U.S. Department of State Update on Costa Rica

Following is the July 19, 2011 update on Costa Rica from the U.S. Department of State:


COUNTRY DESCRIPTION: Costa Rica is a middle-income, developing country with a strong democratic tradition. Tourist facilities are extensive and generally adequate.  While English is a second language for many Costa Ricans, knowledge of Spanish is necessary for legal matters.  Potential visitors or investors should carefully read the following sections on Safety and Security, Crime, Special Circumstances, the Overseas Security Advisory Council reports, and the Department of State’s Background Notes on Costa Rica for additional information.

SMART TRAVELER ENROLLMENT PROGRAM (STEP) / EMBASSY LOCATION: If you are going to live in or visit Costa Rica, please take the time to tell our Embassy about your trip by enrolling in STEP.  If you enroll, we can keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements. It will also help your friends and family get in touch with you in an emergency. Here’s the link to the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.  The Embassy is located in Pavas, San Jose, and may be reached at (506) 2519-2000; the extension for the Consular Section is 2188.  The Embassy is open Monday through Friday but is closed on Costa Rican and U.S. federal holidays.  We strongly encourage those seeking information to use the Embassy website.  For emergencies arising outside of normal business hours, U.S. citizens may call (506) 2220-3127 and ask for the duty officer.

ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS FOR U.S. CITIZENS: For entry into Costa Rica, you must present a valid passport that will not expire for at least thirty days after arrival and a roundtrip/outbound ticket. Because of possible fines levied by Costa Rican Immigration, many Airlines will not permit passengers without a roundtrip ticket to board flights to Costa Rica unless they have Costa Rican citizenship, residency or a visa. There is a departure tax of $26 USD for visitors.Passports should be in good condition; Costa Rican Immigration may deny entry if the passport is damaged in any way. Costa Rican authorities generally permit U.S. citizens to stay up to ninety days.  To extend a stay, travelers must submit an application for an extension to the Office of Temporary Permits in the Costa Rican Department of Immigration. Extension requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Tourists who stay more than ninety days, without receiving an extension, may experience a delay at the airport when departing, may be fined $100, or may be denied entry to Costa Rica on future visits. Individuals planning to study in Costa Rica can only apply for a student visa from Costa Rican Immigration after arriving in the country.  Neither the Costa Rican Embassy in Washington, DC nor its Consulates have the authority to issue student visas.  This has led to some confusion by airline employees who mistakenly believe that individuals traveling to Costa Rica as part of a legitimate exchange program must have a return travel date that is less than 90 days from their initial date of travel. Persons traveling to Costa Rica from some countries in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa must provide evidence of a valid yellow fever vaccination prior to entry. The South American countries include Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. See “SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES.” for information on requirements to carry identity documentation within Costa Rica and on travel by minors who are dual nationals or legal residents. The most authoritative and up-to-date information on Costa Rican entry and exit requirements may be obtained from the Consular Section of the Embassy of Costa Rica at 2114 “S” Street NW, Washington, DC 20008, telephone (202) 234-2945/46, fax (202) 265-4795. You may visit the Embassy of Costa Rica’s website or contact the Embassy via email. You may also obtain information from the Costa Rican consulates in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Denver. Please also see the Costa Rican Immigration Agency website. It is advisable to contact the Embassy of Costa Rica in Washington or one of Costa Rica’s Consulates in the United States for specific information regarding customs requirements before shipping any items. Information about dual nationality or the prevention of international child abduction can be found on our website.  For further information about customs regulations, please read our Customs Information page.Visit the Embassy of Costa Rica web site for the most current visa information. HIV/AIDS restrictions: The U.S. Department of State is unaware of any HIV/AIDS entry restrictions for visitors to or foreign residents of Costa Rica.


THREATS TO SAFETY AND SECURITY: On both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, currents are swift and dangerous, and there are few lifeguards or signs warning of dangerous beaches. A number of U.S. citizens drown every year in Costa Rica due to riptides or sudden drop-offs while in shallow water. In addition, since August 2009, at least four foreign visitors, including one American Citizen, have disappeared without a trace while hiking or traveling in Costa Rica.  Extreme caution, whether swimming, hiking, or driving, is advised.There have been no recent acts of terrorism in Costa Rica. Visitors to Costa Rica may be inconvenienced by infrequent civil disturbances such as work stoppages and strikes. Adventure tourism is popular in Costa Rica, and many companies offer white-water rafting, bungee jumping, jungle canopy tours, SCUBA diving, and other outdoor attractions. U.S. citizens are urged to use caution in selecting adventure tourism companies. The Government of Costa Rica regulates and monitors the safety of these companies, and registered tourism companies with operating permits must meet safety standards and have insurance coverage. Nonetheless, be advised that safety regulations enforced in Costa Rica are not as stringent as safety regulations in the United States. The Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) web site has contact information for licensed tour operators and travel agencies. Stay up to date by:

  • Bookmarking our Bureau of Consular Affairs website, which contains the current Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts as well as the Worldwide Caution.
  • Follow us on Twitter and the Bureau of Consular Affairs page on Facebook as well.
  • Download our free Smart Traveler iPhone App to have travel information at your fingertips.
  • Calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free within the U.S. and Canada, or a regular toll line, 1-202-501-4444, from other countries.
  • Take some time before travel to consider your personal security –Here are some useful tips for traveling safely abroad.

CRIME: Ten U.S. citizens have been murdered in Costa Rica since January, 2010.   Crime is a significant concern for Costa Ricans and visitors alike.  Local law enforcement agencies have limited capabilities and different standards than U.S. law enforcement. Daytime robberies in public places occur, and thieves have been known to brandish weapons or use violence if victims resist. Almost two million foreign tourists, about half U.S. citizens, visit Costa Rica annually. All are potential targets for criminals, primarily thieves looking for cash, jewelry, credit cards, electronic items and passports. Thieves often work in small groups. The most prevalent scam involves the surreptitious puncturing of tires of rental cars, often near restaurants, tourist attractions, airports, or close to the car rental agencies themselves. When the travelers pull over, “good Samaritans” quickly appear to help change the tire – and just as quickly remove valuables from the car, sometimes brandishing weapons. Drivers with flat tires are advised to drive, if at all possible, to the nearest service station or other public area and change the tire themselves, watching valuables at all times. Another common scam involves one person dropping change in a crowded area, such as on a bus. When the victim tries to assist, a wallet or other item is taken. We encourage you to take proactive steps to avoid becoming a crime victim. You should not walk, hike or exercise alone, and should bear in mind that crowded tourist attractions and resort areas popular with foreign tourists are common venues for criminal activity. Ignore any verbal harassment, and avoid carrying your passport, large amounts of cash, jewelry or expensive photographic equipment.Tourists should carry photocopies of their passport data page and Costa Rican entry stamp on their persons, and leave the original passport in a hotel safe or other secure place. Costa Rican immigration authorities conduct routine immigration checks at locations, such as bars in downtown San Jose and beach communities. U.S. citizens detained during one of these checks who have only a copy of the passport may be required to provide the original passport with appropriate stamps.Travelers renting vehicles should purchase an adequate level of locally valid theft insurance, park in secure lots whenever possible, and never leave valuables in their vehicles. The U.S. Embassy receives several reports daily of valuables, identity documents, and other items stolen from locked vehicles, primarily rental cars. Thefts from parked cars occur in cities, at beaches, at the airport, in front of restaurants and hotels, and at national parks and other tourist attractions. Travelers should use only licensed taxis, which are red with medallions (yellow triangles containing numbers) painted on the side. Licensed taxis at the airport are painted orange. All licensed taxis should have working door handles, locks, seatbelts and meters (called “marias”); passengers are required to use seatbelts. When traveling by bus, avoid putting bags or other personal belongings in the storage bins. You should at all times have your belongings in your line of sight and your valuables in your possession.Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available.  Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law.

VICTIMS OF CRIME: If you or someone you know becomes the victim of a crime abroad, you should contact the local police and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.  We can:

  • Replace a stolen passport.
  • For violent crimes such as assault or rape, help you find appropriate medical care,
  • Put you in contact with the appropriate police authorities, and contact family members or friends.
  • Although the local authorities are responsible for investigating and prosecuting the crime, consular officers can help you understand the local criminal justice process and can direct you to local attorneys.

The local equivalent to the “911” emergency line in Costa Rica  is also “911”. Please see our information on victims of crime, including possible victim compensation programs in the United States.

CRIMINAL PENALTIES: While you are traveling in Costa Rica, you are subject to its laws and regulations even if you are a U.S. citizen.  Some laws in Costa Rica differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Costa Rica’s laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. The law permits pre-trial detention of persons accused of serious crimes. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Costa Rica are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime, prosecutable in the United States. Please see our information on Criminal Penalties.Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. You may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you.  Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs could land you immediately in jail.  You can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods.  If you break local laws in Costa Rica, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution.  It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.  If you are arrested in Costa Rica, authorities are required to notify the U.S. embassy of your arrest.  If you are concerned the Department of State may not be aware of your situation, you should request the police or prison officials to notify the U.S. embassy of your arrest.


  • Land Ownership and Shoreline Property: U.S. citizens are urged to use extreme caution when making real estate purchases, and to consult with reputable legal counsel and investigate thoroughly all aspects before entering into a contract. Coastal land within fifty meters of the high tide line is open to the public and therefore closed to development, and construction on the next one hundred fifty meters inland is possible only with the approval of the local municipality.
  • Squatters: Organized squatter groups have invaded properties in various parts of the country. These squatter groups, often supported by politically active persons and non-governmental organizations, take advantage of legal provisions that allow people without land to gain title to unused agricultural property. Local courts may show considerable sympathy for the squatters. Victims of squatters have reported threats, harassment, and violence.
  • Documentation Requirements: Visitors are required to carry appropriate documentation at all times. However, due to the high incidence of passport theft, tourists are permitted and encouraged to carry photocopies of the data page and entry stamp from the passport, leaving the passport in a hotel safe or other secure place. However, as noted under CRIME, Costa Rican immigration authorities conduct routine checks for illegal immigrants, especially in bars located in downtown San Jose and in beach communities. A U.S. citizen detained during one of these checks and carrying only the copy of the passport will be required to produce the original passport. Therefore, tourists should carry their passports when taking domestic air flights, when traveling overnight, and when traveling a considerable distance from their hotel. Tourists who carry passports are urged to place them securely in an inside pocket.
  • Exit Procedures for Costa Rican citizens and legal residents: All children born in Costa Rica acquire Costa Rican citizenship at birth, and may only depart the country upon presentation of an exit permit issued by immigration authorities. This policy, designed to prevent international child abduction, applies to dual national U.S./Costa Rican citizens as well as U.S. citizens who are legal residents in Costa Rica. Parents of minors who obtained Costa Rican citizenship through a parent or through birth in Costa Rica are advised to consult with appropriate Costa Rican authorities prior to travel to Costa Rica, especially if one (or both) parent(s) is not accompanying the child.
  • Disaster Preparedness: Costa Rica is located in an earthquake and volcanic zone. Serious flooding occurs annually in the Caribbean Province of Limon and the Pacific Province of Puntarenas, and flash floods and severe landslides occur in other parts of Costa Rica as well, depending on the time of year and rainfall. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
  • Accessibility: While in Costa Rica, individuals with disabilities may find accessibility and accommodation  very different from what you find in the United States. While Costa Rica has legislation that mandates access to transportation, communication and public buildings for persons with disabilities, the government does not effectively enforce these laws.
  • We are not aware of any special currency or customs circumstances for Costa Rica.

MEDICAL FACILITIES AND HEALTH INFORMATION: Costa Rica is actively promoting medical tourism.  While there are advantages like affordable costs, quality health care, and a chance to recuperate and have a vacation at the same time, there are also risks. Medical tourists should confirm that the facilities they are considering are accredited, purchase medical evacuation insurance before travelling, and should confirm that the cost and payment for their treatment is clearly understood by both parties.  Persons with unpaid or disputed debts in Costa Rica may be legally prevented from leaving the country.In the event of unforeseen medical complications or malpractice, medical tourists might not be covered by their personal insurance or might not be able to seek damages through malpractice lawsuits.  Although many hospitals and clinics abroad have medical malpractice insurance, seeking compensation can prove to be difficult because insurance laws and legal options may not exist.Medical care in San Jose is adequate, but is limited in areas outside of San Jose.  Most prescription and over-the-counter medications are available throughout Costa Rica. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services, and U.S. medical insurance is not always valid outside the United States. A list of local doctors and medical facilities can be obtained from the U.S. Embassy in San Jose. An ambulance may be summoned by calling 911. Most ambulances provide transportation but little or no medical assistance. You can find good information on vaccinations and other health precautions on the CDC website.   For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the World Health Organization (WHO) website.  The WHO website also contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information..

MEDICAL INSURANCE: You can’t assume your insurance will go with you when you travel.  It’s very important to find out BEFORE you leave whether or not your medical insurance will cover you overseas.  You need to ask your insurance company two questions:

  • Does my policy apply when I’m out of the United States?
  • Will it cover emergencies like a trip to a foreign hospital or a medical evacuation?

In many places, doctors and hospitals still expect payment in cash at the time of service.  Your regular U.S. health insurance may not cover doctors’ and hospital visits in other countries.  If your policy doesn’t go with you when you travel, it’s a very good idea to take out another one for your trip.  For more information, please see our medical insurance overseas page.

TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS: While in  Costa Rica, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Costa Rica is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance. Roads are often in poor condition, and large potholes with the potential to cause significant damage to vehicles are common. Traffic signs, even on major highways, are inadequate and few roads are lined. Shoulders are narrow or consist of drainage ditches. Pedestrians, cyclists, and farm animals are common sights along main roads, creating additional potential driving hazards. Traffic laws and speed limits are often ignored, turn signals are rarely used, passing on dangerous stretches of highway is common, and pedestrians are not given the right of way.  As a result, the fatality rate for pedestrians and those riding bicycles and motorcycles is disproportionately high. All of the above, in addition to poor visibility due to heavy fog or rain, can make driving treacherous. Landslides are common in the rainy season. Main highways and principal roads in the major cities are paved, but some roads to beaches and other rural locations are not.Accordingly, many destinations are accessible only with high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles. Travelers are advised to call ahead to their hotels to ask about the current status of access roads.  Travelers should minimize driving at night, especially outside urban areas.Costa Rica has a 911 system for reporting emergencies. In the event of a traffic accident, vehicles must be left where they are. Both the traffic police and an insurance investigator must make accident reports before the vehicles are moved. Please refer to our road safety page for more information or visit the web site of the Costa Rican Ministry for Public Transport.

AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation Authority as being in compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards for oversight of Costa Rica’s air carrier operations. For more information, travelers may visit the FAA web site.

CHILDREN’S ISSUES: Please see our Office of Children’s Issues web pages on intercountry adoption and international parental child abduction.

* * * This replaces the Country Specific Information for Costa Rica dated December 22, 2010, to update sections on Safety and Security and Crime.

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