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Why You Need a Costa Rica Visa (And How to Get It)

W. Farir

W. Farir

Costa Rica has historically been a relatively easy place to enter and live.  There were no departure taxes.  Income requirements for most visas were relatively low.  And border officials were just as laid-back as the rest of the population.

However, in recent years a few things have changed.  The minimum proof of income has increased.  A border tax now exists.  And officials have begun to crack down on “perpetual tourists,” as well as those who’ve outstayed their welcome.

As a result, there’s never been a better time to go ahead and get your hands on a Costa Rica visa.  The legal way, that is.

costa rica visa


Costa Rica Visa Options

Costa Rica offers a number of visas for those who wish to visit or reside in the country.  Here are a few good options.

Tourist Visa

This one’s sort of a misnomer, as it’s really not a visa at all.  Visitors from North America, as well as most other nations, don’t need to apply for a visa to enter the country.  They’ll merely stamp your passport and authorize you to stay in the country for a period not to exceed 90 days.

After that you’ll need to skedaddle.  Or else face a fine of $100 per month (or a proportion of that amount if you’re only days or weeks late).

Many foreigners skirt around this time limitation by taking a trip across the border once every 3 months, for at least 72 hours.  Reentering the country gets you a fresh stamp granting you another 90-day stay.

Even though some expats have literally been doing this for years or even decades, it’s quite risky.  You’re taking the chance that the border officials won’t notice or care what you’re doing.  And while it isn’t technically illegal, it definitely isn’t the aim of the tourist visa.

Judging by the direction the government is headed with their recent changes to immigration laws, it’s entirely possible that you could be escorted out of the country and prevented from reentering for an extended period.  Anyone with a home, family, or business at stake might want to consider looking at one of the other options.    

Requirements:  You’ll need a valid passport that doesn’t expire for at least 6 months.  Other things they could (but won’t necessarily) ask you for include proof of departure (either back to your home country or to another destination outside Costa Rica) within 90 days, as well as proof that you have sufficient funds and won’t need to work to support yourself while you’re in the country (i.e. a bank statement).

While they may not ask you for either of these things, they legally COULD.  So be prepared, just in case.  The country has also recently implemented a departure tax ($7) at all land borders, something that was previously charged only for air travelers ($29).  

There have been reports of travelers’ inability to pay this tax at the border due to technical difficulties, so a good suggestion is to pay it at a Banco Credito Agricola branch (or another designated collection point) before arriving at the immigration station.  Ironically, the taxes were introduced to help fund some much-needed improvements at the border crossing facilities.

Income Potential: Those visiting Costa Rica with a tourist visa are not permitted to work during their stay.

Pensionado Visa

This one, as well as the others that follow, is an actual residency visa.  It’s designed for foreigners living on a lifetime pension, such as social security, annuities, military pensions, or other guaranteed retirement benefits.

While many holders of this visa are older adults, there’s no age requirement for obtaining one.  There are plenty of pensioners of all ages, including retired military personnel.  Those who hold this visa can claim their spouse, as well as other dependents under 18, without increasing the income requirement.

Requirements:  The basic requirements for each visa include marriage and birth certificates, as well as a certificate of good conduct from the police department in your home country.  These are also required of all dependents.

All documents must be notarized, approved by the Secretary of State (or the equivalent in another country) and authenticated or apostilled (legally translated) by the Costa Rican consulate in the country where the documents were issued.

For this visa, you’ll also need to show proof of at least $1,000 in monthly income from a guaranteed source that will last throughout the pensioner’s life.  This minimum amount is up from just $600 a few years ago.

You’ll need to continue to show proof of income at each annual renewal.  You’re also required to enroll in the country’s government health program, called CAJA.  Another stipulation is that you must live in Costa Rica for at least 4 months out of each year.

Income Potential:  Those with a pensionado visa cannot be employed by a Costa Rican company, but they are permitted to own their own business and receive income.

Rentista Visa

This visa is designed for small investors, and it’s a great option for those who want to give Costa Rica a try without jumping through a lot of hoops or being bound to any long-term obligations.  Its holders also have either a guaranteed source of income or, more commonly, the ability to make a sizeable deposit into a Costa Rican bank that can be disbursed over the course of 24 months.

Rentistas can also claim their spouse and other dependents.  However, additional income is needed for these additional family members.

Requirements:  To obtain a rentista visa, you’ll need to show proof of income of at least $2,500 per month (up from $1,000) from a guaranteed source.  This is generally done in the form of a $60,000 deposit in a Costa Rican bank.

You’ll have to show proof of income (or make another deposit) after two years when the visa must be renewed.  You’re also required to enroll in CAJA and live at least four months out of each year in Costa Rica. Note, these do not have to be in a continuous period for either visa mentioned thus far.

You’ll also need the required basic documents (with their appropriate authentications) as with the pensionado visa.

Income Potential:  Holders of the rentista visa cannot work as employees, but they can own a company and earn income from their business.

Inversionista Visa

Tailored to large investors, this visa is similar to the rentista, but with higher deposit requirements.  Spouses and other dependents may not be claimed by inversionista holders.  Instead they require their own separate visa.

Requirements:  The minimum investment for the large investor visa is $200,000.  This amount can be invested in any business.  It can also go into specific sectors approved by the government that may have their own set minimums.

In addition to the paperwork needed to document the investment, inversionista applicants will also need the same basic documents as with the previously mentioned visas.

Unlike the aforementioned visa holders, inversionistas must stay in the country at least 6 months out of the year.

Income Potential:  Inversionista visa holders may earn income from their investment and/or own a business.

Permanente Visa

Anyone who’s been legally living in Costa Rica for 3 years with another type of visa or who has first-degree relative status with a Costa Rican citizen (by marrying a citizen or having a Costa Rican child) may apply for permanent residency.

It’s a great option for those who tire of continuously going through the hassle of renewing their temporary visas (although “permanent” visas also require their own form of renewal). It’s especially recommended for those who hold a rentista visa and have decided to stick around for a while.  They’ll still have to renew once, but a permanent visa can eliminate that third required $60,000 deposit.

While the government makes it easy for those who marry a Costa Rican citizen to obtain residency, the immigration reforms of 2010 tightened some loopholes for those who were just marrying for convenience in order to simplify their immigration process.  In short, if you’re trying to obtain residency through marriage, it had better be legit.

No spouse or dependents can be claimed under this visa, as that’s the very purpose of the visa itself.  Each individual will have to go through the process himself.

Requirements:  To obtain permanent residency you have to have lived in the country on another visa for a minimum of 3 years or be married to (or the parent of) a Costa Rican citizen.  As a permanent resident, you’re required only to visit the country at least once a year and stay for 72 hours.

You’ll also need to prove that you’ve lived in the country for the required time limit, which can be tougher than you think.

Income Potential:  Unlike holders of temporary visas, permanent residences are permitted to legally work for a Costa Rican employer.  They can also own a company and receive income from any investments.

costa rica visa


Obtaining Citizenship

While permanent residency, or even a temporary visa, is often enough to meet the needs of most expats, there may be some who desire to apply for citizenship.  This can be done after 7 years of living in the country as a legal resident (two years if married to a Costa Rican citizen or five years if you’re from Spain or certain Latin American countries).

Citizenship gives residents additional rights, such as the ability to vote and obtain a Costa Rican passport.

Requirements:  You’ll need to show proof that you’ve lived in the country for the required 7 year (or less) period.

Also, with the exception of citizenship by marriage, you’ll have to renounce your citizenship in your former country.  While this isn’t always enforced, it is technically the rule.  Dual citizenship is permitted in some cases.

Income Potential:  Costa Rican citizens have all the rights to seek employment or own a business, just like permanent residents.

costa rica visa


Visa and Residency Advice

As you’ve probably noticed, obtaining a Costa Rican visa isn’t always a simple process.  And, with recent changes to the rules and requirements, it isn’t getting any easier.

What it is, though, is totally worth it.  Holding a Costa Rican visa gives you virtually unlimited access to all the wonders in one of the world’s most beautiful countries, complete with an unrivaled quality of life, a first rate health care system, and some of the happiest people on the planet.

Our advice?  Don’t try to go it alone.  This is a process that is best navigated with the help of someone who specializes in visa and residency issues on a regular basis.  One example is the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR).

Better yet, get yourself a good attorney who deals with immigration.  Do your homework to make sure they’re credible.  When your life and livelihood are on the line, that is not the time to try to save a few bucks by hiring some random bozo on the internet.

The process for many visas can take as long as a year or more to complete.  Just be patient, always make sure to do everything you can to keep the ball moving forward (even when faced with obstacles), and rest assured knowing you’re doing everything you can to reach your goal.

You’ll be glad you did!


Map of Costa Rica

Costa Rica Fast Facts

  • Population: About 4.8 million
  • Typical temperature: Mid 80’s
  • Nearest airport with U.S. flights: San Jose
  • Nearest U.S. consulate: San Jose

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