Getting Residency Without a Lawyer
Navigating Costa Rican Immigration during the residency process may seem overwhelming at first. But take heart: obtaining legal residency can be relatively stress-free and accomplished without a lawyer's assistance. Use our first-hand tips to ease through the process and avoid the $700+ attorney fee.
Before You Apply
Requirements vary according to residency type, but all applicants must assemble a set of core documents to apply. Before you begin, visit the Immigration website or make a trip in person to pick up the latest set of requirements. Budget about three months for the record collection process, as documents from your home country will require double authentication, translation and legalization.
- Documents from home: birth certificate, criminal record and income certification, if required.
- Documents from Costa Rica: fingerprints and registration with your local consulate or embassy. If you are renewing residency, you will also need proof of affiliation with the Caja public health system.
- For more, see Residency Required Documents.
Submit Your Application
When you have all your documents assembled, it's time to make the first trip to Immigration.
- Arrive early! Though Immigration opens at 8 a.m., lines begin forming around 5 a.m. Arrive by 6:30 a.m., and you'll likely be seen between 9-11 a.m. If you arrive after noon, they will not see you that day. Preferential status is given to pregnant women, applicants with infants, the disabled, and senior citizens over 65.
- The line for residency applications and updates is usually the outdoor center line. Before getting in line, verify by asking "Cual es la fila para aplicar para residencia?"
- The fee to apply for residency is $250. In order to enter the Immigration waiting room, you will be required to show proof of payment from the bank – the yellow carbon copy receipts, known as "comprobantes de pago."
Now begins the waiting game. Depending on your type of residency and other factors, the approval process can take anywhere from one month to two years; average wait time is a year.
- Return to Immigration every three months for an update – up to three times in the first year. Waiting in line is time-consuming and boring, but periodically checking for updates will pressure Immigration officials to move forward with your application. Chances are, your periodic check-ins will result in a faster residency resolution.
- If you have applied for temporary residency via marriage to a Costa Rican, Immigration will perform a random check to verify your marriage. You will be notified via fax to visit Immigration within 10 days. Your spouse must visit at the same time, and must provide a copy of his or her cedula. Together, you will fill out a form that certifies you are married and co-habitating.
If you provided a fax number, which is recommended, you'll receive a resolution of residency via fax. If not, you will be informed of your resolution upon your next visit to Immigration.
- When you return to Immigration with your resolution, do not go to the application waiting room. Instead, visit the Information window, directly across from the bathrooms. There is usually a short line here, so feel free to arrive any time after 8 a.m.
- Information will give you a cedula appointment for the following day. Before you make this appointment, you must affiliate with the Caja; this is true for first-time applications and residency renewals.
- After you make your appointment, walk to the onsite Banco de Costa Rica and pay your cedula fee. The fee for an adult is $123 plus the cost of a return ticket to your home country (about $330 for U.S. citizens).
- Return the following day for your cedula appointment. You will most likely be seen within 90 minutes of your scheduled time.
- After you have taken your photo and received a receipt for your cedula, head to the onsite post office. For about $5, the post office will send your cedula to the branch closest to your home, saving you a return trip to Immigration. Furthermore, using the post office will expedite your cedula delivery by up to three weeks.
- Congratulations, you're an official resident of Costa Rica!
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Learn from my experiences at Immigration:
- Be sure to give Immigration a working fax number – this can be your number, a friend's, an eFax (Costa Rican area code), or a lawyer's fax number. This is the only notification method for application updates, additional requirements, and resolutions.
- If you can't get in line before 6:30 a.m., you may be able to buy a spot in line. Toward the front, you may see people sitting on boxes or eyeing you with an eager expression. They arrived early to sell those line positions; don't be afraid to negotiate.
- If you don't speak Spanish, you can hire a helper for the day outside of the Immigration building. They will wait in line on your behalf, translate, and get various stamps or other approvals. Do not trust them with your passport or to make bank deposits.
- For all your Immigration payments, use the Banco de Costa Rica (BCR) at Immigration. The tellers know exactly how to deposit each payment, saving you time and anxiety.
- Always bring a book, mp3 player, or other form of entertainment. Wait times are long.
- If you get hungry, there's a small cafeteria that sells food and drink for decent prices.
- Bring toilet paper, as the bathrooms always run out by mid-morning.
- If you're pregnant, carrying an infant, disabled, or 65 and older, you will get preferential treatment. These separate lines are much shorter and faster, so you'll not only breeze through Immigration, but you don't have to line up early. The one exception is for cedula appointments, which are by set time and do not have a preferential line.