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What You Need to Know When You’re Moving to San José

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Relocating to San José

  • San José with its metropolitan area is the most popular destination for expats in Costa Rica.
  • Not all streets are named, though, so landmarks are often used as references.
  • Various types of residence permits enable expat life in San José.
  • However, perpetual tourism is not recommended for expats, as it offers no legal basis for employment.

A fact that may surprise newcomers to San José: they will not find themselves in a giant conurbation many other parts of Latin America are known, even infamous, for. With a population of less than 300,000 inhabitants, San José is a decent-sized city, but it might not exactly match your mental picture of the capital city of a prospering country. But make no mistake: San José is a fascinating place that plays a key role in contemporary Central America.

At the Center of the Central Valley

San José’s importance and influence cannot simply be limited to the city proper or even its province. As the city is a cultural and economic focal point and transportation hub (please see our articles on living and working in San José), moving to San José will firmly place you within the unchallenged center of the entire Central Valley, which we have described in detail in our guide to Costa Rica.

Therefore, no article on San José could just be limited to the city itself. The metropolitan area and, by extension, the entire Central Valley are not only the country’s biggest expat hotspots, but also home to the majority of Ticos. San José’s metropolitan area is popular with nationals and foreigners alike, so rest assured that moving to San José will take you to the pulsating heart of life in Costa Rica.

The climate in the Central Valley is another reason why this area is so attractive to expats. Even though it is situated in the tropics, the altitude gives it a pleasant and mild climate throughout the year with temperatures ranging between 17°C and 30°C. The higher up you go, in terms of altitude, the cooler it gets.

San José Metropolitan Area

The San José metro area covers a large part of the Costa Rican Central Valley. A common, although unofficial, definition stretches from San José to include the adjacent capitals of Alajuela, Cartago, and Heredia. While this may seem like quite a large area — we’re talking province capitals, after all — don’t let yourself be deceived! Whatever city or suburb you may relocate to when moving to San José’s metro area, you’ll never be more than an hour away from the capital.

Alajuela is a popular destination, and most likely your first stop in the country, as the city is home to the international airport. This fact — combined with Alajuela’s big city feel, despite its small town looks — makes the city a viable option for many expats.

Heredia, the capital of the province of the same name and technically a San José suburb, is extremely popular with expats, as many multinational technology giants such as Intel and IBM are located here. But its perks do not stop there: Heredia is renowned for its exceptional beauty, high quality of life at an affordable price, and its reputation as the country’s safest city.

Discover Further Neighborhoods and Suburbs

The bustling capital of Costa Rica has various neighborhoods and suburbs for every taste and budget. The upscale suburbs of Santa Ana, San Pedro, and Escazú, the so called “Little America”, enjoy great popularity with expats moving to San José. No wonder: The quality of housing, the proximity to amenities such as hip bars, restaurants, and malls, the easy access to high quality private institutions like hospitals and international schools, and a thriving expat community are reasons enough to lure many expatriates there.

The neighborhood of San Pedro, in which the Universidad de Costa Rica is located, boasts a large selection of malls, restaurants, and bars making it a hotspot for university students and tourists alike. La Sabana is also a favorite for young professional for its amenities, proximity to San José’s center, and a buzzing nightlife. The suburb of Rohrmoser, which is home to many foreign embassies, is a preferred destination for expats as well as local professionals who like things a little less lively, as it has peaceful and calm neighborhoods that nevertheless offer plenty of city conveniences.

Get to Grips with the City Layout

Soon after moving to San José, you will realize that most of the city is designed in a perfect grid, with avenues in east-west and streets in north-south direction. This is extremely important to know when trying to navigate the busy streets: San José has a lack of street signs.

Many roads and streets of any size are unmarked and have no names or numbers. Josefinos, as the citizens of San José are often called, usually navigate and give directions by using landmarks as points of orientation, and we strongly advise you to quickly start familiarizing yourself with the main ones — and also those which are long gone, as they are still used for reference — right after or even before moving to San José.

San José: Residency Permit Categories

You have various options of legally residing in Costa Rica. You should, however, be aware of the fact that most residency permits bar you from taking up employment in the country, or limit your employment options considerably.

Find the Right Residency Permit for You

Most of the following residency permits are based on your income or the sum you are willing to invest into a Costa Rican business. Having a solid amount of savings or being independently wealthy is highly recommended for anyone set on spending a few years in Costa Rica.

While four out of the five types of permits presented below are temporary, foreigners have the option of applying for permanent residency after three years. The permanent residency permit also comes with the added bonus of having no labor restrictions whatsoever.

  •  temporary residency: the preferred option of residency in Costa Rica for retirees, and specifically aimed at those people looking to spend their golden years in the tropical paradise that is Costa Rica. Anybody with a minimum pension of 1,000 USD per month can apply. Spouses and dependents under 18 years of age are automatically included. As a pensionado, you are allowed to own a business in Costa Rica, but you cannot actually work in it. You could, for example, set up a little bar and let the cash roll in, but not work as the barkeep or bouncer.
  •  temporary residency: This is very similar to the pensionista permit described above, but more than twice as expensive. You must provide proof of monthly income in excess of 2,500 USD for five years. The source of this income is irrelevant. If you happen to have considerable savings, you can also deposit the full amount of 150,000 USD in an approved Costa Rican bank.
  •  temporary residency: Both the most expensive and most beneficial type of residency permit, the inversionista permit allows you to legally take up employment in Costa Rica. However, you must invest 200,000 USD in real estate or a Costa Rican business. Your employment permit is limited to work related to the investment. For example, you could set up a travel agency for ecotourism and work as its general manager.
  • : This permit is tailored exclusively towards heads of companies. The respective company, which must have offices or subsidiaries in the country, must fulfill a catalogue of various requirements.
  • : This residency type is available for first-degree relatives of Costa Rican citizens. This includes parents, children under 25, and minor siblings. Additionally, expats may apply for permanent residency after holding any type of temporary residency permit. Prior to 2010, foreigners could acquire a permanent residency permit through marriage; this has since been abolished, though.

Not Recommended: Perpetual Tourism

Anyone who has been backpacking in Costa Rica probably knows about another way of staying in the country indefinitely: perpetual tourism. Before we give you the gist of what to expect, we’d like to stress that we do not encourage anyone to actually try this!

In fact, there is very little reason for you as a future expat to even consider trying this method. Perpetual tourism may not be illegal and involve no bureaucracy at all, but it also leaves you with no actual rights or permits whatsoever.

As the name suggests, this is a method of renewing your Costa Rican tourist visa for an indefinite stretch of time. All you have to do is leave the country for at least three days every 90 days. Upon your return to Costa Rica, your visa will be renewed for another 90 days. Popular three-day destinations are adjacent Panama and Nicaragua, for example.

Yes, you will theoretically be able to stay in Costa Rica for as long as you wish (or can afford, as you cannot take up any kind of work), but obviously, this method is absolutely not suitable for expats, who have completely different motivations for relocating to Costa Rica.

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  • Emanuele Casabona

    Finding other expats to share experiences in San José with, helped me a lot. Thanks to InterNations.

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    When I first heard about InterNations, I thought: This is exactly what I was searching for. What a great site.

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