There are lots of reasons to live in Costa Rica. The weather is incredible, the national parks are second to none, and the people are amazing. It is a small country that packs a big punch of natural beauty, outdoor activities, phenomenal food and a focus on sustainable living.
Technology and education are head and shoulders above the rest of Latin America. It’s one of the best places to live with a fairly low cost of living of any Latin American country- especially since it is so safe and you can drink the water. US dollars are also widely used.
So many people speak English that there are communities where you can live and never even have to learn Spanish.
Post-pandemic, many people can work from anywhere, so the question really becomes “why NOT Costa Rica?”
In November of 2018, my husband lost his job, and we were trying to figure out what our next steps would be. Should he get a new job? Should I get a job and he stay home? Should we move to Costa Rica? Stay in the United States? In the end, we decided to move to Costa Rica- this is our story.
At the time, our girls were 3 and 5, attending the local elementary school and preschool. Kindergarten wasn’t really working out great for our older daughter, and we wanted the girls to have a strong foundation in speaking Spanish from a young age.
Even though we speak Spanish exclusively at home, and we have help from online courses and homeschool Spanish curricula, there is still nothing like immersing yourself in the language and culture of a country to become super fluent.
My husband is Costa Rican, but we have always lived in Colorado. We did see a compelling reason to be closer to his family for a year as well. We have always traveled and spent a month or so in Costa Rica in the summer, but again- not the same as living near family for an extended amount of time.
In this post, I’ll share our experience living abroad in Costa Rica- housing, transportation, location, schools, and culture.
In this post I won’t share any information about getting a visa, a work permit or a permanent residency in Costa Rica. Before you move, it is a very good idea to get those pieces in order, and I think looking at the Outlier Legal website is a great place to start and the easiest way to get your feet wet. Trying to live on a tourist visa isn’t the best long-term solution.
Choosing A Location
There are tons of options for where to live in Costa Rica. Where you choose to live depends largely on what type of life you want to have- and how close you need to be to excellent medical care. Do you want to live in one of the smaller towns near beautiful beaches?
Do you want to live in one of the popular tourist destinations such as Jaco? What about living in San Jose near some of the best restaurants, shopping and international schools in Latin America?
San Jose does have great access to the Southern Zone, Pacific Coast, and Caribbean Coast. Maybe a remote area is better for you?
For more information on choosing a specific location in Costa Rica you can read our posts on best places to live in Costa Rica or best places to live in Costa Rica with your family.
There are a lot of different locations to choose from when moving to Costa Rica- and we obviously chose to live in my husband’s hometown- the small town San Ramon. Shoutout to San Ramon here because it does have the largest expat community in Costa Rica outside of the capital city of San José, so it is a very popular place to move and raise children.
Once we narrowed down our location, we needed to find housing. There are several different options for this.
We chose to rent out our home in Colorado as a fully furnished AirBnB, which meant we wouldn’t be bringing any furniture with us. That also meant we needed a fully furnished apartment or house in Costa Rica.
We started the search with local real estate agents and expected to pay about $2500 a month for a fully furnished house in the suburbs of San Ramon. I think that is still about the going rate for that type of housing.
It actually turned out that a friend of mine from high school who married a woman from San Ramon had decided to move to the States. He sublet his house out for us and we moved in there are caretakers.
Another option that people do when they first move to Costa Rica is also to house sit- a quick Facebook search will have you come up with some options that may work for you and your family. This can be a great way to look at different areas to live in while also saving quite a bit of money on rent.
Once you determine the location you want to live in, you will want to decide what type of transportation you want to rely on for getting around in Costa Rica.
We lived in a suburb about 30 minutes between San Ramon and Palmares, and there wasn’t a grocery store very near to us.
For that reason, and because we love to explore Costa Rica, we decided we needed a car. Luckily for us, my friend let us use his car as part of the housesitting.
This is extremely rare, so I’ll outline some other options that people in our expat community relied on.
Not Having A Car
If you are living and working in a place that has grocery stores and schools within close proximity to your home, it is completely reasonable to not have a car in Costa Rica. Many locals do not have cars, instead relying on taxis and local busses to get around. When you do want to go to the beach, it is easy to hire private transport to your destination.
This can save on a lot of headaches associated with buying a car. Principally, insurance, maintenance of the car, keeping a driver’s license, and something called “marchamo” (a fee paid that shows your car is in good standing with the government).
A good option is to start without a car and then see if you actually need one!
Buying A Car
The next option is buying a car, which is what another high school friend did when he moved from Japan to Costa Rica while we were living there. (Shoutout to my high school- we apparently love Costa Rica!)
He simply found a used car broker (again, found on Facebook) and purchased a used car for his family. You can expect to pay between $10-20,000 depending on the type of car you want to buy.
In my opinion, it’s a myth that you must have a 4×4 car when living in Costa Rica. In almost all of the Central Valley and main beach towns, you can get around, even in the rainy season, with about any type of car.
Where you want a 4×4 is if you are living in a rural area, or want to do extensive traveling in Costa Rica to rural and off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Another option is to buy a brand-new car at a dealer. You’ll negotiate prices in US dollars, and your resale value should be quite high. If you aren’t a permanent resident or citizen of Costa Rica you can’t rely on financing, so you’ll need to make sure to have cash in hand to purchase.
Another thing you’ll want to think about in Costa Rica is that your driver’s license with expire 90 days after you enter the country, so if you do plan to drive for an extended amount of time you’ll need an international driver’s license or a local one.
You need to learn to navigate Costa Rica, which I tell you all about in this article.
Schooling In Costa Rica
I’m a former teacher (I taught high school Spanish for 15 years before starting this blog) and so I know a lot about schools.
My advice to families moving to Csota Rica is to really think through what you are looking for in a school for your kids, and make that the central decision for your and your family as far as where to reside in Costa Rica.
There are a ton of international schools and private schools throughout the country- I’ve listed some of the most popular schools by destination in this post. As far as public schools go- Costa Rica has an excellent system with curricula that is generally quite consistent across the country. Students in public school will receive in instruction in Spanish only.
Note that some international schools will use a Costa Rican calendar and some with use an American one. Public schools go half days and have all major Costa Rican holidays off. The Costa Rican calendar goes from February to November, with summer break happening in Costa Rican summer- December and January.
If you have older kids who don’t know Spanish, moving them into a public school with no English can be really tough. If you have younger kids and plan to be in the country for a long time, putting them in a local school and having them learn Spanish can be a great option. It’s what you think is best for your family!
Of course, you can always homeschool your kids, in which case moving about the country as a nomad can actually work really well. We chose not to put our kids in the local school and instead homeschool them- they were 3 and 5 at the time, and both parents were home with them, so it was the best choice for our family.
In full transparency, we moved back home because my older daughter got a scholarship to a really great private school, and there was just no comparison education-wise to what we would receive back in the States. So we moved home to put her into school here.
Costa Ricans (referred to as ticos) are such warm, friendly, laid-back people that you will absolutely love living among them. Ticos have a geat sense of humor and you’ll hear laughter everywhere you go. Laughter makes the transition to a new culture and a new life so much easier.
Embracing the pura vida (pure life) lifestyle is a must- but if you are willing to go with the flow even a little bit, you’ll find Costa Rica a great place to live. Between the tropical weather, universal health coverage, copoius amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables, the quality of life in Costa Rica is second to none.
Spanish is the main language spoken in Costa Rica, although with a widely bilingual population you will almost always find someone who speaks English and can help you out of a jam. If you want a real lesson on Costa Rican Spanish, just learn some slang before you go.
Daily life is simple- there’s a reason Costa Ricans are some of the happiest people in the world, and some of those who live the longest.
Most Costa Rican schools start at 7 am and most Costa Rican jobs require work 6 days a week.
Costa Rican traditional food centers around white rice, black beans, and an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. You’ll find everything from street vendors to amazing restaurants and sodas- the food is truly amazing. Lunch is the main meal, and you will generally eat a casado.
Holidays and festivals are celebrated in a public way- generally in the town square. Costa Rica is a Catholic country, so many religious holidays are days off of work and school.
Cost of living tends to be higher in Costa Rica than in in other parts of Latin America. This is in part because of the abundance of both tourism and multinational companies- both which pay in dollars.
Costa Rica has no standing army, and the money there has been poured into local schools, making Costa Rica one of the most highly educated populations in Latin America.
Expats drive up the cost of living too- and with the rise in popularity of digital nomads, including a new digital nomad visa, we can only expect this trend to continue.
I highly recommend you consider moving to Costa Rica- but I ask that you do so in a way that respects the local people and culture. Pura vida!