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How to Apply for Residency in Costa Rica – a Step by Step Guide

by rpetersen
How to Apply for Residency in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is an extremely beautiful country to visit and can be a great place to live. If you’ve ever been to Costa Rica to vacation then you know about the beaches, mountains, incredible climate and friendly people of Costa Rica that make it a great place to visit. But, what happens when your vacation spot turns into your permanent residence? In this post we will give you a step-by-step guide on how to become a permanent resident of Costa Rica.

Residency Categories of Costa Rica

STEP 1: Determining your Residency Status

Costa Rica Immigration Law ( Law #8764)  divides residency categories into the following sections:

  1. Permanent Residency (Article 77-78)
  2. Temporary Residency (Article 79-86)
  3. Special Category Residency (Article 93-97)

Let’s break each one of these down for you so you can determine which category is the best fit for you.

Permanent Residency Category

Permanent residency is only available to foreigners under two circumstances:  (1)  Foreigners that have an immediate family relationship with a Costa Rica citizen.  This is generally limited to first degree family relationships such as the parent of a Costa Rica citizen, their minor children, children over 18 years old who have a disability or their minor siblings.   (2) Foreigners that have held a temporary residency status for at least three years may then apply to have that temporary status converted to permanent residency.  Given the limitations most initial applicants for residency in Costa Rica do so under the Temporary Residency Category which provides more options that I will discuss in the next section.

Temporary Residency Category

The majority of applications for Costa Rican residency will fall into the Temporary Residency category which is regulated by Article 79 of the Immigration Law and has the following subcategories

  • (1) The Spouse of a Costa Rican citizen as set forth in Article 73 of the law.
  • (2) Those of religious orders for religions that have been accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Culture
  • (3) Executives, Managers, Technical Personnel for Corporations which are established in the country. This may also include those specialized workers that are independent workers but whose technical expertise is required and the Department of Immigration as set forth the criteria to allow that specialty to work in Costa Rica.
  • (4) Investors
  • (5) Scientific, Professional and Specialized persons.
  • (6) Sports figures recognized by the National Council on Sports and Recreation
  • (7) International Press Correspondents
  • (8) Rentistas
  • (9) Pensionados

Spouse of a Costa Rican Citizen

The Immigration law (Article 73) allows the spouse of a Costa Rican citizen to apply for temporary status based on marriage. This has been one of the most abused categories in the Immigration Law because of the amount of sham and fraudulent marriages used to qualify for this category.  As a result, the Department of Immigration has been more stringent in verifying the validity of the marriage.  As a result, this category requires that both spouses appear personally at immigration for an interview.  They must also provide all documentation to prove the validity of the marriage.

Those of religious orders for religions that have been accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Culture

As the name implies this category is limited to religious workers, missionaries that are in the country based upon a particular religious order that has been authorized by the Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Executives, Managers, Technical Personnel for Corporations which are established in the country. This may also include those specialized workers that are independent workers but whose technical expertise is required and the Department of Immigration as set forth the criteria to allow that specialty to work in Costa Rica.

This category is most commonly used by foreign corporations that are sending executives, technical personal or specialized contractors to Costa Rica to work on specific projects for the foreign company.

Investors

The Investor Category or Citizenship by Investment (Article 79 (4) ) requires an applicant to demonstrate that they have made an investment in Costa Rica. To qualify for investment status the applicant must show that they have invested at least US$200,000 in Costa Rica. According to the Immigration regulations:

“The investment can be made in tangible property, shares, negotiable instruments, productive projects or projects which are deemed of national interest”

To reach citizenship by investment individuals that have purchased real estate in Costa Rica either directly or by way of a Costa Rican corporation with a value of US$200,000 or more to qualify for investor residency. You can also combine investments to reach the investment threshold.

Be sure to properly document the value of the investment with official government records and a Costa Rican Certified Public Accountant (CPA) since the government will look at official documents to verify the investment.

Scientific, Professional and Specialized persons.

This category is for foreign workers that have an signed employment contract to work in Costa Rica and that have a unique scientific, professional or technical expertise required by a local company or agency.   They must be registered with the local licensing board and provide proof of their educational and technical expertise.

Sports figures recognized by the National Council on Sports and Recreation

This category is aimed at foreigners that practice a particular professional sport and whom have been hired by a local team.  They must have a signed contract with a local team that has been recognized and authorized by the National Sports Council.

International Press Correspondents

As the name indicates this category is specifically form journalists that would be working in Costa Rica for a local news agency pursuant to a specified employment contract.

Rentistas

To apply for residency under the Rentista category (Article 82), the applicant must show that they will receive at least US$2,500 per month of income in a permanent, stable and irrevocable manner for at least 2 years. This category includes the applicant, their spouse and all their children which are under the age of 25.

Generally, those who seek the Rentista residency category do not have a pension source and instead have an investment source of income which will need to be verified by a financial or banking institution. This can be done by providing a letter from a bank or financial institution that indicates that the applicant will receive the sum of $2,500 per month in Costa Rica. The letter must include wording to the effect that the funds will be sent to Costa Rica in a permanent, stable and irrevocable manner for a 2-year period. To avoid processing delays with your application, make sure that the income letter which will be the basis of your application contains those keywords.

If your home country bank cannot issue the income letter with the required wording, then you have the option of working with a Costa Rican bank to do so. Several banks in Costa Rica will assist you in the rentista application process. To do so they will require that you deposit with them US$60,000 with their bank. From the $60,000 deposit, they will in turn transfer to your savings account at the same bank the sum of US$2,500 per month which you can spend down as needed.

Pensionados

Costa Rica was a pioneer in creating a retirement residency program which has been in effect now for more than 40 years.

The Pensionado (Retiree) applicant must demonstrate a lifetime pension source of income of at least US$1,000 per month. The typical applicant in this category has a government, private sector pension or social security retirement benefits. The legal basis for the pensionado category under the immigration law is Article 81 of Law 8764.

Special Category Residency

The Special Category is for those individuals that do not qualify for either a temporary or permanent residency.   This category is subject to the absolute discretion of Immigration.   In most cases the applicant must show that the work they intend to carry out in the country is something that cannot be done by a Costa Rican citizen.

  • Artist, Sportsman, Public entertainer, Professional and Invited Technicians
  • Worker with specific occupation who is self-employed or with duly incorporated business
  • Dependents of Students. Workers with specific occupation who are self-employed in the Agricultural or Construction or Services industry
  • Student, Researcher, Teacher and Volunteer
  • Worker linked to a Specific Project and or Public Interest Projects
  • Resident of a border area with seasonal employment
  • Children of any Diplomatic Agent, Consular Officer and Delegate of International Mission
  • Cross-Border Worker
  • Invited Guest of the Government or any of their Institutions and for Public Security Reasons
  • Link to a Costa Rica citizen
  • Minors whom are represented by the child welfare agency (PANI)
  • Visitor with ties to a Researcher, Teacher, Professional and or  Volunteer of a Registered Government Institution
  • Visitor with link to a temporary resident of Costa Rica.
  • Personnel required to carry out preventive, corrective measures for post sales
  • An individual with a specific occupation required to work for a physical person.
  • Domestic Employee
  • Ties to a local Guardian or Executor
  • Specific Occupation Worker working with a Physical Person
  • Business Visitor
  • Specific Occupation Worker working with Legal Entity

How About my Family Dependants 

All of the categories mentioned above allow the applicant to include their family members as dependents. Dependents generally include your spouse and any children under the age of 25. If you have older children that are disabled then you can include them in the application by demonstrating the disability and the dependency.

STEP 2: Gather Your Supporting Documents

When you apply for residency your application must have supporting documents attached to it in order to justify that application. The documents that are required by the immigration law are the following:

  1. Birth Certificate: You must provide a certified copy of your birth certificate and that of your dependents.
  2. Marriage Certificate: If you are married and your spouse will be applying with you as well then you will also have to provide a certified copy of a marriage certificate.
  3. Proof of Income or Justification for the Application

If you are applying for one of the income-based applications of temporary residency such as Pensionado, Rentista or Inversionista then you must document the source of that income. For example, if you are applying for Pensionado residency then you would need to obtain a letter from the US social security administration documenting your income.

Note for United States Citizens: U.S. citizens on Social Security can obtain this letter from the United States Embassy Federal Benefits Office located in San José. You must make an appointment online since they do not take walk-ins. The application must be done online here: US Embassy Federal Benefits Verification

  1. Rentista Based Income: If the source of income is from a Bank or Financial Institution then the letter must be on official letterhead and have a notarized signature of the bank official.
  2. Investment in Costa Rica: If you are applying under the Inversionista category then you will need to document that investment by including: (i) A copy of the property deed. (ii) A certificate of property tax registration from your local municipal office. (iii) A C.P.A. certification of investment. More documents may be required if the property is owned by a Costa Rican corporation so consult with your attorney on the specifics of this category before you apply.
  3. Any other category. For any other category, you must attach to the application the legal basis that justifies the application with the documentation required by Immigration.
  4. Police Certificate of Good Conduct: You must provide the Department of Immigration proof that you do not have any criminal history. In the case of the United States citizens, this requires an F.B.I. Criminal Background Search. If you follow the link, I have posted an article on my site about the process to get and F.B.I. report. If you are a Canadian citizen then apply for it with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Any other jurisdiction will have to apply for a police report with their national police enforcement agency,

Note that this certificate is only valid for 6 months from the date they are issued. If this document expires while you are pulling together the rest of the documentation then you will have to obtain another one. If the document expires after you have submitted it to immigration and they have not processed your obligation you will NOT have to submit another one.

  1. Photocopy of Your Entire Passport. With your application, you will need to provide a complete copy of your passport. This means every single page from front cover to back. You will also require a very clear copy of the date of the immigration stamp when you entered the country.
  2. Photographs: The application requires two (2) photographs. However, we recommend you have at least four (4) photographs during the various stages of processing since you will need them for over stages of the process.
  3. Translation of Documents: Once you have compiled all your documentation, all documents which are in English must be translated into Spanish. This procedure can generally be handled by the Attorney that you have retained to process your application. You can also hire your own official translator from the list provided by the Ministry of Foreign Relations as certified translators.
  4. Background Information Sheet (Hoja de Filiación). This form requests the personal background information of the applicant and must be attached to the application. A sample of the form is shown here.
  1. Power of Attorney for Representation. If you have hired a local Attorney to process your application you will have to confer upon them a Power of Attorney to act on your behalf before the Department of Immigration.
  2. Proof of Registration With Your Local Embassy. Your local Embassy in Costa Rica must provide you with a letter or certificate indicating that you have registered with them. This is now a prerequisite to the approval of immigration residency status in Costa Rica. Many embassies have an online registration system so you can register online and then print the registration form out to include with your residency application.  For citizens of the United States, the program is called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Just register and print the form.
  1. Finger Prints for Interpol Background Check: This step is done in Costa Rica at the Ministry of Public Security. The applicant will be fingerprinted in Costa Rica and the prints will be checked with Interpol. To get fingerprinted you must make an appointment with the fingerprinting office. You must bring your original passport.

STEP 3: Authenticate / Apostille your Foreign Documents for Use in Costa Rica

All the supporting documents that must accompany your residency application must be authenticated in your country of origin or Costa Rica will NOT recognize them as official documents for residency. This is very important. Do not assume that your certified official document issued by your country will be recognized in Costa Rica because it won’t. You must take an additional step to that document authenticated or Apostilled. Costa Rica is a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Legalization of Foreign Documents which recognizes foreign documents that are Apostilled in their country of origin. If your country is also a member then have your certified documents certified in your country of origin by the government office in charge of handling the Apostille of documents. Once your document is Apostilled then in your country of origin it may be used in Costa Rica without further authentication procedures in Costa Rica.

If your country is NOT a member of the Hague Convention on the Legalization of Foreign Documents then you will need to interact with the Costa Rican Embassy or Consular office in your home country in order to have your documents authenticated. See the following article on the Legalization of Documents for Countries that are members of the Hague Convention.

For citizens from the United States, the authority in charge of Apostles is the Secretary of State of the particular state where the document was issued. To find your local Secretary of State you can visit the site of the National Association of Secretaries of State for that information. If you are from the United States you can read my article on How to Apostille a Document in the United States for more details. 

If you are a Canadian citizen then your procedure is different because Canada is not a signatory to the Hague Convention. As such Canadian documents can be legalized at the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Office. Once that is done the documents will have to be sent to the Costa Rican Embassy in Ottawa for further authentication. For more details, you can read my article about How to Authenticate Canadian Documents for Use in Costa Rica.

In the case of European documents, they must be legalized by the Foreign Relations office of the country where they were issued. If your country is a member of the Hague Convention on the Legalization of Foreign Documents then you can skip the Costa Rican Embassy and Consular authentication step.

STEP 4: Complete the Residency Application for Costa Rican Residency

You’ve determined which residency category you fall under and you’ve gathered all the proper documentation in order to file for permanent residency in Costa Rica, now, you will need to file the application.   You can represent yourself or you can hire an Attorney to put the application together and lead you through the approval process. This decision should be determined by how much time you’re willing to spend checking on the status of your application. If you don’t want to spend any time communicating with immigration then it is best to hire a lawyer to do it for you. At the end of this section, we will review the total cost for filing.

The Application document

It is important to note that Costa Rica immigration does not have a standardized application form. Instead, the applicant drafts the application ensuring that it contains all the requirements established by law. The application must contain the following:

  • Full Name of the applicant
  • Nationality
  • Occupation
  • Name of your Father
  • Name of your Mother
  • Marital Status
  • Place of Birth
  • Date of Birth
  • Original Entry Date into Costa Rica
  • Point of Entry into Costa Rica
  • Physical Address in Costa Rica
  • The telephone number in Costa Rica

STEP 5: Submit the Application for Residency

Once you have all of your supporting documents and have prepared the residency application you are ready to submit the application. So, where and when do you go to file the application? Submit your application at the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería headquarters in La Uruca  or another approved office. The Migracion website lists other locations for submission such as Liberia, Puntarenas, Paso Canoas, Limon, and San Carlos.

Migracion is open from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. The La Uruca Migracion Office is closed the last Friday of every month.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions the Department of Immigration is only receiving individuals that have booked a prior appointment.   To get an appointment you must create an account at the Department of Immgiration portal and then apply for an appointment to either review an existing file or to file a new application. 

How Much Does the Application Cost?

The cost of Residency is divided into Government related fees,  translator fees and Attorney fees as follows:

  1.  Government Fees to Apply = $250  ($50 application Fee and $200 Change of Status fee when you apply in Costa Rica
  2.  Translations.  These vary depending on the documents and your translator but expect around $ 250
  3. Legal Fees.   If you hire a lawyer fees vary depending on the type of application being submitted and the Attorney.   It can range from $1,000 to $3,000.

This would be the total cost to apply.   Once you have been approved you will also have to pay additional fees to the Costa Rican government as follows:

  1.  Post a guarantee bond $300 (estimated since they base this number on a percentage of a one way ticket to the country of origin)
  2.  Immigration Department services fee $25
  3.  Immigration Department residency card preparation fee $98

This gives you an overall perspective of the total cost of processing residency in Costa Rica.

How Long Does it Take to Get your Residency Approved?

It can typically take anywhere from 6 to 15 months to have your application approved.  The time frame depends on many different factors.  The key is to make sure that your application is complete the first time around.  If you are missing  any documents  or authentication this will contribute to significant delays.  Once your application is received you will be given a receipt of filing indicating your immigration file number. This receipt is important since it is your proof that you have a pending residency application with the Department of Immigration. The form below is a copy of the receipt that you will be issued.

The Department of Immigration generally will not even review your file during the first 3 months of filing. On the 91st day of having filed your application you can request an appointment to petition that your application be put before the immigration council for resolution.  It is strongly recommended that you be proactive once you have filed your application.  If you assume your file will move on its own without you being proactive at immigration you will be disappointed.  That is the reason many applicants decide to engage the services of an Attorney or an Immigration processor so they can monitor and push the file along the different stages of review.

If there are any defects in the application the Department of Immigration will notify you or your legal representative of the defect and request that it be corrected before it will submit the application for approval. If there is a defect in your file that needs correction you should do that as quickly as possible since you have specific time limits that will be indicated in the resolution to complete the correction. Failure to comply with the time limitation could result in your application being rejected.

Assuming all your documentation was filed correctly then your application will be approved and the Department of Immigration who will issue a formal resolution indicating the date on which the application was approved.

Keep in mind that all the original documents that you submit become the exclusive property of the Department of Immigration and will NOT be returned to you. I strongly recommend that you make copies of all documents so that you have them for future reference.

STEP 6: Approval or Denial of Residency

If you are approved, you will receive a  formal resolution from the Department of Immigration  in hand indicating that you have been approved then you can start the final process to get your picture identification card known as the Cedula de Residencia.

STEP 7: Get your Health Insurance Card with the "Caja"

The Immigration Law (Law # 8764) requires that all foreigners with residency in Costa Rica contribute towards the Costa Rican Social Security Medical Health Care System (C.C.S.S.) known as the “CAJA”.  To initiate this process, you first need to have your Immigration residency approved.   With that immigration resolution you can then make an appointment at the nearest local branch of the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS) where you live to register and pay your health insurance coverage. The amount you pay is based upon the amount of income you reported on the application and which was the basis of your residency process. Health insurance is a percentage that ranges from 6%  to 12 % of the amount of income that you reported in your residency application. As part of the calculation the “Caja” will take into account your living expense as well.   The amount you will have to pay will be a sum of the amount of income that you are receiving less your living expenses.  For more information on Social Security registration read my article on Mandatory Registration with Social Security in Costa Rica.

STEP 8: Pay your Post Approval Fees to the Costa Rica Government

Once approved you will have to pay a government the guaranty bond, the immigration services fee and the residency card processing fee that we discussed above. Approximately $424 ($300 bond + $25 Immigration Services + $98 Residency card) in total. These amounts must be paid directly to the account of the Department of Immigration with Banco de Costa Rica. The details of those accounts are indicated in your residency approval resolution.

STEP 9: Make your Final Appointment to Process Your Residency Card

Once you have completed the residency application process then you have three options to get your final residency card.  You can do it directly at the Department of Immigration or you can complete it at certain branches of the Costa Rica Post Office (Correos de Costa Rica) and finally you can complete it at certain branches of Banco de Costa Rica.

With your proof of payment receipt from CAJA and your receipt from Banco de Costa Rica that you have paid the bond and the residency card fees you can call the  Department of Immigration Call Center line at 1311 and request an appointment to process your identification card.  They can make appointments for you at the Department of Immigration or at any qualified Post Office nearest your home,   If you want to process with Banco de Costa Rica directly you will need to call them at 800-BCRCITA (800-2-272482)

Be sure to take with you:  (1) Passport  (2) proof of payment of CAJA (3) Receipt from Banco de Costa Rica for’payment of the  bond and processing fees (4) Copy of your immigration resolution.

Costa Rica Residency Card Sample
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