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Bringing Pets to Costa Rica

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Sasha, in anticipation of the trip to Costa Rica on the following day.Sasha

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 Costa Rica.

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 Veterinarian 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.

Bruno, resting up for the big flight to Costa Rica.Bruno

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.

Air Carriers

Other than driving, you will have two options for getting your pets to Costa Rica, a commercial airline or a private air charter.  Commercial airlines are more cost effective with rates in the $200-300 USD range.  Private charters that specialize in pet transportation can run between $5000 and $10000 per pet.  Some will allow you to travel with your pet, others will not and you will have to travel separately.

Commercial airlines have strict restrictions and exclude certain breeds such as Pit Bulls, Bulldogs, Pugs, anything with a short snout and several other breeds.

If your pet will be traveling in cargo, check with the airline to ensure that it is climate controlled and avoid any airlines that does not meet this requirement.

Most commercial carriers allow small pets to travel in cabin with you as long as they are in a soft container and weigh less than 20 lbs (including the container).

Recent trends have shown that more and more commercial carriers are not allowing pets to travel in cargo at all.  Other carriers have seasonal restrictions based on weather conditions.

IMPORTANT ! - If you successfully take your pet to Costa Rica and then return to the US, either for a visit or permanently, make sure that you do not stop in any of the countries that the US restricts imports of pets from due to high cases of rabies.  Rules and requirements can be found in this USDA document.

Breed, cargo, container and in cabin policies can vary from airline to airline so check with your preferred carrier.

Cargo Requirements

Pets in containers going into cargo have the following requirements:

  • There is a maximum size limitation.
  • Pet must be able to stand, turn around and lay comfortably.
  • Have four stick-on labels stating "Live Animals", one applied to each side.
  • Have four up-arrows denoting which side is up, one applied to each side.
  • Provisions for four plastic tie wraps to secure each corner of the access door to the container hard shell.  Most containers have this but when looking to buy one, make sure they are present.  Bring 2 extra sets of four tie wraps since you will have to open up the container for inspection.
  • Be prepared to remove the pet from the container at the departing airport for inspection by TSA.  Have a leash handy if you feel your pet needs it.
  • A water dispenser that is securely attached to the door at a height comfortable for the dog to drink from.  It must include a removable lid so that water can be added if needed and then resealed.
  • A label that has the name, address and phone number of the owner along with the name of the pet and whether they are friendly to strangers.

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.

Bringing Pets to Costa Rica - Health Certification and Endorsement

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.

USDA Heath Certificate

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.

This is the USDA website screen that allows you to pick which form that you need to complete for travel outside of the United States.

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.

Then you select the office where you want to attend the in-person appointment.

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, Guanacaste Costa Rica and by the time we made it to baggage claim, the dogs were off the plane and sitting next to the luggage.  An agent asked for a copy of the health certificates 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.

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