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Costa Rica travel guide

About Costa Rica

Steaming rainforest, iridescent hummingbirds, smouldering volcanoes, tumbling rivers, and miles of palm-fringed sandy beaches: if Mother Nature can ever be accused of showing off, it is in Costa Rica. Sat just north of the equator, this verdant chunk of the Central American isthmus is one of the most bio-diverse spots on the planet. Added to which, as the only country in the region with no standing army, it's a beacon of peace and democracy.

A world pioneer in eco-tourism, Costa Rica has set aside more than a quarter of its territory as a protected natural area, more than any other country on Earth. Its national parks are its greatest glory, comprising a stunning variety of landscapes, microclimates, flora and fauna. The cloud forests of Monteverde are the haunt of the Resplendent Quetzal, sacred national bird. Corcovado's coastal rainforest is home to all four native monkey species. The northwestern Nicoya Peninsula is teeming with birds, wild cats, whales and dolphins. The canals, beaches and mangroves of Tortuguero are alive with wildlife, including nesting green and leatherback turtles.

Alternatively, if you are looking for an adrenalin kick, whitewater rafting, tree-top ziplining, surfing and quad biking are just a few of the extreme activities on offer. You can hike around the many volcanoes studded along the country's spine; tread carefully on grumpy Arenal Volcano, or wallow in the hot lagoons and mud baths of the more placid Poas and Irazú.

Costa Rica's cities may not win many architectural awards but they're worth a visit, if only for an insight into the urban lives of Ticos, as the citizens call themselves. Downtown San Jose has superb museums and excellent cafés. Or head to sleepy Puerto Limón on the Caribbean coast; a popular stop-off with surfers en route to the big waves off Isla Uvita. For anyone in search of an ethical adventure, Costa Rica’s charms will have you under their spell all too quickly.

Key facts

Area:

51,100 sq km (19,730 sq miles).

Population:

4,981,916 (2018).

Population density:

94 per sq km.

Capital:

San José.

Government:

Republic.

Head of state:

President Carlos Alvarado since 2018.

Head of government:

President Carlos Alvarado since 2018.

Travel Advice

Coronavirus travel health

Check the latest information on risk from COVID-19 for Costa Rica on the TravelHealthPro website.

See the TravelHealthPro website for further advice on travel abroad and reducing spread of respiratory viruses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

International travel

Commercial flights are not running normally. United Airlines, Iberia, Air France and Lufthansa are operating some flights and other airlines are resuming operations on certain dates. Check with the airlines or a travel agent. If you are in Costa Rica and need consular assistance, please use the Online Contact page.

Entry and borders

See Entry requirements to find out what you will need to do when you arrive in Costa Rica.

Returning to the UK

When you return, you must follow the rules for entering the UK.

You are responsible for organising your own COVID-19 test, in line with UK government testing requirements. You should contact local authorities for information on testing facilities (only available in Spanish).

Be prepared for your plans to change

No travel is risk-free during COVID. Countries may further restrict travel or bring in new rules at short notice, for example due to a new COVID-19 variant. Check with your travel company or airline for any transport changes which may delay your journey home.

If you test positive for COVID-19, you may need to stay where you are until you test negative. You may also need to seek treatment there.

Plan ahead and make sure you:

  • can access money
  • understand what your insurance will cover
  • can make arrangements to extend your stay and be away for longer than planned

Travel in Costa Rica

The use of private vehicles is currently restricted for the entire country. Restrictions vary as the COVID-19 risk levels change. The restrictions are usually based on the last number of the licence plate. You should check local information.

You can drive in Costa Rica on a UK Driving Licence or an International Driving Permit while visiting as a tourist (max 90 days). Due to COVID-19, those who entered the country since 17 December 2019 have had their permission to use a UK Driving Licence extended while they are lawfully in the country.

If resident for longer periods, you may need to obtain a Costa Rican licence. Drivers should produce their licence and passport if requested to do so by a police officer.

There is a requirement for use of face masks on public transport, which can vary with COVID-19 risk levels. Check official information.

The supply of hire cars may be reduced, as rental companies have been asked to lend their vehicles for deliveries of medical equipment and goods. Public transport is operational with some restrictions. Taxis can operate at all hours.

Accommodation

You should find accommodation that is suitable for your needs. Hotels and many other types of establishment are now being allowed to operate at varying levels of capacity (at 50 or 100%) depending on the level of COVID-19 alert in their location. Check Local Information. For tourist advice, including accommodation and travel, call +506-2299-5827 or via WhatsApp messaging at +506-8628-3247.

Public spaces and services

There are restrictions on beaches, restaurants, bars and other places where people gather. These are subject to change as COVID-19 risk levels vary. Take note of official advice and information.

Healthcare in Costa Rica

If you think you have COVID-19 symptoms you should call 1322, a national telephone number, and follow the advice of the authorities.

British-issued prescriptions cannot be used locally. To find a pharmacy (“farmacia”) look for one of the big national chains such as Farmacia Fischel, Farmacia Sucre, FarmaValue, Farmacia Saba, or Farmacia Santa Lucia, among others; a quick search online should help you to identify the nearest one open.

For contact details for English speaking doctors visit our list of healthcare providers. Your emotional and mental wellbeing is important. Read guidance on how to look after your mental wellbeing and mental health.

See Health for further details on healthcare in Costa Rica.

See also the guidance on healthcare if you’re waiting to return to the UK.

COVID-19 vaccines if you live in Costa Rica

Wherever possible British nationals should aim to be vaccinated in the country where they live. We will update this page when the Government of Costa Rica announces new information on the national vaccination programme. You can sign up to get email notifications when this page is updated.

The Costa Rican national vaccination programme started in December 2020 and is using the Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson vaccines). British nationals resident in Costa Rica are eligible for vaccination. The Costa Rican authorities have issued information on their national vaccination programme with further information available on the Ministry of Health’s website. This information is only available in Spanish. If you are a legal resident and are registered for healthcare, you will be eligible to be part of the programme and will be contacted to receive your vaccination through your local clinic. You should make sure that you have your current contact details registered with your local public clinic.

Find out more, including about vaccines that are authorised in the UK or approved by the World Health Organisation, on the COVID-19 vaccines if you live abroad.

If you’re a British national living in Costa Rica, you should seek medical advice from your local healthcare provider. Information about COVID-19 vaccines used in the national programme where you live, including regulatory status, should be available from local authorities.

Finance

For information on financial support you can access whilst abroad, visit our financial assistance guidance.

Further information

If you need urgent consular assistance, contact your nearest British Embassy, High Commission or Consulate. All telephone numbers are available 24/7.

You should not visit the Embassy in person unless you have arranged this by calling the Embassy number (+506) 2258 2025 and been given an appointment.

Useful telephone numbers:

  • in an emergency, dial 911
  • for COVID-19 related issues the Costa Rican Tourism Institute has provided a non-emergency number: 1322
  • for tourist advice, including accommodation and travel, call +506-2299-5827 or via WhatsApp messaging at +506-8628-3247

Political situation

Demonstrators against government economic reform measures have blocked a number of roads and highways in several parts of the country. Traffic disruptions can arise unexpectedly and at any time due to these demonstrations. There have been reports of violent incidents when drivers have tried to ignore blockades. Check local information and plan your journey carefully to ensure you stay well away from these incidents where possible. Allow extra time for your travel.

Crime

In August 2018, 2 female tourists from Mexico and Spain were raped and killed in separate crime-related incidents. In March 2018, a tourist group was assaulted at gunpoint on the shores of River Pacuare. In January 2018, a tourist bus was stopped by criminals and passengers were robbed at gunpoint near Tortuguero, Limon Province.

You should maintain at least the same level of personal security awareness as in the UK, including when using ATMs. Petty theft of personal items including passports is a significant problem.

Be vigilant when using buses, as thefts are common. Bags in overhead compartments are particularly vulnerable. Thieves have simple but effective ways of distracting you. Be particularly watchful of your valuables at the beach.

Avoid leaving drinks unattended in bars as there have been reports of ‘spiked’ drinks resulting in assault and theft.

Avoid using unofficial taxis - ‘taxi piratas’. Violent incidents involving tourists have been reported. Official taxis are red (or orange at the airport) with a triangular sticker and plastic box on the roof with the name and number of the taxi company. Ideally, use radio-dispatched taxis. Make sure the driver’s ID is clearly visible on the dashboard and that the driver uses the meter. Do not accept lifts from strangers.

Avoid poorly lit or remote areas. Gang muggings, carjackings and armed robberies have occurred, including on busy streets. A number of foreign nationals (including one British national) have gone missing in recent years, with some related to criminal activity.

Car theft and theft from cars are common, even during relatively short stops at restaurant and other car parks. Do not leave valuables in hire cars, even in the boot, and avoid leaving belongings where they can be seen from outside the car. Park in secure car parks with visible security staff, or in well-lit busy areas. There have been incidents where slashed tyres have given thieves the opportunity to help change your vehicle’s tyres while an accomplice steals from the car.

Methanol poisoning

In 2019, there were a number of deaths and cases of serious illness in Costa Rica caused by alcoholic drinks containing methanol. Criminal gangs have been reported to manufacture bottles of alcohol containing high amounts of methanol. These included a number of cheap brands of local spirits, such as vodka and ‘guaro’ (cane liquor). Further incidents were reported in October 2020 involving a spirit of the “Fiesta Blanca” brand. You should take care when buying all spirit-based drinks.

The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) says “Methanol can cause headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. High doses can cause blindness or vision loss as a consequence of serious damage to the optic nerve. Chronic exposure may cause liver damage, cirrhosis or even death from respiratory or cardiac failure”. If you, or someone you are travelling with, shows signs of alcohol-induced methanol poisoning, seek immediate medical attention.

Local travel

If you are visiting jungle areas you should go with an experienced local guide. If you visit a volcano pay strict attention to restrictions on entry to dangerous areas. When there is the risk of an eruption the national park is closed to visitors until the danger has passed.

Emergency contact numbers are: Police Emergency - 911; Ambulance - 911 or 128; Fire Service - 911 or 118; Police Investigative Service - 911 or 2221-5337.

Air travel

While air accidents in Costa Rica are rare, there have been 2 fatal incidents since September 2017 involving the domestic airline Nature Air. The company’s operating certificate has been indefinitely suspended by Costa Rica’s civil aviation authority.

Road travel

You can drive in Costa Rica on a UK Driving Licence or an International Driving Permit while visiting as a tourist. If resident for longer periods, you may need to get a Costa Rican licence. You should produce your driving licence and passport if requested to do so by a police officer.

If you intend to enter the country in a right hand drive vehicle, you should be aware there have been instances where such vehicles have been refused entry as they contravene local law and are ineligible for local insurance.

Road conditions are generally good on main routes, although there can be potholes due to heavy rains in the rainy season. Landslides in the rainy season sometimes block the road between San José and Guapiles on the way to Limón and the San Jose/Caldera Highway. Take care when approaching bridges as these are often only one-way, even if the road is two-way.

The standard of driving is lower than in the UK. Accidents are often caused by speeding or overtaking irresponsibly. Traffic lights are often ignored. Traffic police strictly enforce speed limits. If you have an accident where somebody has been injured or where blame has not been accepted by the other driver, you must not move the vehicle until the traffic police have arrived. The Traffic Police (Transito - telephone 2222-9330 or 2222-9245) and the Insurance Investigator (INS - telephone 800-800-8000) must come to the scene of the accident to complete accident reports.

Criminals sometimes cause deliberate collisions as a means of stopping vehicles in order to commit robberies or other crimes. If you think a collision was a deliberate act by another driver to make you stop, consider driving on until you reach a safe place like a police station or garage. In these circumstances you will need to be able to explain your actions to the traffic police.

Swimming and water sports

Take extra care if participating in tours involving snorkeling or similar activities. There have been recent fatalities.

Whilst swimming from all beaches in Costa Rica, bear in mind that rip tides are very common and there are often no lifeguards. You should seek reliable local advice. Drownings are the second most common cause of accidental death and in recent years have averaged 50 to 60 per year, a third of whom were tourists.

There are regular sightings of crocodiles along the Pacific Coast near beaches popular with surfers (from Playa Azul down to Playa Esterillos) and there have been attacks in recent years.

Adventure activities, sea and river travel

Safety standards for adventure activities and on small boats are not always of a high standard. There have been several incidents involving small boats in the Tortuguero area, including a fatality due to a falling tree. If you plan to undertake any of these activities, you should arrange this with an established company with experienced staff.

Although there’s no history of terrorism in Costa Rica, attacks can’t be ruled out. Attacks involving an explosive device have occurred in front of a parliamentary office building and a TV station in San Jose in June and July 2019 respectively.

UK Counter Terrorism Policing has information and advice on staying safe abroad and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Find out more about the global threat from terrorism.

There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.

Find out more about the global threat from terrorism, how to minimise your risk and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack.

Do not get involved with drugs of any kind. The Costa Rican authorities treat the possession of drugs and drug trafficking severely. The minimum sentence is 8 years imprisonment.

The information on this page covers the most common types of travel and reflects the UK government’s understanding of the rules currently in place. Unless otherwise stated, this information is for travellers using a full ‘British Citizen’ passport.

The authorities in the country or territory you are travelling to are responsible for setting and enforcing the rules for entry. If you’re unclear about any aspect of the entry requirements, or you need further reassurance, you will need to contact the Embassy, High Commission or Consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.

You should also consider checking with your transport provider or travel company to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements.

Entry rules in response to coronavirus

On 16 March 2020 the Costa Rican government announced a state of emergency and changes to Migratory Regulations.

Entry to Costa Rica

From 1 November 2020, all travellers proceeding from any country will be admitted into Costa Rica as long as they comply with the requirements below.

Check the requirements for entry. From 26 October 2020, you will no longer need to have a negative COVID-19 certificate within 72 hours before departure, or to self-isolate for 14 days. However, you will still need to buy insurance with specific cover requirements and complete an advance epidemiological information form. These requirements are likely to be strictly enforced. If you have questions about these requirements you should consult your airline.

Transiting Costa Rica

The authorities are permitting same-day airside transit with a confirmed onward booking.

Quarantine requirements

Costa Rican Nationals and Legal Residents who enter the country may be required to self-isolate for 14-days. They should complete the epidemiological information form which will specify the exact actions to be taken. Tourists entering from 1 August, under the amended restrictions stated above, will not be required to self-isolate.

Tourist visas

Tourists who entered Costa Rica after 17 December 2019 can legally remain in the country until 2 June 2021. To do this it is obligatory to hold medical insurance which covers specified risks, particularly COVID related issues, including medical treatment up to US$50,000 and isolation-accommodation costs up to US$2000. Suitable policies are available locally online through the national insurer INS or Sagicor. It is also possible to use another, international, policy but it should cover these minimum requirements. All policies, local or international, must be emailed with confirmation of purchase to seguros@ict.go.cr for the extension to be valid.

Regular entry requirements

Visas

British nationals do not need a visa to enter Costa Rica. You may stay as a visitor for up to 90 days under a tourist visa waiver, although the exact period is at the discretion of the immigration officer on arrival. If you plan to work, or stay for a longer period, then multiple exit and entry is not an approved alternative to obtaining the relevant visa for your circumstances. You should check the requirements with the Costa Rican authorities.

The immigration authorities are strict about foreigners who have overstayed. Fines of $100 per month of overstay and restrictions on return can be applied under local law.

Passport validity

Your passport should have at least one day’s validity from the date you are leaving Costa Rica. If you hold a passport other than a British Citizen passport, different regulations may apply.

Evidence of onward travel

Entry to Costa Rica may be refused if you are unable to produce evidence of return or onward travel (for example a return air ticket).

UK Emergency Travel Documents

UK Emergency Travel Documents (ETDs) are accepted for entry, airside transit and exit from Costa Rica.

Airport tax

There’s a departure tax of $29 when leaving the country by air. Most airlines include this in ticket prices; a few have still not done so. Check with your airline or travel company whether you need to pay this separately. If so you can pay by cash or credit/debit card in dollars or local colones.

Yellow fever certificate requirements

Check whether you need a yellow fever certificate by visiting the National Travel Health Network and Centre’s TravelHealthPro website.

Travelling with children

Under Costa Rican law, children under the age of 18 born in Costa Rica are automatically considered to be Costa Rican citizens, even if travelling on a British passport. Either notarised written consent from both parents or a Costa Rican passport is required in order for the child to leave Costa Rica. Contact the Costa Rican Embassy or Consulate for further information on laws regarding the international travel of Costa Rican children.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Check the latest information on risk from COVID-19 for Costa Rica on the TravelHealthPro website

See the healthcare information in the Coronavirus section for information on what to do if you think you have coronavirus while in Costa Rica.

At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the latest country-specific health advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) on the TravelHealthPro website. Each country-specific page has information on vaccine recommendations, any current health risks or outbreaks, and factsheets with information on staying healthy abroad. Guidance is also available from NHS (Scotland) on the FitForTravel website.

General information on travel vaccinations and a travel health checklist is available on the NHS website. You may then wish to contact your health adviser or pharmacy for advice on other preventive measures and managing any pre-existing medical conditions while you’re abroad.

The legal status and regulation of some medicines prescribed or purchased in the UK can be different in other countries. If you are travelling with prescription or over-the-counter medicine, read this guidance from NaTHNaC on best practice when travelling with medicines. For further information on the legal status of a specific medicine, you’ll need to contact the Embassy, High Commission or Consulate of the country or territory you are travelling to.

While travel can be enjoyable, it can sometimes be challenging. There are clear links between mental and physical health, so looking after yourself during travel and when abroad is important. Information on travelling with mental health conditions is available in our guidance page. Further information is also available from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC).

UK health authorities have classified Costa Rica as having a risk of Zika virus transmission. For more information and advice, visit the website of the National Travel Health Network and Centre website.

There is a risk of mosquito-borne diseases such as Chikungunya virus and Dengue fever in Costa Rica. The number of reported cases of dengue is increasing. The worst affected areas are Limon and Puntarenas. If you’re in Costa Rica, you should take steps to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

Medical care in Costa Rica is of a generally high standard. Ambulance services in remote areas may vary. Only initial emergency medical treatment is available without charge for visitors. Subsequent treatment will be charged. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.

If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 911 and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment.

Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which struck Central America in November 2020, caused flooding and landslides to occur, as well as road closures. You should monitor local and international weather updates from the US National Hurricane Centre. Follow the advice of local authorities, including any evacuation orders. Keep up to date with FCDO travel advice and social media.

You can sign up for our email alert service to be notified of any updates to our travel advice.

Hurricanes

The hurricane season normally runs from June to November. You should monitor the local and international weather updates from the World Meteorological Organisation and the National Hurricane Centre.

See our tropical cyclones page for advice about what to do if you are caught up in a storm.

Flooding

The rainy season in Costa Rica normally runs from May to November, coinciding with the hurricane season in the Caribbean. Flooding can occur and heavy rains or hurricanes can cause landslides.

Monitor local and international weather updates from the World Meteorological Organisation and the National Hurricane Centre.

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions

Costa Rica experiences regular seismic activity. The last major earthquake occurred in November 2017 and measured 6.5. Three deaths by heart attack were linked to this event. Another major earthquake measuring 7.6 happened in September 2012 near the Pacific coastal area of Nicoya Peninsula. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency website has advice about what to do before, during and after an earthquake or tsunami.

Costa Rica has 16 volcanoes, several of which are considered active. The possibility of eruptions always exists.

If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. If you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad, contact the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in London on 020 7008 5000 (24 hours).

Foreign travel checklist

Read our foreign travel checklist to help you plan for your trip abroad and stay safe while you’re there.

Travel safety

The FCDO travel advice helps you make your own decisions about foreign travel. Your safety is our main concern, but we can’t provide tailored advice for individual trips. If you’re concerned about whether or not it’s safe for you to travel, you should read the travel advice for the country or territory you’re travelling to, together with information from other sources you’ve identified, before making your own decision on whether to travel. Only you can decide whether it’s safe for you to travel.

When we judge the level of risk to British nationals in a particular place has become unacceptably high, we’ll state on the travel advice page for that country or territory that we advise against all or all but essential travel. Read more about how the FCDO assesses and categorises risk in foreign travel advice.

Our crisis overseas page suggests additional things you can do before and during foreign travel to help you stay safe.

Refunds and cancellations

If you wish to cancel or change a holiday that you’ve booked, you should contact your travel company. The question of refunds and cancellations is a matter for you and your travel company. Travel companies make their own decisions about whether or not to offer customers a refund. Many of them use our travel advice to help them reach these decisions, but we do not instruct travel companies on when they can or can’t offer a refund to their customers.

For more information about your rights if you wish to cancel a holiday, visit the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website. For help resolving problems with a flight booking, visit the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. For questions about travel insurance, contact your insurance provider and if you’re not happy with their response, you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.

Registering your travel details with us

We’re no longer asking people to register with us before travel. Our foreign travel checklist and crisis overseas page suggest things you can do before and during foreign travel to plan your trip and stay safe.

Previous versions of FCDO travel advice

If you’re looking for a previous version of the FCDO travel advice, visit the National Archives website. Versions prior to 2 September 2020 will be archived as FCO travel advice. If you can’t find the page you’re looking for there, send the Travel Advice Team a request.

Further help

If you’re a British national and you have a question about travelling abroad that isn’t covered in our foreign travel advice or elsewhere on GOV.UK, you can submit an enquiry. We’re not able to provide tailored advice for specific trips.

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