Relocating With Pets...

It's not Black & White!


Your pet is a member of your family and should you decide to relocate to Costa Rica or anywhere else, you need to know what it takes to bring your four legged children with you.


Of all the newsletter articles I have written, this has been the most frustrating.  While doing my research, I talked to people who actually provided pet moving services, airline personnel both in the U.S. and Costa Rica as well as people who have brought animals with them on their journey.

The only solid information I was able to takeaway from this exercise is THERE IS NO SINGLE SET OF RULES THAT ANYBODY ADHERES TO.  That is what made writing this so damn difficult.

My goal was to provide the expat with a succinct roadmap of what is necessary to bring your furry family member with you when you relocate.  But sadly, I failed in that effort.

The bottom line is, this article will provide some tips but it is NOT the definitive roadmap I had intended.  You will need to exercise caution and ask a billion questions.

Should you decide to relocate overseas, leaving your pet behind is as unthinkable as abandoning one of your children.  Therefore, as you think about where you are going to live, what things you are going to bring, how you are going to get here along with 1001 other bits of relocation minutiae, attention must be paid to how safely, efficiently and cost effectively, you can bring your pet with you on your expatriation journey. 


There is much confusion out there regarding the rules, regulations, processes and practices on bringing animals into Costa Rica.  This confusion stems from the fact that Costa Rica's rules are vague and interpreted differently by each of the airlines.  The problem is also amplified by the fact that much of the data the airlines use is out of date.

One of the most difficult things I encountered while researching this article is that nobody does anything in a consistent manner; that includes the airlines as well as the Costa Rican government.  I wish that I could write a simple set of rules, that when followed exactly, would result in a consistent outcome, but unfortunately, such is not the case.  Depending on what airline you take, what time of the year you travel, the temperature that day, what Customs or Immigration official you encounter... your results may vary.  That sucks, but there is little you can do about it other than be flexible and keep a sense of humor.

When traveling with your pet to Costa Rica and most Latin American countries, STRICT QUARANTINE RULES DO NOT APPLY.  But rules do change and are usually very inconsistent in the way in which they are administered.

  • Dogs or cats must be accompanied by a health certificate issued by a licensed veterinarian, and endorsed by a USDA vet in your State capital.  If you are traveling from another country, their processes may be different.

  • The certificate must attest to the fact that the animal was examined and found to be healthy and free of any clinical signs of
    infectious disease. This examination must be conducted within 10 days of your departure date. 

  • The animal (if over 4 months of age) must be vaccinated against rabies.  The vaccination must have been administered at least 30 days and one year prior to travel.  This information tends to change so please check before travelling.  For Costa Rica... no other vaccinations are required.

  • Dogs and cats imported into Costa Rica must have an APHIS form 7001 (made out in duplicate) issued no more than 10 days before travel.  This document DOES NOT need to be signed by a notary, "apostilled" by your State officials nor does it need to be stamped by the Costa Rican Consular office.

  • When an animal is traveling unaccompanied (transported as cargo), an import permit is required.   This also includes situations arising from the inability for an animal to make the connecting flight, e.g. did not arrive on the same flight as the owner.  HUGE TIP:  Utilize only non-stop or direct flights.

    • For dogs and cats  traveling in cargo, an import permit is required, import taxes must be paid and the proper customs form must be provided. WARNING: A customs broker may be required to process the custom's clearance of your pet when they travel as cargo.  There is a huge difference between pet brokers and custom's broker.  Pet brokers arrange transportation and clearance and all your ancillary needs.  They are a one stop ship and therefore are likely to be very expensive.

    • An import permit is NOT REQUIRED for dogs and cats when transported in the cabin or as checked baggage and accompanied by the owner on the same flight. The owner must be able to demonstrate the pet arrived on their same flight as checked baggage.


There are three major North American airlines that fly into Costa Rica's two international airports San Jose (SJO) and Liberia (LIR).  They include, American, United (Continental) and Delta.  Note, this number was four until American and USAirways announced their merger in February 2013.  I contacted each of these airlines, on multiple occasions, and spoke with representatives from both the Reservations and Cargo areas. Delta and American provided consistent information, while United kept changing their story.

There is a huge difference between having your animal fly as "baggage" or as "cargo."  In one instance, I talked to representatives at United (Continental) in order to ascertain the steps necessary to bring an animal into Costa Rica.  They told me that if I was traveling to San Jose (SJO), the animal would be able to fly as baggage.  They quoted me a price of $400 (crate not included) from Houston to SJO.  Seconds later they recanted and said the animal MUST fly as cargo and required the services of a pet broker. 

They said it was a Costa Rican law.  But after talking to representatives from other airlines (Delta and American), they knew of no such law.  I even spoke with two readers of this newsletter who just recently moved to Costa Rica with their pets.  Both flew United.  Both accompanied their pets on the same flight.  In both cases the animals flew as baggage.  Neither required a cargo airway bill nor the services of a pet broker.  Yet when I talked to United representatives (both in the US and Costa Rica) they told a different story.  So just as the man with two watches is never sure of the exact time, speaking directly to multiple airlines will not guarantee true and accurate information.


Last year, a couple from the Dallas area was moving to Costa Rica.  They were flying American out of DFW.  They did copious amounts of research and did everything right (so they thought): 

  • All their paperwork was in order and signed off by the proper authorities.

  • They had the correct crate for the size of their animal (standard #500 large)

  • They were traveling at the right time of the year thereby mitigating any weather related issues

  • Reservations (for human and pet) were made and paid for well in advance of the trip

  • They arrived in plenty of time, three hours in advance of departure.

  • They checked their animal, according to procedure.  Passed through security.  The dog went his way while the humans went to the lounge area to await their boarding call.  SO FAR SOGOOD!

But now the story takes a bizarre turn.  Just before boarding, the travelers were notified of a problem.  It seems that the size of the #500 crate would not fit into the cargo bay of the airplane.  WTF... how could this happen?  Doesn't anybody check?  Why would an airline say YES and issue a boarding ticket for the animal when their plane was physically incapable of accepting the crate?  This makes no sense!

As it turned out, the original equipment designated for this flight was a Boeing 757, fully capable of receiving a #500 crate.  However, for some unknown reason, American stopped using the 757 and switched to using the smaller Boeing 737.  Unfortunately, it's cargo bay doors were too narrow for this size crate.  The travelers were presented with this dilemma.  Their plans to travel to CR with pet in tow was getting ready to crash and burn.  Their tickets were non-refundable.  The airlines were not going to allow them to cancel their reservations or to take a different flight without imposing Draconian financial penalties.  So they did the only logical thing there was to do, they decided to travel to Costa Rica without the dog.  They called a relative and asked them to come to the airport and pick up the poor pooch.  New arrangements would need to be made.

The story had a somewhat happy (albeit more expensive) ending.  Since flying out of Dallas (direct) was no longer an option, they made plans to fly on United out of Houston.  But to fly the animal, unaccompanied, would have resulted in paying huge sums to the airline and a pet broker.  They opted instead to buy a ticket for a relative so they could travel with the animal.  This resulted in saving hundreds of dollars but still cost more than twice what they had already budgeted (flying out of Dallas).

A few weeks later, the big pooch arrived at LIR.  The animal was picked up at Baggage and cleared Customs a short while later and was reunited with their owner just a few moments later.  So in the end, all's well that ends well. 



  • Every time your plane takes off and lands, it adds more stress to the traveling animal.  Only take direct (non-stop) flights that connect with your destination.  Be prepared to drive (one-way) to an airport that provides such a connection. 

  • Confirm your reservation before flying.  Don't simply show up at the airport with your pet.

  • The airlines are also very specific about crates and the size they need to be in relation to the size of the pet.  Make absolutely certain that the plane will be able to accommodate your crate.

  • It is important that pet owners talk extensively to several airlines to inquire more about the travel conditions their pet will experience.  Not all airline personnel are up to date on all the current rules and processes regarding animal transport, so it would behoove you to talk to several people from each carrier.  Somewhere amongst your various conversations the facts will emerge.

  • United/Continental have taken extra steps to the welfare of ensure pets through their Pet safe program.  However it is a bit more expensive so traveling with the other carriers I mentioned is also a viable option.

I would like to thank Jacqui Monacell, President and Owner of Your Costa Rica Contact, in San Jose, for providing much of the background information for the writing of this article.  For more information about Jacqui and her company, please visit their website.


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