Flying into San Jose Costa Rica can be a bit nerve-wracking if it is your first time. Although going through customs can seem stressful, I promise it is fairly simple at the San Jose airport. We’ve flown into this airport too many times to count and have become somewhat of pros at the whole process.
Here is everything you need to know about flying into San Jose Costa Rica.
Flying into San Jose Costa Rica – Entry Requirements
Before flying to Costa Rica you need to secure some type of proof that you will be leaving the country within 90 days. This proof can come in the form of a plane ticket (just print out the confirmation email) or bus ticket. If you are flying to Costa Rica for a vacation you are likely all set because you will have booked a round-trip flight.
If you are planning to backpack through Central America or are booking a one-way flight for any other reason, you need to show proof of departure.
I often book one-way flights to Costa Rica from the US. When I book a one-way flight I am not able to check in for my flight online before departure. I always get a message when trying to check in which says, “you need to speak to an employee at the check-in counter.”
If this happens to you, the only way you will be allowed to board your flight is by showing proof at the check-in counter that you are leaving Costa Rica within 90 days.
If you do not know how long you plan to stay in Costa Rica, the cheapest way of doing this is to purchase a bus ticket to Nicaragua from Tica Bus. It will cost you $28.75 to purchase a one-way ticket from San Jose, Costa Rica to Managua, Nicaragua. You can purchase this online.
The nice thing about Tica Bus is that they will allow you to change the date of your ticket at any of their ticketing offices in Central America for about a $5 fee.
Flying into San Jose Costa Rica – Declaration Form
Before landing in Costa Rica the flight attendants on your flight will come around with a Customs Declaration form for you to fill out. I snapped a picture for you on my last flight so you can see what all the form entails.
Most of it is pretty straightforward, but I tried to answer some of the confusing ones for you.
You will need this form along with your passport after you get off the plane. I suggest keeping both somewhere easily accessible so you are not searching all of your carry-on bags for these forms once you get off the plane.
Flying into San Jose Costa Rica – Landing in San Jose
Guys, landing in San Jose is seriously beautiful. If you can, definitely snag a window seat to take some pics of the scenery. See, San Jose is a valley surrounded by mountains. The view is amazing!
Landing here can be a bit freaky. Because of the mountains and if any of the volcanos are erupting the plane might make a few curves towards the end of the flight. Don’t worry! It is totally normal.
Also, if you are tracking the flight you will likely notice that you will fly over to the Pacific coast before looping back and landing in San Jose facing east. This is normal. I have only seen planes land at the airport from the other direction once due to unusual wind.
What I’m trying to say is, for anyone with flying anxiety like myself, it may seem a bit scary to land in San Jose, but don’t worry. Everything is fine and normal!
Flying into San Jose Costa Rica – Customs
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but be warned, the customs line at the SJO airport can be a total disaster show. I suggest going as fast as possible from the plane to Customs. If you need to use the bathroom try to do that before you get off the plane so you can straight up run to Customs and beat the rest of your plane.
It has been OK for me the past few times I’ve flown, but I’ve also heard nightmare stories as well. In fact. my mom flew in one time and waited for two hours in the Customs line because a lot of the Customs Agents had gone on their lunch break and a plane had been delayed so two flights arrived at the same time which caused a major backup.
Once you get to the front of the line and speak with Customs agent they will ask for your passport.
They usually also ask where you are planning to stay (make sure you know the name and town of the first hotel you are staying at).
Sometimes they ask how long you plan to stay. I like to have my return flight info printed out or easily accessible on my phone just in case they ask for it.
They also always ask what your job is. Just keep it simple and tell them your general profession rather than explain in detail. They have a list of jobs and need to check off one. For example, I just say I am self-employed or an entrepreneur. My dad, bless him, took about fifteen minutes in customs last time. He went into detail about what he does as a Conservation Administrator. Eventually, the Customs Agent just marked him as an administrator and he went on his way haha!
Once they are satisfied they will stamp your passport and write in how long you are allowed to stay in the country. Usually, they will write in “90” (as in 90 days) unless they have a reason to give you a shorter stay time.
Just double check after they stamp your passport and write in an amount of time you can stay. I’d hate for you to be planning on staying for two months in Costa Rica and only get 30 days written in for some reason.
You do not give the Customs Agent the form you filled out on the plane. That comes later, so just put the form in an easy to access spot and hold on to it for now.
Now on to baggage claim!
Flying into San Jose Costa Rica – Baggage Claim
After going through customs you will come out into the baggage claim area. We find that it can be a bit slow for bags to start coming out.
If you ran off the plane to get through Customs quickly, have no fear, there are bathrooms in the baggage claim area.
On the off chance your bags do not appear, there are counters for all the airlines in the baggage claim area. Our luggage got lost once with Iberia and the staff at the counter were very helpful. You will be asked to fill out a form with the address where they can deliver your bags. This is when it becomes important to know the name and town of each hotel you are staying at. They will also ask for contact info (your email address or a phone number they can reach you at).
We had our luggage delivered within 48 hours, so hopefully, if this happens to you it will also be a short wait. They also gave us a small bag of toiletries and an extra large white t-shirt and shorts. Yes, I definitely tried them on and yes, I looked like I escaped from prison.
Tip: We like to buy travel insurance through World Nomads for travel days because they cover things such as lost luggage, delayed or cancelled flights etc.
Flying into San Jose Costa Rica – Leaving the airport
After you get your luggage it is time to leave the airport. Yeay! Before exiting the airport you have to put your luggage on one last conveyor belt for it to be checked. You will then hand your filled in customs declaration form to the attendant working. They usually don’t really look at it too closely. In fact, we’ve never had anybody ask us anything at this stage.
Once your luggage comes out from the final check, you are good to go. Yeay! Welcome to Costa Rica!
Leaving the airport can be a completely overwhelming experience. Get ready for tons of taxi drivers asking if you need a ride.
If you have rented a car (we suggest renting with Adobe for a 10% discount and great customer service) someone with a sign from your rental car company will be waiting to meet you. You then will take a free shuttle to the nearby rental car office to pick up your car.
There is a public bus line that stops near the airport which will bring you into downtown San Jose, but if you are not familiar with the country it can be very confusing. I still sometimes get lost after living here for two years.
If you do opt to take the bus, just go to the other side of the airport parking garage and you will see a bus stop on the side of the highway. If you want to go into San Jose you are already on the correct side of the road. There are several buses running by here so your best bet is to ask someone else who is waiting which bus you need to take.
The buses only accept colones (as far as I know) so I suggest buying something small at one of the food stands right outside of the airport exit and getting change in colones. The bus will only cost you about 500 colones (about $1).
If you need to take a taxi you can ask one of the many drivers. Make sure they put their meter on. They are known for overcharging unassuming tourists. The taxis from the airport are usually orange.
The other option is to take an Uber. Uber is now technically illegal according to the Costa Rica government but Uber has stated that it is not illegal and they will continue to run.
We still use Uber (they are wayyyy cheaper than taxis), but be warned the police are on the lookout. Your Uber driver will likely ask you to sit in the front seat so that the police are less likely to pull them over. Don’t be weirded out if they ask this. It’s normal procedure.
In our opinion, if you are not renting a car and your hotel does not have a free shuttle, your best bet is Uber. It is affordable, dependable, and you won’t risk getting lost like you might with the public bus.
Flying into San Jose Costa Rica – Last Tips
– Make sure you remember to pack a pen in your carry-on bag so that you can fill out the customs forms on the plane.
– Don’t forget to pack some clothes to get you through the first few days just in case your luggage is temporarily misplaced and needs to be delivered to you.
– There is free wifi that you can connect to in the airport.
– If you need to pick up a pre-paid Kolbi card to use for your phone there is a stand at the baggage claim area of the airport. You can read our full post about using your cell phone here.
-If you need to exchange currency you can also do this in the baggage claim area, but we suggest waiting and getting colones at a bank instead. We have a full post about paying in Costa Rica for more info.
-The San Jose airport is actually located in Alajuela. If you are looking for affordable nearby accommodations for after you arrive at the airport, check Alajuela rather than San Jose.
– If your flight arrives late at night and you are looking for some food there is a Dennys which is open 24/7 located about a two-minute drive from the airport.
– There are some toll booths on the highway near the airport. They do accept dollars if you do not have colones. We suggest paying with a $10 bill because they will give you change in colones. This change will be enough to pay for the rest of the tolls.
Let us know in the comment section below if you have any questions about flying into San Jose Costa Rica.We are happy to help you out! Also, we’d love to hear your tips if you have anything to add that you think other readers will appreciate.
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