Everything you need to know about arriving and departing from San Jose Airport in Costa Rica.
Author’s note: There are a lot of oddities about the San Jose, Costa Rica airport. That’s why I included a table of contents here. Make sure to jump to the section you are wondering about and read all of the text. That way, you can be assured you are free of surprises when you are around the airport. This is especially important if you are traveling with kids!
Table of contents
- About The San Jose Costa Rica Airport
- Arrival At The SJO Airport
- Departure From San Jose Airport
About The San Jose Costa Rica Airport
The San Jose airport is one of two international airports in Costa Rica- the other being in the northern part of the country at Liberia.
Officially called the Juan Santamaría International Airport, this airport is actually located near the town of Alajuela, about 20 km or 30 minutes drive north of the actual San Jose center. There are plenty of hotels near the airport, but if you book a hotel room in San Jose proper just know that you will need to take a shuttle, taxi or Uber to get there.
The airport is named after a national hero, Juan Santamaria, died in battle with the American mercenary William Walker.
The San Jose Costa Rica airport code is SJO. Do not confuse this airport with San Jose, California whose airport code is SJC. (Trust me, it happens.)
Even though it’s an international airport, Juan Santamaria is relatively small in size, with just 16 gates on two levels. There is a domestic terminal just a block north of the main airport.
The airport is currently under construction on the south side, almost doubling the size of the current building. This is due to the large influx of visitors to Costa Rica each year.
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Arrival At The SJO Airport
Going Through Customs
When you arrive to the airport you will walk for about 5 minutes, including down an escalator, to arrive at the customs area. (Parents with strollers note that there is also an elevator on the way to customs.)
The customs area is divided into two sections- lines for residents and Costa Rican nationals and separate lines for tourists. The line for tourists is generally much longer that the line for residents.
You can expect to wait anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours to get through customs. Over the past few years, the wait times have greatly improved. However, if there are many flights that arrive at the same time, customs will be saturated. Good thing there is WiFi in this area!
Once you arrive at the customs official, you will be expected to show your passport. There is not a customs declaration form to arrive, but the officer may ask you for information about what you are carrying.
Tourists have an automatic visa for a 90-day stay. You may be asked to show a ticket that proves your exit from the country within those 90 days, so have that handy.
During COVID, you will be asked to fill out a digital Health Pass which you will present to the customs official. If you are vaccinated, you will need to show your vaccine card upon arrival. If you are not vaccinated, you are required to purchase travel insurance that would cover your stay in the event that you get COVID while in Costa Rica.
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After clearing customs, you will walk through a Duty-Free store and then over to the baggage claim area. This area is generally a bit dark as there are no windows and it is located in the basement.
There are bathrooms, money exchange, and an ATM in this area. There might be a place to buy a cell phone chip here too, but they are often closed late a night. More on that below.
As a side note, the Duty-Free store has excellent prices on alcohol, so you may want to consider purchasing here. I will often purchase Ron Centenario or Cacique to bring back to the States on my way into the country.
There are 4 baggage claim areas, and your bags will generally arrive very quickly. If you have been in customs for a really long time, you will most likely find your bags as part of a line away from the baggage claim. Employees are asked to remove the bags to clear the way for the next flight.
Once you have gotten your bags, you will form a line to put everything through an x-ray machine. You will be asked to show your passport at this time as well. This machine is reviewed by a customs official to make sure you are not bringing prohibited items into the country.
Note that there is a high resale value for brand new brand name clothing, kitchen appliances, electronics and shoes. If you have new clothing in your bag I suggest removing the tags. You can also distribute the potentially problematic items into multiple bags. Tourists generally do not have a problem with these items, but it’s important to note.
Once you leave the x-ray area there are a few rental car companies that have offices right at the airport and can help you to connect with an agent right there. Otherwise, you will leave the airport here.
It is generally not the best idea to exchange money at the airport as the rates can be really high. Remember that US dollars are widely accepted in Costa Rica, so I usually just bring a dollars in small bills to cover tips, and then exchange money outside of the airport.
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There is a place to buy a cell phone chip in the airport. It is generally much more expensive than buying outside the airport, but if you are in a time crunch this is the fastest and easiest option.
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Transportation Away From SJO Airport Costa Rica
There are several options for transportation away from the airport. You can take an official taxi, Uber, shared shuttle to a hotel, or a shuttle to car rentals.
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There are official orange taxis that will take you to and from the airport. You can purchase your official ticket just before leaving the airport. This is the safest option for taxis.
There is a very strong union of taxi workers in Costa Rica who have strongly spoken out about the introduction of Uber in Costa Rica. Part of the negotiation between the union and Uber says that there are to be no Ubers coming and going from the airport.
If you call an Uber you will need to walk out of the airport, through the parking lot, and over to the bus stop outside the airport. If you have a lot of luggage be prepared for people to ask to help you in exchange for a tip. The walk is about 3 minutes without luggage.
There are some car rentals inside the airport (mostly bigger names such as Hertz and Dollar.) Otherwise, if you have made arrangements to go to a rental car office, the pickup person should be just outside the airport to greet you with a sign with your name on it.
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Shared shuttles such as to nearby hotels are located to the right when you exit the airport. You will walk about 75 feet to your right, and just in front of the cafe is where the busses will stop. There isn’t a sign for them there.
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Departure From San Jose Airport
Arrival To Airport
Every single recommendation I have seen says to arrive at the airport 2 hours before departure.
I totally disagree.
If you arrive 2 hours before departure, you will be there with every tourism shuttle bus in town, and the lines are atrocious.
Instead (and especially with kids) I arrive 2.5 hours before departure. There are very few people there and I can go quickly through the check-in process.
Returning the Rental Car
If you rent a car in Costa Rica and want to return it you have a few options. Make sure to check with your rental car company to make sure these work for them.
- Return the car to the rental agency. If you do this, you will most likely need to take a shuttle from the agency to the airport. Most car companies offer this, but do be aware that you will need to plan time to both return the car, possibly get gas, and also wait for the shuttle if it is on a time table.
- Return the car at the hotel you are staying at the night before departure. Many rental car companies will pick up your car at local hotels, and you can often save a half a day of car rental by doing this.
- Leave the car in the short term parking lot in the airport. Not all rental car companies offer this option, but I do find it is a great one if you are short on time. Be prepared to have the car company charge you for the hourly parking rate (about US $2.50) until they can get to your car. I have never had them take more than a few hours because usually they need the car for the next client.
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The check-in area of the airport is a spacious place with windows, ceilings, small shops for necessities, and clean bathrooms.
You will simply get in line at your airline carrier’s desk and go through the usual process. Be prepared for extremely nice airline employees.
After checking in, you will need to go through a passport check and security check, similar to the procedures in the United States. A few notes:
- Stopping human trafficking in Costa Rica is a priority. If you are leaving with kids, be prepared to have questions if you do not have the same last name as your chidlren. It is unlikely that you will run into problems, but it does happen. If your child was born in Costa Rica or is a Costa Rican resident or citizen, you will need to have a paper that says you can take the child out of the country if both parents are not present. If you want to avoid any problmes at all, carry a copy of the birth certificate.
- You must have a passport and boarding pass in order to go through security. In general, Costa Rica does not use digital ticketing.
- Liquids are not allowed through security. There are other things that may or may not be allowed depending on the agent you have. These items include ground coffee in packages and non-perishable food items.
Once you have successfully gone through security, you will most likely have time before boarding your flight.
There are several food options inside the airport. There is a considerable amount of price gouging on food at this airport. As for the offerings…
There is a Starbucks and a cafe serving pastries and local coffee. There is a Ron Centenario Bar and an Imperial Beer bar. There is also a food court with I think a Quiznos, Smashburger, and maybe a couple of others.
The restaurants are not open 24 hours, and if you are traveling early in the morning with kids, I recommend bringing breakfast with you and eating it before you go through security. They might take the food away during the security check.
There are several souvenir stores with different offerings, but all are owned by the same company- Cafe Britt. You will find a nice mix of curated locally made items and national brands.
There are also several duty free shops as well.
Boarding in Costa Rica starts pretty early. Generally people with children are moved to the front of the line.
You can’t take any liquids on the plane, even if you bought them after the security check. It’s ridiculous, but think twice before buying that bottle of Salsa Lizano.
This also means you can’t bring on a filled water bottle, a partially consumed Coca-Cola- nada. It’s super annoying.
You may also hear your name called by a gate agent before boarding. This means you have been pulled for an additional security check. You will be pulled to the side and a gate agent will meticulously go through all of your bags looking for prohibited items.
Be prepared to get misty-eyed when you leave Costa Rica- it’s one of the best places on Earth!