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For us, we moved to Costa Rica with two dogs, Bruno and Sasha, both 8 year old Maltese-Poodle mixes and under 20 pounds....ok Sasha is on the edge of that. That's why her and Bruno ended up in cargo, she couldn't get below the 20 pound limit for in-cabin travel!
The information below is with respect to air travel with dogs. The process is the same for cats and fish, yes there was someone at the USDA field office taking their tropical fish to Europe! However cats, with few exceptions, can probably go in-cabin in a soft container under the seat.
Most people travel to Costa Rica by air and bring their pets with them. Some people pay thousands of dollars for a private air service to bring their pet to them after they have arrived and settled. In both cases, there are strict guidelines and requirements to import your pet into a foreign country. Not only are there transport requirements, but each pet must have a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Health Certificate completed by a USDA approved veterinarian and then endorsed by a USDA Veterinarian Services Endorsement office prior to traveling. There is only a 14 day window from the time 1) your Vet completes and signs the paperwork, 2) the USDA provides the endorsement and 3) you complete your travel. As it was for us, this will definitely be one of the more stressful aspects of moving to Costa Rica. There is no time for a mistake so read the information below carefully, check and double check all information.
The pet's size will determine whether it can travel in the cabin with you or ride underneath in the main baggage area.
If the pet is too large to travel in the cabin (usually limited to 20 pounds including carrier), then you need to confirm with the airline if certain breeds are prohibited. Many airlines will not allow short snout dogs such as pugs, bulldogs and many other breeds to travel because of potential respiratory issues that are common to the breed.
If traveling in the baggage area, check with the airline to ensure that it is climate controlled and avoid any airlines that does not meet this requirement.
Containers going into the baggage area have the following requirements:
It is best to provide comfortable bedding but you must ensure that it can't slide around and push up against the water dispenser ball stop because this can potentially cause all of the water to run out.
Try to book a direct flight, and if this cannot be done, minimize both the duration and number of connections and/or transfers. I have a friend that drove her dog from San Diego, CA to Newark, NJ so that she could get a shorter and direct flight to Madrid Spain.
Airlines may vary so please confirm each one of the items above with your air carrier as airline rules can differ slightly.
Each country that you are traveling to has a specific form that has to be completed and endorsed. This information certifies that all required immunizations and vaccines are up to date and that the pet is in good health and able to travel. I can't stress enough how important it is to ensure that you obtain the correct version of this form from the USDA. Some Vets will supply the form for you but many times will use an out of date version. We witnessed this a few times during our visit to the USDA endorsement office and both people were turned away, one was from Arizona. Remember, you will only have 14 days to complete the entire process, including the travel.
For Costa Rica, here is the link to the most recent USDA form that your Vet needs to fill out along with additional useful information.
Scroll down on the web page until you find the following menu and then click on the pull down. As shown below, I have selected dogs and cats. Then download the Certificate and take it to your Vet.
Once you have the completed form by your Vet, it must now be sent (or taken) to a USDA service office for endorsement. In California we had the option of mailing it to Sacramento or driving to El Segundo, just outside of Los Angeles (about 125 miles away from where we live) and getting it endorsed while we waited. For obvious reasons, we chose the later and had everything completed in about 2 hours. There were some people who had driven from Arizona to LA due to the short timeline.
To find the closest USDA Endorsement Office, look for the following pull down on this USDA page: At last check it was located at the bottom of the right column.
Drive it there if you can, and if you do, you must make an appointment. If you mail it, use a guaranteed overnight service such as UPS, Fed-Ex or USPS and arrange for the return in advance.
Once you have the endorsed health certificate, bring it with you to the airport along with two copies. The departure airport may want one copy and the arriving airport, the other. If you don't have copies, the agent will have to take your original and make a copy. This could take time and once you land, trust me, all you want to do is to get out of the airport and to your final destination.
We arrived at Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia and by the time we arrived at baggage claim, the dogs were off the plane and sitting by baggage claim. An agent asked for a copy of the certificate and we were good to go. Super easy. Rumors from others is that Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose is more time consuming, probably due to the much higher volume of travelers and longer Customs process.