Making the Move to Costa Rica

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Probably the best advice about moving to Costa Rica is to rent before you buy — or as one sage has put it, don’t marry the first girl you dance with.

This is not advice about romance, but about how you should get to know Costa Rica well before you make the life-changing decision to move here. Sure, you can always change your mind and move back — many expats do — but is there a better way to anticipate how such a momentous leap might play out five years in the future?

The allure of Costa Rica is undeniable. So are you ready to actually move here?

Possibly the Boy Scouts have the best advice: “Be prepared.” Be prepared by knowing what you’re getting into. It’s good to know what you want, but it’s even better to know your finances, know your family and know your prospects for earning money in this foreign country.

Most of all, you need to prepare by getting to know Costa Rica as well as you possibly can. See as much of the country as you’re able, visit multiple places, and if you find one you love, inquire about renting before you start negotiating down payments.

There are a lot of W’s that will come up in your search: Where? When? Who? And also: Whaaaaat?

But perhaps the most important question is: Why?


Why Do You Want to Live in Costa Rica?

You may be really tired of some aspect of your life back home — the rat race, the traffic, the ennui of having lived in the same place too long. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Costa Rica is the answer to all your problems.

It’s an issue that’s really worth thinking about — why? — in other words, what are the reasons that you want to move to Costa Rica?

The natural beauty and the “tranquilo” style of Costa Rica are two of its greatest attractions.

Many people have fond memories of vacations in Costa Rica — perhaps of sipping an umbrella drink under a coconut palm on some beach, all their worries melted away. And they want to immortalize that moment, to make it last forever. So it might be tempting to think that the answer is just to move to Costa Rica and live there forever.

But that’s not necessarily enough. Remember that you were on vacation — in a tropical paradise — so no wonder you were relaxed! There are palm trees in Fiji too, so why aren’t you talking about moving there?

And yet, if you know this country well, if you have a good answer to the “Why?” question, and if Costa Rica is irresistibly calling your name, then perhaps destiny beckons.


Where Do You Want to Live?

For such a small country, Costa Rica has tremendous geographic diversity. It’s famous for its lush tropical jungles and inviting beaches, but it also has frigid mountaintops, misty cloud forests, muggy swamps and savannah-like plains. And if you want to live on the ocean, there are two to choose from.

The beach or not the beach? Deciding where you want to live in Costa Rica, you’ll face a wealth of options.

These are some of the biggest factors to consider in deciding where to live if you’re making the move to Costa Rica:

  • Your tolerance for heat. Everybody loves the beauty of the ocean, though near the beach it’s typically hot year-round.
  • Your interest in community. If you want to be a hermit living on a mountaintop, you can certainly do that. But if you like the idea of making friends and having a social life with people who speak your language, you may want to consider places that have larger expat communities.
  • Your special needs and wants. If you love to surf, obviously you should look for a town that has a great surf break. If you have health issues, you may need to choose a home that’s close to good medical facilities. You may have a business that would succeed far better in San José than anywhere else. Or you may have moved here to get away from traffic, making San José the worst possible choice for you.

The great majority of the population of Costa Rica lives in the Central Valley, where temperatures are more comfortable than on the coasts (though as soon as people get a vacation, they all head to the beach).

Cows graze at the base of Arenal Volcano, which anchors one of Costa Rica’s most popular regions.

If you choose to live in one of the big cities in the Central Valley (San José, Cartago, Alajuela or Heredia), be prepared for traffic jams, crowds and noise. Many people gravitate to outlying areas that are more bucolic and scenic — like Santa Ana, Grecia, Atenas, Orosi and dozens of other suburbs.

The Caribbean coast is rich in natural and human diversity. It contains the vast majority of the country’s black population, mostly the descendants of railroad and banana workers from Jamaica. The city of Limón is not widely loved, but the area around Puerto Viejo in the south is one of the most beautiful and fascinating places in Costa Rica. In the north, meanwhile, the Tortuguero region is accessible only by plane or boat, so it’s not a place you wind up by accident.

In north-central Costa Rica, the region surrounding Arenal Volcano is one the country’s top tourism destinations, and many people making the move to Costa Rica end up settling there (especially around Lake Arenal, the second-largest lake in Central America, or in the otherworldly cloud forests of Monteverde). Temperatures are cooler than at the coasts and it tends to rain more than most places, but the natural beauty and biodiversity are superb.

Spotting a keel-billed toucan is among the close encounters with nature that commonly happen in Costa Rica, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.

In the northwest, Guanacaste Province and Nicoya Peninsula are top draws for both tourists and expats. The vegetation is mostly dry tropical forest, as it rains here much less, and in places it looks like the plains of Texas. But the beaches are stunning, and the most popular towns are all on the coast, including Playas del Coco, Flamingo, Tamarindo, Samara and Santa Teresa.

The central Pacific coast offers a range of new options, including Jacó, Manuel Antonio, Dominical and Uvita. The more intrepid may venture even farther south, to Puerto Jiménez and the Osa Peninsula or to Golfito, which likes to call itself “a sunny place for shady people.”

This brief list highlights a tiny fraction of the options available. The best way to find the place for you is to do your research first, and then go out and find it.


What Will You Do to Make Money in Costa Rica?

The brutal truth is that if it were easy to make money in Costa Rica, everybody would be doing it.

You may have a pension, a trust fund or a phat bank account, but when it comes to money, most people usually end up needing more.

It’s important to understand that it’s totally illegal for most foreigners to hold a job in Costa Rica unless they have residency or some kind of special work permit. You can’t just make the move to Costa Rica then “go out and get a job” – at least not legally.  There is an established process for doing so that typically involves gaining residency.

It’s not hard to find reasons to want to live in Costa Rica. What’s a bit more challenging is figuring out how to make money.

What you CAN do, even on a tourist visa, is buy, sell or rent real estate. You can buy a second home in Costa Rica, stay there a couple of weeks a year and then offer your property as a vacation rental the rest of the year.

What you can also do, even on a tourist visa, is start a business and employ Costa Ricans to do the work. For example, you can buy a hotel and hire 10 people to run it. But in most cases, it would technically be illegal for you to actually WORK at your own hotel. So if you can figure out how to make a living with a new business without doing any of the work, you’re golden!

But what do you have to do if you want to work legally in this country?

Read on.


How Will You Gain Residency in Costa Rica?

The process of gaining residency in Costa Rica is about as pleasant as being probed by aliens. But it isn’t nearly as quick.

Many people want to move to Costa Rica but have no idea how to do so or worse, what to expect when they get there. When you first enter Costa Rica, your passport is stamped with a 90-day tourist visa. Even if you want to live in Costa Rica for the rest of your life, you have to leave the country within 90 days. Many expats make a one-day border run every three months to Nicaragua or Panama just to get their visas renewed. Some expats do this for years and years, every 90 days like clockwork.

Welcome to Costa Rica, but you have to leave in 90 days! Gaining residency is the only legal way to avoid a run to the border every three months.

Costa Rica also requires that anyone entering the country with a tourist visa must have a ticket to leave the country within 90 days. Even if you enter Costa Rica in a car, you sometimes have to buy a $40 bus ticket that you’ll never use.

It’s even worse if you fly to another country to renew your visa, because then you have to buy three airplane tickets: one to get out, one to get back, and one to prove that you’re going to leave the country within 90 days of getting back. This can be expensive and bothersome.

Also, it’s basically impossible for anyone on a tourist visa to get a Costa Rican driver’s license. You can drive legally with a foreign license, as long as your visa is current, but if it isn’t, the police can remove your license plates and put you through a lot of time, expense and hassle to get them back.

On top of all that, as already noted, most people on a tourist visa cannot hold a job legally. For all these reasons, most expats who live in Costa Rica for years eventually get around to seeking residency. Here are the primary categories of foreigners who are eligible for residency:

  • Pensionados: Retired people who can demonstrate that they have a lifetime monthly pension from a foreign country of at least $1,000 a month.
  • Inversionistas: People who invest $200,000 in a qualifying project in Costa Rica, or $100,000 in a forestry project.
  • Rentistas: Working people who can prove they earn $2,500 a month by setting up a trust that deposits $2,500 a month into a Costa Rican bank account.
  • Marriage: If you marry a Costa Rican, your residency application will be greenlighted, but you must pass certain tests of time to demonstrate that the marriage is real and not just a stratagem to gain residency.
  • Children: If you have a child in Costa Rica, no matter where you and your partner are from, you also become eligible for residency.
  • Self-employed people: Under one of several lesser-known qualifications, you can become eligible for residency by starting your own company in Costa Rica and employing yourself.
Feeling in love? Marrying a Costa Rican will make you eligible for residency.

So if you qualify, congratulations. Now get ready for the hard part. You have to hire a lawyer, and you have to collect several documents from your home country, including your birth certificate, your criminal record, and possibly your college diploma and proof of your marital status.

All of these documents need an apostille, which is like an internationally recognized notarization. And your attorney must submit these papers to the authorities within a certain time window, or they will expire and you’ll have to collect them all again. It’s possible to round up these documents from Costa Rica, but it’s difficult and costly, so it’s best to do so while you’re still in your home country.

Also, bear in mind that even if things go smoothly, gaining residency in Costa Rica can take years — depending in part on the lawyer, the diligence of the applicant, the qualifications for applying, and sometimes on pure dumb luck.


How To Avoid Expat Fatigue?

For multiple reasons, many people who move to Costa Rica change their minds and go back home. How do you avoid joining this reverse exodus?

Some people are adventurers and nomads who wouldn’t be happy settling down anywhere for long. Some people may miss the paved streets, the simple conveniences or the English-speaking people back home.

If you do your homework with diligence and honesty you can truly sail into the sunset of your dreams in Costa Rica.

Some people have trouble finding friends in Costa Rica, and they feel isolated and homesick. Some try to start a business but fail. And sometimes just one really bad experience can drive people away.

Whatever the reason, “expat fatigue” is a real thing that sends a lot of people back home. And probably the best predictor of whether it will occur is the level of experience a person has in Costa Rica before deciding to move here.

So again: Try before you buy and rent before you own. Be clear on your reasons for wanting to move to Costa Rica, and don’t assume that this move will solve all your problems. Be prepared for challenges, setbacks and frustrations.

Welcome to Costa Rica. Now stay!

But for the right type of person, someone who has explored the lay of the land and knows what to expect in this country, Costa Rica can truly be the perfect forever home.

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