Costa Rica Focus

Expat Briefing Editorial Team, 23 December, 2016

With its pleasant sub-tropical climate, relatively low taxation and an array of residency programs designed to attract expat retirees and investors from all over the world, the Central American republic of Costa Rica is well worth investigating if you are planning to make a new life for yourself in the sun.

Fact File

Costa Rica is located in Central America between Nicaragua and Panama and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The country measures just over 51,000 square kilometers. The time zone is GMT minus six hours (US Central Time).

The climate is sub-tropical; average temperature in the Central Valley is 22 degrees C (72 degrees F), and on the coast it varies between 20 and 30 degrees. December to April is the dry season; May to November is rainy.

Costa Rica became independent from Spain in 1821 and has been relatively stable. Following a short civil war in 1948 the country abolished its army and passed a new, quite liberal constitution, which remains in force.

In July 2016, the population was an estimated 4.87m and is overwhelmingly white or mestizo (people of combined European and Amerindian descent). As in all former Spanish colonies the official language is Spanish, the population is largely Roman Catholic and the culture is Hispanic. However, English is widely spoken within the business community.

Costa Rica has a democratic government and is both politically and economically stable. Elections in February 2014 resulted in a landslide victory for Luis Guillermo Solis Rivera, who won almost 78 percent of the vote. Solis vowed to tackle corruption and inequality, including through an overhaul of the tax system.


The economy has traditionally been based on tourism and the export of agricultural products such as bananas and coffee, although low prices for these two commodities have caused problems for the country in the past.

While the traditional agricultural exports of bananas, coffee, sugar, and beef are still the backbone of commodity export trade, a variety of industrial and specialized agricultural products have broadened export trade in recent years, as have high value-added goods and services.

Tourism is a significant foreign exchange earner, and the country's Pacific and Caribbean coastlands are lined with luxury hotel resorts. National parkland, which covers 10.3 percent of the country, includes coral reefs, virgin rainforests and volcanic craters.

The introduction of a free trade zone fiscal regime resulted in a major national economic transformation, with non-traditional goods now accounting for 68 percent of exports and agriculture representing only 17 percent of GDP.

Foreign investors remain attracted by the Costa Rica's political stability and relatively high education levels, as well as the incentives offered in the free-trade zones; Costa Rica has attracted one of the highest levels of foreign direct investment per capita in Latin America. 

The United States-Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) has encouraged higher flows of foreign direct investment into Costa Rica, especially in the insurance and telecommunications sectors. Besides Costa Rica and the US, the other members of CAFTA-DR are El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Costa Rica's economy was however, dealt a blow when Intel decided to close its microchip manufacturing facility in 2014. This factory employed some 3,000 locals and in 2006 was accounting for about 20 percent of the country's exports alone.

What's more, the International Monetary Fund and international credit rating agencies are warning the Government that a growing budget deficit will contribute to rising debt and could undermine economic stability of not tackled. Indeed, in February 2016, Standard & Poor's Ratings Services lowered its sovereign credit ratings for Costa Rica due largely to the legislature's inability to pass a package of fiscal reforms.

Despite these setbacks, the economy has been growing steadily in recent years, averaging about three percent growth from 2013 to 2015.

The currency is the colon (CRC), divided into 100 cents. Costa Rica is not a member of any monetary union, and in recent times the colon has tended to depreciate against the dollar by about 10 percent annually. At the time of writing, USD1 was worth just under CRC520.

Although Costa Rica's favorable taxation regime meant that it has for decades had all the characteristics of an offshore tax haven, it was not until relatively recently that the Government became aware of the financial services potential and began to actively legislate and promote this sector of the economy.

However, in response to greater demands internationally for tax transparency, Costa Rica is strengthening its engagement with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) including in the area of taxation. For instance, in April 2013, Costa Rica notified the OECD that it had ratified the Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, the most comprehensive multilateral agreement available for tax-cooperation and exchange of information.

Costa Rica's Minister of Finance, Edgar Ayales, meeting with OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria, noted that: "The ratification of this Convention is another milestone in Costa Rica's longstanding commitment towards tax transparency. Through the application of this Convention and recent amendments to our domestic legislation, we look forward to contributing in the cross-border fight against tax evasion."

In May 2014, Costa Rica was among several non-OECD members to endorse the Organisation's Declaration on Automatic Exchange of Information in Tax Matters, a commitment to implement a new single global standard on automatic exchange of information.

In November 2015, Costa Rica was recognized by the OECD for the progress it had made towards greater tax transparency, and a report noted that Costa Rica has improved information exchanges with other countries.


Traditionally, in Costa Rica the taxation of individuals is based on the principle of territoriality, meaning that all personal income which has a foreign source is tax exempt. Under the existing system, only that proportion of revenue earned by an individual within Costa Rica is subject to an assessment by the tax authorities. This may soon change under legislation published by the Government in 2015.

The principle of territoriality is perhaps the most significant aspect of the country's fiscal regime. Costa Rica does not discriminate between the taxes payable by residents and non-residents. The main taxes affecting an individual are income tax, employee social insurance, withholding taxes, capital transfer tax and selective consumption tax. There are relatively minor municipal taxes, and there is a tax on vehicles.

Income tax is levied on both employment source income and non-employment source income. While residents and non-residents pay the same income tax on employment source income there is a slight distinction between how a resident and a non-resident are assessed on their non-employment source income, but the distinction is driven by pragmatic considerations and is not discriminatory.

Capital gains are exempt from tax in Costa Rica unless derived from the sale of a tangible, depreciable asset, or from the habitual trade of a seller. Where capital gains tax is charged, the rate is generally the same as the corporate tax rate (30 percent in 2016).

No credits are granted in Costa Rica for taxes paid in a foreign country.

There are three distinct manners of assessing income tax payable by residents and non-residents namely:

Personal Income Taxes:

This group includes two categories:

Any individual employed in Costa Rica pays a monthly withholding tax rate based on salary. From October 1, 2012, employment income (on a monthly basis) of individuals is subject to a progressive tax with a top rate of 15 percent.

A progressive tax of up to 25 percent is applied to annual taxable profits.

The standard rate of corporate income tax in Costa Rica is 30 percent, although there are lower rates of 10 percent and 20 percent on income under certain thresholds. Tax exemptions apply to businesses under various foreign investment incentive schemes, principally the free zones.

Employers pay a social security contribution of up to 26.33 percent of gross salary, whereas employees pay a contribution of up to 9.34 percent of gross salary. Self-employed persons are also required to contribute to this fund at varying rates. Foreigners temporarily working in Costa Rica are not exempted from the requirement to pay this tax even though it is evident they can never benefit from it.

Employers are required to insure their employees against accidents at work and various other contingencies. Depending on the monthly salary and the nature of the risk, premiums can vary from 0.5 percent to 22 percent of the employee's salary. Total employer contributions can therefore reach a scary 48 percent of gross salary.

Sales Tax stands at 13 percent and is levied both at the point of importation and at the point of sale (unless the sale is by way of export). It is levied on all goods with the exception of foodstuffs, real estate, medicinal products and certain other items. A 10 percent rate applies to the sale of wood and a 5 percent rate to the consumption of electric energy for residential purposes.

There is also a "selective consumption tax" which varies from 0 percent to 60 percent and is levied either at the point of importation or for domestic production at the point of sale.

The Government raises about half of its revenue from sales tax and selective consumption tax. However, in September, 2015, legislation was published which would replace the sales tax with a value-added tax (VAT). The tax would be 14 percent in the first year, rising to 15 percent in the second year. There would be reduced rates for tourism services in the first three years. At the time of writing, the legislation remains pending, and the date of its introduction is subject to some uncertainty.

Significantly, the Government also published a bill in September 2015 to introduce a global income tax, which would require Costa Rican tax resident persons to pay tax on their worldwide income.

However, the above measures are by no means guaranteed to take place. Governments of various colors have been attempting to enact wide-ranging fiscal reforms for several years, but these have usually stalled in the Legislative Assembly. Nevertheless, residents of Costa Rica and those considering expatriating to the country will want to keep a close eye on this situation.

Quality Of Life

Unfortunately, Latin American countries have gained a reputation for not being the safest places on earth, particularly those affected most by the narcotics trade. However, Costa Rica is considered an oasis of calm compared with some of its near neighbors.

The country has not seen the internal civil strife and wars that have afflicted other nations in Central America for a number of decades, and it is rated as the safest place to live in Latin America. In 2014, the capital, San Jose, was ranked 4th in Latin America by the Economist Intelligence Unit for its quality of life.

There are over 10,000 educational institutions in Costa Rica and the country has the best education system in Latin America according to the World Economic Report Global Competitiveness Report. Almost 900 private schools and high schools are registered with the Ministry of Education, most of which offer worldwide recognized programs such as the Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate.


While transport and telecommunications infrastructure might not come up to the standard that some are used to in the advanced nations, it is nevertheless among the best in the region.

There are some 10,000km of paved roads, and the Government is also attempting to bring the country's railways back to life, after the 278km network fell into disuse and disrepair in at the end of the 20th century.

There is a good domestic telephone service in terms of breadth of coverage, and Costa Rica is well-connected to regional telecommunications infrastructure; there are landing points for the Americas Region Caribbean Ring System (ARCOS-1), MAYA-1, and the Pan American Crossing submarine cables that provide links to South and Central America, parts of the Caribbean, and the US.

It is also possible to access the internet in most parts of the country.


There are no real estate restrictions for foreigners, and Costa Rican law ensures the same rights for foreigners and citizens.

An immovable property tax of 1.5 percent is payable by the purchaser on the value of real estate purchased. There is also a 0.25 percent municipal tax on the value of real property, and a luxury property tax applies to properties exceeding certain values.

Entry And Residence

All travelers must have a valid passport (with at least six months left to expiry) to enter the country for either business or tourism. 90-day entry visas are granted at the airport. To stay beyond the 90-day period, travelers must submit an application for an extension to the Office of Temporary Permits in the Costa Rican Department of Immigration. Tourist visas are usually not extended except under special circumstances, and extension requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

There have been many changes to Costa Rica's immigration law over the past few years as the Government simultaneously sought to crack down on illegal immigration from neighboring countries in Central American while encouraging wealthy expats, retirees and investors to settle in the country.

A new law, known as the Costa Rica Immigration Law (Ley General de Migracion y Extranjeri­a), was published in the official Costa Rica government newspaper La Gaceta on September 1, 2009 and became effective on March 1, 2010.

The new law creates 5 residency types as follows:






It is important to note that under the new residency law, all residency types must participate in Costa Rica's national social security and healthcare insurance system, known as "Caja". Proof of participation and payments for the entire term of residency are required for renewals.

Any request for residency in Costa Rica should be submitted to the Costa Rican Consulate in the country of origin or residency or directly to the offices of immigration in San Jose.

There is a USD250 tax upon approval of a residency application.

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