Visiting, Residency and Obtaining Costa Rica Citizenship

Visitors

Costa Rica allows visitors to stay up to 90 days on a passport visa.  If you intend to stay longer, you must leave the country and then return to receive a new visa stamp.

There is no minimum amount of time that you need to be outside of Costa Rica before returning.  You can simply cross the border, via land or air, turn around, and re-enter.

When entering Costa Rica, the Immigration Agent will manually enter the number of days that your visa is good for, usually this is 90 days.  However, at their discretion, they may enter 30, 60 or some other number of days.  If you exit and re-enter too many times, you could be flagged as a perpetual tourist and be banned from entering the country all together or issued a reduced number of days.

New legislation now fines individuals $100 a day for exceeding the 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 periodically leave the country, which after doing this a few times, will become very inconvenient.

IMPORTANT! - During COVID, the number of days that you can stay will coincide with the duration of the COVID insurance policy that is required to enter the country.  The maximum is 90 days.  For example, if you purchased 14 days of COVID insurance, this is the maximum number of days that you can stay in Costa Rica before you will have to leave, and this number of days will be written into your passport by the Immigration Agent when you enter the country.  If you leave the country and then re-enter, you are required to purchase a new COVID insurance policy.

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 citizen except for the right to vote.

To gain permanent residency, you must first obtain temporary residency and this takes about 18-24 months.  For some getting temporary residency is quicker but for others it can be much longer. There is no reason that I have uncovered as why this happens.

EXAMPLE ! - My wife and I applied together as "Pensionados" in February of 2019.  She received her official temporary residency in January of 2021.  My residency is still in process and is estimated to not be complete for another 6 months.  Makes no sense, but if you are moving here, this is the type of thing that you need to get used to.  Have patience, patience and more patience.

Permanent residency occurs about three years after you are issued temporary residency and ensures that you have met certain requirements during the temporary residency period.

IMPORTANT ! - While you can apply and obtain both temporary and permanent residency yourself, unless you speak Spanish, and are very familiar with the complex immigration process in Costa Rica that is constantly changing, I highly recommend that you hire a good immigration attorney.  I have watched a few of my friends try to do some tasks on their own in order to save a few hundred dollars, and it has not gone well.  This is an important decision and long process where you do not want to make a mistake. 

For more information about the attorney that I used, please click here

Temporary Residency

Applying for Temporary residency, obtaining a case number and receiving an "Expediente" document (which means that you application has been accepted for processing), allows you to stay in the country and not have to leave as specified by the number of days written in your visa.

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, and then return to get a new visa stamp on your Passport.  To accomplish this people routinely take days trips via car to Nicaragua or Panama to get an updated visa stamp. 

If you exceed your 90 days and are driving, your drivers license is considered expired.  If your international drivers license expires while you are in Costa Rica, even if your visa is valid, you cannot legally drive.

Temporary residency is not a sure thing.  Costa Rica wants to ensure that you can sustain your lifestyle and not be a financial burden on the country.  Therefore you must meet specific financial requirements outlined below depending on which residency category you select.

The temporary residency period is also a test to see if you really like the country.  Many people get frustrated for various reasons and leave for home within 2-3 years.  Costa Rica wants to make sure you are going to stay before investing all the work to make you a permanent resident.

When you are approved for temporary residency, you will be required to pay a deposit.  This deposit will be refunded when you obtain 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.  Examples of this are that you are convicted of a crime during your temporary residency period or that you didn't meet the financial requirements.

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 at least $1000 USD per month of retirement income, e.g. Social Security or pension.
  • Investor (Inversionista): You must invest at least $200,000 USD in either real estate or a business
  • Marriage or Relationship (Vinculo):  You 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.

The most common category that people apply for is Retiree or Pensionado.  To do this you must submit the following documents.  All documents must be 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, which is a federal document, had to be sent to the US Department of State.

  • Birth Certificate
  • Marriage Certificate, if applicable
  • Proof of retirement income (e.g. Social Security Letter)
  • 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.

Once you have your birth certificate and marriage certificate, it must be sent to the issuing State(s) to get the apostille stamp.  Important !- Do not send this document to the US Department of State.  This is a state issued document and therefore must be sent to the applicable State to receive the apostille stamp.

Proof of Retirement Income

The most common document requested is proof of Social Security income of at least $1000 a month for life.  This amount will accepted for the residency application of all family members, even if just one person is receiving the pension.  This document must be obtained directly from Social Security.

Once you have your document, it must be sent to the US Department 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 a United States citizen, you are required to have a nationwide FBI fingerprint  background check in order to apply for temporary residency.  This document must be apostilled by the US Department of State.

If you have a criminal record, it is possible that you won't be approved for residency.  If this applies to you, consult with an attorney before starting the residency process.

In Summary

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.

Costa Rica wants to make sure that you are 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, or perhaps, not at all.

Once you obtain temporary residency, you will be enrolled in Costa Rica's national healthcare system, CAJA, and be required to make monthly payments.  The amount will vary with each individuals financial situation and residency application category selected (retiree, investor, etc.).

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 !

Permanent Residency

After about three years of being a temporary resident, the Costa Rican Government will verify that you have met all of the temporary residency requirements, including reviewing proof of income and payments into CAJA healthcare system.

If everything goes well, you will be granted Permanent Residency.

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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