A few questions inevitably arise in any conversation about relocating to Costa Rica. Is it expensive? Yes and no. Can I work there? No. Do I need to become a resident? Maybe. Where is the best place to live? On the Beach in Guanacaste. Should I buy a house? Probably not. How do I bring my stuff? Mostly you don’t.
It’s either cheap, about the same, or relatively expensive depending on how you want to live. Compared to the U.S., Canada or Europe, Costa Rica is a bargain on both ends but pricey in the middle of the standard of living spectrum.
Basic Lifestyle – Cheap
A back to basics lifestyle with only a few amenities like indoor cold water plumbing, electricity, a roof over your head, and public buses for transportation can be quite cheap and comfortable. Especially in a rural area.
Middle Class – Expensive
Moving towards middle class and adding conveniences and comforts like motor vehicle ownership (extremely expensive), hot water, security, air conditioning (very expensive), internet, cable TV – the monthly budget goes up very fast. Costa Rica can exceed the cost of a similar lifestyle in the U.S., Europe or Canada especially in the more desirable geographical regions.
Luxury – A Bargain
A house overlooking the ocean with luxuries like a swimming pool, gardener, guest bungalow, maid, gym, pizza oven, and guarded gate is much cheaper in Costa Rica than California. Still a million bucks or more but that’s a bargain compared to similar price tags on a condos in San Diego.
Domestic help is very cheap and high end property can still be found at bargain prices.
No, but being a resident can make things easier and cheaper. There are three basic options for immigration status.
Technically living in Costa Rica on a tourist visa is not permitted but we know people who have done the border run every three months for 10 years. Tourist visas expire after 90 days but in theory it only costs a few bucks and only takes a few minutes to renew for another 90 days by crossing into Nicaragua or Panama then turning around an coming back to Costa Rica.
In actuality it’s a bit more time consuming but can be accomplished in a day. There’s a lot of incorrect information out there about having to stay out of the country for three days – that is a requirement for customs waivers not immigration.
There are a number of ways to get a cedula (resident id) so you can stay as long as you like. You can “buy” residency with a large investment or rent resident status by showing that you have a pension that gets spent in Costa Rica.
Using capital to leverage residency as a “rentista” works for most anyone who has money and hires an experienced lawyer to wade through the red tape and bureaucracy on their behalf.
If you’re on a tight budget it may be more challenging. You may have to consider more creative solutions like having a baby. Children born in Costa Rica are automatically citizens and their parents get automatic residency.
Costa Rican Citizenship
Residency is sufficient for most expats.
Foreigners cannot legally hold a job in Costa Rica without obtaining a work visa/permit. This requires filling out a lot of forms, jumping through a lot of hoops and spending a lot of time waiting. There are “cash under the table” jobs but undocumented workers tend to earn very little.
Most people who relocate have money in the bank, a pension or other steady outside income.
One exception is people who work remotely – a job at a U.S. company with a paycheck deposited into a U.S. bank with U.S. tax withholding – can be done from a hammock using a computer in Costa Rica.
There’s another little known way for expats to make a living in Costa Rica without obtaining a work visa. Foreigners are permitted to own businesses in Costa Rica as long as they do not work at the business.
For example buying a McDonald’s franchise that makes six figures a month with 50 people working for you is fine as long as you personally aren’t flipping burgers.
There are dozens of considerations – climate, recreation, healthcare, crime, cost, convenience – and different people want different things.
No place has everything but anecdotally about 80% of expats end up on the beaches of Guanacaste in the dry northwest or near the capital San José.
Talking to someone who knows the country can help narrow it down quickly to an ideal location for you.
Investing in real estate in Costa Rica can be profitable but if you don’t have experience with concessions, water rights, Napoleonic law, tropical construction and much more it can easily become a costly mistake.
Typically it’s a good idea to rent for at least a few months while learning what you want and where you want to be.
You don’t. Bringing stuff is an expensive and time consuming proposition.
The actual transport is relatively cheap. You can get a whole house full of furniture plus a car in a shipping container from a northern port to Costa Rica for a few hundred bucks. However, the bureaucracy and red tape can be daunting and the import duties are insane. An eight year old Honda CRV worth $5,000 in the states might cost $24,000 in taxes to get out of customs and into Costa Rica.
Most immigrants opt for a “less cluttered life” or “fresh start”.
Bringing Dogs & Cats to Costa Rica
While most people can live without the waffle iron shaped like Mickey Mouse they aren’t willing to leave their pets behind. Fortunately it’s quite easy to bring your dog or cat to Costa Rica. Basically your veterinarian must provide a statement that the pet is healthy, parasite free and up to date on inoculations. No quarantine required. The U.S. embassy recently updated their detailed info on bringing a pet.