.
- Association of Residents of Costa Rica: ARCR is one of the leading companies for obtaining residency in Costa Rica. They have a lot of info on their website about the process and also an active forum where you can pose questions even if you don’t plan on applying through them.
- Facebook Expat Groups: These groups are a great place to find information from other people going through the same process. We used them to research fingerprinting, criminal background checks, etc. There are several groups, but a couple of really active ones are Expatriates in Costa Rica and Gringo Expats in Costa Rica. Use the search function to find old threads or post a new question if you’re still stuck.
Have you recently applied for residency in Costa Rica by yourself? Leave us a comment with any tips below (Email subscribers click here to post your comment online.).
The information in this post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. While we have tried to ensure that the content is accurate and current, we make no guarantees. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of the information.
Looking for more information about moving to Costa Rica? Check out these posts:
- FAQs About Moving to Costa Rica – Answers the most commonly asked questions about life in Costa Rica, including cost of living, internet availability, etc.
- Where to Live in Costa Rica: Planning Your Research Trip – Helps you plan a visit to Costa Rica to figure out where you might want to live.
- Costa Rica Moving Checklist – Step-by-step guide for what to do before moving to Costa Rica. Covers mail service, banking, and what medical and other services to get done before you move.