Making a New Life in Costa Rica

Moving to Costa Rica is not easy, but it can be done.

Posted May 08, 2014

Pura Vida, Dura Vida

More thoughts on life in Costa Rica, to visit or to live.

Recently, somebody asked me on this blog:

“I'm a citizen of USA, my mom lives in Costa Rica, she is a resident now. I would like to re locate to CR from the USA (to be with my mom). I need as much info as possible. Could you please guide me a little.... I don't even know where to start. I would appreciate any info and experience you had during the residency process. I already know about the "burocracy" and "red tape" I would like to know how you are doing in CR now, are you happy there?”

The line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” was the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (1859. He was referring to the period of the time leading up to the French Revolution, from 1775,to the Reign of Terror in 1789. There is no way at all in which life in Costa Rica in any resembles the violent and spectacular history of France during the Revolution. However, on a daily basis, my experience living in Costa Rica is a roller coaster. At moments, it is the best of times. At other times, it is the worst, it is very uncomfortable. I am sure that for a routine tourist who comes here and spends $10,000 on a week or two vacation, it could be the best of times for the whole two weeks. On the other hand, trying to live here day to day can present problems that are utterly baffling, scary, and difficult. I would not want anybody to plan to retire or move to Costa Rica under the impression that it is the Promised Land, Shangri-La, or Bali-Hai. Costa Rica is a real place with real problems, some human and some natural, and it requires patience, humor, money, and ingenuity to survive here.

First of all, to my reader who asks what she should do, she could look at the website called the Association of Residents of Costa Rica, That web site breaks down the categories of residents and what it takes to become a resident. In essence, there are 3 major categories: investors, who put more than $200,000 into a business or property; pensioners or retired people, who can show a steady pension or social security of more than $1000 per month; and then something called rentistas, people who place more than a certain amount of money in Costa Rican banks so that they can generate a self-funded annuity that would provide a steady income for a number of years. The numbers keep changing. Residents may not work for a living in Costa Rica. They are not allowed to take jobs away from Costa Ricans. They can employ Costa Ricans, but not earn a salary.

A US citizen can come to CR for 90 days on a US passport, but has to leave after 90 days in order to get a new entry stamp. A US driver’s license is valid only as long as your passport or visa is valid. You cannot get a CR driver’s license without a cedula, a card that is granted by the Costa Rican government to residents or citizens. In other words, even if you apply for residency, and your application is in the works, you must leave every 90 days to get a new visa stamp in order to maintain your driver’s license.

It can take more than a year for the paperwork to be processed. To apply for residency, you have to present appellated copies of your birth certificate and criminal record to the CR government. If you have never committed a crime, you still have a criminal record; it just shows nothing. An ordinary birth certificate will not do. It has to be appellated, or stamped, by the attorney general of the state of your birth. Same for your criminal record. Then you have to show proof of your income stream, and write a letter about why you wish to become a resident. Once this is all done and approved, you can get temporary papers saying the papers are in the works, but that still does not help with your driver’s license. Every single piece of paper must be filed in person at the immigration office in San Jose. You cannot do this online.

You cannot get a bank account without a cedula. So it is an intricate puzzle. No cedula, no bank account, no driver’s license. I applied to change my status from investor to pensioner (retired) over a year ago and still have no new cedula. The bank may close my account.

This is why there is a bumper sticker here: Costa Rica: We make easy hard!

I suggest that if you want residency, you should come down and visit and employ the services of a good immigration lawyer who can help you with the steps. It could take 2-3 years, and even then it won’t be done. You can apply for permanent residency after 3 years in one of the other categories, but now you are looking at a 5 or more year process. A person can become a citizen, eligible to vote, after some years of permanent residency.

If you have a baby in Costa Rica, or marry a Costa Rican, or if your parent becomes a legal citizen, all of this becomes a lot easier. Costa Rican law believes that all Costa Rican babies deserve to have two legal parents, so if you have a baby in a Costa Rican hospital, you can apply for residency very quickly.

Once you are a resident, the problems don’t stop. You have to pay social security (the CCSS, or health insurance). Wages are low, and costs are high. A can of beer is more than a dollar. A liter of milk is about 800 colones, or $1.60.

However, the benefits can be lovely. There are two green iguanas eating the bright red flowers of my malenche tree as I write this. I have not worn socks or a sweater for months. Conversations are long and relaxed. The sunsets are spectacular. Wildlife is amazing, especially if you like the ocean or the jungle. First thing in the morning, when the sun is just rising and the air is cool, I watch flocks of small parrots race across the sky. Even earlier, I see bats as large as cats hurrying through the dark to find a roost before the sun rises. At night, it is reversed, and the bats go swooping around catching mosquitos. I hear happy music every night. At any given moment, life in Costa Rica can be breath taking and beautiful! And at other moments, when I sit at the bank in an endless line or try to find a simple car part or deal with paperwork, it is traumatic.

Best of luck to anybody who tries this adventure!