Living In San José, Costa Rica: Expat Insider Facts

Essential facts about San Jose that will help you to learn more about expat life in the Costa Rican capital.

San José is the urban jungle of Costa Rica, with commercialized buildings and structures all set against the backdrop of the country’s lush green mountains.

As you are driving through the main roads, you are surrounded by the beauty of Costa Rica, still getting a glimpse of what is out there in all its glorious nature.

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Living in San José, you instantly become part of the Costa Rican culture, being amongst the people and feeling yourself assimilating quickly. You don’t feel like an outsider for long. It is the heart and hub of Costa Rica. 

Is San José affordable?

Costa Rica isn’t known for being the cheapest country to live in. Actually, it is one of the more expensive Central American countries.

Living in San Jose - streets
Streets of San José.

However, if you are willing to adjust to a different lifestyle and find what is most important to you, then it can be more than affordable. Just have a willingness for change and an open mind, which you will most likely have if you have opened your eyes to the wonderful possibilities of Costa Rica.

San Jose is a mecca of fruit and vegetable stands, markets, and discount stores down every street. You don’t need to go far to find yourself a deal, shopping fresh and local. 

Rent is always going to be your biggest cost, and it can be the best option before deciding where you want to live. It gives you the chance to see where you feel most comfortable and the freedom to move on if you don’t feel at peace at your home.

Expect to spend anywhere from $800 to $1200 a month for a 2-bedroom dwelling, depending on your area, that comes with some furnishings, and $150 for electricity, water, cable, and internet. 

If you want a luxury apartment, most listings start at $1,300 USD per month.

Looking for a house? A good 2+ bedroom house for rent starts from $1,500.

On the whole, you will find that rental properties are quite affordable in San José.

If you want to buy a property, expect to pay around $300,000 for an average 3-bed American-style family home. A luxury 3-bed condo will cost you around the same, depending on the location.

Luxury houses cost even more and can easily reach $700,000 USD and over.

Factor in your health insurance costs. If you want to be covered in Costa Rica and your home country, international health insurance is the best option. It can be as low as $100 monthly and will go up from there.

The more expensive international plans with comprehensive benefits and no deductibles cost up to $1,000 per month. 

If you don’t have a healthcare plan, a consultation with the doctor will cost about $50.

If you are moving to Costa Rica with children, budget for private school fees. Private schools will cost you from $300 to $850 a month, depending on the school.

All in all, as a couple, you can live quite comfortably in San José starting from $2,500 a month. For a family with children, the budget needs to be more generous.

What are the best areas to live in and around San José?

Downtown San José

San Jose is made up of many neighborhoods, otherwise known as barrios. The city itself is crowded, dense, and small, so as a rule, expats do not choose to live here. For this reason, there are few expats living downtown in San Jose.

Those who do, say that there are three reasons living in San José itself is great:

1. The climate

When you are in San José, you are almost 4,000 feet above sea level, which is just under 1,200 meters. This impacts the climate, and as a result, temperatures in San José do not fluctuate as much as in the lower coastal regions.

You can enjoy a moderate temperature range all year round, which makes the local climate one of the healthiest climates in the world.

2. No need for a car

Everything is within walking distance. And if you are not in the mood for walking, use buses – they are plentiful and cheap. Taxis are also affordable.

3. Excellent shopping and entertainment facilities

Shopping and dining out are the best here. Bakeries, fruit and veg stalls, craft beers, and coffee houses are abundant.

If you want the best coffee in Costa Rica or love to enjoy the mastery of some exclusive chocolatiers, San José is where you need to be.

Then, of course, there’s Avenida Central – 11 blocks of a pedestrian-only walkway packed with department stores, pharmacies, clothing stores, more shoe stores than you can count, book stores, jewelry stores, electronics stores – anything you can only want.

However, living in a packed city is not everyone’s cup of tea. Many expats prefer the suburbs and little towns just outside San José.


Escazu has become a popular Americanized area. It is just 10 minutes outside of San Jose, with a growing expat population.

Living in San Jose - Escazu
Escazu area, san José.

Escazu is recognized as more of an affluent suburb with high-end shopping malls like Muliplaza, restaurants, country clubs, and culinary restaurants.

There is great private healthcare at CIMA hospital, and it is a safe area where you can enjoy many of the pleasures that you would find back at home.

Here you will find some of the more elite private schools.

Santa Ana

Santa Ana also continues to attract expats and those with a generous household income. But in turn, here you will find golfing, shopping, great public and private schools, gated communities, and a good selection of foods and groceries, all of it only 15 minutes outside of San Jose.


A small town located between San José and the coast is perfect if you are looking for a quiet, family-friendly location. You can easily shop in Alajuela and Grecia, thus avoiding the heavy traffic that you get driving toward San Jose.

Is San José family-friendly?

With San José being the capital, you are sure to find everything you need to keep your family happy and well cared for.

Clinica Biblica is in San José and is one of the larger private healthcare hospitals in the country. It is commonly used by expatriates.

The area has many international schools for children across the area, and you will find you have a bigger selection than locations further throughout the country.

There are even selections of English or bilingual to help your children integrate within the culture with approaches centered around the well-being and greatness of the child. 

Is San José safe?

Generally speaking, yes, the entire country overall is a safe country in comparison to other Latin American countries. It is the country of Pura Vida, with beautiful animals and sunny tropical days at the beaches, after all.

Living in San Jose - National Theatre
National Theatre in San José

However, remember, it is still a foreign country, and the living wage is substantially lower than we are accustomed to.

Alongside using common sense as you would anywhere else, here are some safety tips about living in the capital.

Pickpocketing is the most prevalent crime, so be aware of your personal belongings and don’t have them readily available for the taking. It is usually a crime of opportunity, so why make it easy for them right? 

The Coca-Cola bus station has a reputation for thefts even during the day, so always keep your eyes on your bag and items, never leave anything unattended or become too comfortable. 

If you are taking a taxi, be aware of taxi pirates. They are unregulated drivers using their own vehicles and making their own prices. If you do choose to or find it is your only option at the time, always set your price before going anywhere and know the route ahead of time so they aren’t taking you on the extended scenic route. 

Do I need to speak Spanish?

You may come to San José only knowing your general phrases to get by with the basics, but that is no way to live, especially in such a city of cultural experiences.

If you only know how to say good morning and good night, or ‘How much does that cost’, you will miss out on so much. 

Being surrounded by the language will have you incorporating new words quickly, so don’t worry about being an expert before you arrive.

Slowly but surely, you will have a grasp of new words and phrases and be eager to try them out at the local fruit stands and markets. 

Start with some fun apps on your phone, and always have a translator app downloaded. Many will work offline for those tough, awkward moments.

One thing that can be surprising is that you will run into locals who do speak some English and will love the opportunity to practice and converse with you. 

Will I be eating casados every day?

San José is far from a city of rice and beans and your typical casados. It is a city of culinary experiences. 

Living in San Jose - taxis
Red taxis are a very popular means of transport in San José.

Elevated cuisines and trending food flavors are available within San José and the Central Valley.

You will find popular fast-food favorites like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Papa Johns’s, Pizza Hut, and Subway throughout the city; there are also food courts in the malls.

Freshly rolled sushi, Indian cuisine, and specialty restaurants of eclectic design, tastes, and experiences for all palates will be at your disposal.

POPS is a popular ice cream shop in the country where you will find yogurts and delicious cold desserts.

If you are craving your coffee from home and haven’t transitioned to Costa Rica’s delicious cafes, you can get your Starbucks right here in the city and all over the country.

Is San José close to anything fun?

There are volcanoes, white and dark sand beaches, zip-lining, crocodiles, hot springs, and gorgeous waterfalls. Take your pick! They are all within a short drive of San José and can have you out exploring the country in no time at all. 

Volcan Poas (the Poás Volcano) is about an hour from the city and gives you a chance to look deep inside the crater. If you get there early enough before the clouds roll in, you can see the gorgeous turquoise colors.

The scenic drive takes you through the winding mountains up throughout the hillside as the streets are lined with fresh strawberry stands filled with the famous Poas strawberries.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens are nearby and are an absolutely beautiful escape into the stunning country’s landscape.

As you enter, you are instantly transported into what seems like a dream of breathtaking foliage and landscapes. The hummingbirds are a sight to see with a never-ending variety, sloth area, and other animals.

Several different waterfalls set deep into the trees make you feel like you are far from the forests. You will feel like one visit is not enough after you feel the magic of La Paz. 

You don’t need to be a coffee lover to truly appreciate a coffee tour. Hacienda Alsacia Starbucks Coffee Farm is outside the city in the hills of Poas, under an hour from the capital.

Here, you can immerse yourself in everything to do with the coffee farm from its first steps as a seedling throughout its journey until it reaches your hands in its warm cup. 

Am I close to the airport?

Juan Santamaria International Airport is only 20 minutes outside of the capital, depending on Costa Rican traffic, of course, in Alajuela. 

Living in San Jose
Lake Botos at the Poás Volcano, not far from San José.

Not only can you fly internationally but domestically as well.

Some of the charter flights offered can, in the end, be a great deal, especially if you are flying to areas that would take hours on a bus and require several bus changes.

There are flights from San José to Tambor, as an example, getting you to the Nicoya Peninsula at great reasonable rates and in minimal time, as opposed to almost 9 hours on the bus, including a ride across on the ferry.

Several different charter flights operate through the Juan Santamaria International Airport and are worth looking into to see if they can get you where you need to go a lot quicker. 

Where can I go shopping and find the things I need?

San José and the Central Valley are where everyone comes to shop, so you are in the epicenter of everything you need. As we mentioned above, this is one of the great benefits of living in the capital.

There are plenty of shopping centers that are clean, spacious, and air-conditioned.

City Mall in Alajuela is a multilevel plaza with restaurants, Americanized clothing stores, children and family clothing and stores, a great international bookstore, and athletic stores. 

Just a short drive from San José is Multiplaza in Escazu, an area with an upscale reputation and every store you can image

Walmart and PriceSmart are open every day of the week 

Is San José a busy, overcrowded city?

Yes, it is busy, and yes, it is crowded.

San José is a cultural town and the largest city in the country, so it is to be expected. But within the busy streets and crowded sidewalks, you can find hidden gems showing you the true beauty of the area. 

Just slow down and look for the special moments within the city that make it so truly special.

San José’s Central Market will take you within what the city is made of, hardworking, friendly people. It is bursting with colors of all the fruits and vegetables imaginable, souvenirs, meats, sodas, and music. This is exactly why so many people flock to the city. 

What about the beaches and rainforests?

Jaco Beach is the closest beach to San José. Its black sand, surfside restaurants, and tall tropical palms attract San José dwellers in big numbers.

The town itself is quite nice, and many expats who want to enjoy the beach as often as possible end up living in Jaco.

Living in San Jose
La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park.

The trade-off, however, is hotter weather.

The beach is close enough to San José. You can head out for the day without having to stay for the night if you just want an afternoon in the sun. There are also direct buses if you want to save on a car rental.

Manuel Antonio National Park is 2.5 hours from San José and has you landing in the middle of the rainforest, ziplining across the canopy, and guarding your belongings against the capuchin monkeys along the beach’s shores. It is a true Costa Rican wildlife adventure!

Do I need to buy a car if I live in San José?

An amazing thing about San José is that you don’t need a car to get around the city with all the other reliable forms of transportation. It is best to wait and see if it is something you want to invest your money in after a bit of time in the country. 

Look for the red taxis with little yellow triangles on the side. These are the taxis regulated by the government in Costa Rica.

The government determines what the set rates are and oversees their day-to-day functions. They are offered in both cars and larger size vehicles and are always readily available and can be found waiting at all the popular shopping areas.

Ubers are an affordable way of getting around in the city. However, it is a complicated matter in Costa Rica that causes a lot of debate as it is not necessarily legal. They operate throughout. There is just one area they are not permitted: they cannot operate directly on the airport’s property. 

Clever enough, there is a common way around this. Uber drivers can drop you off or pick you up just outside the airport at the bus stop. It is not far to walk with your belongings. It is just up and around the ramp to the front entrance to Juan Santamaria International Airport.

Uber now has a competitor in Costa Rica, Didi, which is also an affordable car transportation service with a mobile app. 

Public transportation in San José

San José is the hub of all the bus routes taking you all around the country. It may take you a few changes to get to where you are going, but you will get there at some point. 

Living in San Jose
La Sabana Park in downtown San José.

Just be patient. The buses do run regularly and generally around the expected time, which is much to be said for a country that is said to run on Tico time.

What is the nightlife in San José like?

There is never a dull night in San José. You can fill up your calendar with something different every night if you want. Whether you are looking for upscale adult entertainment, discos, and bars to casinos, it is all within the San José area. 

What is the weather like in San José?

The climate in San José and the Central Valley is one to be desired, with the fresh air and breeze while the evenings bring a sense of relief from the warm days. 

You don’t have the hot, humid air of the beaches and coastal towns needing to change your clothes several times a day from the heat.

Because of the weather, many expats prefer to live in the Central Valley as it is easy to adjust to and brings a sense of comfort. It’s also mild all year round and is considered a healthy climate to live in.

Final thoughts on living in San José

As the capital of Costa Rica, San José is busy with a large population. But just outside in its suburbs, you will find areas that will cater to everything you are searching for in your new Costa Rican life.

It is the hub of the country, so you will never go without or need to journey far to get it, and it makes it one of the best places to live in Costa Rica.

You will get a sense of the country and culture living in this region instantly. Explore the barrios around the San Jose area to get an idea of where you feel at home and which speaks to your senses the most.

There is a different energy in each neighborhood, and you will know which one fills your dream and exactly what you are in search of.

You might find useful:

Sarah Jordan
Sarah Jordan

Sarah is a freelance writer who has given up her criminal justice career to follow her passion for writing. After volunteering with the sloths and monkeys, she knew her heart belonged to Costa Rica and it has been her home since 2019. A proud mama to her rescue dog Coconut, together they enjoy the Pura Vida life.

She is a contributing writer for the Costa Rica news and loves to write about all things travel and wellness-related.

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  1. Hi , I have a 20 year old” :emotional support” parrot. If I bring him to CR can I take him home when I return?
    Who can I call about this? Thank You

  2. Hi there. We’re planning to visit Costa Rica in November 2022 at a resort. Do you know where we could get an oxygen tank? My husband is on oxygen but the portable concentrators aren’t sand friendly. In the Mayan Riviera we can rent some and they deliver to the resort. We’ve been unable to find any such thing anywhere else. Do you know who we should contact?

    • Hi Coleen, I would be happy to help guide you and your husband. Where is your resort located in Costa Rica?

  3. Hi Sheila,
    Thank you for your comment and for reaching out. Atenas is a highly desired expat destination outside of San Jose, however, living here would require you and your son to have access to a vehicle to fully enjoy all it has to offer. La Garita is another beautiful community and the rental prices are typically lower than Atenas.
    If you don’t plan on renting or purchasing a new/used vehicle then you may want to search for rental accommodations in Santa Ana. Here you will have everything you may need close by along with great weather and a good mix of expats and locals.
    Best wishes to you and your son in your Costa Rica adventure.

  4. HI. I’m looking for a lower priced Rental for myself and adult son close to the San Jose area. Also, I would like to partner with a Tourist Company since I have a large Data Base from my Real Estate business in Florida.