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The New Costa Rica Immigration Law

August 13th, 2009

migracion de costa rica

It is hard to not say I told you so…  I cannot.   Sorry!

On January 11, 2009, in response to a large number of emails and phone calls, I blogged about the proposed immigration law. One online newspaper told concerned expats, future residents and readers that the new law would be passed immediately… before the Christmas (2008) break!  They said it would be retroactive and even those folks already here legally would be affected and have to comply. Everyone panicked.

I tried to explain that nothing happens that fast in this country and that panic sells newspapers and increases readership and thus sells advertising. I also explained that it is against Costa Rica law to have a new law be retroactive. I suggested a wait and be patient approach.

Well that was January and this is August and yes, finally, the Asamblea Legislativa (the congress) has passed the new Ley de Migración (immigration law) which should for years influence the rights and responsibilities of foreigners coming to live in Costa Rica.  Note I use the word foreigner and not the words American, Gringo, US Citizen or other such word as despite our often enormous sense of self importance, this law is designed to affect anyone from any nation who seeks to reside in Costa Rica on a legal and permanent basis. It covers a lot more as well.  I held off a few days trying to get a more complete picture of this new law, but sadly, reliable details are not forthcoming so for those of you who are interested in this topic, read on!

First, I must say that everything I have read about the new law is just plain fair and is, in the years that I have lived here,  this is about the only law that got  it almost 100% right. It falls a little bit short of fully protecting Costa Rica, but I’ll discuss that later.

OK so what is in this law?  Here are the salient points!

  • Costa Rica is getting tough on the trafficking of persons. This is now a criminal offense with much stronger penalties.  Trafficking can be for purposes of slavery, prostitution, or simply smuggling people from, to or through Costa Rica to other countries.
  • Pensionados, those who receive a guaranteed income from US Social Security, a State pension fund or other “guaranteed” source, will be now required to show proof of $1,000 per month (US) income. There will be no deposit required.  This is spot on as it is just no longer possible to live here for $600.00 per month, the old requirement. All but a few recipients of social security should qualify easily.  The spouse is included in the $1,000 figure.
  • Rentistas,  those who wish to live here legally but are too young or otherwise do not qualify for a pension like social security, will now deposit  $2,500.00 per month ( a one time deposit of $150,000.00 to cover five years).   I am presuming it will work the old way.  (Not 100% sure yet).  However the $2,500 per month is correct. Besides being 2.5 times the old $1,000 per month, this figure includes immediate family members and that may actually save money for a family with kids. However, it would seem to penalize single persons wishing to move here and thus is one of my few concerns  regarding this law.
  • Marriages between Costa Rica citizens and foreigners can be brought under far closer scrutiny.  This has been a serious issue for years, with numerous marriages of convenience allowing low-lifes (and maybe some not-so-low-lifes) to purchase a Costa Rica spouse they perhaps have never met and immediately be eligible for Permanent Residency. Now a couple under investigation may have to  prove to immigration (migracion) that they are a couple, have been through a courtship-  both persons living in this country. In other words.. it’s love and not a scam!
  • A new immigration police force will be formed, composed of specially trained officers from the Fuerza Pública plus existing members.  With this is the stronger enforcement which should allow Costa Rica to deal far more efficiently with the many illegals (often referred to as perpetual tourists) living here.  This new law will finally allow for active tracking of these scofflaws as opposed to the random raids now so popular. Costa Rica has a significant problem with illegals from Nicaragua,  the USA and Canada and with luck, there should be enough enforcement power to handle this problem.
  • Owners and operators of hotels will now be required to maintain registers of all guests with residency documentation and backup, presumably similar to those in Europe.  Will they be required to hold the guest’s passport?  Unclear…  and we will not know until we all see the actual law. There was talk also of heavy penalties to employers of illegals and I have thus found nothing addressing that.
  • It also appears that a new court will be formed to deal solely with issues and appeals of immigration.
  • Foreigners will now have to join the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social or the CAJA as it is known.  This is the socialized medical plan of Costa Rica also covering pensions. CAJA provides medical care for all members without regard to pre-existing conditions and this is the other area where I believe the diputados  made an error.  While it is one thing to control the pre-existing rules within one country (like the USA for example) and between insurance carriers in that country, it is quite another to open the CAJA system to the world and allow anyone with a very costly illness to “buy” unlimited medical care for as little at $600.00 per month.  I fear this may come back and bite those legislators on their collective butts.
  • Show me the $$$.  Where is the money coming from?  That is always a fun and interesting question in Costa Rica.  Sadly, the answer often is…  there is none.  There does, however, appear to be a provision affecting all immigration transactions (tramite) that may now carry a charge, in one report, $25.00 per tramite.  This is not a verified fact.
  • Amnesty? One source indicates the the president of Costa Rica will now have the right to grant residency.  This was interpreted to mean that the president could grant a massive amnesty to illegals now here in the country.  I am not sure I agree with that leap of logic though it may be correct. After having asked around, I cannot very anything, but there is precedent for amnesty as it was twice given in the 90’s, in essence granting legal residency to all those who could prove they had lived here illegally for a specified period of time. Could this happen again?  Quien sabe?  It would certainly make the job of the new immigration police force a lot easier as they could start with a clean slate.

So what is next? When is this law? So why is this all not just clear?  For that, you must understand how things work here.

The next step as that the law must be signed by the president of Costa Rica, Don Oscar Arias.  Once that has been done, the law will be published in La Gaceta.  The law goes into effect six months after being published there. So that’s when we will  know everything right?  Nope, and this is a point that is often simply impossible to teach those from other countries, especially those from the USA where the law is the law.

Law is NOT law here. Yes, there is a law, but that law is then  interpreted by the agency involved, in this case immigration. They will then interpret and enforce this law as they see fit and enforce it as they see fit.  If someone does not like it, they will take it  to the Supreme Court and THEY will interpret it.   Sound easy?  Nope… because in the past, various government agencies have paid not the least attention to the supreme court decisions and have just continued to operate as they had before.  This has happened several times with immigration since I have lived here.  This time though, they have a pretty good law and the director of immigration seems to be an intelligent man… so we shall see!  In any case, the supreme court eventually gets torqued and starts handing out threats of jail, monetary penalties, etc. at which point the government agency involved does pay attention.. This issue just seems to make Gringos go crazy as it is anathema to the structured and well defined laws in the USA. Hint… If you are going to live here, you must understand that you are not in Kansas anymore and that what me be clear to you, is not clear at all.

Comments welcome!

123 Responses to “The New Costa Rica Immigration Law”

  1. Kelley on May 22, 2011 12:21 am

    P.S. Also, with me in rentista status, do you know if, for her to have dependent status with me after 18 years old, she will have to be a university student in CR? Seems like no, since I only have to be in the country 4 months, and not even sure she has to be in CR for 4 months also, so does her university have to be in CR?

  2. lorna on September 15, 2011 11:25 pm

    I have a question. i have been looking around your site for a while now making up my mind on where i would like to live and practice my art ( i have bfa and would like to use it, that seems to be hard for me in the usa). Me and my husband are both young 20 somethings that want to move out the the us and leave somewhere where the quality of life is not taken for granted. I really like costa rica but i do not see a way that we could live there and not break any immigrations laws. there no way we can apply to be residents, and live there. my husband and i would not be coming there with 150,000 dollars or a pensions, we can’t marry anyone as we are marry, is there any way for us to move there, and if so what do we need to do start to do now so sometime next year we can start finding a place to rent. oh to be clear we do want to work there and plan on being a good citizen, not just freeloading. thank you so much for the website. wish you could make one for every country

  3. Tim on September 29, 2011 8:19 am

    Quick answer… nope. Save the $150,000 or don’t come.

  4. Dan Radulescu on January 20, 2012 1:45 pm

    Hi there.
    Surfed your site with great interest.My wife and i are thinking of retiering in COSTA RICA.iN ANTICIPATION OF THIS MOVE we are visiting SAN JOSE IN feb.27th-mar.9th.Can you please direct us to any agency assisting potential EX-PATS with answers to questions such us what is required for a smooth transition.If you know of any agency prviding this kind of service please let us know,would like to spend some time chating with them while in CR.
    Thanks for your anticipated cooperation.

  5. Arie on January 29, 2012 12:23 pm

    LOL, i love that last answer Tim, it does not get any more clear than that does it… I’ve been uncomfortable living in my home country… (Canada)Been wanting to leave this life and fast paced society for years, and Costa Rica is on top of my list!!! I love your work Tim, I love your blogs, I take everything you say very serious. Im saving my money… 143000 to go lolol. Im only 32 my wife 31, and 2 little girls, i come no where close to having a pension, so save , save , save or win the lottery.

    Im anxious to VISIT the country, and hopefully this year, and if my budget pulls through, I will be contacting you for a “real life, reality” tour.

    Anyway, after months of reading your work, today is the first time I speak up, I respect your writing, I wish to live and breath the air as you…

    One day, I will live the “pura vida” give my girls a good education and good health care they deserve.

    From silence to out spoken, my name is Arie, and Im grateful for your knowledge, hope to speak in the future, and I will share my thoughts in your future posts.

  6. Carl Price on May 8, 2012 10:55 am

    I was living in CR for three years as a tourist and was able to incorporate so I could own a bar. I left the country for 3 days every 3 months, as I was told at the time that was all I needed to do to legally stay.
    I sold the bar 3 years ago and haven’t been back until just this past month for a visit. A good friend of mine is now a doctor and is interested in having his own clinic. I would like to invest in this venture with him. If we end up doing this I would like to be able to visit him for a month at a time, 4 or 5 times a year.
    Is their someone we can contact that is in a position to understand what will be required of us to go forward with this joint venture.
    I would appreciate any advice, thanks!

  7. debbie kirkendall on May 22, 2012 8:31 am

    my husband and i have been living in costa rica for past 6 months, we would like to file for pensionado, heard there were new laws. what is the newest requirements from start to finish to apply?

  8. Tim on June 11, 2012 7:15 am

    Nope… no new laws. See my web site for requirements.

  9. Tim on June 11, 2012 7:27 am

    I would suggest a Costa Rica attorney who specializes in business.

  10. Al on June 14, 2012 12:35 pm

    Can a US retiree still live comfortably on $2200/mo? I can live fairly frugally but I’d need a furnished residence on the ground floor (I’m somewhat handicapped). Do you think somewhere in Heredia would be a nice compromise weather-wise? I’d prefer not to live where it’s REAL hot.

    Becoming a pensionado: If I understand it correctly one of the things I’ll need is something from my local police that states I don’t have a record, etc. I live in a small town in CT that has a police dept. but when I asked them about it they looked at me like I’m crazy. Any suggestions?

    I’d like to join the chorus of others that have thanked you for your hard work. I’ve learned so much about CR from your writings and can’t wait to visit in a few months.

  11. Richard Boutet on July 25, 2012 9:31 am

    Hi Tim, my wife and i just started reading your site and are really benefiting a lot from your conprehensive knowledge on Costa rica thanks. we will look you up when we come. I’m a Canadian cityzen with a “permanent residency status”in CR since 1996 from a former marriage to a CR National. Recently married the love of my life;a Chinese woman. Right here in Mainland China. She is considered from one of the countries of the “fourth group”…Which requires a lot of bureaucracy preparations we are involved in just to get her a 30 days “tourist visa” so she can spend some time with me getting to know our retirement home in CR Can she be granted visa extentions long enough for us to enjoy each other in CR while applying and waiting through the process for her permanent residency from within CR?

  12. Richard Boutet on July 27, 2012 9:27 am

    Dear Tim I came up with another question today which i just add to the yesterday one above awaiting your answer I have a good one i’m sure you can arbitrate between my wife and i . From one of your short paragraph i quoted below can you tell us if you think my wife qualifies to apply for “permanent Residency” or not. i felt we found a piece of information on imm requirements that would apply to our circumstances. But tonight my wife thinks i am miss understanding this statement and she feels disqualified? She doesn’t trust my interpretation because she knows i’m looking at this from an ‘ESL” perspective.
    Of course who better for us to ask than to you who wrote it and understand it’s relevant meaning for her.
    Thanks for your help


    Permanent residency is granted to a qualifying person who is a first-degree relative (spouse, father, mother, sister, brother) of a Costa Rica citizen or to any other person who has held another legal form of residency (i.e. rentista) for a period of three years. With permanent res

  13. Tim on July 27, 2012 9:48 am

    The quick answer is probably, BUT I am not qualified to give a definitive answer and I do not provide legal advice. You should contact a reputable Costa Rica residency attorney when you get here.

  14. Tim on July 27, 2012 9:55 am

    As you state that you have been a legal Costa Rica PR since 1996, and that you now possess a current unexpired cedula, it would APPEAR that she would be eligible to apply for PR status as well.

    Now I say APPEAR as this IS Costa Rica and I can see some possibly big issues as well as just delays… such as where you were married, for how long have you been married, if she is from Taiwan (as opposed to minland China), and about ten other things.

    or… maybe nothing at all. That is they way it is here.

    I cannot reply further to your questions. You need to either retain a Costa Rica residency attorney when you get here, or perhaps contact http://www.arcr.net.

  15. lani blair on August 8, 2012 4:23 pm

    Hi Tim = great blog and website – my hubby and i just left CR – been down twice this year – so we’ved decided to buy some land and build a house, plus open a business. I read somewhere that CR residency “investor” status now includes persons that are buying a home value $200,000 or more. Do you know anything about this or care to comment? would our business also help/apply in this case and does this mean it all has to be after completion or would signed contracts with franchisors, and home building contractors be good enough to prove our total investments are well over $200,000?

  16. Marie on October 29, 2012 11:13 am

    We must renew our residency. What is the cost of the pensionado renewal?
    Thank you

  17. Residency in Costa Rica | Laguna Azul Real Estate on October 7, 2013 3:23 pm

    […] of Costa Rica revised the immigration laws. I have written extensively about these changes in the Real Costa Rica Blog. Click here to read the article. I would urge all readers to carefully review these changes. […]

  18. Katie on February 12, 2014 2:40 pm

    Hi, my husband and I are interested in moving to Costa Rica. I’m curious about the section you wrote on “Rentistas”, where it says:” those who wish to live here legally but are too young or otherwise do not qualify for a pension like social security, will now deposit $2,500.00 per month ( a one time deposit of $150,000.00 to cover five years).”

    Does this mean we must make a $150,000 deposit into the bank to enter the country? And we must have proof of income of $2,500?


  19. Tim on February 12, 2014 6:38 pm

    See the web site under residency. Covered there

  20. Niek Kessel on August 8, 2017 4:05 pm

    Hi, I’m Dutch,60 years and have an income for disability of 850 euro plus a 13th month each year. At 62 my pension will be paid and it will an extra (at least) 600 euro. I do call center work for a Dutch company and that pays around 800 euro monthly. My disability and pension are guaranteed. My partner is Venezuelan, 49 years has a venezyelan government pension but given the situation here we gave no idea how much it would be living abroad. She has a son of 14. We would like to move to CR.
    1) I’m disabled for 35%
    2) I work for a Dutch company
    3) my pension is in another 2 years.
    4) my wife has her full pension, but we have no notion what will be her pension living outside of venezuela or even if she’ll get a pension
    5) my wife is a teacher and might want to work again. For sure if it wouk help us getting permission to stay (live and work) in CR

    A) How do you see our chances of being allowed to live and work in CR?

    B) How can we start the process of moving legally to CR?

    C) Who or Whom can help us with this process

    We need to get out of Venezuela ASAP as the situation is getting real bad and dangerous here.

    Thank you for your help and advice

  21. Leslie M Riedel on August 18, 2017 1:56 pm

    So if my husband who gets 1500 a month on social security, he is 66. I am 51 we have been married 29 yrs and I get as. Disability 1800 a month before Medicare is taken out after Medicare it’s 1652 a month. How do we move to Costa Rica and have health and prescription coverage within a year and a half.

  22. Tim on August 22, 2017 12:51 pm

    Simply contract a residence attorney here in Costa Rica. I would STRONGLY urge you to NOT do this until you have visited Costa Rica to see if you even like and and can live here.

  23. Tim on August 22, 2017 12:52 pm

    Contact ARCR: http://www.arcr.net/