Setting Up Your New Life as a Costa Rica Expat

This is chapter from my new book, The Definitive Guide to Costa Rica Expat Living. The book covers a whole host of issues on starting a life as a Costa Rica expat.  The book is available on Amazon by Clicking HERE.

You’ve arrived! You have a new home in Costa Rica, hopefully just as you envisioned. Now it’s time to start living your new life in Costa Rica, hopefully, just as you envisioned.

So, what’s next?

Setting Up Routine Services

Well, you’re going to need internet, telephone and cable TV, of course! There’s a little problem for expats who are not yet residents when it comes to setting up routine services like the aforementioned. It all has to do with this thing called a “cedula.”

A cedula is basically an official government issued identification. For you that would come in the form of a residency card. However, getting one of those is harder than you might think and I cover that in more detail below.

When you go into the phone company, or an internet service provider and try to contract for their service they will first ask to see your cedula. If you don’t have one you’ve got problems. However, there is an end-run around that. You can use the corporation you formed to take title to your property.

There is no restriction for a foreigner to own and manage a Costa Rican corporation. And the corporation, once legally formed, has a cedula juridica, or an identification number. With that you can contract for services in the name of the corporation, just as you could with your own residency cedula.

You will need a document called a personaria juridica, which basically shows that you have authority to act on behalf of the corporation. An attorney can do this for you at a fairly small cost, or you can go into a national registry office and get one even cheaper. However, registry offices aren’t located in many places, so you might end up paying your attorney every time you need one. They generally have to be “fresh”, or issued no more than 3 months prior to the date of use.

In opening a bank account, which by this point you probably have already done, you will encounter the same problem. Nonresidents will have to open the account in the name of a Costa Rican corporation. You will find that opening a bank account, and banking in general, in Costa Rica is both an adventure and an exercise in patience.

Driving Legally

There once was a time when this wasn’t that big of an issue. A nonresident could easily get a drivers licence in Costa Rica. I had one for years as a nonresident. All that has changed. Now the issuance of a license requires a cedula. Your valid license from back home will serve you for the duration of your tourist visa, usually 3 months, but beyond that you can’t legally drive on Costa Rican roads without a valid Costa Rican driver’s license. This has made getting a residency all the more important for expats who want to have cars and drive them in Costa Rica. I guess that was the point of changing the law. Each time you leave the country you renew your tourist visa and your right to rely on your home license for an additional 3 months, but that’s hardly a sufficient consolation for the expat desiring to establish a new and mobile life in Costa Rica.

Residency versus Perpetual Tourism

There are many expats living full-time in Costa Rica without residency. We call them perpetual tourists. I did this for years, while I was trying to get my residency via my investment in a tourism business I founded in Costa Rica. I went through many bad attorneys who promised the world for a hefty fee and delivered nothing. So, I just kept leaving the country every 3 months for a 3 day vacation, usually to Nicaragua. I actually enjoyed these trips. However, it’s anxiety producing to have the stress of knowing you must leave the country every 3 months, or become an “illegal.”

When I got married to a tica (actually a Colombian lady who was a nationalized Costa Rica citizen) all that changed. I was able to easily get a permanent residency, without restrictions. That’s the most coveted form of residency and is reserved for familial ties, like marriage or having a child on Costa Rican soil.

There are several other forms of obtaining residency. These forms of residency will be temporary. They do not allow you to work in Costa Rica. However, you can own a business, manage it, and draw out the profits. I will cover that in more detail in the Making a Living chapter. Nevertheless, to maintain your residency you will have to be a member of and pay into the Costa Rica health care and social security system, known as the CAJA.

The main types of temporary residency most expats take advantage of are rentista, pensionista and inversionista. The first two require a guaranteed source of income like social security, a pension, or annuity. The inversionista requires an in-country investment of a qualified amount and type. The specifics of residency are well beyond the scope of this eBook. You don’t have to get a residency in Costa Rica. You can join the ranks of the legions of perpetual tourists who leave and return periodically. If you are planning to do that anyway, then perhaps residency is an a hassle and expense you really don’t need to cope with.

However, most expats who really want to transition to a “permanent” life in Costa Rica will probably want to obtain a residency. It will make life easier in many ways. You will be issued a “cedula” as was discussed above. You will feel like you’re a part of the country. My advice is get a really good attorney who knows what he or she is doing. You can attend the residency conference of the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR). That is a great source of information and guidance on obtaining your residency in Costa Rica.

Be patient with the process. The immigration office in Costa Rica is the most disorganized and bureaucratic government agency of all! It can take up to a year before you have your cedula in hand.

Good luck!

Language Barriers

I believe expats get a little too anxious when it comes to the “language barrier.” First of all, there are lots of Costa Ricans who speak English. And virtually all Costa Ricans are quite used to hearing English spoken and communicating with gringos who don’t speak much if any Spanish. Costa Ricans are by nature peaceful, easy-going and patient people. That is especially true where their language is concerned. They will appreciate and assist attempts to learn and speak it.

Do you need to learn the language? Yes! If you really want to immerse and feel a part of the culture here, you need to at least have a conversational level of Spanish. So, get on it. There are many opportunities for courses and you will certainly get a ton of practice. The only way to really learn it, once you have the fundamentals, is practice, practice, practice.

Don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself. You will! It’s all part of the adventure and the fun of being a Costa Rica expat.

Setting up your life in Costa Rica requires patience and persistence. Take your time, get and follow good advice, and celebrate each victory. Don’t try to cut corners as many do, thinking their money will help them jump to the front of the many lines one has to endure in Costa Rica. Usually what that mentality does is just make them a little poorer and a lot more frustrated. Do things the right way and you’ll be rewarded.

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Scott Bowers

Scott Bowers

I’ve been a resident of Costa Rica for the past 15 years. I first arrived in 2001 to broker the deal that sold one of the country’s premier private universities to a U.S. publicly-held education company. For the past decade I’ve been arranging eco-intensive Costa Rica vacation tours to locations throughout the country, as well as Nicaragua, Panama and Colombia. I’ve also worked with many of the indigenous tribes in Costa Rica, helping them sell their arts and crafts and keep their cultures alive. My most recent project, in addition to joining the Coldwell Banker Dominical Realty team, is to bring the joy of growing your own food with hydroponic gardening to homes throughout Costa Rica. In a former life, prior to becoming an expat in Costa Rica, I practiced tax and corporate transactional law in the Carolinas. I also have extensive experience as a business valuation consultant and mergers and acquisitions advisor to companies in a wide variety of industries. My wife and I have seven grown children between us. I love exploring the nature of Costa Rica and I am a life-long surfer. I’ve been a blogger about all things Costa Rica for the past decade and I’ve published one popular eBook entitled 100 Cool Things to do in Costa Rica. Credentials… - Juris Doctor, cum laude, from Campbell University School of Law - LL.M in Taxation, with distinction, from Georgetown University School of Law - M.B.A. from University of South Carolina - Chartered Financial Analyst - Former Certified Business Appraiser from the Institute of Business Appraisers - Former Licensed Real Estate Broker in N.C. and S.C.