Visiting, Residency and Obtaining Costa Rica Citizenship

Visitors

Costa Rica allows visitors to stay up to 90 days on a passport visa.  After that visitors must leave the country and then return.  However, 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 a house, move your belongings and then be banned from returning.  If you plan on moving to Costa Rica, you must obtain temporary residency, followed by permanent residency or risk getting deported and banned.

Residency

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 citizenship except for the right to vote.

To gain permanent residency, you must first obtain temporary residency and this takes about a year.  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.

Temporary Residency

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 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.

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

  • Retiree (Pensionado): A family must have an income of $1000 USD per month of retirement income, e.g. Social Security
  • Investor (Inversionista): You must invest at least $200,000 USD in either real estate or a business
  • Marriage or Relationship (Vinculo):  You must must be married to or in close relation to a Costa Rica Citizen
  • Legal Resident (Rentista):  You are not retired, don't have to work in Costa Rica and have an investment or savings income of at least $2500 a month for a minimum of 24 months.  This money must be transferred to a Costa Rican Bank on a monthly basis.

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 Certificate
  • Marriage Certificate, if applicable
  • Proof of retirement income (e.g. Social Security)
  • Criminal background check

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 nothave to send the apostilled document to the American Consulate.

Criminal Background Check

You are required to go to your local police station and obtain a criminal background check for all people applying for temporary residency.  It took about 7 days for us to get it from the Sheriff's department in San Diego.  The document must be notarized, an optional service that the Sheriff did for us, and have an apostille stamp from the Secretary of State.

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.  However, you will want to ensure that you live in an area with good internet access.

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 $70 per month, per person range.

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, deposit cash or check.

Permanent Residency

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.

Citizenship

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.

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