Last Updated: May 26, 2020
We get emails all the time from people interested in moving to Costa Rica. They have been drawn in by the relaxed pace of life, beautiful scenery, and enviable climate. Some are ready to quit their jobs and pack their bags and haven’t even visited the country yet (don’t do this!). Because people typically have many of the same questions, we made this post to put our thoughts all in one place.
Keep in mind that we aren’t experts and if you asked 100 expats living in Costa Rica these very same questions, you’d probably get 100 different answers. But this information is enough to get you started. We’ve written separate posts on many of the topics, so be sure to follow the links provided for additional detail.
What Is the Cost of Living in Costa Rica?
Housing, Food, Utilities, Transportation
It is expensive to live in Costa Rica (similar to North America), but if you live simply, it can be affordable. Rentals start as low as $300/month and go up into the thousands.
Near the beach in touristy areas costs the most. In the mountains and rural areas where locals live is the cheapest. Groceries are comparable to North America, but fresh produce is very inexpensive at farmers markets, which you can find in almost every community. Electricity is fairly expensive (again similar to what we used to pay in Boston) so take that into consideration if you’re moving to the beach and plan to use AC. Restaurants, except those serving typical Costa Rican food, are about the same as North America.
Cars are also very expensive due to high import taxes. As an example, a 15-year-old SUV like the first one we bought when we moved typically costs $8,000-12,000, depending on make and model. Gas is pricey too, at $4-5 per gallon.
If you’re willing to get around by bus, buses are cheap, fairly reliable, and can get you almost anywhere in the country as long as you have some patience. Keep in mind, though, that in more rural areas, buses run less regularly (sometimes only a few times per day). In and around San José has the most bus routes running regularly.
People often ask if a certain amount of money is “enough” to live in Costa Rica. This really all depends on where you want to live and your standard of living. If you’re going to be buying a lot of imported items at the Auto Mercado (grocery store with many North American products) and expect granite countertops, $2,000 a month isn’t going to be enough.
For those of you who want a number, people who live like the locals in simple Tico-style houses and eat rice and beans regularly spend as little as $1,000 a month. More standard is $1,500-2,500, which gets you a normal, two- or three-bedroom rental, eating out a couple of times a week, and splurging on something special once in a while. Again, prices vary by town and are the highest in popular tourist destinations.
Helpful Links on Cost of Living
- Buying a Car in Costa Rica
- Maintaining a Car in Costa Rica
- Our Life in Costa Rica section: Lots of information on cost of living, especially our post on Where We’ve Lived in Costa Rica.
- Retire for Less in Costa Rica: Paul and Gloria Yeatman give extremely detailed cost of living updates.
How Can I Afford to Do What You’re Doing?
What We Did
If you’re retired and have enough money coming in, you should have no problem living in Costa Rica as long as you stick to a budget. But for younger people like us, it can be a challenge. The problem is that you’re not allowed to work in Costa Rica unless you’re a permanent resident or citizen (more on this below).
What we did ourselves was have a long-term plan. While living in the US, we saved up for a few years before moving to give ourselves a cushion, both for living in Costa Rica and something to fall back on if we decided to move back to the US. We also had a loose plan for how we were going to make money in Costa Rica before coming. Originally we thought that we would start a bed and breakfast or manage some vacation rentals. But after meeting others who were doing that, we decided that we didn’t want to be trapped in one place and unable to travel, something that we love.
We ended up focusing on travel writing and making money through this website. We also started a travel agency more recently. It took a while but now our website/travel agency is our only source of income.
It isn’t easy, though, and took years from when we first moved in 2013 to being able to live solely off the site.
Lots of people think they’re going to pick up and start a blog and make millions. In reality, there are thousands of travel bloggers out there (literally thousands) so you have to figure out a niche, something that makes you unique, and be really good at what you do. It’s a lot of work to write new content, respond to emails, keep up with social media, and figure out ways to make money, so only do it if you’re committed. For us, it’s a full-time job and then some, but not so bad because we get to live in Costa Rica.
Starting a Business
We know lots of people who moved to Costa Rica and opened a hotel, restaurant, or tour company. Some have been successful, some have not. It helps to know from the start what you’re getting into. Our travel agency is located in the United States, but we had a related company in Costa Rica for a while as well. Having a business is a great way to get to know the culture better since you have so many interactions with locals.
We have since closed our Costa Rican company because we changed our business structure. But we learned a lot about starting and operating a business here. Check out our post Starting a Business in Costa Rica as an Expat for more information.
House Sitting Option
For those of you looking for creative ways to save money, consider house sitting. We did house sitting for the first several years in Costa Rica and saved thousands of dollars in rent. In fact, we only had to rent a few times in between house sits, which is phenomenal.
Keep in mind, though, that house sitting isn’t perfect and isn’t for everyone. To get as many house sits as we had, you have to be flexible with where you’re willing to go and for how long. Some of our gigs were for only one month, others four. Our last job was caretaking so we got to live on the property year-round, which was amazing.
Even the short stays were perfect for us at that point in our lives, though. It was great for us to be able to experience different areas of the country since our website is about travel. It did get very tiring moving so much, but looking back, now that we’re at home more with the kids, it was a grand adventure.
If you’re interested in house sitting, there’s lots more info in our House Sitting category. In those posts, you’ll find info on how to get started, the sites that worked the best for us to get house sits, and lots more.
Where Should I Live?
Beach vs. Mountains
When figuring out where to live, think about your ideal climate and how close you want to be to amenities. The beach is much hotter and more humid than the mountains, and for this reason, many people prefer to live in the Central Valley near San José. The Central Valley and its surrounds (Grecia, Atenas, Heredia, Santa Ana, Escazu, etc.) are also closer to shopping, restaurants, and major hospitals. In rural areas, it can be more difficult to find things, there are fewer restaurants, and buses run less often so be sure to take this into consideration, especially if you don’t plan to buy a car.
We lived in eight different places during our first year in Costa Rica. Check out this post to hear our impressions of each town.
Wherever you decide, it’s best to rent first to try it out. A large percentage of people who move to Costa Rica leave within the first year or two, so before you completely turn your life upside down, visit a few different areas on vacation first. Then once you’ve picked an area you’re comfortable with, rent there for at least a year. That will allow you to figure out exactly where you want to live and feel out the climate in all seasons.
We originally thought we wanted to live in Uvita near the beach but found out quickly that it is really hot. We ended up preferring to live in the nearby mountains where there’s a nice breeze.
In most places, the weather can vary even from one side of town to the other. In Grecia, for example (a popular expat town in the Central Valley), there are several ridges and the climate differs on each of them. Communities all have different quirks like this and until you spend some time there, you won’t know what’s right for you.
Tips on Finding a Rental
From our experience and talking to other expats, it’s best not to commit to anything long term until you get to Costa Rica. Prices are often inflated online and through real estate agents, so if you can come down and talk to people in the community, you can usually find a better deal. Plus, you obviously have the benefit of seeing the house for yourself. A lot of people rent something very short term at first in the area they want to live, then start their search for a long-term rental when they get here.
What About Residency?
When you come to Costa Rica, you typically get a 90 day tourist visa (the exact number of days is up to the immigration official but 90 is standard). That means that until you get residency, you have to leave the country every 90 days, and upon returning, get a new 90 day stamp/visa.
Doing these border runs worked fine for us when we had to do them a few years back while our residency application was pending. It gave us a chance to do some traveling to Panama, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. For many people, though, it can be a burden, especially if they live several hours from the nearest border.
In addition, recently, it has become much harder to simply do border runs to renew your visa. At least at Panama’s largest border at Paso Canoas, immigration officials have been imposing stricter requirements and not giving people a 90 day visa when they reenter Costa Rica. You can read our post on Paso Canoas for more details. See the comments for the latest updates from people who have crossed recently.
Remember too that even after you’ve applied for residency, you still have to leave every 90 days if you plan to drive. Your non-Costa Rica driver’s license is renewed with your visa. Although once you apply for residency you don’t have to leave every 90 days anymore to fulfill immigration requirements, there’s an old law on the books that says you still have to renew your visa to keep your driver’s license valid.
Applying for Residency
Once you are fairly sure you want to live in Costa Rica, getting residency can be a good idea. This way you don’t have to do border runs and have a cedula (ID card). Having a cedula makes many things easier in this country, including banking and getting a cell phone plan. You can also get a Costa Rica driver’s license.
There are a few different ways to get residency in Costa Rica. One involves proof of a certain amount of money coming in under a pension or retirement plan. Another also involves proof of funds coming in (non-pension/retirement) or you can make a large deposit into a Costa Rican bank account. A third relates to becoming a resident as an investor. Finally, you can become a permanent resident by marrying a Costa Rican or having a baby in-country.
Some people start the residency process before moving, while others wait until they get here. Many people use a lawyer, but you can also apply on your own. Here’s a link to an article about our experience applying for residency without a lawyer.
What Kind of Jobs Are Available? How Can I Work in Costa Rica as a Foreigner?
You can’t legally work in Costa Rica unless you’re a permanent resident or citizen. There are exceptions to this rule but they are not common. Basically a company in Costa Rica has to show that there is no Costa Rican who can do the job so that’s why they need you. The company then gets a work permit for you through the government. It’s very rare.
So for most people, you have to become a permanent resident or citizen. Becoming a permanent resident takes time, though, for most people. Unless you’re a first degree relative to a Costa Rican (through marriage or by having a baby in Costa Rica), you can’t get permanent residency without first being a temporary resident for three years. After that period, you can apply to be a permanent resident and can work legally for Costa Rican companies. Some people who move here do find businesses that will hire them even without the proper work permit. This, of course, is illegal and not a good way to start your new life here, especially if you get caught since you may be deported.
Working online is another option and what a lot of expats do. It is legal as long as the money is coming from a company or clients outside Costa Rica.
Is the Internet Reliable?
Internet varies across the country from a crawling less than one MB to a zippy 100+ MB. Some towns have only a Wi-Fi connection (you connect with a 3G or 4G USB stick), which is generally less reliable. We’ve lived in several houses with 3G/4G connections and the speed has been fine in some places and seriously slow in others.
Cost varies a lot by provider. We’ve paid around $25-30/month for 2 MB speed in a rural beach town, but know others who pay more for a similar speed. For a good cable connection, we’ve paid $45/month for 100 MB in a town closer to a large beach town.
If Internet is important to you, find a town that has cable Internet through Cable Tica or another provider. Fiber optic is also becoming available. These types of connections are much more reliable and you can pay extra to have a faster speed. The Central Valley is a good place to start, but many other communities have cable as well (e.g., Jaco area; Nosara; Manuel Antonio; Tamarindo; Lake Arenal area (Tronadora and Puerto San Luis); and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, just to name a few). In rural areas, living near a main road can make it easier to get a cable or fiber optic connection.
One other thing to keep in mind: Don’t assume that just because most of a town has a 3G/4G connection that you can’t get cable. If a hotel, development, etc. has paid to get a cable line put in, the houses near there might be able to access it too.
How Did You Get Your Stuff There? Suitcases vs. Shipping
You can either have your stuff shipped in cargo containers or just bring whatever you can fit on the airplane with you in luggage. There are pros and cons to both options. We brought our stuff in eight suitcases and it worked out great when we were house sitting.
Once we moved into an unfurnished place, we did have to buy a lot. Prices for furniture are a little higher than in the US but not shocking. The only problem for us was finding what we needed. When we had to buy furniture, we were living more remotely near Dominical so had to make some trips to San José and the nearest mid-size city to get certain things like a couch, good quality appliances, etc. Many houses are rented fully furnished in Costa Rica, though, so if you are just “trying it out” for a while, you may want to keep your stuff back home and just bring the basics until you are sure.
Things to consider about shipping: If you ship, you’ll have to pay duties on what you bring. We don’t have any experience with shipping, but have heard stories of people having their belongings and car sit in customs for quite a while. There are several shipping companies out there. The Costa Rica expat Facebook groups are a good place to get a referral (see links at end of post).
What Should I Pack?
Check out these two posts for detailed info:
Should I Buy a Car There or Bring My Own?
Cars are expensive whether you bring your own or buy one here, but really nice if you want to see the country. You don’t have to be a resident to buy one; you just need your passport and an address in Costa Rica. For a detailed run-down of our first car-buying experience, check out this post.
Instead of buying one here, a lot of people ship their old car from the US or elsewhere. This has its advantages as you know how the car has been treated. Many cars in Costa Rica have had a hard life, been beat up on rough roads, in floods or other natural disasters, and have even had their odometers turned back. Bringing your own ensures that you don’t get a $10,000 lemon, but it does have its disadvantages.
The biggest disadvantage is that you’ll have to pay import taxes to get it registered in Costa Rica. These duties are extremely high and can be 50-79% of the value of the car (not what you paid for the car but what the Costa Rica government deems it to be worth). So if you buy something for a few thousand dollars and pay for shipping and taxes, you might just end up spending about the same or more than if you bought a car here.
- Our Life in Costa Rica category: Posts on our experiences living in Costa Rica, acclimating to the culture, buying a car, trying to learn Spanish, and generally settling in.
- Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR): Great forum for questions on moving, real estate, internet, phone, etc.
- InterNations: An online community for expats around the world, including a specific Costa Rica section that has a blog, forum, and featured expat events happening in CR.
- Facebook Expat Groups: There are several but a couple of really active ones are Expatriates in Costa Rica and Gringo Expats in Costa Rica. Areas with a big expat population often have town-specific groups too so be sure to do some searching. These groups are a great place to ask questions to those who know it best.
- Books: There are a lot of books on living in Costa Rica as an expat. Here’s a link to some of our favorites.
Last Updated: May 26, 2020
Have a question about moving to Costa Rica? Feel free to ask us below.
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.