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Living in Costa Rica
A practical guide to the way of life in Costa Rica
Living in Costa Rica, Central America’s green paradise with its amazing scenery, is a prospect that attracts many retiring expats — and a sudden reality for many assignees. Are you one of them? The InterNations GO! Guide to Costa Rica gives tips on healthcare, traffic, safety, and more!
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Life in Costa Rica
- Housing is good value for money in Costa Rica, and the healthcare system is the best in Central America.
- Costa Rica’s sacrificing of their army and directing their budget towards education is paying off.
- Driving is the main mode of transportation as railway services are neither adequate nor reliable.
Comfortable Living Thanks to Low Costs
Costa Rica is popular amongst foreigners for a multitude of reasons, and the very affordable cost of living is definitely one of them. Wages might seem quite modest compared to many Western countries, but prices are far below what you might be used to.
But do not think Costa Rica is always cheap. High-end consumer goods and vehicles can be very pricy, even more so than in your home country. If you are a technology buff or audiophile, make sure to bring everything you need for your new life in Costa Rica. After all, you do not want your first paychecks to be mostly spent on computers and speakers.
Expenses for housing will consume a considerable part of your income. In this respect, Costa Rica is no different from any other country. But the level of luxury you can get will be quite surprising to some. Large apartments or houses, including cleaning and gardening services, are not uncommon.
Working and living in Costa Rica is somewhat lucrative for expats, as they are generally paid very well compared to their local colleagues. This is even part of the labor regulations for expats. While you might find it hard to save a little nest egg for when you return home, you will be able to live very comfortably on your expat salary.
Costa Rica’s Strength: Healthcare
Living in Costa Rica, you will enjoy the things millions of people travel for. Apart from year-round pleasant weather and breathtaking scenery, one major asset of living here is access to the country’s healthcare system, which is almost on par with many more developed countries. Costa Rica actively promotes medical tourism and annually attracts considerable numbers of people looking for affordable, high-quality procedures.
Any citizen and legal resident living in Costa Rica is covered by the national healthcare and social security system Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS). Your affiliation with the Caja will grant you access to the major public hospitals. Little accidents and non-emergencies can be taken care of in small “neighborhood” clinics known as EBAIS. Please make sure to locate the one nearest to you and register before your first actual visit!
Most drugs are available directly through your pharmacist without prescription. Generally, if you have a small ailment, you should see your local pharmacist first, rather than directly consulting hospitals and clinics. Pharmacies are much more part of everyday life in Costa Rica than in many other places!
Most people in Costa Rica make use of the Caja, but, as in many other countries, socialized healthcare has its drawbacks. Services are adequate, but waiting times might be quite long for non-life threatening procedures. The only alternative available to you is private insurance with the government-affiliated INS. An overview of their services is offered on their website (in Spanish only).
Additionally, many companies offer healthcare plans for their expats. Living in Costa Rica is connected to considerable bureaucracy beforehand, so companies have a special interest in having their expats well taken care of.
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Education in Costa Rica
A Well-Educated Population
Since 1948, Costa Rica has been one of the few countries without a military, and is probably the most significant nation without an army after Japan. The expenditures the nation used to have for arms and their standing army were redirected towards, amongst others, education. It is included in the constitution that the government allocates a minimum of 8% of GDP annually to education. This is one of the reasons why today, Costa Rica boasts the most advanced and highest quality education system in the region.
Education is generally free in Costa Rica, and every citizen is obligated to receive education by law. Thus, the literacy rate is one of the highest of all Latin American countries; for youth between the ages of 15 and 24, the literacy rate is 98%. In a report by the World Economic Forum in 2015, the Costa Rican education system was also ranked highest in Latin America.
Primary education is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 13, and is attended by almost every child in the country. Secondary education leaves pupils two choices of specification: academic (5 years) and technical (6 years) schools. Both types of institution enable students to acquire high school diplomas, which qualify them for tertiary education at universities.
The Ministry of Education introduced programs to guarantee widespread knowledge in computer sciences and English as a second language (ESL) to keep the Costa Rican youth and workforce on par with international standards. ESL in particular is a main focus. The Ministry hopes to get 25% of high school graduates to C1 level of skill (“competent user”), and all others to at least basic levels of comprehension in the years to come. Including both public and private schools, 85% of students at the primary level attend English classes throughout Costa Rica.
Schooling for Expat Kids
The nation is also home to a variety of private schools of different cultural backgrounds, including the US, UK, France, Germany, and Israel, amongst others. Expat children will feel right at home at these bilingual schools and remain in touch with their native culture. Expats moving to Costa Rica with their teenage kids could also simply enroll their offspring in the local high schools, as the quality of education in Costa Rica is exceptionally high for the region.
The Costa Rican education system provides the country with a steady stream of new, highly skilled future professionals and is one of the main pillars of the nation’s social and economic stability and prosperity. All this educational excellence unfortunately comes at a price for expats. As we have mentioned in our article on working in Costa Rica, your chances of employment in the country are slim to none if you do not possess special skills that are not available or rare domestically. Only specifically trained professionals or company heads have a real shot at legally working in Costa Rica.
Transport and Safety in Costa Rica
Driving as the Only Option
Despite the considerable advancement Costa Rica has seen in nearly every other aspect, its infrastructure is still the nation’s problem child. The condition of many roads gives particular reason for concern, as giant potholes are not exactly a rare sight. If the street is actually paved, that is: Much of Costa Rica’s traffic takes place on unpaved roads that might be a challenge for quite a few expats.
The narrow roads, often lacking lines and traffic signs, are not only frequented by often reckless drivers, but also by pedestrians, cyclists, and animals. Staying alert at all times and sticking to a safe driving manner (it is rarely a good idea to imitate the local driving style) are crucial. If you are not absolutely familiar with the route you will be taking, please abstain from driving at night, as there is always the lingering danger of unexpected obstacles.
While you have the right to use a vehicle with your home or international driver’s license for up to three months, expats staying in Costa Rica for a longer time should apply for a local license. The process is as cheap as it is uncomplicated, so you might want to get it out of the way quickly if you are dependent on your car.
The Pains of Unreliable Trains
Unfortunately, there is not much of an alternative to driving. The Costa Rican rail services were shut down quite some time ago, in 1995. The national railroad authority (Incofer) provides very few selected suburban connections to and from San José. Due to the somewhat shaky history and nature of these connections — having been taken in and out of service again and again in the last few years — there is no definite say whether existing connections are going to be operational when you get there. And even if they are, the relatively low frequency they run in might render them not all that useful to you. Expats should not put too much trust or hope in the railroad connections of Costa Rica.
Staying (Relatively) Safe in Costa Rica
Crime is not as big a problem as in some other Central American countries, but expats should still be aware of the possibility of robberies. Both in bright daylight and at night, small groups of criminals often scam their unsuspecting victims out of their possessions, or, if they decide it is not worth the trouble, simply brandish weapons. It is very important that you do not resist in either case, as this might turn things from bad to worse.
You should never carry large amounts of cash or jewelry with you, and not be flashy with electronic gadgets by carrying them in plain sight. Many might think of a car as an extension of their home, considering it just as safe. You might want to rethink that when living in Costa Rica. Car windows are no match for someone set on getting your valuables, so please keep them out of sight, even in your vehicle.
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