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Education in Costa Rica

A Comprehensive Guide About the Education System and International Schools

Expats will be happy with the high quality of education and international schools in Costa Rica. Both public and private schools follow a curriculum set by the government, which places heavy emphasis on learning at an early age.

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Costa Rica has some of the best schools and higher education institutions in Latin America. Expats who are moving here with children, or plan to start a family, will be happy with the level of schooling students receive starting from an early age.

As a foreigner, one question that always comes up when searching for a school is whether your child should attend a public, private, or international institution. If your child is proficient in Spanish, you will have the option to choose between all three. If your child is not, they will have to choose between a private or international school.

Luckily, the quality of education between all schools remains relatively the same. Benefits to a private or international school include smaller class sizes, greater extra-curricular activities, and leniency on whether you have Costa Rican residency or not.

Read on to learn more about the education system in Costa Rica and the requirements to enroll in a public or private school, or even a university.

The Education System in Costa Rica

Like its healthcare, Costa Rica’s education system is of high quality and consistently ranked in the top 20th percentile around the world. After a brief civil war, the government abolished the military. Since this time, the money used to fund the army has instead gone to education.

Costa Rica Education Facts

  • The Costa Rican population has a nearly 95% literacy rate.
  • Public school students must wear uniforms to prevent disparity among wealth differences.
  • The country’s school system is considered the best in Latin America.

What are the School Systems Like in Costa Rica?

As an expat moving to Costa Rica with kids, or expecting kids, it is important to know what the education system is like in this country. Moving to a new school can be a hard transition for a child, especially the older they get. If you are concerned about how to choose the right institution, contact InterNations GO! and ask about our school search services. We help expat families find schools with the right curriculum for their child and we advise on the necessary steps, such as gathering previous transcripts and school visits.

School Year

Expats from Europe and North America may be a bit surprised to learn what the school year in like in Costa Rica. The academic year in this country runs from February to November/December. The first semester starts in the second or third week of February. This semester ends in the third or fourth week of June. The second semester picks up in the third or fourth week of July and goes until the end of November/beginning of December. Private schools will often finish one or two weeks earlier than public schools.

School Levels

The school system is divided into three levels: preschool, primary school, and secondary school. Preschool and primary school are mandatory. Students must enroll in preschool by age four. You can read more about this in our Daycare and Kindergarten section below.

School Age

Initial/Preschool*
School Year Student’s Age
Ciclo Materno Infantil (Maternal and Child Cycle) 0-5
Ciclo de Transición (Transition Cycle) 5-6

*Preschool is divided into multiple levels in Costa Rica. Children are required to enroll by age 4 but may also do so sooner. Read more about this in our Daycare and Kindergarten section below.

Primary School
School Year Student’s Age
1st Grade 6-7
2nd Grade 7-8
3rd Grade 8-9
4th Grade 9-10
5th Grade 10-11
6th Grade 11-12
Secondary School
School Year Student’s Age
7th Year 12-13
8th Year 13-14
9th Year 14-15
10th Year 15-16
11th Year 16-17
12th Year 17-18

School Hours

Schools in Costa Rica run on two cycles: the morning and the afternoon. Students on the morning cycle will begin at 7:00 and end their day around 13:00. Students on the afternoon cycle will start at 13:00 and end at 17:00. Schools will typically have alternating schedules, with students attending the morning cycle for half of the week and the afternoon cycle for the other half.

These alternating cycles help keep class sizes small, which helps protect the infrastructure from tear and wear and lessens the stress on the overall education system.

School Grades

Costa Rican schools will either use a 100- or 10-point grading scale. They also use the letter grades S, N, Suf, and I. These stand for Sobreasaliente (Outstanding), Notable (Notable), Suficiente (Sufficient), and Insuficiente (Insufficient).

Costa Rican Grade A-F Grade Equivalent
S A
N B
Suf C
I F

Below is a look at the two different number scales you are likely to find in Costa Rican schools.

CR Grade Scale 1 Scale 2
S 100-90 10-9.00
N 89-80 8.99-8.00
Suf 79-70 7.99-7.00
I 69-0 6.99-0

What are the Main Differences between Public and Private Schools?

As in many countries, one of the main differences between public and private schools in Costa Rica is cost. Public schools in the country are free; families only need to buy materials such as school supplies, books, and uniforms. For families that cannot afford these items, the government provides scholarships to help with the costs. Private schools are not free and the government does not offer scholarships to help subsidize costs.

Both public and private schools must meet certain education standards set by the Ministerio de Educacion (Ministry of Education). However, students at a private school can expect more emphasis and instruction in the English language. Students also attend school at the same time, rather than the alternating morning/afternoon cycles found in public schools. Class sizes will also be smaller: 25 rather than the average 40 in public schools.

It is uncommon for public schools to offer extra-curricular activities. If this is important to you or your student, they will need to enroll in private education.

Requirements to Enroll in Public School

To enroll in a public school in Costa Rica, your child will need to prove some proficiency in Spanish. If your child is of preschool age, this may not be as necessary. In addition, you will also need to provide the following:

  • transcript from your child’s previous school;
  • proof of Costa Rican residency for the child and the parents;
  • valid proof of ID from the parents.

If you have begun your residency process, but have not yet received it, it may still be possible to enroll your child in a public school.

Requirements to Enroll in Private School

Like a public school, private institutions will also require your child’s most recent academic transcripts. Depending on the school that you choose, you may not have to prove your child’s proficiency in Spanish, and they may be more lenient with your residency status. You will, however, still need to show a valid form of ID as well as proof of an address in the country.

The flexibility with the Costa Rican residency requirement is one of the main reasons so many expat families opt for private education over public.

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Daycare and Kindergarten

Expats will find plenty of childcare options in Costa Rica that are the equivalent of preschool and kindergarten. For the most part, preschool in this country is referred to as pre-primary education and it comes in two cycles: Ciclo Materno Infantil (Maternal and Child Cycle) and Ciclo de Transición (Transition Cycle). Ciclo de Transición is similar to kindergarten.

Is Preschool Mandatory in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is one of the few countries around the world that requires two years of preschool in order for children to attend primary school. The government feels that placing an emphasis on children at a very young age helps them be better learners throughout the rest of their educational career.

Because children can start attending pre-education before they turn one-year-old, it is possible for them to be in preschool for more than two years, but only two are required.

Preschool Cycles

Preschool in Costa Rica is divided into two cycles: Ciclo Materno Infantil (Maternal and Child Cycle) and Ciclo de Transición (Transition Cycle). Children can enroll in Ciclo Materno Infantil starting from birth. One of the two mandatory preschool years must include Ciclo de Transición because this serves as the transition year into primary school.

Ciclo Materno Infantil

Stage Age
Bebés I y II 2 months to 1 year old
Maternal I y II  1 to 3 years and 3 months
Interactivo I  3 years and 3 months to 4 years and 3 months
Interactivo II  4 years and 3 months to 5 years and 3 months

 Ciclo de Transición

Children must enroll in this cycle when they turn 6, but they can enter as young as 5 years and 3 months.

Is Kindergarten Mandatory in Costa Rica?

Because the starting age for kindergarten around the world is 5 years old, Ciclo de Transición would be the closest equivalent in Costa Rica. This mandatory cycle only encompasses one year, and thus there is no such thing as junior and senior kindergarten in this country.

Educational Approach

Costa Rica enforces schooling at an early age in order to encourage a greater interest and ease of learning in the long run. Children entering at a younger age will have a strong emphasis on social interaction and developmental skills. As kids move through the two cycles of preschool, learning will focus on arts, storytelling, playing, and other skills meant to help prepare them to enter primary school.

School Cost

The fees for childcare options such as daycare, preschool, or kindergarten are dependent on each family’s individual needs. As mentioned, public school in this country is free. Because children can start attending pre-primary education as young as two months old, it is possible to have free care for your children from infancy.

If you choose a private preschool option, you will spend anywhere from 113,930-455,720 CRC (200-800 USD) per month. Bilingual and trilingual schools are typically more expensive.

Other Childcare Options

In addition to the schooling options, it is also common to find nannies, au pairs, and babysitters to care for your children in Costa Rica. If you are new to the country and do not know where to start your search, we suggest visiting the Costa Rican chapter of InterNations. As the largest expat social network, members on this site will be able to provide useful tips and possibly even have recommendations for verified people or services to contact.

Primary and Secondary Schools

What are the best primary and secondary schools in Costa Rica? The Pura Vida country places great importance on education, and because of this it is possible to find quality schools nearly anywhere. Because public school courses are primarily taught in Spanish (except for the few English language classes), expats often choose private and international schools. These are also more likely to be lenient with enrollment if foreigners do not yet have Costa Rican residency.

Primary School (Elementary School)

Primary school is mandatory in Costa Rica. It lasts for six years, starting when children are about six and ending when they are 12 or 13. Just like with preschool, primary education is broken into two cycles. Cycle I encompasses grades 1 to 4; Cycle II is grades 5 and 6. There is not a lot that separates these two cycles other than the coursework increasing and maturing as the students do.

General subjects taught during primary school are

  • science;
  • mathematics;
  • social studies;
  • music;
  • art;
  • home economics;
  • religious education;
  • foreign language.

The two most common taught foreign languages are English and French.

Secondary School (High School)

Secondary school lasts for six years and is voluntary. It consists of Cycles III and IV. Cycle III (grades 7, 8, and 9) is similar to primary school education. Students learn the same subjects, but teachers are more specialized.

Cycle IV comprises of grades 10, 11, and 12. This cycle is often called Educacion Diversificada (Diversified Education). Students entering this cycle are allowed to choose one of three paths in which to study: general academic, artistic, or technical. The duration of each path will fluctuate from 2-3 years. Upon completion, students are awarded a certificate that specifies which education branch they studied.

School Cost

Public school in Costa Rica is free. This right is extended to foreign children, although they will have to prove proficiency in Spanish in order to enroll. Children entering 1st grade may be given some flexibility because of their ability to learn languages more easily at a young age.

If your child attends a public school, the only costs you will need to cover will be for school supplies, books, and school uniforms. In order to neutralize any economic differences between classmates, uniforms are compulsory in Costa Rican public schools

Private school costs will vary depending on the school and your child’s age. In general, expats can expect to spend between 284,830-570,000 CRC (500-1,000 USD) per month on private education.

International Schools

Where are the best international schools in Costa Rica? The majority are in the middle of the country in the area known as Central Valley. This is the mountain region and the location of the country’s largest cities: San José, Heredia, Alajuela, and Cartago. For expat families that would prefer to be on the coast, you can also find a variety of international schools in the Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica’s northwest costal corner that borders Nicaragua.

Choosing an International School vs. Local School

Given the country’s strong academic reputation, you may be wondering why you should send your child to an international school. School choice is a decision with several layers: you need to consider the wants and needs of your child as well your family. While sending your child to a local school may help them integrate to their new country, it can also have the adverse effect and make them feel like an outsider. This is especially true of older kids, who have a greater understanding of the friends and community they left behind.

For more, visit our School Search services pages. We guide you through the questions you should ask yourself when placing your expat child into a new school. We also provide one-hour consultation services to help figure out the precise needs of your student.

International Schools in Costa Rica

Two of the biggest reasons expats choose international schools in Costa Rica are language and residency. Local public schools conduct their classes in Spanish. Foreign students will have to prove proficiency in the language in order to enroll. Older children do not absorb new languages as quickly as younger students. For this reason, expats with teenagers may want to consider an international institution.

Likewise, if you are only planning on living in the country for a year or two, you may want to consider an international education. This type of schooling makes it easier for kids to move between countries and not fall behind in their curriculum or possibly get held back a year.

Residency requirements are another reason expats often choose international schools. Local schools require proof of Costa Rican residency in order to enroll a new student. Like private schools, international schools may be more flexible with this requirement and willing to take a student whose residency is still in process.

International School Tuition Fees

Tuition fees will vary based on the school. It is possible to find schools that charge as little as 85,450 CRC (150 USD) per month per student, but there are also places that require nearly 3,417,910 CRC (1,000 USD) per month. When considering an international school, it is important to inquire about the extra costs of student activities, books, and uniforms, as these will be in addition to the tuition fee.

International School Admission Requirements

Like tuition costs, admission requirements will also vary depending on the institution. For the most part, you should expect to present the following:

  • transcripts from your child’s previous school;
  • valid passport of your child;
  • valid passport of the parents;
  • vaccination records of your child.

As space in international schools is often limited, an entrance exam may also be required. Admission forms usually require a fee and, if your child is accepted, you will be asked for a one-time deposit. If you are enrolling more than one child, it may be possible to receive a discount on these two costs.

The Difference between International and Private Schools

International schools and private schools often seem like the same thing, but there are differences that set them apart. For starters, private schools are required to follow a curriculum that is similar, if not the same, as the one set in place for public Costa Rican schools. International schools, on the other hand, may follow a British, German, American, French, or Japanese curriculum.

It may also be possible to find an international institution that instructs in a language other than English or Spanish. This way, your child can continue studying a curriculum that is similar to their home country.

International schools are also more likely to have a mixture of local Tico students and fellow foreigners. Your student will have a greater chance of both adapting to the local culture and bonding with peers who are familiar with their expat experience and the ups and downs that come with a childhood abroad.

The Best International Schools in Costa Rica for Students

There are many top international schools in Costa Rica. Whether you are looking for a British, French, German, Japanese, or Catholic school, you will find it in this country.

Top International Schools
  • American International School of Costa Rica (Heredia)
  • Country Day School (Alajuela)
  • Franz Liszt Schule (Santa Ana)
  • Lycée Franco Costaicien (San José)
  • Marian Baker School (San José)

Higher Education

What are the best universities in Costa Rica? Like its reputation with its public primary and secondary education, the country is also home to excellent higher education. Nearly 35% of the resident Costa Rican population between the ages of 18 and 24 attend some form of higher learning. One-third of this percentage chooses to attend a public university.

In recent years, a large number of Costa Rican institutions have even been named among the top 1,000 universities worldwide (there are an estimated 25,000 universities in total). The public Universidad de Costa Rica in San José ranked near the top 500.

What is Higher Education like in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica has both public and private universities. There are around 60 universities in total, five of which are public.

Public universities teach primarily in Spanish, but it is possible to find courses in English. Some private universities may offer full course loads in English, but not always. You will need to inquire with the specific university that interests you if language is a concern.

Costa Rica is a popular destination for international students looking to live abroad. This is because the quality of education is good and the cost of living is cheap. Unlike students who choose to study in Europe or the US, earning a degree in this Latin American country is not likely to see you into years of debt.

Requirements to Attend a Costa Rican University

Because of the country’s popularity, competition to study at a university is stiff. As mentioned previously, if you wish to enroll in a public university, you will need to prove some level of proficiency in Spanish. If you come from a Spanish speaking country, you will not have to prove this skill. Expats of non-native Spanish speaking nationalities, however, may be required to complete a test or go through an interview in order to prove their bilingual skills.

In addition to Spanish, foreign students will also be required to apply for a student visa. You can do this by first applying for a provisional visa at a consulate outside the country, or you can enter Costa Rica as a tourist and apply upon arrival. Keep in mind, switching the status of a tourist visa will cost an extra 113,930 (200 USD). You can read more about residency requirements in our Visas and Work Permits section.

Documents you should prepare to apply for the visa, and thus apply to your chosen Costa Rican university, include:

  • valid passport;
  • copy of your birth certificate*;
  • copy of a criminal background check by your country of residence*;
  • notarized copy of financial support;
  • bank statement;
  • proof that you have registered your stay in Costa Rica with your embassy.

*These documents require an Apostille seal. This typically must be applied for from within your country of residence.

Best Universities for International Students in Costa Rica

As Costa Rica is so progressive in environmental conservation efforts, students interested in environmental studies will find plenty of educational opportunities here. Likewise, students interested in studying Spanish or Spanish literature should also consider higher education in this country.

Top Universities for International Students (Both Undergraduate and Post-Graduate)
  • Universidad de Costa Rica
  • Universidad Nacional
  • Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica
  • Universidad EARTH
  • INCAE Business School

For degrees taught in English, expats should look at the following schools:

  • Universidad Latinoamericana de Ciencia y Tecnología (ULACIT);
  • Universidad de Iberoamérica (UNIBE);
  • Universidad Veritas;
  • United Nations University for Peace San José.

How Much does it Cost International Students to Study in Costa Rica?

University tuition fees in Costa Rica will vary by institution. On average, expats can expect to pay 1,424,100-1,710,000 CRC (2,500-3,000 USD) per year for an undergraduate course and 2,280,000 (4,000 USD) for a graduate track. Private universities may charge more, although scholarships are usually available. For example, a graduate degree at the United Nations University for Peace can cost an average of 14,811,000 CRC (26,000 USD) per year in tuition.

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Language Schools

Whether you are moving to a city in the mountain region or a small beach community, you are likely to find Spanish language schools anywhere you go in Costa Rica. Courses will range from newbies, who only know hola, to intermediate learners and advanced speakers who want to brush up on their skills.

In general, expats should try to learn at least the basics of Spanish. This will help you get around the country more easily and locals will appreciate your effort to adapt to their culture. Learning a country’s native language also helps you move from the perspective of an average tourist to someone who is making this new land their home.

Language School Fees

The cost of a Spanish language course will vary depending on the school, the frequency of classes, and the class size. Prices range anywhere from 17,000 CRC (30 USD) per class to 170,000-342,000 CRC (300-600 USD) per week.

If you are interested in registering for a Spanish language course, consider utilizing the Settling-In services of InterNations GO! Our relocation experts will help you find lessons for just yourself or your entire family. Whether you are moving to Costa Rica for work or retirement, we find the class that fits your life and your budget.

Do you want to relocate? If you have never moved abroad, the process will be overwhelming, and if you have, you know the burden that lies ahead. Whatever stage you are at, InterNations GO! can help you with a complete set of relocation services, such as home finding, school search, visa solutions, and even pet relocation. Our expert expat team is ready to get your relocation going, so why not jump-start your move abroad and contact us today? Best to start early!

Updated on: July 01, 2020
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