So you’re getting married to a Costa Rican! Congrats! When I first went to Costa Rica I only was planning to stay for two months. Everyone teased me about how I was going to end up with a Costa Rican girlfriend, to which I said not a chance. To be fair I was right that time, but after two months I returned to the US to arrange my affairs to come back for 1-2 years. As of writing this article I’ve now got nearly four years and a wonderful loving Tica wife in this verdant tropical country.
I had to learn through a lot of trial and even more error when it came to getting the legal process figured out for getting married. Now having gone through the process I thought I’d make a step-by-step guide to the legal process of getting married to a Costa Rican as the information officially available through the US Embassy and the Costa Rican government’s websites is lacking several key details that could have you scrambling and paying $85 to have UPS two day mail a crucial document from the US (like I said—trial and error).
Disclaimer: I am not a legal expert and this information is simply explaining what happened to me when I got married in 2015. This is also just a guide to the legal part of getting married, if you’re looking for advice on finding a Costa Rican to marry I’m definitely not the person to ask. Also this article is about getting married to a Costa Rican citizen; if you are planning a destination wedding and planning on getting married here that is a different process. I am writing this article primarily for US citizens, but the process would be pretty much the same regardless of your country of origin.
The first step that you’ll need to take is to get all your documents around. The US embassy website has some helpful information on the process, but their list is incomplete. Firstly you will need your birth certificate; it can be the original or a certified copy (as in one you solicit from the government not just a photocopy). You will also need to get an apostille put on the document—this is extremely important. The Costa Rican government will not recognize the document as valid without it.
An apostille is—in layman’s terms—a seal from the Department of State of the State that issued the document confirming its authenticity as a legal document. Each US State varies in the process for doing this. In my case (Pennsylvania) I just had to mail the birth certificate along with a letter explaining why I wanted the apostille and a check to the Department of State in Harrisburg. Some States still require you to actually go to the Statehouse so make sure to look into the requirements for your state. Note: the apostille must be issued by the State that issued the document so even if you presently live in another State you must get the apostille from the State that issued the document.
In Costa Rica you can request what is called a certificación del estado civil or in English a Certification of Civil status which proves that you are not currently married to someone else. In the US we don’t have this, so that is a problem. What you have to do is make an appointment with the Notary Services department of the embassy in San José and they have a document there that you fill out and sign before a State Department Official. I believe there may be a way to do this in the US, by filling out an affidavit before a notary and then having the State Department of your current state of residency put an apostille on it (but I’m not 100% certain on that and I’ve not been able to find the answer to that).
Here is one of those important details I learned through experience because it’s not in any of the legal paperwork. Your future spouse will also have to request his or her birth certificate and certification of singleness from the Registro Civil (Civil Registry)–this was laid out clearly by the US Embassy. Here’s the part they forget to mention–even if you are only in Costa Rica as a tourist you also have to solicit a certification of civil status from the Costa Rican government–this is in addition to the one you get from the US Embassy. While you can do this at any of the local branches, the document itself comes from San José which means it will be about ten days until you receive said document. To make matters more inconvenient those documents need to be solicited within a month of the date of the wedding.
You will also need to make a photocopy of the photo page of your passport and of the cédula (ID card) of your Costa Rican future spouse.
When you have all those documents you will then need to take them to a lawyer. Unlike in the US a religious ceremony is not recognized by the government (unless it’s performed by the Catholic Church here). Since you are a foreigner before you can get married you must have an edict published in the National Gazette announcing the impending marriage before the wedding. This also needs to be done at least two weeks before the wedding to give time for that to be published. When I went the cost for the edict cost 40,000 colones.
When picking a lawyer the cost for a wedding is typically 75,000 colones. Confirming every stereotype about lawyers there are many of the lawyers I called wanted to charge 150-200,000 for the wedding when they found out I was a foreigner. We finally found a very good lawyer who had done the wedding of a couple friends of ours (we just had to drive 45 minutes away) that charged us the standard 75,000.
For the legal wedding you will also need to have two character witnesses to attest that both of you are in good condition mentally and not being coerced into the arrangement. Although you can use someone who is not Costa Rican for that it does complicate things, so it is better to select two Costa Ricans to be your legal witnesses. Likewise it is best if the person isn’t a close relative (ie parent, sibling, etc.) if at all possible. We were able to use an uncle who was a half-brother to my mother-in-law, but the lawyer said even that was kind of stretching what legally they were allowed to do.
At the legal wedding there is some standard information they have to go over. Also something I learned through error (noticing a pattern here) is that while in English we say “I do” in Spanish they say “Yo juro” which means I swear.
Some lawyers prefer that you exchange rings at the ceremony even if you will have another (ie religious) ceremony later that day or another day. There you go; now you’re married! If you plan to stay in Costa Rica and would like to apply for legal residency check out this article about that process (which makes the convoluted marriage process look simple by comparison).
Ok so that was a lot of details; I made it as explicit as I could to help avoid any pitfalls. Here’s the summary:
- Birth certificate
- Apostille for Birth Certificate
- Passport (and a photocopy of the photo page)
- Affidavit signed at the US embassy in San José
- Certificado del estado civil from the Registro Civil in Costa Rica
Costa Rican needs:
- Birth certificate (from the Registro Civil)
- Certificado del estado civil (from the Registro Civil)
- Cédula/photocopy of cédula
- Get birth certificate with apostille from the US before traveling to Costa Rica
- Travel to Costa Rica a month ahead of the wedding.
- Sometimes the embassy has a few days wait so schedule your appointment before traveling.
- Get the affidavit from the embassy
- Go to the Registro Civil and get the documents you need from them (birth certificate and both Civil Status documents)
- Take all of that to the lawyer so they can publish the edict
- Come back once the edict is published to get married!