Costa Rica - Country Commercial Guide

This is a best prospect industry sector for this country. Includes a market overview and trade data.

Last published date: 2021-11-10



Academic Year


2018 - 2019

2019 - 2020



Costa Rican students to the United States




Data Source: Open Doors Report 2020.

Unit: Students

In 2020-2021 the export of United States educational services to Costa Rica have grown slowly, due to the COVID pandemic.  Despite travel restrictions, educational institutions managed the transition to online classrooms and online interviews for applicants.  Online academic services increased, and local counselors reported that they continue counseling students to study in the United States and apply for undergraduate and graduate levels programs as well as pursue scholarships and external funding options.   

In Academic year 2019-2020 the split of educational services exported from United States to Costa Rica depending on the degree type was the following:


Academic Year 2019-2020




Non degree


Costa Rican students to the United States





Data Source: Open Doors Report 2020.

Unit: Students

We continue to see that the programs with highest demand among Costa Ricans are undergraduate programs. Pricing is one of the factors that determine a student’s decision. The scheme of 2+2, two years in a community college and then transfer to a university to obtain a bachelor’s degree, is a common practice for Costa Rica’s international students.  The approach gives students the opportunity to save money for university-level courses while taking classes at a community college with low tuitions fees.    

Regarding Intensive English programs in 2020, only 45 students studied in U.S. English programs, according to the Open Doors report. Those 45 students took a total of 426 weeks of classes, an average of 9.5 weeks per student.  That is almost half of the students enrolled in 2019 where we had 80 students taking 845 student weeks for an average of 10.6 weeks per student. English programs do show strong promise in Costa Rica’s as the country’s labor force is required to have good English proficiency due to the large number of multinational companies in the country which are demanding bilingual professionals in areas such as engineering, IT, customer service, law, health sciences and many more.  English is always needed also for tourism activities which is one of the main economic activities.  Despite a good public education system in Costa Rica, only a small portion of students accomplish a good level of English, mainly from  students graduating from technical and scientific high schools.

According to the World Bank, in 2020 the population of Costa Rica reached almost 5.1 million people, with a GDP income of USD12,076 is considered a medium-high income country. In 1869, Costa Rica made education both free and compulsory for all its citizens and in 1948 with the abolishment of the national army, the government allocated the resources in social and education programs. Costa Rica has become well-known worldwide for the quality of its human capital because of a strong investment in education in the past century. In addition, Costa Rica boasts a high literacy rate of almost 98 percent of total population.

In 2011 there was a Constitutional reform which established that 8 percent of GDP must be re-invested in education and that goes from preschool to graduate programs. This percentage is the highest in the Central American Region. The average education investment per person in Costa Rica is USD4,387 but when compared to the numbers of other OECD nations, Costa Rica is a leader based on percentage of GDP. 

The Costa Rican education system is structured in elementary and secondary school.  Elementary school has 6-year levels divided in two cycles; I Cycle - ages 6½ - 10½ and II Cycle - ages 10½ - 13. After finishing II cycle, the student receives a diploma certifying the completion of primary school. The secondary period has 5-year levels, divided in two cycles: III Cycle 7th, 8th, 9th - ages 13 -16 and diversified education 10th, 11th ages 16 -18. An exit examination is required in 7 basic subjects to receive a high school diploma, a prerequisite to enter Costa Rican universities. There are a few technical public high schools, scientific public high schools and the country recently created a Public International Baccalaureate High School in which the students need to attend an additional 12th year of education.  Costa Rican students generally start looking for post-secondary school options in the U.S. at the beginning of the secondary period. 

 The Costa Rican Ministry of Public Education (MEP) oversees more than 4,000 private and public schools located in the seven provinces of the Costa Rican territory. In 2020 the Public Education Ministry (MEP) reported almost 1,000 private and public high schools with a population of almost 400,000 students, and during the same year almost 209,000 enter the university.  Moreover, even though the private high school system constitutes 22 percent of the offering, it only enrolls 8 percent of the student population. 

 In the U.S. market, the states with the highest numbers of Costa Rican students are Texas, New York, California, Massachusetts, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Virginia. The main reasons why Costa Ricans choose the United States are geographic proximity, high quality education system, wide variety of higher education programs and the availability of intensive and short programs to learn or improve English skills. In addition, studying abroad presents an opportunity to be more competitive and increases the possibility for better employment in national or multinational corporations. 

Main competitor countries in educational services exports are Canada, Mexico, Spain, Germany, France, Taiwan, United Kingdom, Chile, and Argentina 

 Sub Sector Best Prospects

  • Community College 
  • U.S universities with annual tuition fees lower than $15,000 
  • Short summer programs 
  • English Language Programs (from one month up to one year) for students, teachers, and adults  
  • Summer camps  
  • Master Programs  


The U.S. Embassy and Education USA offices in Costa Rica are committed to work with the business community to promote professional development and increase the number of students studying in the U.S.  The strong partnership between the Commercial Service, Consular Section and Education USA has created new opportunities for U.S. institutions across the years.  

There is a potential market for U.S. institutions with annual tuition fees lower than $15,000.  The Commercial Service in Costa Rica organizes several outreach programs and structured services to provide activities as part of the strategy to promote the community college system among high school counselors and agents.  Education USA initiatives are ideal for working with students and parents directly. 

To enter the market, it is highly recommended that U.S. universities, community colleges and/or technical institutions seek partnerships or agreements with public or private universities to facilitate exchange programs for students and professors, recognition of credits and/or dual certification. It is important that once conversations have started the international recruiters travel to the market to meet face to face with school counselors, parents, and higher education institution officers; participate in local recruitment fairs, trade missions, and outreach events in high schools, public venues, and universities to provide in-depth information about programs and the application processes.  

U.S Students in Costa Rica

In 2019 Costa Ranked as #10 destination for U.S. students to study abroad, 8,333 students came to Costa Rica in 2019 while in 2020 the number decreased, Costa Rica still ranks among the Top 20 destinations. It is important to highlight that between Community Colleges students, Costa Rica is the #6 destination for U.S. students.  This is something to consider for U.S institutions looking for local partnership with Costa Rican institutions. In the last two years some private universities have started establishing partnerships with U.S. universities and that is something that local universities take advantage of and use a promotion and branding material to differentiate from other universities. 

There were 1,187 students coming to Costa Rica in 2019 academic year to have non-credit experiential activities.  That includes volunteering, internships, and short terms exchanges. When having a partnership with a local institution the travel and accommodation arrangements are easier for students and professor traveling, usually local institutions also arrange cultural actives, guided tours, and short professional immersion experiences.


CS Costa Rica Commercial Assistant: Isabel Salazar