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Chinatown in San Jose, Costa Rica
Chinatown in San Jose, Costa Rica
Chinatown in San Jose, Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica

By Joshua Wood, LPC

Last updated on Sep 05, 2022

Summary: Costa Rica's capital city, San Jose, has a population of close to 350,000 but it not a major destination for expats and other foreigners, who prefer The Central Valley (which covers a large area surrounding San Jose), coastal towns and the Lake Arenal area. Most foreigners who end up moving to San Jose are here to work. They enjoy the climate (temperatures are in the 70's to low-80s year round), the family-oriented culture, the low cost of living and that they feel welcomed by the locals. The challenges of living in San Jose include traffic, crime and pollution.

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What do I need to know about living in San Jose?

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When we asked people what advice they would give someone preparing to move to San Jose, they said:

"Come and see for yourself before you make a commitment to moving here. There is a lot of hype about Costa Rica being a paradise, a cheap place to live or retire, and a safe place because it eliminated its army in 1948. The reality is that San Jose has a high crime rate, the iron grates on all of the houses and businesses can be off-putting - as can the security guards with loaded riffles - and it isn't a cheap place to live. Food, utilities and rent in certain areas of the city are quite high especially for a developing nation. Other issues in San Jose: air pollution from cars is pretty bad; noise pollution gets on your nerves after a while; it isn't safe to walk outside in the late evening or night; the streets, sidewalks and highways are in terrible shape; and government monopolies make it near impossible to get a cell phone and makes renting cars super-expensive because of the mandatory insurance. People must visit and spend a few weeks talking to people before deciding to move here," commented one expat who made the move to San Jose.

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What do I need to know before moving to San Jose?

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When we asked people what advice they would give someone preparing to move to San Jose, they said:

"Travel there first, travel around the country and find a place/local people that suit your tastes. Everyone in the country is generally friendly. I don't know why the other guy seemed to have problems making friends with Costa Ricans. Perhaps he is the type of foreigner who has difficulty adjusting to different cultures/places and ways of life. Costa Ricans are not "in your face" friendly or over the top outgoing by any means. They are, however, genuinely friendly if you're respectful and considerate of their space, culture, customs, etc," added another expat who made the move to San Jose.

How do I find a place to live in San Jose?

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We asked expats how they chose their neighborhood and found a place to live. They answered:

"I just wanted to clear up some of the bad reviews of the other guy who posted before me about San Jose, Costa Rica. First of all, if you are planning on moving to Costa Rica for whatever ex-pat experience, if possible, avoid San Jose. It is a very crowded, dense little city that is not all that interesting. Also, foreigners are more susceptible to theft here. That being said, get out of San Jose and live in any of the other great towns all throughout this beautiful country. True, transportation can be mediocre (if insisting on travelling budget), but it definately suffices. It's a small country and travelling from the Pacific to the Carribean can be done in one long day even on the slowest, cheapest bussed routes available," added another expat in San Jose.

What is a typical expat home or apartment like in San Jose?

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"Housing can be very cheap, especially if you rent out a room from a Costa Rican family. While the family's home (bathroom especially) may not be of the same type that a middle-class American is used to, it is the best way to get to know your new home country's people. If you want, you could even rent out a room at a backpackers' type of hotel or hostel for cheap rates, too. I've stayed in simple beach-front hotels for US $9 a night," mentioned another expat in San Jose.

What is the average cost of housing in San Jose?

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If you are thinking about moving to San Jose, cost of living in probably a key consideration. Expats commented about the cost of housing:

"Cheaper, undoubtedly. Unless you want to live in the most expensive/foreign-overrun areas of the country or unless you insist on staying in the same level of housing that you stay in back in the states. Costa Rica is not the USA. It's Costa Rica. Learn to live more simply, you probably won't miss it in the long run," commented one expat who made the move to San Jose.

How do I meet people in San Jose?

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When we asked people living in San Jose about club and activities where newcomers can meet others, they responded:

"There are many Yahoo! list serves available that help expats get to know where others meet and socialize. Also, Costa Rica AM (www.costaricaam.com) is an English-language e-newspaper that provides a lot of good information," said another expat in San Jose.

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William Russell Health Insurance

William Russell's private medical insurance will cover you and your family wherever you may be. Whether you need primary care or complex surgery, you'll have access to the best hospitals & doctors available. Unlike some insurers, we also include medical evacuation and mental health cover in our plans (except SilverLite). Get a quote from our partner, William Russell.

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What should I bring when moving to San Jose?

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People living in San Jose were asked what three things they wish they had brought and three they wish they had left behind. They wrote:

"I'll give the tip that it's always a good idea to bring at least one professional/business attire type of outfit and perhaps formal wear. Costa Ricans ("Ticos") take a bit of pride on appearance and do not appreciate the fresh off the beach, "dirty gringo" look of most tourists if you are applying for a job, etc," mentioned another expat in San Jose.

Will I be able to find a job in San Jose?

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When we asked people about industries and career opportunities in San Jose, they reponded:

"Most expats who work teach English, and most of them start out working through one of the numerous language schools. The jobs are not good. Invariably they're part-time, bad hours, low pay, and require lots of travel. English teachers may have to hold early morning (before work) classes at a business in a distant free-trade zone, then do the same in the evenings (after work) at another one, maybe picking up a midday class somewhere else. It can be a long day of riding buses that only nets $20. Though for the backpacker set and others just looking to make a little money, these jobs can be OK, and over time the teachers can build up some seniority that allows them to get better schedules. A few get hired on full-time by schools or businesses and are even well-paid. Most other expats who want to make some money go into business for themselves, typically in tourism and/or real estate. Expat-owned small hotels, restaurants, and bars are reasonably common. For the few expats who actually have the right to work via permanent residency and are both young and ambitious enough to aspire to conventional careers, most of the attractive openings are probably in the multinational corporations. There are lots of these and tech skills combined with English fluency open doors fast. Middle management positions exist too, but I've never known an expat who's been hired for one. I've known expats who've applied and based on their work experience in their home country were qualified, but I've never known one to be hired. I suspect this is because the multinationals either bring in their own managers or promote from within. Costa Rica has a fairly large pool of multilingual, college-educated people who already have work experience in these companies. Expats who waltz in believing they're better (a common conceit) can be in for a rude awakening," added another expat who made the move to San Jose.

"This is a city of white-collar jobs in finance/banking, government, businesses etc. Also, many shops and restaurants, casinos and other tourism businesses. For English-speaking travelers, jobs are usually in private school teaching English or in call centers. Neither pays well and most employers don't want to bother with the legalities of getting work visas for employees. That means working under the table is common for foreigners. Tourist visas are good for only three months and then the traveler has to exit the country and return. New visa laws expected to be promulgated in the spring of 2010 will limit the awarding of tourist visas for only two consecutive times," explained one expat living in San Jose, Costa Rica.

"Two high profile areas in todays market are: English Teachers and Informatics. Most jobs are found by classified advertisements," mentioned another in San Jose.

What is life like in San Jose?

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When we asked people living in San Jose what life is like and how people spend their time, they said:

"Family is everything as with all Latin American cultures. Ticos make very good friends and once you are introduced into their families you become part of it. They will go out of their way to help you in every way possible," said another expat in San Jose.

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What do expats in San Jose appreciate most about the local culture?

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"A certain sense of freedom born out of being surrounded by disorder and a complete lack of caring about most things," added another expat in San Jose.

What do expats find most challenging?

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"Duplicity, lack of frankness, uncaring attitude, failure to confront any issue and passing off all problems as "God's will"," explained one expat living in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Is there a lot of crime in San Jose?

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We asked people if there is a lot of crime. They answered:

"Depends on what you call a lot. I don't think my neighborhood has much, I live in Rohrmoser. But I have friends in some areas with a lot of crime. For the most part, San Jose's better neighborhoods are safe. Last year was a very violent year for crime, however, with a spike in the murder rate. But I stay away from those areas," added another expat who made the move to San Jose.

Is there a lot of diversity? Are people in San Jose accepting of differences?

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"San Jose, as the capital of the country, attracts people from all regions of the nation. So we have many people of African descent from the Caribbean coast, many Nicos (people from Nicaragua), a large Chinese population (especially in the San Pedro suburb) and expats from all over the world. While the main religion is Catholic, there are many Baptist churches, Mormons and other Christian groups. People seem to be very accepting of differences," commented one expat who made the move to San Jose.

William Russell's private medical insurance will cover you and your family wherever you may be. Whether you need primary care or complex surgery, you'll have access to the best hospitals & doctors available. Unlike some insurers, we also include medical evacuation and mental health cover in our plans (except SilverLite). Get a quote from our partner, William Russell.

What are the schools in San Jose like?

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"This is good academically and fairly high standards. Not good for all students if they need extra help and they can get left behind. They do IB, which is more important all the time for anywhere in the world.Price fairly high now approx $850 a month including the bus," explained one expat living in San Jose , Costa Rica.

What are the pros and cons of living in San Jose?

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Expats, digital nomads and retirees living in San Jose responded:

"After the newbie excitement wears off, I doubt that there are many expats who really love living in Costa Rica. There are myriad problems and the lifestyle can actually be fairly boring. There's even a cottage industry of expats complaining about the country. However, especially for the money, Costa Rica is a more agreeable place to live than any other place I've lived. Most things, from utilities to the healthcare system, usually work, the weather is nice, and the people are friendly. Also, despite the high figures expats often toss around, $1000 a month for a single person is enough to live decently. This is more than the average local with a full-time job earns, and Costa Rica is a middle-income country, not "third world." I don't, of course, recommend that expats plan to live on this little. More is obviously more comfortable. Also, until or unless people know their way around and can navigate in Spanish, costs are usually higher. My point is rather that bang for the buck, Costa Rica offers a surprisingly agreeable quality of life. I moved to Costa Rica 14 years ago and haven't looked back. I read that half of expats leave within their first year, and that may be true. (Others stay and complain.) What works for some people doesn't work for others. However, I guess Costa Rica works for me. ," commented one expat who moved to San Jose.

What type of social life can someone expect in San Jose?

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When we asked expats and global nomads about their social experiences in San Jose, they replied:

"There is a difference between having a social life among expats and locals. Both have their pluses and minuses, but not the same ones," commented one expat living in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Are healthcare and health insurance expensive in San Jose?

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"I was paying around $100 a month for my INS policy, but crossed into the next age bracket plus filed a few claims and my premium doubled. It was still a good deal, but too much for me. The Caja tax is around $100 a month for a pensionado, unfortunately much higher for rentistas. It's set by your income, and most expats just pay according to the income requirements of their residency type. Caja services, including generic prescription meds, are 100% covered, so you never pay more than your monthly tax. Private docs are realistically $80 a visit. You hear of lower prices, but if you go to a specialist (including an internist) plan on $80. As a rule of thumb, pretty much everything else is around 1/3 the price it is in the US," remarked another expat living in San José.

William Russell Health Insurance

William Russell's private medical insurance will cover you and your family wherever you may be. Whether you need primary care or complex surgery, you'll have access to the best hospitals & doctors available. Unlike some insurers, we also include medical evacuation and mental health cover in our plans (except SilverLite). Get a quote from our partner, William Russell.

Learn MoreGET A QUOTE

William Russell Health Insurance

William Russell's private medical insurance will cover you and your family wherever you may be. Whether you need primary care or complex surgery, you'll have access to the best hospitals & doctors available. Unlike some insurers, we also include medical evacuation and mental health cover in our plans (except SilverLite). Get a quote from our partner, William Russell.

Learn MoreGET A QUOTE

Is the cost of living in San Jose high?

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We asked people about the cost of living in San Jose, they wrote:

"Per capita GDP in Costa Rica is about a third as high as it is in the US, and the cost of living is commensurately lower. However, the prices of some goods are set at a global rather than a local level and the prices of others are actually higher owing to taxes and import costs. Realistically, the cost of living is about half as high as it is in a similar location in the US, although individual tastes and circumstances vary. As for a dollar amount, some expats say $2000/month is the minimum, though I think that's high and others think that's low. I will say that the pensionado minimum of $1000/month is doable, but pretty lean," mentioned another expat inSan Jose.

What are the visa & residency requirements in San Jose?

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"Tourist visas for the US and I believe most of Europe etc. are 90 days no real questions asked. They can also be renewed by a 3-day stay out of the country. As a result, many expats are "perpetual tourists" who just take short trips to Nicaragua or Panama every three months. This probably isn't good, and "perpetual tourists" can and sometimes are prevented from re-entering, but it works for tens of thousands of foreigners over many years. There are three ways to obtain legal residency (in addition to through marriage). One way is to come in as a pensioner. This only requires showing a minimum of $1000 a month income for life, as well as of course dealing with a lot of paperwork and paying fees. Those who can't or prefer not to show the $1000 a month income for life can obtain residency as either rentistas or investors. Rentista residency now requires showing $2500 a month income for a shorter period of time as well as the same fees and paperwork. . I'm not sure how to obtain residency as an investor, and I believe it depends upon the kind of investment, but some people seem to get it by just buying a house valued at either $200,000 or $250,000. Of course, people need a clean criminal record too, but otherwise it's either $1000 a month guaranteed for life or a fair amount of money in a lump sum for either rentista or investor residency," said another expat.

Why do people move to San Jose?

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When we asked people why foreigners move to San Jose, they responded:

"Most foreigners who voluntarily move to San Jose, Costa Rica do so for the nice climate, lower cost of living, and friendly people. Some of course move here for work, usually in the multinationals, while a few are running from someone or something (often the law)," commented one expat who moved to San Jose.

About the Author

Joshua Wood Joshua Wood, LPC joined Expat Exchange in 2000 and serves as one of its Co-Presidents. He is also one of the Founders of Digital Nomad Exchange. Prior to Expat Exchange, Joshua worked for NBC Cable (MSNBC and CNBC Primetime). Joshua has a BA from Syracuse and a Master's in Clinical and Counseling Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Mr. Wood is also a licensed counselor and psychotherapist.

Some of Joshua's articles include Pros and Cons of Living in Portugal, 10 Best Places to Live in Ireland and Pros and Cons of Living in Uruguay. Connect with Joshua on LinkedIn.

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Chinatown in San Jose, Costa Rica

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Get a quote for international health insurance from our partner, William Russell.
GET A QUOTE

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