Flying into the San Jose Costa Rica airport (otherwise known as Juan Santamaria of SJO) can be a bit nerve-wracking if it is your first time in the country. We get it, you are entering a foreign country and you don’t know exactly what to expect. Luckily, flights to San Jose Costa Rica are typically not that overwhelming on arrival. However, there are some things you should be aware of before arriving here.
Here is everything you need to know about flying into San Jose Costa Rica.
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 an airline 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.
North America and European nationals do not need a special visa for entry to the country. However, no matter where you are coming from, you do need a passport for Costa Rica entry.
There are some nationalities that will need a visa.
You can read all about Costa Rica visa requirements here.
You do not need immunizations for Costa Rica, unless you are traveling from a country which has a problem with Yellow Fever (South American countries and parts of Africa). When entering from one of these places you will be required to show proof of a Yellow Fever shot.
What to Do if You Have a One Way Ticket
If you are planning to backpack through Central America or are booking a one-way flight for any other reason, you still need to show proof that you will be departing the country within 90 days.
I often book one-way flights to San Jose 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 in your departure city that you will be 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. Ticket prices are $28.75 for 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.
Landing in San Jose Costa Rica
Landing in San Jose is really pretty (in my opinion). 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. Due to the mountains and occasional active volcanos, 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! This is the biggest airport in Costa Rica and tons of international flights come and go each day.
Customs at San Jose International Airport
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. There is also a bathroom in the baggage claim area if you can hold it for a bit.
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 to San Jose Costa Rica 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 all speak English, so don’t worry about trying to speak with them in Spanish. However, they will, of course, appreciate it if you do make the effort to try and speak Spanish.
They will then typically ask you three questions.
1.”How long are you staying for?”
Just tell them the date you will be departing (don’t forget this date needs to be within 90 days of your arrival date). The Customs officer might also ask to see a return ticket. Make sure you have this printed out and ready to show as needed.
2. “What is your job?”
They ask this because they need to put it into their system. 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.
3. “Where are you staying tonight?”
They just want to know the name of the hotel you are staying at for your first night to type into their computer. If you are staying at an Airbnb, just tell them the name of the Airbnb.
If you are staying with friends just ask them ahead of time for the name of a hotel nearby. We always give friends and family who visit the name of a hotel. This is easier than trying to explain an address.
Once the Customs officer is 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. 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.
Now on to baggage claim!
Baggage Claim at the Airport
After going through customs you will come out to a duty-free area. If you would like to buy any hard liquor for your trip, this is the place to do it cheaply.
You will then walk into the baggage claim area. We find that it can be a bit slow for bags to start coming out.
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. There are no addresses in Costa Rica so you will need to write down the name of the hotel and town.
If you are staying with friends, it is best to ask them to send you detailed directions to their house ahead of time. It is good to have this written down just in case your luggage is misplaced.
You will also be asked for contact info (your email address or a phone number where they can reach you).
We had our luggage delivered within 48 hours, so hopefully, if this happens to you it will also be a short wait.
Tip: We like to buy travel insurance through World Nomads for travel days because they cover things such as lost luggage, delayed or canceled flights etc.
Leaving the San Jose International 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.
Once your luggage comes out from the final check, you are good to go.
Welcome to Costa Rica!
Leaving the airport can be a bit of an overwhelming experience. Get ready for tons of taxi drivers asking if you need a ride.
I always just say “No, gracias” to each one and keep walking.
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. San Jose international airport car rentals are all located off-site.
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 several 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).
As mentioned above, when you exit the airport there will be many men asking if you need a taxi. These men are not always legal taxi drivers. Illegal taxi drivers have been known to drastically overcharge customers.
Instead, look for the row of orange taxis with a green triangle on the driver’s side door. Occasionally some red taxis with a yellow triangle will be here as well. These orange and red taxis are the legal taxis in Costa Rica.
Make sure the taxi driver puts their meter on when they start driving to not get overcharged.
Also, you will need to pay in Costa Rica colones for the taxi. It is always best to pay in smaller money because they typically do not carry a lot of change.
For more info please read our complete guide to taxies in Costa Rica.
The other option is to take an Uber. Uber exists in some kind of legal gray zone in Costa Rica. They claim that they are operating legally, but there are a lot of questions on if this is actually true.
Either way, the taxi drivers dislike Uber because they are stealing their business.
If you would like to get an Uber from the airport it is best to walk towards the main road before ordering one. Just keep in mind that it is not possible to pick up the free airport wifi from the main road.
There was recently a fight between a taxi driver and an Uber driver at the airport that got very aggressive. This is why we suggest not ordering your Uber from right at the airport.
We still use Uber (they are much 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 is normal procedure.
If you are taking a private shuttle from the airport or a shuttle to your hotel, there should be a representative waiting outside of the airport exit for you. They usually carry a sign with their company name or your name.
Our Tips for Flying to San Jose
– 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.
Note: Someone recently told us that the Kolbi stand no longer exists. We will update you on that when we fly next.
-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 the town of Alajuela rather than San Jose.
– If your flight arrives late at night and you are looking for some food there is a Denny’s which is open 24/7 located about a two-minute drive from the airport. There is a small cafe that is now open at the airport once you exit, but we don’t know how late it is open or what they serve.
We wouldn’t typically recommend Denny’s, but it is one of the only restaurants near San Jose airport that is open late at night.
– There are some toll booths on the highway near the airport if you are heading towards the Pacific coast. 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.
-If you need to check the San Jose airport flight status of arrivals click here.
-If you would like to book your flights to Costa Rica, we have a full guide to finding cheap flights which includes info about our favorite search engines and the cheapest time of year to visit Costa Rica.
-Many major airlines fly from the United States, Canada, and Europe to San Jose. It is the main airport in Costa Rica. However, there is a second international airport located near the Nicaragua border called Liberia airport. Check out our guide to choosing the best Costa Rica airport for more info.
Let us know in the comment section below if you have any questions about flights to 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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