Living in San José
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A comprehensive guide about living well in San José
Welcome to the Central Valley! San José and its metro area are the best choices for expats going to Costa Rica: You’ll enjoy a high quality of life and affordable prices. San José has different faces in different neighborhoods, though! Our guide has details.
Life in San José
- Hospitals and pharmacies offer services with some of the highest standards in Central America.
- Costa Rican and international schools provide a wide range of options when choosing a school for your children.
- Road conditions could make driving tricky, but there are at least some alternatives in San José.
After you’ve chosen the neighborhood or suburb you want to call home from now on, you can finally start the adventure of living in San José. We have given an overview of the city and its metro area in our guide to moving to San José, in case you need some additional info on the topic. San José comes in different flavors; pick yours!
Quality of Life in San José
Central America in general has a reputation of offering a high quality of life at moderate cost, and Costa Rica is definitely the cream of the crop here. On your expat salary, you will most probably be able to live in modest to full-blown luxury, even if you decide to settle in the upscale neighborhoods of the metro area. That is — and we do not get tired of stressing this — if you are able to land a job in the area. Read our info on working in San José to find out what it takes.
There are many upsides to living in San José: as the undisputed center of life in Costa Rica, you will find the nation’s finest healthcare institutions in the city. Such is the quality of Costa Rican medical institutions and professionals that every year, a considerable number of people engage in medical tourism to the country. Needless to say, you will be in more than adequate hands here.
Allaying Your Worries: From Health Insurances to Pharmacies
As an expat in San José, you are covered by Costa Rica’s national healthcare and social security system Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS). The Caja gives you access to treatment in all the major public hospitals in your area, some of which are among the finest in all of Latin America. The best public hospital available in San José’s metro area is San Rafael in Alajuela. If you are an expat living in San José proper, your first choices should include Hospital México or Hospital San Juan de Dios.
For smaller ailments or accidents that won’t require full-on emergency services, you can always head to one of the many little “neighborhood clinics” called EBAIS. One of the first errands after your relocation should definitely involve stopping by at the EBAIS closest to your new home for registration. Registering with the EBIAS is required prior to your first actual visit.
You’ll get to enjoy access to most pharmaceuticals and drugs without prescription. Just go to your neighborhood pharmacist and tell them what you need. Oftentimes, your pharmacist can also help you with diagnoses for less serious ailments. In San José, a common cold is no reason to go and see the nearest doctor.
In some areas of the city, pharmacies have bilingual staff; others are open 24 hours a day. Again, all we can say is, there is no need to be concerned about your health in San José.
Private Health Insurance
As comprehensive as the services of the Caja may be, and despite it being the first choice for many expats living in San José, there is a downside to the system: waiting times can get quite excessive for less urgent treatments which are not a matter of life and death. Your other options are unfortunately somewhat limited.
The only private health insurance plan available in Costa Rica is offered by the INS, a government-affiliated organization. Alternatively, you might want to discuss company healthcare plans with your future employer prior to starting your new life in San José.
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Education and Transportation in San José
Bilingual and International Schools
We have taken a detailed look at the Costa Rican education system in our article on living in Costa Rica. It’s safe to say that Costa Rica’s high standard of living and wealth stem to a large extent from its education. Enrolling your child in the local schools will guarantee a high-quality education and proficiency in one of the world’s most important languages.
However, the story is a different one if you consider repatriating when your offspring is old enough to go to university. The Costa Rican high school diploma might not be acknowledged or considered sufficient qualification (however high its quality standard) for entering tertiary education back home. US citizens in particular have lamented this at times.
Luckily, the San José metro area offers an abundance of bilingual and international schools of various cultural backgrounds, offering many different diplomas. Of course, the International Baccalaureate is one of them. The schools in question focus, for example, on the US, British, German, and Israeli systems.
All this comes at a price, however, it will be manageable on your expat salary. Some of the fine institutions in the area are:
- American International School
- Colegio Humboldt
- San Lorenzo
- Blue Valley School
- The British School of Costa Rica
- Country Day School
- The European School
First off: yes, you will be able to drive your car with your home license or international driver’s license, but only for up to 90 days. If you’re planning on staying longer, you should apply for a local one. The process is quite short and unproblematic, so you might want to get it out of the way early on.
Just like in many other expat destinations, it would probably be unwise to actively participate in traffic straight away, especially if you are an inexperienced driver. Descriptions of the Costa Rican driving style range from laid back to reckless, and pedestrians, cyclists, and animals are not a rare sight in the street. So if you absolutely need to drive a car, be alert and attentive.
Apart from the driving style, the quality and condition of the roads is your biggest enemy in traffic around San José. While the roads in the city and its metro area are paved (which you should not take for granted, as much of the country’s road network consists of dirt paths), their condition is somewhat worrisome. Expect potholes to pop up in front of you at all times, and be ready to react! Try not to drive at night if you don’t know the way to your destination well.
Also note that in order to ease traffic and reduce congestion, a license plate law was passed that bans private vehicles from metropolitan San José between 06:00 and 19:00 on weekdays, based on the last digit on their license plated and a rotation system. So if your license plate number ends in a 1 or 2, you cannot drive into San José on Mondays, those with 3 and 4 on Tuesdays, and so on.
Of course, we’d also like to remind you of the lack of street signs — and usually, lanes and traffic lights — which we have already covered in the article on moving to Costa Rica. In short: prepare for challenges!
Other Means of Transportation
There are three alternatives to driving, and only two if reliability is an essential factor for you. The train system in Costa Rica, including suburban trains around the San José metro area, frequently goes in and out of service, and it’d be best not to count on the existence of any railway connections when you embark on your expat assignment.
Taxis are a quick way to get around the city, but make sure to take the official ones: red cars with a yellow light and an inverted yellow triangle on top. You can also find official orange taxis which operate for the airport and charge slightly more than the red taxis. Taxis are required to use the meter for calculating fares, so always insist on turning the meter on if you get into a taxi to avoid getting ripped off by the drivers. Finding taxis should be relatively easy as they can be seen almost everywhere around the city.
Living in San José also comes with the added perk of staying in the central hub of Costa Rican bus travel. You can catch buses to every part of the country from the Coca Cola station. A word of warning, though: The station is located in the red light district, which is known for petty crimes such as theft.
Additionally, the city is serviced by a variety of bus lines, which will take you across town for negligible fares. Bus stops are usually grouped into areas: Buses to a certain district or suburb all leave from the same general stop. Buses to Escazú, for example, stop north of the Coca Cola station. Each district and suburb is serviced by various lines, so try to find out which line passes by a landmark or stop near your destination.