Costa Rica allows visitors to stay up to 90 days on a passport visa. After that visitors must leave the country and then return. This is no mininum amount of time that you need to be outside of Costa Rica before returning. You can simply cross and border, turn around, and re-enter. When you re-enter, the Immigration Agent will manually enter the number of days that your visa is good for, usually 90 days. However, if they suspect you are a perpetual tourist, they may enter 30 or 60 days. If you do this too often, you could be flagged as a perpetual tourist and may be banned from entering the country. New legislation now fines individuals $100 a day for exceeding the 90 day limit. The last thing that you want to do is to move, establish a lifestyle, buy or rent a house, move your belongings and then be banned from returning. If you plan on moving to Costa Rica, it is highly recommended that you obtain temporary residency, followed by permanent residency. If you don't, then you run the risk of being deported or banned plus you will have to leave the country every 90 days, which after doing this a few times, will become very inconvenient.
Probably one of the most important questions is, can we become a permanent resident ? Permanent residents have all of the rights of a Costa Rica citizen except for the right to vote.
To gain permanent residency, you must first obtain temporary residency and this takes about 12-18 months. Permanent residency occurs about three years after you are accepted for temporary residency and ensures that you have met certain requirements during this three year time period.
You can only work if you become a Permanent Resident. It is both illegal, and frowned upon by the Costa Ricans, if an ex-pat takes a job and displaces a Costa Rican. There are some exceptions 1) if your profession/skill is unique and cannot be performed by a Costa Rican and 2) you work for a company from another country who has made special provisions for you to be here while working for them. For most people, these exceptions will not apply. Consult a good lawyer for an exact determination.
While you can apply and obtain both temporary and permanent residency yourself, unless you speak Spanish and are very familiar with the process, I highly recommend that you hire a good immigration attorney. While not inexpensive, it will cost you several thousand US dollars, depending on your individual situation, this is an important and long process where you do not want to make a mistake. We are using Marcela Gurdian at Immigration Experts CR and have been very happy. Marcela is knowledgeable, responsive and has been very helpful throughout the process. I highly recommend using her company's service.
Applying for Temporary residency and obtaining a case number allows you to stay in the country and not have to leave every 90 days. However, there is one big catch, if you drive, your international drivers license is only good for 90 days from the time you entered the country. To maintain a valid international drivers license, you must leave the country and return, even for just a few minutes. To accomplish this people routinely take days trips to Nicaragua or Panama. If you exceed your 90 days and are driving, your drivers license is considered expired.
Temporary residency is not a sure thing. You must satisfy several requirements. Costa Rica wants to ensure that you can sustain your lifestyle and not be a financial burden on the country. This is also a trial period to see if you really like the country. Many people get frustrated for various reasons and leave for home within 2-3 years.
When you are approved for temporary residency, you will be required to pay a deposit. This deposit will be refunded upon your approval of permanent residency. The deposit varies and is dependent on where you are coming from. The deposit for people from the United States and Canada is much less than from Europe and Japan. Basically the deposit is the cost of airfare to send you home should you not be granted permanent residency for various reasons. Examples of this are that you commit and are convicted of a crime during your temporary residency.
To obtain Temporary Residency, you must fall into one of the four most common categories. There are more, but 99% of the people will fall into one of these
The most common category that people apply for is Retiree. To do this you must submit the following documents. All documents must be recently issued from the associated agency within six months of submitting them with your temporary residency application. Also, each document must receive an apostille stamp from the Secretary of State of the issuing agency. For example, I was born and married in California and obtained by birth and marriage certifications from the local county recorder. These documents then had to be sent to the California Secretary of State's office to be apostilled. My wife, Mary, was born in Connecticut. She obtained her birth certificate and had to send it to the Connecticut Secretary of State. Her Social Security letter had to be sent to the US Department of State.
Birth and Marriage Certificates
There are companies that will obtain birth and marriage certificates and also coordinate getting them apostilled by the issuing Secretary of State. However, while convenient, going this route is very expensive.
If you live in the state and county that issues the original documents, I recommend obtaining them yourself at the county recorder's office.
If you are not living in the state or county that you were married or born in, such as my wife, we used Vitalchek to obtain her birth certificate from Connecticut. It was inexpensive and quick.
Proof of Retirement Income
The most common document requested is proof of Social Security income of at least $1000 for life. This amount will cover an entire family, even if one person is receiving the pension. This document must be obtained from Social Security directly and then sent to the Secretary of State to get the Apostille stamp.
Costa Rica requires that your proof of retirement income letter includes the words "for life". Social Security will not include this phrase, so once you receive your retirement benefit letter and obtain the apostille stamp, you will have to send specific information to the American Consulate in San Jose and they will issue a letter stating that your benefit is for life. You do not have to send the apostilled document to the American Consulate.
Criminal Background Check
If you are coming from the United States, you are required to have a nationwide FBI fingerprint background check for all people applying for temporary residency. This document must also be apostilled.
If you can supply the documents noted above, and have enough income, the only reason that your application for temporary residency can be rejected is if there is a problem with the criminal background check.
In summary, you must be able to sustain your lifestyle and not have a criminal background. If you don't meet these requirements, you won't legally be allowed to stay in Costa Rica for more than 90 days at a time.
You are also prohibited from working in Costa Rica during the temporary residency phase. If you work online, with income sources outside of Costa Rica, this is allowed.
Once you obtain Temporary Residency, you will be enrolled in Costa Rica's national healthcare system, Caja, and required to make monthly payments. The amount will vary with each individuals financial situation and residency application category selected (retiree, investor, etc.) For us, it looks to be in the $50-100 range per month for two people.
You will also be required to start monthly deposits of at least $1000 USD into a Costa Rican bank. You may deposit this is USD or Colones. You are not required to direct deposit Social Security income straight into a Costa Rican bank but can instead wire transfer or deposit cash.
One you are approved for Temporary Residency, you may obtain a Costa Rica driver's license 91 days after the approval. Yes, that's correct, on the first day that you can no longer drive because your international driver's license has expired, you can go get your Costa Rica license.....welcome to Costa Rica :)
After three years, the Costa Rican Government will verify that you have met all of the temporary residency requirements, including reviewing proof of income during the temporary phase and that this income has been received into a Costa Rican bank.
If everything goes well, you will be granted Permanent Residency which is basically the same as being a Costa Rican citizen, except that you cannot vote.
There are two ways to obtain a Costa Rica citizenship, 1) be married to a Costa Rica citizen and remain in the country for a minimum of two years and, 2) complete seven years of residency plus pass a history and language test.
Both of the above methods require background checks, birth and marriage certificates, immigration report showing historical dates of departure and arrival to/from Costa Rica, certified copies of your passport, and passport photos.
As with residency, if you do not meet the above requirements, including passing the background check, you will be denied Costa Rica citizenship.