Ok, finally I will start from the beginning.
I study French and Spanish at the University of Edinburgh, and as such, I have to spend my Junior Honours year abroad: one semester in a Spanish-speaking country and one in a French-speaking country. Ever the romantic, I chose Costa Rica, with its rainforests and volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes, democracy and peace. There is no Costa Rican army. And they all say ‘Pura Vida’, all the time.
So I got in touch with the embassy in London, and asked them how to do it. They said you won’t find paid work, due to restrictions on hiring foreign workers over Costa Rican nationals; but you can volunteer. ‘¡Eso!’ I said, and they sent me a list of NGOs I could work for under a volunteer visa.
The process one has to go through in order to acquire this visa is a two-part one. First, you have to send off documents to the Costa Rican embassy in your home country to get your entry permit. Then, once you arrive in San José, you have 30 days to complete the process and pay for your volunteer visa. If you want to read the lengthy version of what a British citizen had to do in order to get the entry permit, I have a post on it here – but I don’t recommend it.
Why? Because there is, for all intents and purposes, no such thing as a ‘volunteer visa’. There are forms and regulations and requirements which would lead you to believe that it exists, but at the end of the day, nobody gets one. All that happens is that you waste time and energy filling in forms and having police certificates issued and legalised (I think my total price came to within the realms of $300); and then you’ll get to San José and, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet a nice girl in a hostel who will tip you off and you won’t bother making that appointment with the notary public, or having your fingerprints taken.
But don’t let that put you off! The good news is that the alternative is cheaper, simpler, and much, much less of a headache. Just go. Tourists from many countries* can stay for up to 90 days without any visa at all, and if you won’t be undertaking paid employment, it’s perfectly allowed. If you plan on staying longer than three months, all you have to do is book yourself a nice long-weekend trip to Nicaragua, go volcano boarding or something, pay your $30 exit tax and come back 72 hours later, all set for another 90 days.
I had known about this option. I knew about it, but I thought it sounded a little shady and I was apprehensive, so I went down the bureaucratic route instead. Don’t. Going without a visa is 100% legitimate: they get their exit tax, you get your long weekend trip and everyone’s happy.
So I would suggest that if you’re considering volunteering in Costa Rica (which I would absolutely recommend), that you just turn up. You’ll want to check that your home country is one of the ones eligible for the 90-day visa-free stay, of course*; and if it’s not, I’m afraid you’ll have to find someone more qualified to give you advice, such as your local Costa Rican embassy. However, if this applies to you, the best way to do it is to just get on a plane and come over here, and do your volunteering thing for three months before having to worry about leaving the country.
Of course, agreeing on a place to stay and a job is something you have to work out before you book your flights, if you’re serious about making sure you get somewhere. I recommend looking at MUSADE‘s page if you’re interested in psychology or women’s rights; the Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary if you don’t speak fluent Spanish and, like me, dream of cuddling and caring for these creatures; or getting in touch with your local Costa Rican embassy to see if they’ll send you a list of NGOs you can volunteer for. That’s how I found MUSADE, and I’m never looking back!
Another route to go down is finding one of those package deals with an agency which sorts out that sort of stuff for you, and from what I hear, those packages can be truly rewarding. A friend of mine who did a turtle conservation / surf camp / Spanish school deal told me that the costs are pretty high and it’s cheaper to organise it yourself; however, having gone down the DIY route, I suspect that, depending on what you’re after, it might be worth it to pay someone to co-ordinate it all for you. These people know what they’re doing, and you, if you’re anything like me, are new to the whole volunteering-in-Costa-Rica thing.
So the long and short of it is that if you’re not being paid for work in Costa Rica, and if you come from one of the countries I’ve helpfully listed below, you won’t need a visa to volunteer, and you won’t need to spend $300 on bureaucracy before you cut your losses and forget the whole thing.
Volunteering in Costa Rica is one of the parts of my life that I’m most proud of: it’s only natural that I acquire the opinion that everyone should do it! If you are considering it, I hope this advice was helpful, and I wish you happy travels!
All the best,
*So here’s that list of countries. It looks like The Costa Rican Embassy’s lease of the domain has actually expired, so this information comes from a non-official site. I strongly encourage you to check with your local embassy before you go. But here’s that list anyway:
You can stay for up to 90 days visa-free if you are from: Argentina, Austria, Canada, Columbia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Romania, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, or the United States.
You can stay for up to 30 days visa-free if you are from: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, the Republic of Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, North Korea, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, the Vatican, or Venezuela.
You need a visa to stay for 30 days if you are from: Andorra, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bolivia, Chile, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Grenadines, Greece, Guadalupe, Guyana, Haiti, Malta, Martinique, Morocco, Paraguay, Peru, San Marino, Serbia & Montenegro, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Saudi Arabia, Surinam, Taiwan, Trinidad & Tobago, Uruguay, or Jamaica.