Cielo Vista

Costa Rica 101: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO)

February 19, 2019

Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is both the first and last destination for the majority of tourists to Costa Rica.

Air travel can be stressful enough before adding the uncertainty of an unfamiliar airport in a foreign country. The Tico Times is here to make that easier.

Arriving at Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO)

Prior to your flight, we recommend printing and carrying a copy of your itinerary that shows proof of your departure date from Costa Rica.

Before landing, flight attendants will distribute immigration and customs forms. Each person needs to fill out his/her own immigration form, but only one customs form per family is required.

Both forms are straightforward and are written in both Spanish and English. Use a blue- or black-ink pen to complete them.

The immigration form asks for your name, passport number and type, nationality, profession, birthday, sex, purpose for travel, foreseen address, flight number and departure country. (Your passport type is likely “ORD,” for “ordinary,” and your foreseen address is the city or hotel where you will be spending the majority of your time.)

The customs form asks for much of the same information. It also includes standard questions about whether you’ve been in contact with livestock or are transporting animals, whether you’re carrying more than $10,000, and whether you’ve been out of the country for at least three days. You will likely answer “no” to all except the last question, and if you’re bringing more than $10,000, consider making a donation to The Tico Times.

After deplaning, follow signs for immigration, and then get in the correct line. The line on the right is meant for tourists, while nationals and permanent residents can use the line on the left. While the wait can get long if several planes arrive within minutes of each other, the building is air-conditioned and there is free Wi-Fi available.

At the immigration booth, show the agent your passport and immigration form, and have a copy of your itinerary handy. The agent may ask where you’re staying, how long you’re staying, or any number of similar questions — stay calm, and answer honestly.

You’ll then pass through duty-free shops to the luggage carousels to reclaim any checked luggage. This area also has bathrooms, an ATM and a currency exchange store.

With your luggage in-hand, you’ll proceed to the far end of the room to customs, where you’ll hand an agent the customs form and place all your luggage through an x-ray scanner. You may be stopped if you’re transporting fruit, drugs (obviously), or excessive quantities of things such as electronics that don’t appear to be for your own personal use. But typically, the customs step takes less than a minute, and you’ll collect your luggage on the other side of the x-ray without an issue.

After walking past rental-car kiosks, you’ll step out into the San José* air, where a large group of people gathers to welcome family or offer transportation services. Keep your luggage secured and walk confidently, as it can get crowded. Immediately outside the door, you will find a line of orange taxis; those are the official airport taxies. Alternatively, head left and loop around the parking structure to the bus stops.

Uber does offer service at Juan Santamaría International Airport, with a pickup location about 500 feet to the right of the exit door. However, don’t be surprised if your driver cancels or asks to meet elsewhere. Uber remains in a legal grey area, and drivers often won’t pick up at the airport if they think Traffic Police are watching.

(*We know, we know. Technically, Juan Santamaría International Airport is in Alajuela, not San José.)

Departing from Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO)

After exiting the highway for the airport, you’ll take a roundabout. Look for the signs to the international departures terminal or parking on your right.

Until recently, most airlines did not include Costa Rica’s exit tax in their ticket price, meaning travelers had to pay it at the airport prior to checking in for an international flight. However, the vast majority of airlines now include the departure tax, so you can proceed directly to check-in.

As of February 2019, official signage at the airport says passengers on the following airlines must pay the $29-per-person tax:

  • Cubana de Aviación
  • Albatros Airlines
  • SANSA
  • WestJet
  • Lufthansa
  • LATAM

However, to be 100-percent sure, double-check your fare breakdown for a line that reads “Departure Tax” or “Boarding Tax.” Or, at the airport, ticket agents for your airline will tell you whether it’s required.

After checking in, follow signs for “all gates” to the security checkpoint. (Note that there is a separate line for families traveling with minors.) You’ll first show your passport and boarding pass to an immigration agent, who may ask about where you stayed and for how long. Then you’ll pass through a TSA-like security screening, where you’ll have to remove liquids and electronics from your bag and walk through a metal detector. Thankfully, you don’t have to take off your shoes unless specifically asked to do so.

You’re through! Immediately after security, there is a collection of souvenir shops, including one where you can sample a plethora of Britt coffee and chocolates.

The international terminal also has several restaurants, ample charging areas and Wi-Fi. Note that the free Wi-Fi network seems to block Netflix and other high-bandwidth platforms, so you may want to download shows for your flight elsewhere (or pay for the premium internet).

Enjoy your flight!


This story was made possible thanks to The Tico Times 5 % Club. If only 5 percent our readers donated at least $2 a month, we’d have our operating costs covered and could focus on bringing you more original reporting from around Costa Rica. We work hard to keep our reporting independent and groundbreaking, but we can only do it with your help. Join The Tico Times 5% Club and help make stories like this one possible.

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