Costa Rican Residency and Related Matters
How to Become a Legal Resident of Costa Rica
People find Costa Rica attractive and want to live in the country for a myriad
of reasons: good year-round weather, tired of the rat race and hustle-bustle, a
new start in life, inexpensive living and retirement, tax benefits, the country’s
low-cost health care system, to start a business or invest, to learn Spanish,
separation or divorce, to enjoy the country’s large expatriate community and
even to find companionship. Whatever your motives may be for wanting to
move to Costa Rica, there are a number of ways to remain in the country
on a long-term basis.
Tourists from North America and many countries in Europe may remain
legally in the country for three months without having to apply for legal
residency. You may own property, start a business or make investments with
no more than a tourist visa.
I know many Americans, Canadians and other foreigners who started
businesses as tourists (be aware that a tourist cannot legally work in any company,
as they can in most other countries). If you plan to reside in Costa Rica full time,
however, one of Costa Rica’s residency programs will appeal to you.
Several residency categories permit you to retain your current citizenship
and obtain long-term legal status in Costa Rica. They are pensionado, rentista
and inversionista (resident investor). Which program you choose depends
on your needs and financial position. Becoming a legal resident will by no
means affect your U.S. or Canadian citizenship. Be very aware that residency
procedures and requirements can change frequently, so always check for
current requirements with the ARCR at www.arcr.net.
In March 1992, a change in the pensionado law eliminated many tax
privileges that retirees had enjoyed since the program started in 1964. Under
the old system, foreigners with official pensionado or rentista (permanent
retiree) status were required to live in the country four months a year. They
were entitled to the following perks: residency without immigration hassles,
all the privileges of Costa Rican citizens except the rights to vote and work
for hire, and the right to import one of each of the major appliances such as
refrigerator, stove, microwave, television, washer and drier, as well as many
personal household goods free of taxes.
Pensionados could import a new car every five years duty-free, provided
it was worth less than $16,000. In 1992, low taxes on imported cars and
duty-free household goods were eliminated. Since then, all pensionados have
to pay taxes on their automobiles and household goods the same as Costa
Rican citizens do.
Despite the changes in this law, Costa Rica continues to be Latin America’s
prime relocation and retirement haven. People continue to flock to the
country because of its high quality of life, peaceful atmosphere, political
stability, fantastic climate, friendly people who like foreigners, excellent
business environment and natural beauty. In fact, Costa Rica has more
American residents per capita than any other country in the world outside
of the United States. They can’t all be wrong!
The good news is that there is a good chance that a new version of
the pensionado law will be passed by the government. The Costa Rican
government realized that 10,000 more pensionados would create 5,000 new
jobs indirectly and add about $135 million to the economy. Retirees would
also contribute to the health care industry. If the law becomes reality it will
offer a $5,000 exoneration on automobiles and up to $10,000 on house
The practical benefits of obtaining residency in Costa Rica as a foreigner
are very tangible, unlike in some other countries:
1. Access to Social Security continued care.
2. Access to checking accounts and credit service from some banks
3. Permission to engage in labor relationships
4. Freedom from worries about immigration checkpoints and possible
5. Ability to purchase personal and business property and real estate
6. Qualify for citizenship and Costa Rican passport once
requirements are met
7. Have the right to purchase telephone lines
The New Immigration Law
A new immigration law or Ley de Migración was approved in 2009,
and with it came important changes in many residency categories, as well
as in the treatment of illegal residents in the country. The law went into
effect on March 1, 2010.
Both the increase in the number of immigrants, as well as alleged
shortcomings of the old immigration law, led government officials to look at
a series of changes they hope will improve security in Costa Rica and better
facilitate immigration for foreigners looking to live here.
Costa Rica is a small country with limited resources. As but one example;
Costa Rica’s national health care system cannot continue to expand as needed
when foreigners are allowed to flow across its borders unchecked and without
having to contribute financially to the system. This is similar to uninsured
or uninsured costs plaguing the United States and other worldwide health
To better address these concerns Costa Rica recently re-wrote its
immigration laws, towards:
* setting-up official positions and commissions to pass rules, regulations
and procedures under the directives of the new immigration laws.
* centralizing and modernizing the immigration process towards better
efficiency and enforcement.
* allowing ‘flexibility’ in making administrative approvals for those seeking
immigration statuses that may fall outside of written guidelines.
* criminalizing human trafficking and establishing human rights for
‘ Professionalizing’ the Costa Rica Immigration Police force (la Policía
Profesional de Migración y Extranjería).
* setting higher qualifications for residency – mainly to ensure that foreigners
come with adequate income to support themselves.
* attempting to close the “Marriage of Convenience” loophole that is
a long standing business institution where attorneys document false
marriages between Costa Rica citizens and foreigners for the sole purpose
of obtaining Costa Rica residency and citizenship.
* requiring all temporary and permanent residents to contribute to the
Caja (Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social –or- CCSS), The new law
requires pensionados, rentistas and inversionistas here to join Costa Rica’s
national social security and health care system regardless of whether they
have medical insurance elsewhere.
According to the Immigration Administration, there were nearly 284,000
permanent residents living in Costa Rica in 2007. Nicaragua, Colombia
and the United States topped the list of countries with the greatest number
of legal residents here, with 220,000, 11,652 and 9,000, respectively. The
actual figures may be higher.
Among the changes in the law are tougher residency-through-marriage
rules, a possibility for extending tourist visas and the opportunity to apply
for residency from within Costa Rica.
The new law lumps pensionados under the permanent residency category.
They are now considered temporary residents but have the right after three
years to request permanent residency. Permanent residents do not have to
show a specific monthly income.
Rentistas and inversionistas still are considered temporary residents
(residentes temporales). But they, too, seem to have the right to seek permanent
residency after three years here.
Tourists are considered non-residents, and they may not work in the
country. However, tourists have the right to renew their stay for 90 days with
the payment of $100. Tourists are allowed an additional 90 days in which
to apply for other immigration categories.
The law does not address the perpetual tourists who leave the country
for 72 hours every 90 days to renew their tourist visa. However, the new law
beefs up the immigration police and promotes them to a status equal to other
police agencies, so those abusing the tourist category might face judicial action.
The law also authorizes the nation’s president and the immigration director
to issue decrees to legalize foreigners who may be in the country illegally.
This clause opens the door to a general amnesty for illegal aliens, however
the final decision is left up to the president. Costa Rica had an amnesty in the
1990s that allowed a number of foreigners, mostly Nicaraguans, to obtain
residency. Some expats took advantage of that policy, too.
Summary of Important Points from the New Immigration Law
* Foreign visitors on tourist visas may stay in the country for up to 90
days, provided they prove they have adequate means of subsistence.
* Foreigners who stay in the country beyond the time period granted by
immigration authorities will be fined the equivalent of $100 for each
month overstayed in the country.
* Foreigners will have to pay an additional $25 in order to renew residency
in the country.
* Pensionados (retirees) looking to gain permanent residency in Costa
Rica must show they receive a monthly pension of no less than $1,000.
The old amount was $600 per month. Close family members may get
in under this amount.
* Rentistas (self-employed businesspeople or foreign investors) must prove
a monthly income of no less than $2,500 to gain residency. The previous
minimum income was $1,000. Likewise, close family members may get
in under this amount.
* Hotels and other hospitality sites must create a registry of people who
stay at their establishments, which can be made available to immigration
officials at any time.
* Individuals who provide work to undocumented foreigners risk being
fined from two to 12 times the employee’s base salary.
* To obtain residency through marriage, a couple must be able to prove
cohabitation. This must also be demonstrated on an annual basis for a
period of three years, if the foreigner wants to renew his or her residency.
* Foreigners may apply for residency from within Costa Rica. This will
now incur an additional fee of a few hundred dollars.
* Police may not detain immigrants with questionable residency status for
more than 24 hours.
* Note: If you have any questions about the new law, please contact
the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR).
Specific Residency Requirements
Now let’s look at the specific requirements and documents you will
need to present to the Costa Rican government if you choose to apply for
the pensionado or rentista categories.
NOTE: These are the requirements under the old law. Details for the new
Immigration law passed in 2009 are still forthcoming as of the publication
of this book.
A pensionado is someone who lives on a pension (a U.S. Social Security
check or permanent retirement program). A husband and wife cannot combine
their pensions, but the wife can live under the husband’s pensionado status or
vice versa. The individual applying can combine pensions to achieve the total
required. If the recipient of the pension dies, the spouse can retain pensionado
status if the pension is inherited. Some paper work, naturally, is involved.
Here are the requirements for this category:
1. A lifetime income of at least $1000 a month generated outside of Costa
Rica. Social Security recipients need a certification that can be made at
the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica.
2. A signed letter confirming that you will receive this money in Costa
Rica. This is not needed if issued by the U.S. Embassy.
3. A letter from a CPA stating that you will receive at least $1000 for life
if the pension comes from a company’s pension plan.
4. If the money comes from a private company, two letters from bank
officials showing that your company is financially sound and that the
pension plan has been in existence for at least 20 years.
5. A detailed account of your company’s pension plan or a yearly corporate
6. Join the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS).
As a pensionado you are obligated to exchange $12,000a year ($1000 per
month) for colones at a local bank. You need proof of this to update your
file. If you cannot prove that you converted enough money during the
year, you can lose your status. You also have to renew your pensionado
I.D. card every two years ($100) and reside in the country for at least four
months yearly (not necessarily consecutively). As a pensionado you can own
and operate your own business but not work. Also, as a pensionado you
do not have to pay taxes on your income from outside Costa Rica. After
three years you may change to permanent residency status. For the same
$1,000 per year you can bring your spouse and/or dependent children.
Rentista is a category designed for those who are not retired or receive
no government pension. To qualify for rentista status, you must have an
income of $30,000 a year ($2,500 per month) coming from an investment
or annuity from any financial institution. A good way to do this is to buy a
certificate of deposit from a Costa Rican bank that yields a monthly income
of at least $2,500 (from the capital). NOTE: Close family members are
included in the requirement.
As a rentista, you must prove that this investment will be stable for at
least five years. At the end of five years, you have to prove your source of
income again or change to permanent residency if possible. Furthermore,
every year as a rentista you have to prove that you changed $30,000 into
colones and show your passport to prove you were in the country at least
four months (not necessarily consecutively).
The safest banks are the public banks, which are the Banco Nacional de
Costa Rica or the Banco de Costa Rica. You must keep the deposit of your
money for five years in a CD and you may withdraw the interest obtained
from it. If you decide to withdraw the principal, then you will be charged a
penalty and will also be subject to loss of your residency, because the bank
is required to notify Immigration if the deposit is withdrawn.
As a rentista, you can own and operate a business but not work for
hire. The disadvantage to being a rentista is tying up your funds at relatively
low interest. As with pensionados, dependents are allowed for an additional
amount of income.
I just heard of a new method for obtaining rentista status from one
of my readers. He said: “If anyone has to get residency under the rentista
category, they can do it by setting up a business in the States if they already
do not have one. The business has to hold $150,000 which is to be dispersed
over five years.” I urge you to check with a lawyer to see if this method will
work before trying it.
In brief, to qualify for rentista status, you need:
1. An income of $2,500 per month for the next three years in Costa Rica.
2. Documentation from a bank attesting to income, if the income is from
a foreign source.
3. Join the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS), with the intent
that foreigners become integrated in Costa Rican life.
Inversionista is another resident status for people who are not retired
and want to invest in Costa Rica. If you have a lot of money to invest, this
might be the best route to go. The government will grant residency under
this category if you invest at least $50,000 in high- priority projects such as
tourism, $100,000 in pre-approved reforestation projects or $200,000in any
other business (retail, farming, manufacturing, etc.). No dependents can be
included under this category.
Most importantly, under the new law it appears that it may be possible
to obtain this status with an investment of $200,000 in property or shares.
Structure would be very important, so talk to the ARCR before starting
The paperwork and requirements are similar to those in the other
residency programs, with a few basic differences. Under this program you
must reside in Costa Rica at least six months of every year (they do not have
to be consecutive) and live as a temporary resident for two years. Eventually
you may become a permanent resident.
If you plan to start a project, additional paperwork such as a feasibility
study and bank references may be needed. If you are going to get involved
in tourism, you will need permission from the Costa Rican Tourism Institute
(ICT). When investing in an established company, you will have to show
the company’s books.
Since every circumstance is different and requirements change often,
contact the Association of Residents of Costa Rica for a good lawyer to
answer your questions.
The following documents are also required for pensionado, rentista,
inversionista (resident investor), and all other types of residency in Costa Rica:
Note: All documents usually must be authenticated by the Costa Rican
consulate or embassy located closest to the origin of the document (see the list
for at the end of the last chapter for the nearest one). The charge is $40 per
document. The people at the consulate must affix stamps worth the amount
to collect the money. If the documents do not have the required stamps, you
can buy them in Costa Rica. Talk to the ARCR before processing documents.
1. Police Certificate — From your local area stating that you have no
criminal record. (This document is good for only six months, so make
sure it is current.) Required for applicant, spouse, and any children ages
18 to 25. The local police in the applicant’s usual residence, if different
from the applicant’s home state, may issue this report, but the police
report usually coincides with the applicant’s U.S. driver’s license number.
This document must also be authenticated by the nearest Costa Rican
consulate. Many U.S. state and local law enforcement agencies have
websites and special phone numbers to issue such reports, upon request
by the applicant.
2. Birth Certificate — Required for applicant, spouse and all dependent
children (up to 18 years old or up to 25 if a university student; proof
of enrollment is required). This document has to be authenticated by
the Costa Rican consulate nearest to the issuing authority of the birth
3. Marriage Certificate — If applicable and if spouse wishes residency.
Proof of divorce is not needed. This document must also be authenticated
by the nearest Costa Rican consulate.
4. I ncome Certificate — For pensionados and rentistas (required only for
the applicant). Please see the previous sections for specific details. Talk
to the ARCR before processing documents. This document must also
be authenticated by the nearest Costa Rican consulate.
5. Certified photocopies of all pages of the applicant’s entire passport
(Not stamped by consulate),
6. Photos — Twelve cédula-size photos—six front views and six profiles.
Do not bring photos, since a specific size is required and passport size
will not work. Photos must be matte finish, not glossy.
Translation of Documents: Don’t forget that all of these required
documents must be translated from English into Spanish by an official
translator. Translations from other languages to Spanish have to be done
either by the Costa Rican consulate (no one else) in the country where
the document was issued or in Costa Rica by an official translator for
the specific language to Spanish. The Costa Rican government does
not accept translation of the original language to English. The formal
application should have the following information: your mother’s maiden
name, full name, nationality, passport number, dependents’ names,
date of entry into Costa Rica, origin and amount of income, address in
country of origin or Costa Rica, authentication by a notary public and
All the above residency documents (other than those obtained in Costa
Rica) must be:
a) Notarized by a local notary public if they do not have an official
government seal. If in doubt about the need to have it notarized,
check with the local Costa Rican consulate.
b) Authenticated by the Secretary of State (or other body) where
they were issued (if in the United States, and possibly some other
c) Authenticated by the Costa Rican consulate in the country where
the document was issued.
Notarization: Your signature must NOT appear in the notarization
of the document.
Authentication: A Costa Rican consulate will charge US$40 for
authentication of each document. They must affix stamps worth that amount
to collect the money. If they do not have the stamps, the ARCR can buy
them in Costa Rica on your behalf. There is also a $100 application fee.
Translations from other languages to Spanish have to be done either by
the Costa Rican consulate (no one else) in the country where the document
was issued or here in Costa Rica by an official translator for the specific
language to Spanish. ARCR can arrange for the services of a translator at
the cost of the member. Translation from the original language to English
is not accepted by the Costa Rica government.
If you meet the prerequisites for any of the residency categories and
have gathered all the required documents, you are ready to apply for your
Next, have the ARCR Administration or an attorney present your papers
to the proper agency, which will process them in four months or so.
If you want to avoid the many inconveniences of Costa Rica’s giant
“bureaucrazy” and save time and money in the long run, I suggest you
join the ARCR. The 5,000-member association has been reorganized and
revitalized. It now offers services to all legal residents in Costa Rica, not
The ARCR’s monthly seminar is a must
A provisional membership in The ARCR, which entitles you to all
information and services, costs $100 yearly. Members with legal Costa Rican
residency pay dues of $50 per year. Spouses and dependents of members may
join for $10 per year as associate members. The ARCR offices are located in
San José at Casa Canada, two blocks south of Centro Colón on the corner
of Avenida 4 and Calle 40. They will assist you when you need help applying
for pensionado or rentista status for $950 for the primary applicant, $950
for spouse or dependent and $500per child. This includes everything except
the deposit to the government of $300 to $400 per person and the consular
stamps you must obtain on foreign documents ($40 per document, and usually
you need three such documents for an individual, or seven for a couple).
The cost for inversionista or representante status is $1,200 for the
primary applicant. These prices are a good deal since many lawyers charge
up to $2,000 and take much longer.
Residency in Costa Rica is another company that specializes in
the preparation and filing of applications for prospective Costa Rican
residents. Their website says that they have one goal: the approval of your
residency application. To find out more about their services see: www.
residencyincostarica.com or email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel:
(323) 255-6116, Fax: (323) 344-1620.
To give readers an idea of what the process of obtaining residency is
like, here is an account of one person’s experience: “I handled all my own
paperwork in the States. That amounted to following very peculiar procedures
in New York State (New York City) for my birth certificate, and only slightly
less complicated ones in Pennsylvania for my police report, with all of the
certifications, etc. Then I took them all to the Costa Rican consulate and
had them certified by the Consul in less than an hour.
“I suppose one could go to different consulates for each different
document, but it would be a really trying process, as I am sure you are
finding out if that’s the way you do it. According to the rules, you have to
take everything to the consulate assigned to your place of residence in the
United States. I lived in south Philly, so New York was the place. In fact, the
embassy in Washington said I could bring them all down there if I wanted,
when I expressed concern on the phone that I initially had trouble reaching
the New York Consul by phone or e-mail.
“I had already gone to the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica for the paperwork
to establish an account for my pension in Costa Rica.
“When I was done with all this, my Costa Rican attorney took me by
the hand and led me through the police fingerprinting and Migración. Each
step took less than two hours counting lunch.
“It is really not a big deal. It is more a learning experience in patience
than anything else. All told, it took me about three months start to finish,
For more information on the new immigration law, see: http://centralamerica-
As we mentioned in the last section, most of the pensionado program’s privileges
were revoked in 1992 (although some may be restored as we mention in the
last section), so the only real advantage for becoming a pensionado is to be
able to stay in the country legally. Now more and more people are looking
at other ways of obtaining Costa Rican residency.
The residency program is for people who wish to reside in Costa Rica
full-time but who cannot qualify for pensionado or rentista status.
(1) Residente Inversionista — As we mentioned in the last section, you
can become inversionistas (resident investors) by investing $50,000
in an approved organization such as a tourism or export business,
$100,000 in a reforestation project or $200,000 in another type of
business. With this type of residency you have to live in the country
six months a year.
2) First Degree Relative — Foreigners can also claim permanent residency
if they have an immediate or first-degree relative in Costa Rica, i.e.
a child, spouse or parent (mother or father), brother or sister (in this
particular case, the applicant must be single) who is a citizen. Applicants
must prove a relationship in the first degree, either by marriage or blood,
to a Costa Rican citizen, and the Costa Rican citizen must be willing to
sponsor the applicant’s residency.
They must also prove they have financial means to support themselves
while living in Costa Rica. Relatives of foreigners who have become
Costa Rican citizens are also eligible for residency. In all cases you will
be asked to prove your relationship. You can usually work under this
category. All the documents required for other residency applications
must be provided.
(3) Marriage — Marrying a Costa Rican also entitles you to residency. This is
the fastest way to become a resident. I personally know of many expatriates
who have married Costa Ricans for this very reason. Anyone under this
category is not required to prove a minimum foreign income.
In addition, anyone who has lived for several years under another
residency category, such as pensionado or rentista, may apply for Costa
Rican residency. Many ex-pensionados do this because they can generally
qualify for this status easily. With this type of residency you have to visit
the country once a year. As in the other residency categories, you need
an application, birth certificate, marital status certificate, police report,
several passport photos and in some cases documents proving your
relationship to your Costa Rican relatives.
(4) Working for a Costa Rican Corporation — There is a newly added
residency status for those who have a working company or sociedad
anónima. You must have a minimum number of local employees and
provide financial statements. Just having a Costa Rican corporation will
not qualify a person for this status.
(5) Residency Under Special Circumstances — Residency is sometimes
granted to some people who do not fall into any of the previous categories.
Not all people who apply under this category will obtain residency. If
there are two people with the exact circumstances, one may be granted
residency and the other may be denied. Since each case is different I
suggest you talk to an attorney.
(6) Temporary Residency — Residencia temporal is for students enrolled in
a university or language school, Peace Corps volunteers and members of
affiliated church service groups, employees of foreign firms, employees of
many national companies and other categories. Language teachers at any
language institute in San José may obtain temporary residency. Others
doing jobs that Costa Ricans cannot do are also eligible for this status.
Temporary residency permits are valid for three months to a year and can
be renewed. Temporary residents may enter and leave the country as often as
they wish, paying the exit tax. Once all documents are correctly presented,
temporary permits are approved as quickly as possible.
Because each person’s situation is different, the procedure is complicated.
All residency programs require mounds of paperwork, so I advise you to
consult a lawyer to facilitate this process. To find a competent, trustworthy
attorney, go to the ARCR office or see the section in the Chapter 6 titled,
“How to Find a Lawyer.”
* NOTE: There are certain crimes which automatically disqualify you
for Costa Rican residency. The list of criminal convictions for crimes
that preclude a person from applying for Costa Rican residency are
the following major crimes (felonies): Murder; trafficking in illegal
drugs/narcotics; trafficking in human beings; trafficking in weapons
or explosives; sexual crimes against minors, the elderly or the disabled;
domestic violence; membership in certain designated gangs or in
organized crime; etc.