Moving to Costa Rica - Things to Consider

After exploring the country during several visits, we made the decision to seriously consider retiring in Costa Rica, but can we really make it happen ?  Is it really affordable ?  Can we meet all of the requirements ?  How will the rest of our family and friends react?

The easy answer would be to remain in San Diego.  However, our initial findings show that moving to Costa Rica will let us retire 5 years earlier than if we stayed in California.  Five years when you are in your 60s and in good health is a long time

We returned home ready to research everything from buying, building or renting a house, access to good healthcare, weather, different micro-climates, cost of food, cost of insurance, outdoor activities, residency, the culture and lifestyle and much more.  Below are the results.

You are Thinking About Moving Where ?

Yep, be prepared.  Family and friends will most likely be in shock and for us the responses were:

  • What about us ?
  • Cool, what airport do I fly into ?
  • I have never been to that island.
  • What happens if something happens to you ?
  • And my favorite, are you going to be on House Hunters International ?

The response was all over the place.  Some were happy, some upset, some didn't know what to think.  Several of our close friends had already left California and more were planning to get out within the next few years.  Many of these were San Diego natives so that shows you how disappointed and frustrated everybody was with what California has become.  Growing up in San Diego, and through a good portion of our lives, it was the best place in the world to live.  Great weather, no traffic, lots of nice beaches, close to the mountains and desert, and great people.  Except for the weather and being close to the mountains and desert, it all changed for the worse.

Many who embark, or try to embark, on an adventure like this will be pressured to not leave.  Others will get here and be pressured to go back, and many will do so. The majority of people who move here, leave within a few years, and family is one of the major contributing factors.

For us, the trip back is pretty easy, only 5 hours or so by air, and we plan to travel back to San Diego several times a year and to visit friends that have relocated to other states and countries.

We chose quality of time with family and friends versus quantity.  For us spending a dedicated week or two with someone was much more meaningful than a bunch of short, often time hurried visits.

If you are serious about this, one of the first things that you need to do, is to address this issue up front and make a decision before proceeding with any research.   The amount of work in getting ready and physically moving to a foreign country is a daunting and huge undertaking, not to mention, exhausting.  Better to save the time and effort by figuring this portion out first.

Immigration Legal Requirements 

One of the first steps in researching the possibility of moving to Costa Rica is to determine what the legal requirements are for moving and staying in the country long term.  There are not only strict requirements for visitors but also for obtaining residency and becoming a citizen, if you choose to do so.  If you cannot meet these requirements, you might as well stop now and look somewhere else.  If you do it the wrong way or ignore the law, you could be banned from Costa Rica for a period of time or possibly forever. 

Cost of Living

Costa Rica is the most expensive Central American country to live in.  However, it is still relatively cheap when compared to many cities in the United States, Canada and Europe.  However, depending on where you are coming from, it may be more expensive, so do your homework.

  • There is a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 13% on nearly everything purchased or for services rendered, including food, vehicles, dining out, etc.  There are a few exceptions.
  • Gas is roughly $4 USD per gallon and is sold by the liter.  Below is a great link to get current gas and diesel prices.  Use the pull down menus to select currency and liters versus gallons.  Keep in mind that there are 3.785 liters per gallon.

Current Gas Prices

Current Diesel Prices

  • Chicken, fish, eggs, rice, beans and locally grown fruits and vegetables are inexpensive.  Beef and pork are expensive.  Anything imported from the United States and other countries is expensive like Jiffy Peanut Butter and Kellogg Raisin Bran.
  • Electricity is expensive, similar to San Diego.  In hot regions where the AC must be on nearly all the time, monthly bills will be in the hundreds of USD per month.  Solar is just emerging and not yet widely accepted.
  • Water is inexpensive and generally plentiful.
  • If you own land or a home in Costa Rica, property taxes are amuch less as compared to San Diego.  In California, it is not uncommon to pay between $8,000 to $12,000 a year in property taxes for a mid sized, 2,000-2,400 square foot home, depending on neighborhood.  In Costa Rica, it is about $1000 to $2000 a year.
  • Vehicle and property insurance are comparable to that of the United States.
  • Private healthcare is much less expensive than in the United States and is highly rated.

Owning a Vehicle

Owning a car in Costa Rica is really expensive.  Some people opt for using the public transportation system.  It is both reliable and inexpensive but to use this you will need to live close to town and not in the middle of the rainforest.

Scooters, motor cycles and quads are less expensive options but have limitations, especially during bad weather.

If you choose to own a car, you have the option of importing yours or buying one new or used.  But beware, make the wrong decision and it could be a very expensive learning exercise.


Upon acceptance as a temporary resident, you are automatically enrolled in the Caja national healthcare program and required to contribute a modest monthly fee per person to the plan.  More on this when our temporary residency is approved.

In discussing with locals, the plan is great for prescriptions and minor ailments, but for anything major, the wait time could be long and the quality of care not as good as the Costa Rica private healthcare system.

Excellent quality private healthcare insurance is available at a fraction of the cost of the United States.  Currently for me, it looks like it will be around $200 USD per month for a worldwide plan with a deductible of $10,000 USD.  The purpose of this type of insurance is for protection against a catastrophic event and to use Caja for minor issues and health maintenance.

There is one big difference between Costa Rica and the United States that may deter many from moving here, private insurance companies in Costa Rica can deny you from coverage with certain pre-existing conditions, and if they do accept you, they may exclude specific pre-existing conditions.  The only way to find out for sure is to apply and wait for the results.

Where to Live

If you live the sunshine, heat and are a beach person, you most likely will want to live on the Pacific northwest province of Guanacaste and the towns of Coco, Flamingo, Tamardino or Nosara.

The hills of the Central Valley and towns like San Ramon and La Fortuna experience cooler weather and more rain.  The cloud forest of Monteverde will not require heat or air conditioning.

The suburbs of San Jose are cooler due to the 3,845 foot altitude but are more congested and traffic can be a problem.

The Caribbean port of Limon will be hot and humid but experience less rain in October than nearly all other areas in Costa Rica.

For us, it was obvious.  We love the beach, warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine so we selected Flamingo.

Rent, Buy or Build ?

Nearly everybody recommends that you rent and move around every six months to find the location and micro-climate that is best for you.  Rents can be as reasonable or as high as you want.  Typical rent for a room is about $300-500 USD per month, a condo for $700 to $1500 and homes for $1000 to $2500 and are dependent on many factors.  Probably the best way is to find a real estate person that knows the area and also acts as a property manager.

There is no such thing as a licensed real estate agent in Costa Rica which can open things up to people who don't have your best interest in mind.  There are plenty of highly reputable agents that are certified in many areas of expertise.  However, like anywhere in the world, there are probably just as many that are equally bad.  Again, try to get a recommendation from multiple people that used the same person,

If you buy from a private party, do your due diligence to ensure that you don't get a bad deal.  Hire a lawyer from a recommended source and do your homework.  Also make sure that if you are buying land, that it has water rights.  If not, you won't be able to build on it.

We decided to buy and build without living here prior.  We knew the area that was best for us.  We love the beach, sun and warm to hot weather.  I love to fish.  We picked Guanacaste and the gated Mar Vista development in Flamingo.  We did our research on the developer, the builder and the area.  We spoke to several people who lived there and also in nearby communities such as Coco.  Follow our home build here.

Electricity is also very expensive and comparable to that of San Diego California.  There are plenty of locations in the hills and valleys that will not require heat for air conditioning.  The Guanacaste area is not one of them and will require air conditioning all the time.  Solar is somewhat new to Costa Rica and net-metering has just started.  Once the industry establishes itself, solar may be a good option to offset some or all of the costs.

No matter what you decide to do, factors to consider are proximity to health care, nearby towns, schools if you have young children, weather, other expats in the area and things that you like to do.  For example, if you like to surf or fish, you probably won't want to live in the central valley.  If you like to hike, you many want to live close to one of the many national parks.  If you want to immerse yourself in the local culture and language, pick a location that does not have a high expat population.

Getting Mail

Getting mail delivered to a foreign country is a big deal.  Things like banking cards and medicines need to be delivered securely and reliably.  Can I really get these items sent from another country and have them really show up in Costa Rica ?

Bringing Your Belongings

You have made the big decision to move to Costa Rica and want to bring everything that you own.  After all, you invested lots of time and money furnishing your house just the way you like it and can't part with anything.  Why this may be a big mistake....

Bringing Your Pets

For most people, pets are an important part of your family and go with you everywhere.  Moving full time to an international destination and taking your pets is a big undertaking, and for us, was one of the most stressful parts.  There is a very short timeline to get all certifications and endorsements completed before they expire.  Certain breeds cannot travel and airline rules vary with the carrier.  Can your pet make the journey with you ?

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