If you’re arriving at Costa Rica’s San Jose Airport (SJO) and are wondering what the experience will be like, this post is for you. Here, we will describe the arrival process, Covid protocols, amenities like duty-free shopping, SIM card options, and some other useful information to help you plan.
Costa Rica has two international airports. Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR) is located in the northwestern part of the country. Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is closer to the center of the country, outside San Jose. In this post, we will cover arriving at SJO.
SJO Airport is Costa Rica’s busiest airport and the largest. Still, it only has about 20 gates, so navigating through is fairly easy.
While on the smaller side, SJO is modern and well equipped. There is free Wifi throughout.
Much of the staff at SJO speak at least some English and many are fluent. Signs are in both Spanish and English.
For those with mobility restrictions, SJO Airport is equipped with appropriate ramps, escalators, elevators, and handicap restrooms.
SJO Arrival Procedure
After landing and exiting the plane, you’ll walk through a series of hallways before getting in line for immigration. Depending on your gate, you will go down a set of stairs/escalators to reach the lower part of the airport. An elevator is available.
On the way to immigration, you will pass a sensor that takes your temperature. Those with a fever will be removed from the line and screened further for symptoms of Covid-19.
Currently, a mask is required at all times inside the airport.
Note: Those arriving at SJO for a connecting flight will be directed to a separate area of the airport. They will go through a different process than listed below. We are only covering entry into Costa Rica in this post.
Immigration and QR Code Check
The line for immigration can be notoriously long. Sometimes it can take an hour to get through, while at other times, it is more like 20 minutes. It really depends on how many other flights arrive at the same time as yours.
To prevent crowding during Covid, everyone is asked to maintain a six-foot (1.8 meter) distance from each other while in line.
Once you make it to the front of the line, you will see an immigration official. Families will meet with the official together. They will ask for your passport and QR code(s).
During Covid, Costa Rica is requiring visitors to fill out an online health pass 48 hours or less before their flight and to provide travel insurance that meets specific requirements.
The QR code (sort of like a barcode) is generated online after filling out the health pass and providing your insurance. The immigration official will need to scan it.
For more information about the health pass and insurance, read our post, Traveling to Costa Rica During Covid-19: Entry Requirements, Protocols, and What to Expect.
The immigration official will scan your QR code to make sure you are good to go. It’s easiest if you save it to your phone, as the scanner has a hard time with paper copies. A paper copy is a good backup, though, in case your phone dies or is lost.
If something is not complete with your QR code, or your travel insurance needs further verification, you will be directed into a separate area to finalize the process.
Returning Flight and Mandatory Insurance
After the QR check, the immigration official will ask for your returning flight information, so be sure to have it handy.
During Covid, you will need travel insurance for the entire time you are planning to be in the country. As a foreigner you can receive a maximum 90-day tourist visa.
For more on the required travel insurance, and to make sure you select one with the right coverage, read our post, Costa Rica’s Required Insurance: 15 FAQs.
Once the immigration official determines the length of your stay (based on your return flight and travel insurance coverage), they will stamp your passport with an entry stamp into the country. On top of the stamp, they will write with a pen how many days your tourist visa is valid for. It is always a good idea to check this number to make sure you have a visa for the correct amount of time before continuing.
If you are traveling with a baby or young kids, try to find an airport employee near the immigration line. Young children, especially babies, are prioritized in Costa Rica and often you will be taken to a separate line to get processed faster. The same goes for people with mobility issues. Airport officials will help you avoid long lines.
Baggage Claim and Duty-Free Shops
Your next stop is baggage claim.
On the way there, you will pass a duty-free shop and money-exchange desk. Keep in mind that there is another smaller duty-free shop around the corner, closer to baggage claim, which is usually less busy. Most people just go to the first one without knowing.
The duty-free prices at SJO Airport are actually very good for things like wine and alcohol. So if you plan to buy them later in your trip, consider a quick stop here to save money.
Tip: We don’t recommend exchanging money at the airport unless you really need to. The exchange rate is usually not favorable at all. Read our post, Money Matters, for more tips on money conversion.
The baggage claim area is typical of any airport. Your bags will come out on a circular conveyor belt. Free luggage carts are available near the baggage carousel.
Cell Phone SIM Card
If you need to buy a SIM card for your phone at SJO Airport, it can be tricky. Previously, there was a Kolbi desk (Kolbi is one of the local cell-phone providers). It was set up near baggage claim, but has since closed. Kolbi has the largest network of coverage in Costa Rica and works well in most areas.
On our last trip, we did see a Claro desk with information about SIMs and plans. Claro is another local cell-phone provider. However, there was no one working at the desk. This was after 5:00 p.m., though, so maybe during business hours they would be open. If you’ve had any luck getting one, please leave a comment for us below.
Claro’s coverage varies a lot so it may not work in some areas of the country.
If you want Kolbi, you can always buy a SIM card at a cell phone store after you leave the airport. Just search “Kolbi” on Google Maps to find the nearest location.
Once you collect your luggage and maybe some duty-free items, the last step is customs. Unless you are declaring a large sum of money, traveling with animals, agricultural products, or have some other odd situation, you will not have to fill out a customs form.
At the customs checkpoint, you will put your luggage and carry-on items through a screener/scanner. The official will look for anything out of the ordinary, and you will pick up your bags on the other side. They are usually looking for large amounts of merchandise for resale and things like that.
In our experience, the official will not really speak with you and mostly look at the monitor. We have even brought in many household items (not in the original package) without getting questioned.
Exiting the SJO Airport
From the customs checkpoint, it is a short 30-second walk to the airport exit doors.
Before you exit, there are some rental car desks on the left. On the right is a taxi representative (more below).
Outside the airport doors, you will find people waiting for arriving passengers. This area has been recently redone to distance people because of Covid-19. Previously, this area was really congested and chaotic. It has gotten better with the changes, but the area at the end is still fairly busy.
Taxi officials are located right before the exit doors (on the right after customs screening). If you need a taxi, they will lead you to the correct area and a taxi driver will help load your bags.
This is for official airport taxis, which we recommend because they have the proper licenses and will use the meter. Official airport taxis are orange with a yellow medallion on the side.
Uber and Other Online Ride Options
Because of taxi unions, Uber and other options are not allowed near the airport area at SJO. If you plan to use one, you will have to exit the airport and walk down the street for them to pick you up.
People do use Uber from the airport, and we have heard that it is cheaper than taxis.
If you have booked a private shuttle, look for the driver outside the airport doors and on the other side of the barriers, holding sign with your name on it. They will lead you to their van parked nearby and help with your luggage.
Shared Shuttle Service
Shared shuttle vans like Interbus do service the airport, but depending on timing, you may have to get to a nearby meeting location on your own. These locations are usually only about five minutes away by taxi. Be sure to know exactly where you need to go before arriving.
These companies have desks onsite near the baggage claim if you have questions or need help, but sometimes there is nobody working.
Rental Car Pick Up
If you are renting a car, you’ll want to look for your representative at the rental agency desks just before the airport exit doors. If they are not there, they will be waiting outside at the end of the barriers. All rental car agencies are located offsite, so you will be shuttled to the office nearby in their van.
For those looking for an excellent car rental company, we suggest Adobe Rent a Car (wearing blue shirts with a green logo). They are one of the most reliable and customer-friendly companies in Costa Rica. Our readers also get a 10% discount and free extras like car seats, emergency cell phone, and more. Read our Rental Car Discount page for more information and to get a quote.
Public Bus Service
Public buses do not come into the airport departure area but do stop at the main road, a short walk away. Ask for help on your way out of the airport so that someone can point you in the right direction.
A fairly accurate bus schedule can be found here.
The nice thing about the arrival area outside the airport is that usually the locals are very friendly and work together to help visitors find their service/driver. Often, they all know each other and will be able to locate or call the service provider to connect you. Of course, like anywhere in the world, be careful of anyone that seems like they are trying to sell you something you don’t need.
Unfortunately, the arrivals area of the airport does not have any restaurants. There is a vending machine near baggage claim with some drinks and snacks.
The closest restaurant is located outside. After exiting, walk to the end of the barriers and Malinche Restaurant will be on your right. This small restaurant has typical Costa Rican cuisine and things like sandwiches, desserts, etc.
We hope that this post has made you feel more at ease about arriving at SJO Airport in Costa Rica. Once you get through the airport, you’ll be on the way to your first destination and the fun will really begin.
Have a question about arriving at SJO Airport? Leave a comment below.
Looking for more information to start your trip off right? Check out these posts:
Renting a Car in Costa Rica: Clearing Up the Confusion – Unfortunately, many companies hide costs that you will incur once you arrive. This post breaks down what you should be looking for in a rental car quote and what to watch out for.
Best Hotels Near SJO Airport – Driving long distances after dark (6 pm in Costa Rica) is not recommended, especially for first-time visitors or in the rainy months. Read this post for some great hotel picks nearby and get an early start the next day.
1-2 Days in San Jose – Looking to explore Costa Rica’s cultural center and capital? Check out this post for some of the best museums and other sites in downtown San Jose.