The easiest and fastest path to residency in Costa Rica is to have a child or marry a Costa Rican which permits application for “Residencia Permanente Por Vinculo” – residency by connection/link. There are also special categories for famous athletes, notable scientists and religious exceptions.
However, the vast majority of immigrants choose one of three possible avenues of “buying” temporary residency – obtaining residency in Costa Rica based on financial resources you are committed to bring to Costa Rica. The general idea is that you demonstrate that you will be a valuable member of society by guaranteeing a contribution to the economy.
The first two options – Pensionado (pensioner) or Rentista (stable and permanent income) – are based on making regular deposits into a Costa Rican bank account. The third option is based on making a large lump sum investment in Costa Rica and is called Inversionista.
NOTE: This is NOT a guide to “do it yourself” for Costa Rican Residency. It is an outline of options and with basic requirements for each to give an idea what is involved.
To apply for residency as a Pensionado you must demonstrate at least $US 1,000 per month of guaranteed pension payments from a government or business, social security or other fixed income retirement plan. Article 81, Law 8764
As far as we can determine there is no actual requirement that you spend the money in Costa Rica. Technically you are only required to deposit the funds and show evidence of the deposit. However there would be little point in going through the difficulties associated with obtaining residency if you weren’t actually living in Costa Rica and if you’re living there you’ll likely spend much more than $1,000 a month.
This category includes the applicant plus their spouse under a single pension income. The status is “temporary” for the first three years after approval then permanent residency may be sought.
Pesionado Residency must be renewed yearly and the proof of income is reviewed prior to renewal.
Work is not allowed with temporary Pensionado status.
If you do not have a fixed income pension you may be able to apply based at least two years of unearned income (mutual funds, stocks, 401k, equities, bonds, rental income, savings withdrawals, etc.) that promises to be permanent and exceeds $US 2,500 per month. Article 82, Law 8764
The most common method is to obtain a letter from a bank or financial adviser showing $60,000 to be transferred to Costa Rica at the rate of $2,500 a month for the next two years.
Income from employment, salary or tips does NOT count as unearned income.
This may be a bit tricky since anyone with investment income knows the first thing money managers are required by law to tell you is that there’s a risk of reduced income or even loosing everything so calling it guaranteed, stable and permanent is a stretch at best.
This category includes the applicant plus their spouse and children under the age of 25 under the umbrella of one income. The status is “temporary” for at least three years after which you can apply for permanent residency.
Financial requirements must be demonstrated and Rentista Residency must be renewed yearly
Work is not allowed with temporary Rentista status.
The third method of obtaining residency through financial means is to invest at least $US 200,000 in “tangible property, shares, negotiable instruments, productive projects or projects which are deemed of national interest.” Article 87, Decree No. 37112-G
Basically you buy a house, land or business in Costa Rica.
The actual value of the investment seems to be irrelevant. What matters is that you pay the equivalent of at least $200,000. If you buy a house for $100,000 and it triples in value to $300,000 it will not qualify because you only spent $100,000. If you spend $250,000 on a house that is wiped out by a mudslide and worthless it still qualifies because you paid more than $200,000. Other sources indicate that the tax value of the property as recorded with the Hacienda may be used as the basis but this will depend on the purchase price.
As we understand it you may be allowed to spend other people’s money to qualify – if a bank or person is willing to lend you $180,000 you might be able to pursue this avenue for $20,000 down. The final judgement is up to the discretion of the officer assessing the application.
Several years ago some “investment” projects sprouted up in the timber industry. Immigrants would pay $100,000 (there’s still a special 50% discount if you invest in timber) for teak tree saplings that would be worth upwards of a million dollars when they were harvested as lumber in a couple of decades. We don’t know anyone who has seen their million yet.
This category includes the applicant plus their spouse and children under the age of 25 under the umbrella of one investment. Inversionista is also temporary for the first three years.
Other Investment Based (Inversonista) Requirements
Once your $200,000 investment has been certified you will not be required to prove any further income. You cannot sell the investment and retain your status unless you reinvest.
Inversonistas are required to pay into CAJA (see details above) but the details of how the amount is determined are a bit murky since there is no income to base the calculation on. One lawyer told us they often just assume a Rentista level of income ($30,000 per year).
Rentista & Pensionado Income Proof Requirements
Both income based statuses require you to deposit your income in a Costa Rican bank – $12,000 per year for Pensionado and $30,000 per year for Rentista. Each year when you renew your residency status you will be required to produce documented evidence of deposits.
The yearly minimums are not dependent on how many months you spend in Costa Rica so if you’re a snowbird who only spends half a year in Costa Rica you’ll need other income up north.
Required Social Security & Insurance CAJA
Residents must invest in the social security and medical benefits plan from the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS) typically under the “self insured” (asegurado voluntario) plan.
The actual amount you pay to “CAJA” will be determined in an interview. It’s based on a percentage of your declared income and works out to roughly $65 per month for $1,000 a month Pensionista, $200 per month for a $2,500 a month Rentista, and about 10% of declared income above that level. A spouse can be included in your plan.
Note we said “declared” income. This is your “Costa Rican” income and not necessarily your total income. If you have a rental house in Boca Raton that pays $5,000 a month into a U.S. account that is not necessarily Costa Rican income. Similarly if your spouse has a U.S. social security check of $1,090 a month and yours is $2,150 your spouse may apply with their income and then include you on their plan at a lower total cost.
To apply for CAJA you’ll need to prove you have a residence (not that you are a resident because you can’t be a resident until you’re in CAJA…) by providing a lease agreement, property title or water/electric bill in your name.
Documents Necessary for All Residency Applications
The list below includes a dozen other documents and requirements that will be required as a minimum during the application process as a Rentista, Pensionado or Inversonista.
All documents require an apostille from the country of origin. This is sort of like a super notary (and a notarization may be the first step) and is accomplished through the office of the Secretary of State of the state where the document was issued in the U.S. or the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Office in Canada. (see apostille link for European and other countries).
All documents must be in Spanish or translated from their original language into Spanish by a Costa Rican court approved translator.
- Official copy of your birth certificate for yourself and any dependents
- Copy of your marriage certificate if your spouse is also applying.
- Proof of income as described in the categories above. For example a letter from the social security administration in the U.S. or from your financial institution if you are proving investment income.
- FBI/Interpol criminal background check and/or certificate of good conduct issued by the police department where you most recently resided. Current processing time for U.S. criminal history checks can be up to sixteen weeks and it’s only valid for six months so it requires careful timing. There is a separate long list of requirements including certified fingerprints submitted at a law enforcement agency needed to complete the check after you apply online
- Half a dozen passport photos. The application itself requires two attached photos, the fingerprinting process another three and we’ve probably missed at least one other along the way. These do not require an apostille stamp.
- Xerox of every page (yes, inside and outside and all the blank ones too) of your passport with a notary and “timbre” (little tax stamps you can buy at the fruit stand outside the courthouse) on each. Make sure that any entry and exit stamps for Costa Rica are clear and legible (this can be challenging because often they aren’t legible on the original).
- If you have an immigration lawyer representing you then include the “Assignation of Power of Attorney for Representation” document you signed to allow the attorney to act on your behalf.
- Completed Hoja de Filiacion (Personal Information Sheet).
- Certified letter from your embassy in Costa Rica that you have registered with them (proof of consular registration). You may be able to complete the registration process online but will need to visit the embassy to obtain documentation.
- Official translation of all documents that are not in Spanish. No you cannot get your neighbor the Spanish teacher to do it. The easiest route to official translations is using the services of an immigration lawyer who will have access to a court approved translator.
- $US 250 application fee
- After you have submitted your application you will need to visit the Ministry of Public Security (Ministerio de Seguridad Pública) to be fingerprinted. You will need at least your passport, your receipt proving you submitted your application and three passport photos.
- $US 300 deportation security deposit
Nobody said this would be easy. If you are looking for step by step instructions there’s a good description of the application process on the “Two Weeks in Costa Rica” website.
Once you have been approved you will receive a resident id card which is commonly referred to as a “cedula”. Renewals are required yearly and cost $35-$125 per year depending on status.
There’s a bit of a catch 22 you should know about. As soon as you are a resident the foreign driver’s license that has been valid to operate a motor vehicle in Costa Rica for the months (or years) while your application was winding through the system is immediately invalid.
All residents are required to have a Costa Rican driver’s license. Fortunately there is no driving ability test or written test of knowledge of traffic laws required. Simply show up at the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes MOPT office with a valid foreign drivers license, cedula and passport. Pay the fee and pass a basic medical/vision exam to collect your new license.
If all of this sounds like a bit too much remember that nearly everyone hires an immigration lawyer to handle the details and many use one of the services that specialize in expediting residency for a fee.
A standard tourist visa is valid for 90 days and anyone who hasn’t established some sort of pending residency has to leave or face penalties of at least $100 for every 30 days overstay and a ban from re-entry for at least 3x more days than the time overstayed.
Because implementation took several years and included many false starts there are thousands of inaccurate articles online stating that these penalties do not exist or are not enforced.
The fines and bans are real. Starting October 21, 2018 immigration police at both international airports were preventing people from departing the country until they paid the fine and noting travel bans in passports.
To avoid visa infractions most expats end up doing a few “border runs.” Prior to 90 days visitors head to Panama or Nicaragua, turn around and reenter Costa Rica with a fresh 90 day (usually see details) tourist visa. Many end up as perpetual tourists leaving every 90 days for years rather than temporary or permanent residents.
Permanent Residency for Foreigners in Costa Rica
After maintaining a temporary resident status (perpetual tourist is not eligible) for a minimum of 3 years foreigners are allowed to petition for permanent status.
It’s not clear why the term “permanent” was chosen since holders of this status are required to renew regularly or face automatic demotion to square one and “tourist” status.