Costa Rica Customs and Visas (Complete Guide)

Approaching an immigration counter at an international airport in a foreign country can be nerve-wracking, especially if it’s your first time. Sweaty palms, racing thoughts, and a pounding heart are common experiences for many of us. Fortunately, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about Costa Rica visas and customs at San José Airport and Liberia International Airport. Let’s get started!

Costa Rica Customs

The Types of Permits for Foreign Nationals

When a foreign national wants to visit Costa Rica, they must have a valid visa to stay in the country legally. There are five main options to consider, and these include the following:

Temporary Status

For a temporary stay in Costa Rica, you can apply for a tourist visa or a digital nomad visa.

Tourist Visa

Under the new rules (Executive Decree No. 44187), passport holders from group one countries, which includes the United States and Canada, are allowed up to 180 consecutive calendar days from the date of entry.

Digital Nomad Visa

If you’re a remote worker considering moving to Costa Rica, the digital nomad visa could be the best option for you. You don’t have to leave the country every 90 days, and renewal may be possible after one year.

Temporary Residency via Investment

A new law allows investors, rentiers, or pensioners who want Costa Rica to be their place of permanent residence to invest $150,000 to have their migratory status changed. There are a lot of benefits that come with this option, and these include the following:

  • You don’t have to pay import taxes on household items (applicable only once).
  • The law exempts you from paying taxes and import duties when importing up to two vehicles.
  • There is no income tax on the money you make outside of Costa Rica, such as Social Security checks or pension payments.
  • To make the country more attractive for investors, the law exempts 20% of the total real estate price from transfer tax.

Permanent Residency

After you’ve spent three years in Costa Rica as a temporary worker, you can apply for permanent residency to change your immigration status. This will allow you to work legally in the country, as those on temporary permits can only run businesses and hire employees to do the actual labor.

You can also become a permanent resident if your child is born in Costa Rica. Apply as their parent for residencia permanente por vinculo.



A Costa Rican citizen has the right to live and work in the country without any restrictions. There are many other benefits of this pathway, and these include the following:

  • Costa Rica allows dual citizenship, which means that you don’t have to give up your homeland passport.
  • You can participate in the presidential elections.
  • As a citizen, you can move in and out of the country without any restrictions. Plus, you don’t have to worry about suspending your residency status if you’re leaving Costa Rica for an extended period.

To apply for pensionado residency, you need the following documents:

  • A completed and signed application form
  • Proof of payment of the application fee (receipt issued in the name of the applicant)
  • Proof of payment of timbres (a government tax)
  • A printed letter that explains your reason for seeking residence in Costa Rica
  • Six recently-taken passport-sized photographs
  • Proof of fingerprint registration
  • Birth certificate
  • Marriage certificate if you’re applying with your spouse
  • Police record with criminal background check
  • Divorce certificate if you’re divorced
  • Assignation of Power of Attorney for Representation if an immigration attorney is representing you

It’s important to understand that the required documents must receive an apostille, which is a signed stamp from the State Department that certifies their validity. 

Since this is not a requirement for applicants from Canada, Canadians must verify their documents with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

There are two main pathways to Costa Rica citizenship, and these are as follows:

  • By marriage: If you’ve been married to a native Costa Rican for two years or more, you can apply for citizenship by marriage. For that, you’ll need an authenticated marriage certificate, a copy of your spouse’s national identity card, a translated background check, and passport-sized photographs.
  • By residing in the country: Anyone who spends seven years or more living in Costa Rica can apply for citizenship through the process of naturalization. You must submit a certified copy of your birth certificate, a translated background check, two witnesses, proof of income, and passport-sized photographs. Foreign nationals will also have to take the Spanish language test.

Everything Tourists Need to Know About Costa Rica Customs and Immigration

Know About Immigration

Whether you’re flying into San Jose International Airport or Guanacaste Airport, the guidelines set by the Costa Rica Immigration Department are the same.

What You Should Do When You Arrive in Costa Rica

The immigration rules that apply to Costa Rican citizens are much different than those arriving from other countries. However, the process has become much easier over the years.

Fill out the Customs Form

While there is no official custom form that you need to complete, if your airline gives you one, it’s super easy to fill out. Here are some details that you may need to provide:

  • Your given name
  • Last name
  • Nationality
  • Gender
  • Date of birth
  • Country of residence
  • Country of origin

Besides your basic personal information, the custom form may also require details about your flight, which may include the following:

  • Flight number
  • Airline name
  • Port of arrival

You will also need to provide your passport number and the name and address of the hotel or Airbnb where you will stay during your adventures in Costa Rica.

Previously, when foreign nationals arrived at San Jose Airport or Liberia International Airport, they had to complete an immigration form. Today, you can go directly to the counter for a short interview, which will determine your stay in Costa Rica.

Walk Through the Immigration at the Airport

Walk Through the Immigration at the Airport

The immigration process for a foreign national is also different than what a Costa Rican citizen goes through. There are markers all across San Jose Airport and Liberia International Airport to guide you to Passport Control.

If you’re traveling with a family member, you can go together at the immigration counter. However, if you’re with a friend, the officer at the desk might ask each of you to approach separately.

Head over to the immigration counter when your name gets called out. The officer will ask you for your passport, so hand it over and wait for them to assess the document. In most cases, they will look at your name, picture, and expiry date before proceeding further.

Besides your passport, the immigration officer will ask you for evidence of your stay and proof of exit. Provide the hotel or Airbnb booking document along with your ticket for flying out of Costa Rica.

The tourist visa is typically valid for between 30 and 180 days, depending on your nationality. However, if you can’t provide proof of exit, the officer of the General Directorate of Immigration has discretion in determining the length of your stay.

After you’ve cleared the quick interview session, the government official will stamp your passport. This shows the date of entry into Costa Rica, which is crucial, as it will help you determine the maximum period you can stay.

Additionally, car rental companies require this information, as foreign nationals can only drive for up to 90 days on their international driving license from the day they enter the country.

Exit Through the Baggage Claim and Customs

Now that you’ve cleared the dreadful immigration checkpoint, it’s time to head over to baggage claim and customs. Wait at the right carousel for your luggage to arrive. Take advantage of the free carts around the airport if you have a lot of things to carry.

When you’ve picked up your baggage, head over to the customs and place all of your luggage (backpacks, bags, purses, and carry-ons) on the scanner. If everything is clear, you’re free to go around the other side, pick up your things, and exit the airport to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

In case the officer picks up something, there is no need to panic. Take a deep breath and assist the official in opening up your bag for a quick examination. Scanners are incredibly sensitive and can go off for a number of reasons. If you have nothing to hide, you should be good to go.

One of the many concerns tourists have before arriving in Costa Rica is local currency and navigating around the country. You’ll find SIM card stands at the baggage claim to help you connect to the internet and money exchanges to convert your foreign notes. There are even rental companies that offer a wide range of vehicles to tourists.

Leaving the Airport in Costa Rica

Leaving the Airport in Costa Rica

Exiting the airport is simple, whether you have a Costa Rican passport or are a foreign national.

The exit is inside if you’re at Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (Guanacaste Airport). On the other hand, you’ll have to go to the outside terminal at San Jose International Airport if you wish to leave.

List of Costa Rica Customs Prohibited Items

There are certain items that can create obstacles in your Costa Rica immigration clearance process. It could lead to financial troubles and criminal prosecution.

Here are the Costa Rica customs prohibited items that you should avoid traveling with:

  • Alcoholic beverages with the intent to sell
  • Narcotics and drugs
  • Explosives
  • Used tires
  • Pornographic content
  • Animals, plants, and agricultural products
  • Certain food items
  • Weapons and ammunition without a permit

Customs Prohibited Items

How Long Does Customs Take in Costa Rica?

The time it takes at the Costa Rica immigration checkpoint depends on when you fly into the country and what hour you land.

Typically, there is a lot more traffic at San Jose Airport than at Guanacaste Airport, which means that you’ll have to wait a bit longer (around an hour or so), especially during the high season. It’s not uncommon to spend up to three hours in the line when many flights land at the same time.

Since Guanacaste Airport sees fewer flights every day, the wait is shorter and can take around 20 minutes. However, during the high tourism months between 11 AM and 2 PM, the immigration line can take up to one hour.

Exchanging Money at the Airport in Costa Rica

There are many money exchanges at San Jose International Airport and Guanacaste Airport. While we don’t recommend exchanging currency here due to the poor rates, you can convert $20 to $30 to Costa Rican Colón (CRC) to help you reach your accommodation.

Another way of getting your hands on CRC is by buying a few things from the supermarket at the airport. You can pay in dollars and receive the change in local currency.

Final Thoughts on Costa Rica Customs, Immigration, and Visas

Whether it’s clearing immigration or applying for a visa, it’s crucial to provide accurate information and proof of necessary documentation when asked. While the process has become much easier, Passport Control officers have complete discretion in determining who gains entry into the country.

Always approach Costa Rica customs and immigration checkpoint with a smile, answer all of the questions asked, and show a bit of kindness towards the hard-working officials. It’ll set the mood right for a thrilling and breathtaking escape into this vibrant country.

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Tim Schmidt is a 20+ year Entrepreneur and Digital Marketer. A Fort Lauderdale-based "Digital Nomad," he enjoys traveling as much as possible with family and friends. AllWorld is his escape to document all of his adventures, including being a hardcore "foodie." He has property in Costa Rica and visits several times each year and is happy to offer his expert advice for planning your trip.

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