Will Citizenship Add Coolness to My Already Astonishing Life in Costa Rica?

[Update early 2018: I did file everything and the document package was provisionally approved, but final approval probably won't come until the end of 2018. Meanwhile, I am studying to take the rather rigorous citizenship exams that are offered each three months. I can re-take these as many times as I need to, though obviously I hope to pass the first sitting.]

I've been arguing with myself for over a year about pursuing citizenship here in Costa Rica. I've put in the time, which is 7 years, why not get something for it?


The Benefits of Citizenship

There are a lot of benefits, such as being free from the residency requirement that you participate in Caja (CR's universal health care system), a free 10-year cedula (national ID card), easier banking/financial transactions, the ability to leave the country without having to worry about fulfilling the in-country residency requirements plus the return of my $200 residency security deposit (which I think is $300 for newer residents).

I've also been told by those who have gone this path before that many everyday transactions that involve use of ID become noticeably easier because you are no longer a foreigner in the eyes of Ticos, especially those that control various process gateways. Doors open that swung with difficulty before and the wheels of bureaucracy in general suddenly present less friction if you are perceived as "normal." Those benefits are rather intangible to me at the moment but they are apparently real.

And, of course, one mustn't overly discount the clearly facetious "coolness" factor of having dual citizenship and their passport, which may be less disagreeable to some countries than a U.S. passport due to my home country's unwelcome meddling in others' affairs.

The Name Change

 One drawback that I was hung up on for a while, however, was the name change thing.

Here, names have a set pattern and they want you to conform to the norm too, which is your first name (and optionally your "middle" name) followed by the surname of your father and mother in that order. So, forgoing my middle name (I never us it anyway), my new name would be Casey Bahr Lehman. That bothered me for quite a while because ... well it's my name they are messing with!

I'm over that now, it's fine, who cares. It doesn't mean I change my U.S. name after all, but it does precipitate a few hassles in having to change various Costa Rica-only documents and minor IDs such as my Costa Rica driver's license. These are triggered not only by the name change but a change in my cedula ID number.

The Document Gathering Must Be Timely

Another drawback is that transforming yourself from resident to citizen naturally presents bureaucratic hoops to jump through although nothing dealing with Migracion, since citizenship is handled by an entirely different government agency, namely Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones.

The most painful of the magical documents I must procure is my FBI background check, which if you are an ordinary citizen takes about 14 weeks plus or minus not counting transit time in the mail. Additionally, that doc has to carry an apostille from the U.S. Dept. of State, which takes another 3 weeks plus transit time.

In my case, those transit times are significant because stuff I mail from here to the States generally takes 2 weeks, and mail from the FBI and the Dept. of State must go to my U.S. mailing address first, which takes roughly a week, maybe less. So, just for that single critical doc, I figure 5 to 6 months before it's in my hands all "apostillized." OK, ... breathe ...

I also need a new certified birth certificate with apostille but my home state is pretty fast with that stuff and I can do the two-step process online in essentially one go although I might need a friend to carry the doc from one agency to another, but I'm not so worried about that one. 

However, I want to time the overall fetching of that document carefully. If I were to send for it at the same time as the FBI check, it would age about 20 weeks, which is not good, because both those docs cannot be older than 90 days when I present them to the office here that grants citizenship (which is not Migración by the way). Again ... breathe ...

The final drawback is that I could save myself a lot of headaches by using a lawyer to handle all this stuff and a service known as a background check "channeler" that can get that FBI check with apostille to me in 2 weeks. Trouble is, all that is spendy, just the channeler service costs $400, the lawyer $800, etc.
Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones runs the citizenship process, not Migración

If I can be patient (easier said than done), however, I figure I can do the whole thing myself including the BC (for which there is no channeler) and the citizenship bureau fee of $250 for a grand total of about $600. Minus my residency deposit, the net then is $400 but it takes me about 6 months longer than using the lawyer. So, that's my plan and I'm stickin' to it. If I flub it, I apply lessons learned and try again and still be money ahead. By the way, all told this DIY process is likely to take a year, so time's a-wastin'!

[Update: I accomplished all the document gathering by combining it with a trip back to Oregon last August to see the eclipse and visit friends and family. Saved me more than the price of my roundtrip ticket plus I had much better control over the entire process. There was a glitch with my mail forwarder and the U.S. State Dept. apostille, but it's a long story and I made the TSE deadline with room to spare anyway.]


The Tests

Oh, there is also the small matter of having to take a set of written and oral tests in Spanish that include Costa Rica civics and geography, reading aloud, oral comprehension, etc. Unlike the U.S. citizenship test, these are much more comprehensive and take most of a full day to complete. There is an official study guide for the social studies part, which has been extremely difficult to obtain [Update: I finally had to find another expat who'd completed the tests and have them make a copy of the book for me!]

I've learned from others that have successfully taken these tests that they knock off points for very minor errors such as a missing or misplace tilde, but with study perhaps I'll squeak by as the passing score is 70%. If they want me to sing the CR National Anthem, then we might have a problem however.

Another Citizen?

Once I get citizenship, my wife can apply as the spouse of a Costa Rica citizen and she gets a waiver on the test. My son, who is now of majority age here, will decide for himself if he wants to continue as a Permanent Resident or apply for citizenship. He will breeze through the test of course if he chooses to become a citizen due to his many years of private and public schooling here. But, he's now off to college in the States, so it will probably be of less importance to him.

Is It All Worth It? 

I won't really know until it's a done deal I think, but for sure there will be an economic payback. In less than a year, just counting a potential reduction in my gov't health insurance premiums alone, I'll have recouped the money I spent if not my time. I kind of doubt that I'll really ever use my Costa Rica passport though (that's actually a separate process by the way, they don't just give you one when you achieve citizen status). 

In any case, it's helping me upgrade my Spanish and that's something very positive for me as fluency in a second language has always been on the bucket list. I'll let you know if the other intangible benefits others have mentioned to me come true as well.


  1. Perfect timing for this article! Tom and I have been discussing this as well. You gave us a ton of information - thanks!!

    1. You bet! Let's stay in touch and see how it goes. I have to get my certified residency expediente first from Migracion, probably later this month and hopefully something from TSE verifying that I have met the 7 year requirement. But, I still have to renew my P.R. in April in the meantime.

  2. Thanks Casey for sharing this info. It is an interesting idea and I haven't decided it if it is worth it or not but it may be worth it to have a Costa Rican passport. Not that I plan on traveling to a lot of other countried but access may be easier if I did.

    1. There seem to be plenty of benefits to it. Hopefully, it will be the last time I have to deal with Migracion or renewing my stay here. That will be a relief. Also, I expect our Caja payments to go from about 50mil/month to less than 10/month. Although, I'm not sure what happens when there is a mix of citizens and residents in the same house.

  3. Since someone asked on my FB post of this, the place to get the test study guide is the Ministry of Public Education known as MEP: www.mep.go.cr (although at this very moment the site is down).

    1. I was thinking that a CR passport wouldn't be so useful because more countries wouldn't issue a visa as easily to me on that as my U.S. passport.

      However, having had to study the stamps in my passport for evidence of my 7-year residence, I realized that those stamps are not taken very seriously by most border control points. For instance, if you leave by the CR airport, they never give you and exit stamp. Furthermore, I didn't find a single entry or exit stamp from the U.S. So, I'd say, yes, the CR passport could be very useful to flash depending on which country you are in and they probably won't even look to see if the stamps correspond to anything.

  4. BTW, the claim has come up elsewhere that if you choose CR citizenship, you lose your U.S. (or whatever your home country is) citizenship. Not so. The U.S. does not recognize the statement from CR about renouncing another citizenship and to actually lose your U.S. citizenship requires an explicit process that today costs you about $2500.

    1. If you have a concern about whether the U.S. allows dual citizenship, I suggest you peruse this; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_nationality_law#Dual_citizenship

  5. You mentioned "drastically lower health ins. premiums". Were you referring to CAJA or some private insurance rates?

    1. Caja. And actually, the same income rates apply, it's just that most Ticos are not completely honest about their income and they don't verify. Also, Caja is not a requirement for citizenship the way it is for residency and is pretty easy to get out of.

  6. I've heard that TSE requires some people to get FBI background checks, but I got my citizenship through the Heredia branch, and they accepted an apostilled police report from the town I last lived in. It was really easy. My dad went and got it for me, then mailed it to the Secretary of State for the apostille. Took maybe 2 weeks total.

  7. How long ago was that? The change to FBI reports was fairly recent (early/mid 2017 I think). It takes about a year after you submit the initial paperwork for final approval, so if it's still in process it may be that they kick it back to you for not having an FBI background check or it may be that you submitted before the new requirement.


Thanks so much for your comment! - Casey