SJO Airport Costa Rica – Everything You Need To Know

This post may contain affiliate links.

The SJO Airport in Costa Rica is a bustling hub of activity. This post will help you navigate your time in the airport- preparing for your trip, while you are in the airport.

sjo airport costa rica

About The SJO Costa Rica Airport

The San Jose airport is one of two international airports in Costa Rica- the other being the Liberia International Airport in Liberia, the capital of Guanacaste. There are lots of ways to tailor your Costa Rica itinerary, and one of my favorites is flying into one airport and out of the other.

The SJO airport Costa Rica 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, the Juan Santamaria airport 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.

The SJO Airport is officially called the Juan Santamaría International Airport, but it’s not located in San Jose! The airport is actually located near the smaller town of Alajuela, about 20 km or a 30-minute drive north of San Jose center. There are plenty of hotels near the San Jose airport, and the Adventure Inn is our absolute most preferred of all of them.

If you do decide to book a hotel in San Jose proper, just know that you will not be near the airport. This can be a strategic move if you are heading out of town towards the south (like heading to Manuel Antonio or going to Uvita) or towards the west (Caribbean) early in the morning after your flight. Otherwise, I think you should book an airport hotel to minimize driving time after a long flight.

RELATED POST: Costa Rica With Kids- The Complete Guide


The ultimate list of Spanish phrases for Costa Rica with kids.  

Arrival At The SJO Airport

Going Through Customs

When you arrive at the airport after getting off your flight, 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 than 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 many flights 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 no customs declaration form to arrive, but the officer may ask you for information about what you are carrying into the country, when you plan to leave Costa Rica, or where you plan to go within the country.

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.

RELATED POST: 7 Days in Costa Rica – With Kids!

Baggage Claim

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, a 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 at 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 see tourists get their liquor to make Costa Rican cocktails in their Airbnb or hotel- this can save a lot of money. 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 US dollars in small bills to cover tips, and then exchange money outside of the airport.

RELATED POST: Driving In Costa Rica – Complete Guide

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.

Transportation Away From SJO Airport Costa Rica

There are several options for transportation away from the airport. You can take an official taxi, Uber, a shared shuttle to a hotel, or a shuttle to car rentals. When I am booking a hotel for the first or last night in Costa Rica, I always check if they include airport transportation. It can save a lot of money.


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.

Car Rental

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.

Shared Shuttle

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 buses will stop. There isn’t a sign for them there.

RELATED POST: Guide to Planning a Trip To Costa Rica For Your Family

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 At The End Of Your Trip

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.

  1. 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 timetable.
  2. Return the car to 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 half a day of car rental by doing this.
  3. 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.

RELATED POST: Top Places to Stay in Costa Rica with Kids

Checking In To Your Airline

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:

  1. 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 children. 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 problems at all, carry a copy of the birth certificate.
  2. You must have a passport and boarding pass in order to go through security. In general, Costa Rica does not use digital ticketing.
  3. 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.

Airport Amenities

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.


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!

If you would like to talk to me about a customized itinerary or specific Costa Rica travel advice for your family, (zero sales- just advice!) check out my “Ask Christa” page for more information on custom Costa Rica trip planning geared towards families.

Christa profile image

Christa Jimenez

Welcome! I’m Christa, a Spanish teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. We’ve spent over 25 years living in and traveling to Costa Rica with our daughters, and this website is my love letter to all things Costa Rica- and to bilingual parenting too. You can read my full story here. Thanks for stopping by!

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One Comment

    I am Nigerian, My plans is to visit costa rica by August during the women under 20 World Cup with my family.But during my investigation I found out that no Costa rica embassy in my country. Unless if I can go to Kenya.Can this information be true.
    I just need your help over the issue of tourist visa to Costal rica🇨🇷
    I will be glad if my request is granted