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Cost of living in Costa Rica

Costa Rica can be expensive.

At least, it can feel expensive to Westerners who expect to be able to have the same buying power as in places like India or Thailand. Costa Rica is ranked as the most expensive country in Central America and the sixth most expensive in North America and the Caribbean (2015). (January 2018) shows that a four-person family’s monthly costs come to an average of $2,575 without rent or mortgage payments, while a single expat can expect monthly living costs to be $708 without rent or mortgage payments. However, the same source also shows that the cost of living in San Jose is 32.65% lower than in London and around 25% lower than Chicago.

Many Europeans and Americans will find that most things are comparable in price while other things vary: a basic meal in a cheaper restaurants can cost only $8, a coffee will be around $2.50, while a bottle of wine will be $10.

Costa Rica accepts American dollars (USD) almost everywhere. However, it is better to use the local currency, the colon, for payment. The dollar price in shops is often higher than if you exchanged it through official channels into the local currency. For example, in January 2018, $1 USD buys 570 colones, but the ‘street rate’ buys 500.

Below is a comparison of the distribution of costs in San Jose, compared with large cities and Nicaragua:

Costa Rica distribution of costs graphic Costa Rica distribution of costs graphic

(Source: Numbeo)

Food and drink

Fruit and vegetables, rice and beans, and some meats can be purchased at comparable or lower prices than those found in Europe and, in most cases, the US. Half a kilo of chicken costs around $4.20, tomatoes are $2.39 per kg and potatoes $3.80 per kg (prices at February 2018).

An individual who sticks to home-cooked meals should be able to eat very well on a grocery budget of under $200 per month (February 2018.)

Coffee can be both cheap (low-grade from the supermarket) or expensive (higher grade from tourist areas). One fantastic source of high-quality coffee is the unassuming San Jose café, Apetico. As their proprietor explains: much of Costa Rica’s best coffee is sold to international markets, leaving the cheap, lower quality product in-country. He says that most Costa Ricans think they’re drinking great coffee because of the international reputation of Costa Rican coffee, without knowing that they’re not.

We interviewed one American expat who explained that while things weren’t cheap, his lifestyle had changed - going out less, eating out less, drinking less, eating more healthily, doing more free activities like visiting the beach — and his cost of living had reduced. He explained that he had been trying to spend himself happy in the US, but didn’t need anything to feel happy in his new home on the Caribbean coast near Limón.

Eating out

Eating out can be as expensive as you want. You can get great casados (the local dish of rice, meat/fish, beans, salsa, salad, fried plantain) for $5 or you can head to a hotel restaurant or upmarket urban restaurant and pay $50.

Costa Rica has lots of fantastic food, from understated homemade fare in low-key sodas (cafés) to impressive imports, from Argentinian steak houses to Mexican eateries and Chinese food. Many expat-run, tourist-oriented restaurants have great food and friendly prices, especially in and near beach towns.

Until you get the lie of the land, it’s easy to end up paying over the odds for some things, especially in tourist areas. Some hotels and restaurants are reasonably priced, while some beach shacks have surprisingly high prices. Once you are living in Costa Rica, it is a good idea to check out lots of different places to get a sense of average prices.

Another tip is that basic-looking places can often have great food. If you’re used to dining in luxury, don’t disregard a venue based on its looks - with Costa Rica’s natural riches making everywhere beautiful, many restaurants don’t see the need to spend money on décor (or even walls).


San Jose doesn’t feel like a buzzing cultural mecca — especially compared with countries like Cuba, where music and performers seem to headline every street corner. That said, live music can be found at venues such as The Jazz Café, El Sotano and 8ctavo. Clubs exist, but they’re few and far between as bars tend to cater for the night owls.

Out on the coasts, the atmosphere changes and beach bars play reggae (not just Bob Marley!), and some host live bands such as Hot Rocks in Puerto Viejo.  

San Jose has a number of cinemas, mainly showing Western films with Spanish subtitles and you can catch a movie for about $12 — comparable to the US, but much cheaper than the UK. Many cinemas offer two tickets for the price of one on Wednesday evenings. Some of Costa Rica’s larger towns have cinemas, but many places show films outdoors on big screens — especially at times of the year when the sun goes down at 6-7pm, but remains warm through the night.

If high culture is more your thing, San Jose’s most ostentatious building, the Opera House, hosts everything from opera and ballet to plays and stand-up comedy. Tickets to the opera cost between $55-$175. Even if you don’t go for a performance, it’s well worth a look and even a tour.

San Jose has more casinos than you may expect with a number in the city’s hotels: the Barceló San José Palacio Spa & Casino, the Best Western Irazu and the Casino Club Colonial.

Like so many of its southern neighbours, Costa Rica has embraced soccer. The next most popular sports are sport fishing and surfing. While few sports make it to TV status, it’s possible to find volleyball, golf, cycling, basketball and tennis facilities. And, with such extensive natural beauty, many people take up running and/or hiking to make the most of it.

Bullfighting in Costa Rica is more like rodeo with bulls rarely being harmed and never slain, though it still attracts controversy. Bullfighting is usually based around cultural festivals rather than seasonal leagues and can draw large crowds.


Name-brand clothing can be expensive, but cheap clothing stores and markets offer cheap alternatives. (February 2018) states a summer dress from a high-street store averages $59 while name-brand trainers come in at $103. Clothes in tourist areas are geared towards beachwear and cost a premium. One expat pointed out that there seemed to be a lack of shops such as the UK’s Primark or US’s Target where basic clothes such as, underwear and T-shirts,can be purchased cheaply. Second-hand shops and other discount stores exist but aren’t common.

Top tip: don’t bring your leather jacket. One American expat explained that he brought his leather jacket and had to throw it away after a few months as the constant damp combined with the natural fibres had made it mouldy and smelly.

Locals and seasoned expats favour artificial fibres (especially base layer items) as they don’t smell when damp.


Individuals in Costa Rica are taxed according to where income is from. All personal income from abroad is tax exempt, although you will be taxed at source in your own country. Money earned within Costa Rican borders is subject to assessment by the tax authorities.

Expats do not get taxed on:

  • Social security
  • Pension
  • Investment income
  • Foreign business income
  • Foreign rental property
  • Online business
  • Freelance income from abroad

Income tax (Impuesto de Renta)

Income tax is collected if you have a job, business - including holiday rentals — and/or private income (non-employment income). Employment income tax is 15% with self-employed people paying rates between 10% and 25%.

Property transfer tax is 1.5% of the value of property and is paid by the purchaser.

Sales tax/VAT is 13% and is included in the price in most shops. In restaurants it is usually not included in menu prices and 13% is added to the bill along with 10% service charge.


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