A Little Advice… Here’s What It’s Like Living in Costa Rica

Last updated on August 7, 2023

beach living in Costa Rica
With hundreds of miles of coastline to choose from, you could easily live near the beach in Costa Rica.

Dreaming of living in a place with a low cost of living, warm weather, diverse natural beauty, and a stable political climate? Many expats wonder how to lower their cost of living by moving overseas for retirement, or as a digital nomad. Costa Rica may just tick that box more than anywhere else in Central America.

While Mexico and Panama are popular in this region of the world for largely the same reasons—the low cost of living—Costa Rica just might be the right place for you to call home. Two of the biggest advantages to living in Costa Rica over nearby countries include the government stability and the strong healthcare system. But there are many other pros and cons to life in this pretty country.

Before diving into the advantages and disadvantages, note that, of course, everyone’s experiences and priorities vary. While you may prioritize a country with affordable healthcare and high standard of living, another potential expat might find places with job opportunities and cultural integration most appealing.

As you read, consider your unique needs and preferences, and how they align with life in Costa Rica. My Cost of Living Comparisons page details the mindset you should use when comparing places to live.

Pros and Cons of Living in Costa Rica

Though there are many factors to consider when contemplating a move to Costa Rica, weighing the pros and cons of what it’s like to actually live there—according to the expats who have moved there ahead of you—provides valuable insights into what you can expect.

Rather than skim the pros and cons, really consider how each point would impact your desired lifestyle.

Pro: Costa Rica boasts that perfect, never-too-anything climate.

coffee in costa rica grows well
Central America is known around the world for its incredible coffee, and when you live in Costa Rica, you’re in the heart of a prime coffee-bean growing region. The climate across large swaths of the country makes it the perfect place for flavorful beans.

More so than many other places in Central America, Costa Rica’s topography means you can live in a pleasant climate year-round. Average temperatures range from 70°F to 81°F (21°C to 27°C). Sure, there are hot places, too, but the many expats live in one of a handful of places that boast nice weather.

Living in Costa Rica means trading four seasons for just two: the dry season (December to April) and the rainy season (May to November). In exchange for that though, the constant warm weather means you have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and soak in the sun. Even if you live in some of the cooler mountain climates, you’re looking at comparatively great weather year-round.

Con: You will likely face off against natural disasters.

This beautiful crater lake is located near Poás Volcano in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica. It’s one of the more popular day trips from San José since it’s only 1.5 hours away. It’s also popular because its Poás remains one a steadily active volcano. This is the beauty on your doorstep when you live in Costa Rica.

The gorgeous volcanic landscape is one of the things that attracts many travelers, but for those living there, that means Costa Rica is located in a seismically active region. You’ll experience earthquakes from time to time, which is no big deal for anyone who has lived in Southern California, but is a fact of life here.

And although most earthquakes are minor, the possibility of a stronger quake exists—and when one hits, you will have to rely on Costa Rica’s government and resources during the fallout. For that reason, before moving there, familiarize yourself with earthquake safety procedures and have a plan in place should one occur.

Earthquakes are a possibility, as are serious storms. Costa Rica’s tropical climate makes it prone to occasional hurricanes and heavy rainfall, which can lead to flooding and landslides. That means the rainy season (May to November) carries risks—you have to be prepared during these months.

Last thought: If you’re planning to call Costa Rica home for decades, then take a hard look at how the country will fare as climate change worsens. That could and should impact where in the country you choose to call home.

Pro: Costa Rica is a massive sustainability success story.

costa rica rain forest

Travelers have long known to head to Costa Rica to experience some of the most innovative sustainable nature experiences in the world. Costa Rica went all in on sustainability long before it was cool—it “began to promote a series of novel environmental policies” about 50 years ago. Today, it’s widely recognized for its successes at rainforest conservation, protection of endangered animals, and general environmental stewardship.

When living in Costa Rica, you have on your doorstep incredible nature. Instead of picking up trash along you hiking paths on poorly maintained trails, you can spend long weekends in pristine nature. And the taxes you pay contribute to the country’s ability to continue decarbonizing the economy, fostering stronger organic farming practices, and generally becoming a carbon neutral country.

Con: The infrastructure can easily reach its stress point.

san jose streets costa rica
The streets of San Jose are one of the grittier parts of the country.

The infrastructure in Costa Rica proves challenging for some expats. That means all of the things the government provides to ease your way of life. Power outages and slow internet connections can be common in certain areas—that’s a big no-no for digital nomads relying on amazing internet.

And while Costa Rica is remarkably well developed as a developing economy, you can expect some of the normal challenges to rear their head here. Road conditions are poor in some parts—we’re talking uneven roads and potentially heavy traffic in urban areas like San Jose.

Some of these cons can be mitigated by researching the area you plan on living in to ensure that the necessary resources are readily available—or that you have a contingency plan, like a large cellular plan so you can hotspot your wifi, if needed.

Pro: You’ll enjoy an abundance of outdoors activities on your doorstep.

Due to its diverse landscapes, Costa Rica is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Whether you’re into hiking, surfing, bird watching, or zip-lining, Costa Rica has you covered.

Moreover, its stunning national parks account for roughly 27% of the country’s land and it boasts more than 5% of the world’s biodiversity within its borders. That means you’re never far from an opportunity to refresh yourself in verdant rainforests, hike breathtaking volcanoes, or soak in the sun on pristine beaches.

And through it all, you may just catch site of the country’s incredible wildlife—from the resplendent quetzal to the adorable three-toed sloth, living in Costa Rica is far from boring.

Con: Cross “buying a beach home” off of your list.

Watching sunsets every night? Sign me up for that—but you’ll probably need to walk to the beach from your home since there are regulations that making owning waterfront property tricky for foreigners.

On the up side, buying property in Costa Rica works well and seamlessly for foreigners, as there are no restrictions on ownership. That said you will have to jump through a number of paperwork headaches, as well as legal and regulatory aspects associated with property ownership, such as title registration, property transfer taxes, and zoning regulations.

And the biggest bummer: Properties located within the maritime zone—typically the first 200 meters from the high tide line—usually have restrictions on foreign ownership. You can still technically buy a beach-front property, but you’d likely need to form a partnership with a Costa Rican citizen, or apply for a concession, which grants the right to use the land without full ownership rights.

Pro: You get a high quality life for a low cost of living.

waterfall in costa rica
Weekends spent in nature that looks like this is a real plus to living in Costa Rica.

While the cost of living in Costa Rica is higher compared to many other Latin American countries—understandable since it’s an upper middle-income country—it’s still more affordable than living in the most affordable places in the Europe (looking at you Spain and Portugal).

So if you’re set on living overseas, Costa Rica offers a comfortable lifestyle without breaking the bank. Everyday essentials like groceries, public transportation, and healthcare are relatively affordable, so you to maintain a good quality of life on a budget.

Although I live in Spain right now, and have for five years, I have to admit that Costa Rica is the country I think about most when wondering if it’s time to move me and my son somewhere else in the world.

Con: A true expat lifestyle might break the bank.

As the most expensive country in Central America, it’s still pretty affordable cost of living—IF you live like a local. Costa Rica tacks on huge import fees, so all of your expat luxuries and even basics will cost more. Cars are very expensive, and any imported foods, toiletries, and electronics are significantly more expensive than back home. Sure, rent and food can cost a lot less in Costa Rica, but not if you expect to move with your same exact lifestyle.

Pro: Costa Rica’s pace of life is slow and lovely.

pura vida costa rica
When you live in Costa Rica, the lifestyle invites you to sit back, relax, and recognize that life is pretty good.

You’re not the only expat lured to Costa Rica because of its “pura vida.” Translated as “pure life,” this phrase encapsulates how locals, known as Ticos, approach life. Living in Costa Rica means tossing out of the window any idea of living in the rat race.

I found this attitude in other parts of Central America—in Belize locals were adamant that I needed to stop speed walking between places. And in Mexico, the “mas o menos” response encapsulates this idea that life is lived in that relaxed in between zone.

But in Costa Rica, it’s the national slogan and a way of life for all who call this country home. Life in Costa Rica means taking in sunsets on the beach. It means leisurely meals with friends and unhurried coffee chats with neighbors. It means turning the dial from a 10 down to a four—and most expats learn to love the change.

Con: Life is pretty loud.

From the dogs barking at all hours of the day and night—Ticos aren’t big on doggy discipline—to the revving of motorbikes and honking of cars, your ears will need to adjust to a bit more auditory liveliness. Your neighbor will likely have the gardeners around right when you plan an afternoon siesta, or you’ll buy a nice quiet home only to have real estate developers buy nearby and spend the next five years banging and hammering.

Pro: There are large expat communities in all major towns and cities.

arenal costa rica expats
The areas near Arenal Volcano are popular with tourists and local expats alike.

Costa Rica’s vibrant and friendly expat communities offer invaluable support for newcomers to the country. By joining the local expat community wherever you move, you’ll have the opportunity to connect with people who share your experiences, interests, and goals.

Con: You’ll never be a Tico.

street food costa rica
You can and should learn to love local food—which is usually hot, fresh, and delicious—but it’s unlikely you’ll every truly be considered a local by Ticos.

Like much of Central America, Costa Rica is known for its welcoming and friendly culture, but when you’re living there, you’re facing a different dynamic. Integrating with the locals will require effort on your part—and that starts by understanding and respecting local customs and traditions, which is crucial in order to build strong relationships with your new neighbors.

Embrace Costa Rica’s unique culture, and you will find your experience enriched by strong connections and shared experiences with the locals. But at the end of the day, you’re likely going to remain a gringo. When I lived in Thailand, a key reason I decided not to make it my forever home was the dramatic cultural differences—and physical ones too—that would mark me as a foreigner forever.

In Costa Rica, the difference is never quite that stark—a lot of even European decedents can fit in and slide into the Costa Rican life. But if you’re coming to Costa Rica with Western resources and sensibilities, that will mark you as different and I’ve always found it a present aspect of interactions with locals.

Pro: You can likely find a local job.

Given the country’s massive tourism industry, it makes sense that there’s room in the job market in Costa Rica to offer a variety of opportunities for expats. The range of possible industries include tourism, technology, and customer service.

That said, proficiency in both English and Spanish is de rigueur for those seeking local employment. Of course, keep in mind that local competition for jobs is strong, and multinational companies usually require advanced skills or specialized experience.

Many expats living in Costa Rica are either retirees, or those with remote-based work.

Con: You’re going to need to learn Spanish.

This is easily a pro for some, but I’m listing it as a con to living in Costa Rica for those who do not already speak the language because it will be a obstacle you have to overcome. Sure, there are areas where English is widely spoken by locals and expats alike, but Spanish is the official language—business, healthcare, and life will take place in Spanish. This runs doubly true if you’re staying in any small towns outside of the expat and tourist havens.

To communicate effectively and enjoy your life in Costa Rica, it’s vital you learn at least basic Spanish.

Pro: You’re able to start a business or invest locally.

Renewable energy jobs are in high demand, as are jobs and businesses that help Costa Rica meet and exceeds its short- and long-term sustainability goals.

Good news if you’re considering starting your own business or investing in a local company: Costa Rica presents a welcoming business environment for both locals and foreigners. The country encourages foreign investment, especially in areas such as real estate, agriculture, and small businesses.

Of course, you’ll have a whole new set of rules and norms to learn, so its essential that you familiarize yourself with the country’s legal and regulatory systems, as well as the local market conditions before jumping into big new ventures. And prepare for a ton of headache-inducing paperwork. But the thing is: It is doable, even with Costa Rican bureaucracy.

Con: Good healthcare varies by region.

While Costa Rica offers affordable healthcare—a huge pro for those living in thecountry—the quality of services vary across the country. In some regions, finding an English-speaking doctor or specialist proves difficult or downright impossible.

And while it is affordable, healthcare is not free in Costa Rica—monthly costs ranging from $60-$250 USD, based on age, gender, and personal condition.

Pro: Retirees have a straight-forward path to residency.

Costa Rica is a top retirement spot for expats. Like expats of all stripes, it’s the range of pros that entices them: its affordable cost of living, high-quality healthcare, and stunning natural beauty.

Oh, and it’s residency visa program. Costa rica’s retiree immigration program offers expats the opportunity to obtain residency when they meet clearly laid out financial requirements. This program, also known as the “Pensionado” or “Rentista” program, has some formalities, such as a background check and the like, but the main requirements are financial.

Retirees must prove a steady stream of income, usually in the form of a pension or retirement fund. This income must be at least $1,000 USD per month from a verifiable source, such as a government pension, private pension fund, or Social Security.

And if that visa doesn’t work, the rentista, and other visas have higher financial requirements, but it might be more doable in your situation (such as having $2,500 in verified rental income for the rentista visa).

Con: There is some crime.

crime in costa rica
According to the Global Peace Index, Costa Rica is the most peaceful country in Central America and the Caribbean—and note it wins as more peaceful that the U.S. by two degrees.

This point could be a pro, because the overall crime rate is relatively low compared to nearby countries. However, petty crimes like pickpocketing and theft are common in Costa Rica, particularly in tourist areas. And while violent crimes are less frequent, they can still occur—the rate of violent crime has notched up significantly in the last year, with year-over-year leaps in homicides so far in 2023.

But it’s still in isolated areas, not spread across the country, and even with an increase, the Global Peace Index marks Costa Rica as the safest place in Central America and the Caribbean.

Pro: Taxes are straightforward.

Taxation in Costa Rica is relatively straightforward—you are generally only taxed on income earned within the country, unless you’re living in Costa Rica on the digital nomad visa. This means you are not required to pay taxes on foreign-sourced income. However, Costa Rica does have a Value-Added Tax (VAT) of 13% on most goods and services, and that adds up across your day-to-day purchases.

It’s also worth noting that property taxes are low, typically at a rate of around 0.25% of the property’s value. Depending on your residency status, you may also be required to file a tax return with the Costa Rican tax authorities. Even though its straightforward, I always recommend other expats use professional tax prep services.

Con: Bureaucracy will drag you down.

This is what you’ll feel like everyone is doing to help you when you’re filing paperwork and trying to get things done while living in Costa Rica.

Although many things are doable, like buying a home, the paperwork and process might drive you nuts first. Many expats hire companies and lawyers to smooth over the rough edges of government bureaucracy in Costa Rica—it just might be the only way you can stay sane.

Pro: Universities are great.

Both public and private universities in Costa Rica offer a wide range of programs. The country’s literacy rate is an impressive 98.04%, reflecting the country’s general focus on quality education.

Public universities, such as the prestigious University of Costa Rica and the National University, provide high-quality education at more affordable rates than their private counterparts. However, admission to public universities can be competitive, and you may encounter limited course offerings in English.

Cons: International schools are pricey.

Costa Rica has a strong public educational system, but many expats splash out on private school, particularly those who may not live in Costa Rica for more than a few years and therefore hope to transfer their children to equivalent programs elsewhere.

Of course the international schools offer high-quality education, and most follow an American, British, or International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. But their tuition and fees are expensive compared to the price of the rest of your life in Costa Rica..

Pro: Cuisine and produce are top notch.

Fresh papaya right off of a tree in your yard? Yes, please! Living in Costa Rica means a diet rich in fruit and veg.

Costa Rican food is wholesome, fresh, and delicious. Traditional dishes are usually prepared from fresh fruits, vegetables, and seafood. The national dish, Gallo Pinto, is a must-try for meat eaters and vegetarians alike. Made from rice and beans, it’s often served with eggs or meat as a breakfast or lunch meals.

Then you can indulge in traditional treats like empanadas and chifrijo, both showcasing the simplicity and flavor of Costa Rican cooking.

If you like to cook from home, the markets are overflowing with affordable fruit and veg, and for those who own their own homes, growing your own fruit trees is a fun way embrace life in the tropics.

Pro: Cultural festivals and traditions make life more fun.

culture and traditional festival costa rica
Your life will include the chance to observe and even join in on many traditional festivals that take place throughout the year and across the country.

Embracing local traditions and festivals is an essential aspect of living in Costa Rica. You’ll fall in love with the country’s colorful and vibrant celebrations that blend indigenous, African, and Spanish influences.

One notable event is the Fiestas de Palmares, a two-week-long festival in January, featuring traditional rodeos, live music, and amusement park attractions. Semana Santa (Holy Week) is also notable in Costa Rica—you’ll see processions and reenactments of biblical stories.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does the cost of living in Costa Rica compare to Panama or Mexico?

The cost of living in Costa Rica is generally higher than in both Panama and Mexico. This is because of the higher prices for goods and services, which can be attributed to Costa Rica’s stronger economy, as well as its commitment to sustainable development and tourism.

However, certain aspects of Costa Rican life, such as affordable healthcare, can help to offset the higher overall cost of living. And where you live in any country makes a difference—the cost of living in Panama City might be more than a small town in Costa Rica. It’s all relative and lifestyle plays a big part.

Is it safe to retire in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is considered one of the safest countries in Central America and is known as the “Switzerland of Latin America” due to its stability and neutral policies. The country boasts a strong democratic government and investments in social development which help to create a safe environment for both locals and expats.
However, like any country, Costa Rica does have some crime, particularly in urban areas. As an expat, you will have to take precautions to ensure your personal and property safety, such as avoiding dangerous areas, being aware of your surroundings, and investing in security measures for your home.

Then there’s those natural disaster risks—landslides and flooding among them—which mean safety is not a no-brainer here, there are some considerations.

How does Costa Rica real estate compare to Panama or Mexico?

Real estate in Costa Rica can be more expensive than comparable properties in Panama or Mexico, primarily due to its popularity as a retirement destination and its commitment to sustainable development. However, Costa Rica offers a wide range of property options, from affordable condos to luxurious beachfront estates. It is essential to research and obtain legal assistance when purchasing property in Costa Rica, as there are restrictions on foreign ownership in certain areas.