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.
Will I Succeed? Relocation Success Probability Quiz & Report.
Who can help? MyPlaceCostaRica has good recommendations for professionals.
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 – Inexpensive
One step above a rustic thatched hut, a back to basics lifestyle with a few amenities like indoor cold water plumbing, electricity, a roof over your head, and public buses for transportation can be quite inexpensive 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 fast. Costa Rica can equal the cost of a similar lifestyle in the U.S., Europe or Canada. In the more desirable geographical regions it may cost more than you’re used to spending.
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 for example. These start around $500k but that’s a bargain compared to similar price tags on 1BR condos in San Diego. Hiring and especially firing can be complicated but laborers and domestic help receive much lower pay.
High end property may be a bargain if you can find (and know how to assess) high quality construction.
No, but being a resident can make things easier and cheaper. There are three basic options for immigration status.
Perpetual Tourist (how to)
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 and 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 financial 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 nearly all expats. By the time you seriously consider citizenship you almost certainly know more about it than we can tell you.
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 lesser 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.
For example buying a McDonald’s franchise that makes six figures a month employing 50 people (must be Tico) is allowed as long as you personally aren’t flipping burgers or doing any work.
In some businesses like travel, small hotels or cafes it used to be fairly common for foreign owners to do most of the work and just hire a few locals as cover but spot checks by government employment monitors have become very common and if you get caught working you will be deported.
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 a few months while learning what you want and where you want to be. Many successful expats recommend renting for at least a year or two.
The easy answer is, you don’t. Bringing stuff may be an expensive and time consuming proposition.
The actual transport is relatively cheap. You can get a whole house full of furniture plus a vehicle into a shipping container and on a boat 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 over $10,00 in duties/taxes to get out of customs and onto the road in Costa Rica.
The difficulty finding an honest deal on a reliable used vehicle in Costa Rica might make considering a container worthwhile.
Most immigrants opt for a “less cluttered life” or “fresh start”. Most also max out their luggage allowance on every trip back to Costa Rica from “home” when they discover little things they can’t live without.
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.
Relocating to a foreign country can be a complex proposition tempting all sorts of “helpful” people with ulterior motives to prey on confusion and misinformation.
Fortunately there are also a large number of helpful groups and many professionals that are actually good at their jobs. They are motivated by money by actually helping you make good choices rather than pressuring you into whatever’s easiest or most profitable for them.
My Place Costa Rica maintains an active and civil Facebook group where questions are answered. You can contact them through their website for recommendations on trustworthy professionals (lawyers, real estate, rentals, construction, shipping) who’ve been vetted for experience and quality with legal and financial background checks.
Other Facebook groups are more focused on the challenges of living in Costa Rica after you move there but can help with questions – Gringo Expats in Costa Rica and The Real Gringo Expats Who Love Costa Rica – as with many public forums you’ll have to tolerate some pretty abusive and childish behavior.
Costa Rica Guide is mainly a map and travel information resource. We’ve accumulated information and opinions about relocating over decades of watching others do it, experiencing (as guests) the daily routines of our friends who have moved, and listening to thousands of comments, analyses, raptures and diatribes but we choose to live in Colorado and visit Costa Rica.
We’ve never stayed in Costa Rica for more than a few months at a time. According to some who’ve made the move we shouldn’t talk about it at all because it’s sort of like the miracle of having children “oh, it’s completely different when they’re your own”.
That may be true which is why we focus on what we do know very well – what you need to know to make an informed choice about living in Costa Rica. We’re good at this because we’ve seriously considered it half a dozen times. Our decision has always been not to move, mainly because of friends and family.
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