By J. WILLIAM CARPENTER Updated Mar 13, 2020
From cloud forests at nearly 5,000 feet to white sand beaches at sea level, Costa Rica offers some of the most incredible natural environments the world has to offer. It also delivers modern cities full of cultural attractions and entertainment venues, reliable infrastructure and access to high-quality health care. It’s no wonder, then, that the country has become so popular among retirees looking for a high quality of life at a low cost.
For most retirees, the cost of living in Costa Rica is much lower than it is in the United States. If you are a single, budget-conscious retiree, you can live very comfortably in Costa Rica for about $1,400 to $1,700 per month.1 A couple can cut per-person costs even further by sharing housing expenses.
There are three types of official Costa Rica residency options available to retirees, each with its own financial requirements. The Pensionado Program is designed specifically for retirees. It requires a regular monthly income of at least $1,000 from a pension or retirement fund.2
If you don’t have enough fixed retirement income, you can opt for the Rentista Program. This program requires you to provide either a bank guarantee showing an income of $2,500 per month for two years or to show a current cash balance of at least $60,000. You must transfer either the full sum of $60,000 or $2,500 per month into a Costa Rican bank and exchange it into local currency.3 2
Program application fees amount to $250.2 Other costs include document translation, authentication and notarization fees, as well as any fees associated with obtaining the required official documents from your home country. Costa Rican consulates charge $40 per document for authentication services alone; document fees can accumulate well into the hundreds of dollars for each family member listed on your application.5
You must renew your program status every two years. The renewal fee is $100 plus associated document fees. You must submit updated proof of your income at the time of renewal. If you maintain your status in any of these programs for three consecutive years, you may choose to apply for permanent resident status.3
Travel to Costa Rica is typically cheaper and faster than travel to other popular retirement destinations in South America or Asia. A quick survey of prices for round-trip flights in April 2019 between New York City and San Jose shows airfares starting at around $300. If you plan to return to the United States for regular visits, a move to Costa Rica is a lot easier on your bank account than a move to a far-flung country such as Thailand or the Philippines.
Shipping household and personal cargo to Costa Rica is also cheaper than shipments to more remote destinations. New residents may import many kinds of personal items and some household items without paying import duties if the items are not new. You must pay duties on furniture, household equipment, and many other common possessions; consider renting furnished housing or purchasing these items locally.6
Cost of Living in Costa Rica
In the International Living magazine’s 2019 report of the world’s best retirement destinations, Costa Rica ranked second just after Panama. While Costa Rica is more expensive overall than some of the other popular retirement destinations, it is still more affordable than living in the United States.
Although housing costs and living expenses can vary, most retirees in Costa Rica can achieve a comfortable standard of living at a much lower cost than they could in the United States. For example, according to international consumer price data gathered by Numbeo.com, the average person living in Phoenix faces an overall cost of living more than 31-percent higher than the average person living in San Jose.7 In another example, the cost of living in San Diego is more than 79-percent higher than in San Jose.8
Housing costs in Costa Rica are highly variable depending on city, location, size and other factors. However, Numbeo.com provides some insight into the average rental costs for apartments in the country. A nice three-bedroom apartment near a city center averages just over $900 per month, while a one-bedroom apartment costs about $510. Average prices outside the city center are roughly 20-percent lower. Many other housing options exist, including cheap beach bungalows, furnished condos, and homes with private lawns and gardens. You can also choose to buy a home. Utilities including water, electricity, and garbage collection average a little over $75 per month. Unlimited Internet service averages about $60 across the country.9
Fresh fruits, vegetables, and staple foods common to the American diet, including chicken, fish, eggs, bread, and rice are widely available and relatively cheap in Costa Rica. Foreign food items are available in some areas, but they are typically quite pricey. Cooking meals at home always helps keep food costs down, but dining out is not terribly expensive if you avoid international chains and other places that tourists frequent. A single retiree who sticks to home-cooked meals should be able to eat very well on a grocery budget under $200 per month. Frugal shoppers can lower costs further, while those who enjoy dining out every day can expect to spend quite a bit more on food.9
Other common expenses include personal and household items, clothing, transportation, and medical care. Costs in all of these categories tend to be substantially lower in Costa Rica than in the United States as long as you shop for local goods and services. Make sure you plan for unexpected events, opportunities, and emergencies that require periodic spending above your usual budget limit.