Going through immigration and customs can be an intimidating and confusing experience for first time international travelers. If you’ve never traveled internationally or visited Costa Rica before, this post to help you know exactly what to expect when going through customs and immigration in San Jose Airport and Liberia International Airport.
Luckily it’s quite easy and straightforward so this post will help you be completely prepared. *Post updated March 2020.
*Please read our Costa Rica coronavirus for latest updates and travel information. I will update this post when the border is open for the new regulations for flying in and out of both international airports in Costa Rica.*
What to Know About Going Through Customs and Immigration in San Jose Airport and Liberia International Airport
Costa Rica has 2 international airports: San Jose International Airport in Alajuela (near San Jose) and Liberia International Airport in Liberia, Guanacaste. It doesn’t matter which one you’re flying into, the process is exactly the same.
However, this process is different than land crossings if you are crossing by foot from Nicaragua or Panama. Read our guide to crossing the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica to find out exactly what the process is like.
Remember, customs and immigration are two completely different things. Customs is for luggage, immigration is for people. Here is what you need to know about going through customs and immigration in San Jose Airport and Liberia Airport in Costa Rica.
On the plane there: customs form
*They will give you customs form but they may not ask for it when you go through customs. You are supposed to hand it to the attendant when you put your luggage through the scanning machine.*
On your flight to Costa Rica, your flight attendant will hand out custom forms so make sure to have a pen with you on the plane. For the custom form, you only need one form per family with the same last name living in the same house hold.
Forms are in both Spanish and English. This is what they look like:
It is very simple to fill out and self explanatory. I will go through everything they ask you below.
Costa Rica Customs Form
This is the type of personal information you need to fill out
- Family name (your last name)
- Given name (your first name)
- Mother’s Maiden name (Costa Rica uses both mother and father’s last names but this is not necessary if you don’t.)
- Country of residence
- Country of origin
This is the flight and passenger information
- Passport (check passport unless you’re flying on something else than an ordinary passport)
- Passport number
- Flight number
Then it will ask you for your foreseen address. Write down the name of your hotel/hostel and the name of the beach or town you are going to. You can see in the form I wrote “Playa Tamarindo” but it will be better to have the name of your hotel. If you’re staying in an Airbnb, write the address or name of your Airbnb.
The immigration officials aren’t super strict about your foreseen address but you do need to have at least the town you’re going to. They know that most people stay in multiple hotels and destinations so write down the first destination (hotel name and town) you’re going to after you exit the airport, even if you’re only there for a day.
Next, they will ask how many family members are traveling with you, that one is easy to answer. Then it will ask how many pieces of luggage you have. This is how many pieces of check in luggage you have.
Then, they will ask questions such as if you’ve been around livestock/food process plants or agricultural regions. Second if you are bringing lives animals. Third, if you’re bringing any chemical agents. Fourth, if you’re bringing more than $10,000 USD (you need to declare this if you are).
The last section asks if you have had tax exemption the past 6 months and if you’re bringing merchandise other than your luggage (merchandise to sell).
Have you been out of the country for at least 3 days?
Lastly, this is the question that many people were confused about. Mark YES if you have been out of Costa Rica for at least 3 days. Mark NO if you have not been out of Costa Rica for at least 3 days (for example, you flew out of Costa Rica on January 1st and are flying back January 3rd).
Remember, this is the customs form for Costa Rica, not for the country you just flew out of. People kept getting very confused so remember, they are asking if you have been out of Costa Rica for at least 3 days.
If this is your first time to Costa Rica, you need to mark YES. Since you have never been to Costa Rica before, you obviously have been out of the country for at least 3 days. If you visited 1 year ago, you need to mark yes too since it’s been more than 3 days since you’ve been in Costa Rica.
Then just date and sign and that’s it!
The immigration form also asks the same passenger information: full name, passport number, destination, birthday, occupation, sex, residing country and flight number.
***Costa Rica has stopped asking for this form on most flights so you may not get one to fill out. But if you do, then here are the details for it.***
Going Through Immigration in San Jose Airport and Liberia Airport in Costa Rica
Now that you’ve arrived, you will first go through immigration. Even though you technically don’t need the form, keep it with you.
You will see signs for residents and citizens and foreigners. Go to the foreigner line and have your passport ready. You will NOT need to give the customs form you filled out on the plane to the immigration officer.
When your turn is called, go up to the desk and hand the officer your passport. Go in your travel group so if you’re traveling with friends, go together as a group. Families always go together.
Just a side note, there is a bathroom in the immigration area. I like to use the one in immigration since there tends to be less people. Everyone wants to get through immigration ASAP which works for me since I don’t like to rush!
What the Officer Will Ask You
The officer will take your passport, scan it and look at your picture. Costa Rican immigration officials don’t ask too many questions so don’t be nervous. They do speak basic English and they’re super used to tourists since you will see when you’re at the airport, they make up majority of the people. They will ask you these questions:
- Your local address (where you are going in Costa Rica) or hotel name
- Your occupation
They also might ask you how long you’re staying in Costa Rica and if you’re volunteering or studying abroad, the name of your program. When he’s finished checking and asking questions, he’ll stamp your passport and hand it back to you.
Your tourist visa stamp looks like this and tourist visas for USA and Canada are for 90 days. They will hand write how many days your visa is valid for. Make sure to check your tourist stamp before your leave. One time, my immigration official was distracted since she was on the phone and forgot to write in my days! Thankfully I checked it before I left in baggage claim and I had to go back to get my days written in.
If you are in a different entry group (not USA/Canada/Western Europe/Australia/entry group 1 or 2) and you need a consular visa, then you will need to bring the appropriate paperwork like your plane ticket out, your proof of visa, proof of funds, etc. It is the traveler’s responsibility to check the requirements to enter Costa Rica for their passport country. If you do not have the correct paperwork or have fulfilled the requirements, you will be turned away.
Baggage Claim and Customs
After you finish immigration, you will go to baggage claim which are through the double doors. Both San Jose and Liberia Airport aren’t very big so you will be able to easily find your carousel since there’s only a few. Pick up all your luggage (they have free carts if you need them) and take them to the customs area.
Now you will go through customs. You will see a couple of scanners so put ALL your luggage, backpacks, bags, purses and carry ons to be scanned.
Go around the other side and hand the officer your customs form, pick up your luggage and then you’re free! It is honestly very rare for the customs to stop anyone and search their luggage but if you happen to get stopped unluckily, pick up your luggage and bring it over to the side where they can examine it.
You’ll exit through a pair of swinging doors (the ones that say, no going back beyond this point) and be out in the airport. At San Jose Airport, you will exit to the outside where you will see all of the taxis and shuttle people. At Liberia Airport, you will exit into the actual airport and everyone is waiting outside straight ahead.
How Long Does it Take to Go Through Customs and Immigration in San Jose Airport and Liberia Airport?
How long it takes for you to go through customs and immigration in San Jose Airport and Liberia Airport depends on when you land and what time of year you’re visiting.
Personally for me, the longest it ever took me to go through immigration and customs was 1.5 hours at Liberia Airport when I landed at the same time with 3 other flights so immigration took a bit longer. But other than that, it’s usually on average around 30 -45 minutes with check in luggage at Liberia Airport.
However, San Jose tends to take longer than Liberia airport because there are way more flights. For those visiting December – April and July – August, expect immigration and customs at San Jose Airport to take longer. If you land on a weekday, it can take around 1 hour. If you land Friday – Sunday in the afternoon, it can take up to 3 hours. So make sure to plan accordingly if you book a shared shuttle, local flight or plan on taking the public bus.
Exchanging money at the airport
You can find money exchanges and duty free at both airport after immigration. Below is the money exchange and duty free at Liberia Airport.
You will also see car rental companies at baggage claim at both airports. Learn about car rentals at Liberia Airport. There is now a SIM card stand at San Jose Airport by baggage claim from a company named Claro.
And that’s it! See, isn’t that easy? Nothing to worry about! That is all you need to know about going through customs and immigration in San Jose Airport and Liberia Airport for a stress free arrival.