Looking to spend a semester on “tico time?” With warm weather year-round, beautiful beaches, and lush rainforests, Costa Rica is an attractive and affordable option for study abroad. Though it’s best known as a vacation hotspot for surfers, Costa Rica is now an up-and-coming study abroad destination for American students looking for Spanish language-intensive programs. It’s also one of the most environmentally friendly study abroad options, as Costa Rica was recently named the “greenest” country in the world. So pack your sunscreen, grab your Spanish-English dictionary, and hop on the three-hour flight from Miami, because study abroad in Costa Rica is waiting for you!
San Jose is the largest city in Costa Rica, with a population of 370,000. The city is safe, clean, and full of beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, as well as modern office buildings. The National Theater and the Gold Museum are popular with students, as are San Jose’s many open-air plazas and cafes. The capital of Costa Rica offers a number of study abroad options for American students. The enormous public University of Costa Rica is the largest and best known university in Costa Rica, specializing in engineering and the sciences. The small, private Veritas University offers classes in art and design, as well as Spanish grammar and vocabulary for international students. Both universities partner with American schools like the University of Kansas to offer study abroad programs in specific disciplines.
Heredia is another popular destination for study abroad students, as it is home to one of the largest colleges in Costa Rica, the public National University of Costa Rica, which specializes in ecology and education. Heredia is located only 10km (6.25 mi) from San Jose, and it is quite easy to get between the two cities by bus or train.
Monteverde is a small town in Puntarenas that has become a premier ecotourism destination owing to its proximity to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Many American universities, including the University of Georgia, offer programs in ecotourism, ecology, biodiversity, and sustainability with their local partners in Monteverde. Though Monteverde itself is in a tropical, mountainous region of the country, it is also not far from the beautiful beaches along Puntarenas’ coast.
How to Choose a Program
Before choosing a study abroad program in Costa Rica, you should carefully consider the subjects you want to study and academically prepare for the intense Spanish language immersion.
The national language of Costa Rica is Spanish, and you will rarely hear English outside of the tourist areas. Additionally, it is almost impossible to find English-language courses in Costa Rica’s public universities, except in the education departments. Most American partner schools also emphasize that their courses will be taught entirely in Spanish, and some even offer homestays with tico families in order to promote rapid language learning.
Many tico students continue to live with their parents while studying at university. Consequently, most study abroad students choose to live with tico host families while in Costa Rica to get the full experience. Host families are also a great way for students to practice their Spanish outside of the classroom and to learn new vocabulary and slang.
Ticos, or Costa Rican natives, are fairly relaxed with regards to education. The entire nation of Costa Rica runs on “tico time” (a fancy way of saying that everyone is always late), so don’t expect your 2.00 PM class to start on time, even on the first day. Classmates usually know each other extremely well at the university level, as they are all enrolled together in the same carrera, or major, for all four years.
Additionally, secondary schools are more specialized in Costa Rica than in the US, so many tico students enter university with some experience in the subjects they want to pursue. Consequently, for some specialized subjects like engineering, you may need to enroll in a lower-level class than you would in the US.
What to Pack
What you pack for your trip will make all the difference in how comfortable you will be. If you need help, we have a guide specifically dedicated to what you'll need to pack for Central America.
Social Life and Student Culture
When not in class, many tico and American students spend their free time hanging out in open-air plazas and cafes, reading, tanning, and playing soccer. Restaurants that serve cocina tipica, or typical Costa Rican food, are also popular student hangouts around meal time, as they offer some of the most delicious (and cheap!) food for students, as well as live music on special occasions. Even the smallest Costa Rican towns have nightclubs, which are guaranteed to be packed almost every night of the week with locals, tourists, and international students dancing to loud reggaeton music.
During university holidays, students usually elect to travel around Costa Rica, visiting the country’s beautiful national parks, animal reserves, and pristine beaches. The many religious holidays also offer students a chance to experience Costa Rica’s Catholic heritage first-hand through outdoor plays, live nativity scenes, and parades.
Contributed by Sarah Reynolds
Students can obtain scholarships through their home universities or the American universities that run programs in Costa Rica. Program providers also offer scholarships.
- CIEE program students are eligible for the CIEE Global Access Initiative Scholarship.
- Are you a member of Phi Kappa Phi? Score a study abroad grant to Costa Rica!
- Independent universities, both public and private, have specific scholarships for intensive Spanish-language study.
- As a non-profit, the various USAC study abroad scholarship opportunities aim for students to gain international experience -- without breaking the bank.
- More Study Abroad Grants and Scholarships
Study Abroad Programs in Costa Rica
Is Costa Rica a good place to study abroad?
Costa Rica can be a great place to study abroad for those looking to enhance their Spanish skills while enjoying beautiful beaches and a relaxed, friendly environment. There are many positives to living in Costa Rica: it's generally considered to be a safe travel destination, it's possible to have fun on a budget, and Costa Ricans are generally very open and welcoming. Costa Rica is a safe and fun study abroad destination!
How much does college cost in Costa Rica?
Studying abroad in Costa Rica can cost as little as a semester at a U.S. state school (around $7,000). Typically, you will need to have strong Spanish skills in order to direct enroll at a local university for this to be the case. Provider organizations are typically more expensive and can cost up to $16,000 for a semester. These programs will often offer fully inclusive packages which include housing, meals, and in-country support. By directly enrolling at a university, you should expect to have to cover many of these expenses on your own which could cost an additional $3,500 after airfare and program fees.
What subjects are taught in Costa Rica?
Subjects taught in Costa Rica run the gamut -- you can expect to find courses in the arts and humanities, sciences, social sciences, business, marketing, languages, and everything in between. You can also take classes that are specific to Costa Rica, like Costa Rican arts and culture, politics, and history. Many programs offer the choice to study in English or Spanish.