Study Abroad in Costa Rica
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Costa Rica is a lovely place to call home, even if just for a summer or semester abroad. The country’s vast diversity – mountains, volcanoes, rainforests, rivers, beaches, cloud forests, and dry forests – are the cherry on top of friendly people, world-renowned environmental protection, a peaceful culture, and one of the region’s highest standards of living.
No matter when you visit, chances are there will be a holiday to celebrate and a festival to attend. The Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea are always warm and welcoming. Active volcanoes beg to be explored. And yes, this really is the land of endangered monkeys, powerful wildcats, super sloth sloths and lizards that walk on water.
Studying in Costa Rica is the experience of a lifetime. You’ll make forever friends and memories, and will probably learn a little something along the way! But before you jump into your exciting preparations, here’s a bit of practical information to get you started:
Visas & Documentation
Required documentation depends on the type of student: if you’re studying at a Spanish language institute for a few months over the summer, you’ll need little more than your passport; if, on the other hand, you’re a full-time exchange student at a Costa Rican university, you’ll need a student visa.
Keep in mind that if you do not obtain a student visa, you will be considered a tourist. Tourists may stay in Costa Rica for a maximum of 90 days, before they are required to exit and re-enter the country. Long-term students should go through the official visa process.
All students should bring:
- Valid Passport: Your passport must be valid for at least six months following your projected date of exit.
- Passport Photos: You’ll probably be asked to provide passport-sized photos for student or various photo IDs; save yourself some time and bring a dozen or so with you.
- Copy of your Passport & Credit/Debit Cards: Not an official requirement, but having copies of your passport, credit cards, and debit cards – bonus points for scanning and emailing yourself a copy – can be useful in case of loss or theft.
If you are applying for a Student Visa, you must provide:
- Apostilled Birth Certificate: An apostilled copy of your birth certificate and two color copies of the apostilled document. Do not bring your original birth certificate (the one issued at the hospital when you were born), as this document will not be returned.
- Apostilled Criminal Record Check: Also known as a Police History Record or Police Background check, you will require an apostilled record plus two color copies of the apostilled document. Note that your background check must be issued by a federal or national authority, such as the FBI in the U.S., as state/province and county/city record checks are no longer accepted.
- Notarized Affidavit of Financial Support: This affidavit must be accompanied by an account statement or official bank letter from the person, such as a parent or trust, that will provide a student’s financial support throughout the program. The bank statement or bank letter must certify that the account is active and with funds. Your affidavit of financial support must be reviewed and certified by a CPA (cost: about $30), who will then issue a certification of financial solvency to Costa Rican Immigration.
- Embassy Registration: Foreign nationals living abroad, even for brief periods of study, must register with their embassy. You must provide proof of registration.
To get a student visa for Costa Rica, you have two basic options:
Obtain a Provisional Student Visa before you enter Costa Rica; or
Enter Costa Rica as a tourist, and then apply for a student visa once in Costa Rica
Both choices are perfectly legal. One of the biggest differences is that by obtaining a Provisional Student Visa, you will not have to apply for change of status once in Costa Rica, thus saving $200. However, to obtain the Provisional Student Visa, you’ll have to visit your closest Costa Rican Consulate: in the U.S., consulates are located in Washington D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Saint Paul, or Tucson.
Regardless of whether you apply for a Provisional Student Visa in advance or a Student Visa once in Costa Rica, you will be required to present the above documents.
Costa Rican Universities
There are dozens of universities peppered throughout Costa Rica, although most are centered in the Central Valley cities of San José, Heredia, Alajuela and Cartago.
There are five public universities: the Universidad de Costa Rica (University of Costa Rica, or UCR); the Instituto Technológico de Costa Rica (Costa Rican Institute of Technology, or ITCH); the Universidad Nacional (National University, or UNA), the Universidad Técnica Nacional (National Technical University), and the Universidad Estatal a Distancia (State Distance-Learning University, or UNED). The UCR is the oldest and most prestigious university in Costa Rica.
The remainder of Costa Rica’s universities and colleges are private. (Fun fact: Universities are always called universidades in Costa Rica; a colegio is a high school!) Some of the most well known include Universidad EARTH (EARTH University), INCAE Business School, the University for Peace, UCIMED (Medical Sciences University), the Universidad Latina, Universidad Latinoamericana de Ciencia y Tecnología (ULACIT), Universidad Veritas, Universidad Fidelitas, and Universidad Hispanoamericana.
Spanish Language Institutes in Costa Rica
Spanish languages schools and institutes dot Costa Rica’s cities, coastal towns, and rural mountains. These schools offer an incredible experience to students of any age, by combining Spanish classes with Costa Rican life, travel and culture.
Most schools require students to stay at least two weeks. For a reasonable fee ($1,500-$3,000/month), you’ll receive 20 hours of weekly Spanish classes in small group; free cultural activities, including Costa Rican cooking, Latin dancing, and music; and a homestay with a Costa Rican family, which includes a private room, laundry, and very hearty breakfasts and dinners.
Specialty programs are also available. Some of the most common are Medical Spanish, Spanish for Teachers, Business Spanish, Children & Teen Programs, and Senior Programs. Some schools also offer special-interest programs, such as a Gardener’s Club, which combines Spanish learning with tours to local botanical gardens and farms. Private lessons are also available at a reasonable fee (usually $15-$20/hour), if you would like to customize a program to your specific needs.
Learning Spanish at a local institute, while you live with a local family, is an incredible experience. You’ll learn Spanish far faster than you would in a typical classroom setting, and you’ll gain so much more in the process: lifelong friends, cultural awareness, life skills, and memories of an incredible country and people!
Health & Safety
You’ve probably heard that Costa Rica eliminated its army in 1949; that it has one of the highest standards of living in Latin America; that the water is drinkable; and that Costa Ricans are very friendly. That’s all true, but what is Costa Rica really like?
In a nutshell, Costa Rica is a safe country for travelers. As you would in your own country, you are advised to take regular precautions: don’t flaunt cash; don’t carry expensive camera equipment around your neck; and don’t walk in unfamiliar areas, especially at night. Leave expensive jewelry at home. Don’t purchase illegal drugs. Keep your wallet in your pocket or your purse held tight. In other words, don’t make yourself a target.
If you get sick…
Beyond the risk of petty theft, the biggest danger to travelers is getting sick with anything from gripe (cold/flu) to dengue fever. Healthcare is widely available throughout Costa Rica. For minor maladies, head to the nearest pharmacia, or pharmacy. Costa Rican pharmacies are required to have a doctor on staff, and most can diagnose minor infections, prescribe medicines, and perform other non-emergency health care.
The public system, known as the Caja, is very inexpensive, although is socialized and may not be what you’re used to: wait times are longer, brand-name prescriptions aren’t always available, and facilities are crowded. Ask your medical insurance provider whether they cover Costa Rican public healthcare; if not, it is likely less expensive for you to go private.
Private healthcare is affordable, even out of pocket, and starts around $50 for a doctor’s visit. Call your medical insurance company before your trip, to determine what type of coverage you have while traveling abroad. If your insurance doesn’t cover Costa Rica, purchase traveler’s insurance, which is usually inexpensive and will cover you in case of emergency.
The CDC recommends that all travelers to Costa Rica verify that they’re up to date (or receive boosters) on the following vaccines. Note that you do not run increased risk of these diseases in Costa Rica; they are the standard vaccines recommended for all U.S. citizens, whether staying local or traveling internationally.
- Measles-mumps-rubella (MMR)
- Varicella (chickenpox)
- Polio vaccine
- Yearly flu shot
Additionally, the CDC recommends that most visitors obtain vaccines against hepatitis A and typhoid. Travelers who may be sexually active in Costa Rica should be vaccinated against Hepatitis B. There is little to low risk of rabies, malaria and yellow fever in Costa Rica.
A Note on Dengue
When you think mosquito-transmitted illness, you most likely think malaria. Malaria is uncommon in Costa Rica, and the real danger from mosquitos is dengue. Dengue hemorrhagic fever, also known as “bone-break fever,” generally makes patients very sick, but is not usually life-threatening. Repeated infection can be more severe. Your greatest defense against dengue is mosquito repellent, especially in coastal areas.