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The Difference Between Applying for Residency and Citizenship

Our current law offers expats various options to secure legal immigration status in Costa Rica. On the one hand, you have the Immigration Law (Law No. 8764) and Ruling (Decree No. 37112-G) which provides the

Our current law offers expats various options to secure legal immigration status in Costa Rica. On the one hand, you have the Immigration Law (Law No. 8764) and Ruling (Decree No. 37112-G) which provides the rules of the game for our General Department of Immigration (Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería) and, on the other hand, there is our Constitution and Ruling No. 12-2012 which supervises the processes related to naturalization proceedings.

As you may have correctly guessed, residency is processed directly at Immigration whilst citizenship (also known as naturalization) is processed at the Supreme Electoral Court of Costa Rica (Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones, or TSE for short). The eligibility requirements for residency differ from those for citizenship and, consequently, the documents that are required to be filed also follow different standards.

In order to qualify for residency, you must receive a lifetime monthly pension of at least $1000 USD a month, or you need to invest at least $200,000 in the country, and so on and so forth depending on the category you are applying under. There are numerous categories, including Special Categories (which are not technically residencies) to choose from. So long as you are eligible and are able to produce the documentation as evidence that you qualify, you should have no problems when applying for residency.

To qualify for citizenship, there are also various eligibility criteria; however, the two most popular are applying for citizenship after holding residency for 5 or 7 years (the amount of years will depend on your nationality, for example US, UK, and Canadian nationals must have held Residency for 7 years, whereas Central American, Spanish and Iberoamerican nationals only need 5 years) and citizenship after being married to a Costa Rican national for at least 2 years and having lived in Costa Rica for at least 2 years.

Evidently the requirements vary between the two legal figures and while we will not analyze the details of each category, it is vital to highlight a few key similarities and differences.

  • For example, the general rule when applying for residency is to file documents that are recently issued and apostilled or legalized. Recently issued, per Immigration, means no older than 6 months of issuance. The rule changes for citizenship. For citizenship, only the background check needs to be recently issued and, in this case, recently issued means no older than 3 months. TSE has been able to understand that the birth certificate does not expire, unlike Immigration which still demands recently issued documents (notice they are trying to change this as they have realized this is an unnecessary demand when it comes to birth certificates).
  • An essential similarity between the two is the importance that both Immigration and TSE place on the background checks. We have always stressed to our clients the need to file nation-wide background checks, not local. For example, people ask if they can file an application using a Florida Police Department Background Check. Our response, particularly in the latest months has been “No.” We recommend that you procure an FBI background check. We are authorized FBI channeler and can have you fingerprinted at our offices. We can also procure RCMPSs. It is much better to file the correct document from the start.
  • Both Immigration and TSE will carefully analyze an applicant’s background check. This is a matter of national security supported by our courts. As such, if there is anything on the background check, regardless of how small it may be, both Immigration and TSE have the right to request that the applicant file the applicable and apostilled or legalized court documents explaining the status of an issue. They need to know if the case was dismissed, settled, if a fine was paid, if jail time was completed, etc. We have seen many cases, particularly at TSE, where these court documents are requested which is why we now recommend our clients for both residency and citizenship who have a record to provide additional documents from the court in their home country. These will need to be apostilled or legalized and translated. Try to file these documents at the beginning of your process to avoid any inconveniences or delays. It is always better to hand everything at once to the authorities to make their analysis much easier.
  • Another matter to discuss would also be processing times. While Immigration tends to be a mysterious blackhole, TSE is easier to work with and is much more orderly. This is evidently an effect of the understaffing Immigration suffers along with the high demand for residency which is not a problem TSE suffers. The average processing time for a properly filed residency application is approximately 9 months. Upon approval, in-country stages such as CAJA registration and DIMEX procurement can take an additional 2 months. The average processing time at TSE could also be 9 months (it tends to be shorter for citizenship via the marriage category), however, upon approval it is a 1 business day process to receive your Costa Rican cedula.
  • Lastly, the effects of having residency vs. citizenship are different. While our constitution states that foreign nationals and Costa Ricans are equal before the law, they do not have the same rights. For example, a foreign national with residency will find certain restrictions pertaining to their ability to legally work whereas Costa Ricans face no such restrictions. Residents need to renew their residencies, while nationals simply need to make sure their cedula is up to date every 10 years, but their nationality never expires. Nationals can vote and residents cannot.

Remember that approval of residency or citizenship will certainly depend on numerous factors such as filing the correct documents and hopefully having no criminal record, but it is important to understand that they are analyzed by different offices, with different set of rules, demands, and standards.




Attorney with more than 10 years of experience in customer service, team management and team building at an international level. Has worked immigration cases in various countries, including Costa Rica, Colombia and Panama.

Review overview
  • RF January 17, 2023

    If married to a Costa Rican, do you have to have residency for the two years before applying for a citizenship? Can you be on a perpetual tourist visa.

    • Maripaz Soto Villalobos January 23, 2023


      It is not a requirement to have had residency, but it is necessary to have fulfilled the 2 years of marriage in Costa Rica.