So, You Want to Move to Costa Rica? Read This!
Want to wake up and watch the sunrise over the ocean? To spend your days surfing, doing yoga, drinking out of coconuts, and taking long naps in a hammock? Want to have the jungle for your backyard?
Want to watch the sunset every night with live music? To have potlucks on the beach with your neighbors? To buy your food from farmers on the side of the road? Want to snuggle inside and watch a rainstorm?
Want to wait days for your clothes to dry? Or clean gecko poop off of your counters? Sweep cockroaches off of your floor? Watch mice eat holes in everything?
Want to wake up before dawn from the sound of crowing roosters? Want to wake up at midnight from the sound of screeching bats? Want to come home to a tarantula, a snake, or a scorpion in your bed?
Want to lock everything that you own in a safe? To watch your possessions rust, mold, and fade? Want to work for $2 an hour and spend ten of it on a bag of quinoa? Want to work online when all of the electrical lines break?
Do you want to live in Costa Rica?
Of anywhere I’ve traveled to in the world, Costa Rica is the only place that really feels like home. It’s the place where it’s easiest for me to relax, the place where I feel the strongest sense of community, the place where I feel the happiest and healthiest, and the place where I feel completely fed by nature.
But even after coming here fifteen times, I’ve never decided to settle down and live here. And time will tell if I ever do. Because living here, actually LIVING here, isn’t all sloths and sunsets.
Whether you plan to come for a month, a year, or perhaps forever, I’ve written this post to help you understand what living in Costa Rica is really like.
Getting a Visa
Oh, right, that whole inconvenient thing. Yes, you do need a visa to be in Costa Rica. And technically, you cannot LEGALLY live here without applying for legal resident status (more on that later.)
North Americans and many other passport holders will receive a free, automatic three month tourist visa at customs. That means you don’t need to apply for it, you just need to show up. However, they will want to see “proof” that you are leaving the country within ninety days.
Except maybe you don’t want to buy a return ticket. And maybe you want to stay longer than three months. In this case, you will need to either purchase a fully refundable ticket home (these are usually expensive, but you can cancel within 24 hours) or purchase a bus or shuttle ticket to a neighboring country. Regardless of whether you’ve decided to “live” in Costa Rica, you MUST leave the country within 90 days.
Tourists without residency are legally allowed to own vehicles, property, businesses, and generate income from self-employment.
“Living” in Costa Rica on a Tourist Visa
Admittedly, there are plenty of people living in Costa Rica on tourist visas. It’s become a common practice for foreigners to leave once their 90 day visa is up, cross the border into Panama or Nicaragua, spend a few days there, and then return and receive another 90 day stamp. I know people who have somehow been doing this for years. That said, if they decide to investigate and crack down, the penalties can be severe. You may not even be allowed back into the country for TWELVE years.
If you don’t want to take that risk, I recommend going on longer trips between visa runs. I.e not “living” in Costa Rica. I have a million Costa Rica stamps in my passport, but it has never been an issue in Immigration, because I always leave before my visa ends, and I travel all over the world for long periods of time. (Note: this is totally legal.) I imagine a passport with only Costa Rica and Panama stamps might look suspicious, and constantly going in and out may not be legal.
Becoming a Legal Resident
If you legitimately want to live and work in Costa Rica, you will need to apply for residence status, which I hear is a long and difficult process. Most qualified candidates include business owners investing a significant amount of money, retirees with a consistent pension of at least $1,000 per month, parents or siblings of a child born in Costa Rica (some people choose to have their baby in Costa Rica for this reason), and those legitimately married to Costa Rican nationals (it’s strict). I’m not an expert on residency since I’ve never applied, so I recommend you consult this article: Costa Rica Residency.
Renting a House
Finding a place to live in Costa Rica is often the bane of my existence. Most expats own their own houses, and it’s far more profitable for people to rent their places as vacation rentals than as long term residences. As a tourist, you typically have to book something months in advance, there’s little selection, and rates skyrocket during holidays.
If you have the money and you know you love Costa Rica, buy a place. It’s a great investment, you can have a property management company make sure it’s rented when you’re not around, and you’ll never have to worry about renting a place. For everyone else, I recommend joining a community Facebook group for the specific location in Costa Rica where you want to live.
In Puerto Viejo we have a page where people post the houses they have for rent, usually much lower prices than you’ll find with property management companies. I have (and currently am) renting with a property management company, but it is definitely more expensive this way. For a two bedroom house close to the beach, expect to pay anywhere from $350 per month to $1,000 per month.
Most people get around by bicycle in the flat beach towns of Costa Rica. I find it to be a healthy, fun, environmentally friendly, and efficient way to get around. You can usually find used bicycles for sale from $30 to $100 in local Facebook groups, or you can buy new bicycles for $150 to $250. If you’re planning to stay just for a few months, you can usually sell your used bicycle for the same price or a little less than you bought it for.
Local buses are limited, running infrequently and rarely on time, but they’re a good option for going further distances.
Some expats and locals do own cars, quads, or scooters. You don’t have to be a resident to purchase a car, but even the crappiest cars are expensive because of import tax. The weather is very unkind to vehicles, so expect to make constant repairs.
Speaking the Language
What’s that, you don’t speak Spanish? The good news is, most of the Americans I know who live in Costa Rica don’t either. It sounds absurd, but it’s actually challenging to learn Spanish in many of the beach towns in Costa Rica, because English is spoken so readily. This is particularly true in Puerto Viejo where most locals have Afro-Caribbean English speaking roots.
I do recommend that you take some basic lessons so that you can interact with taxi drivers, bus drivers, house cleaners, gardeners, and the other people who don’t speak English. Besides, it’s a beautiful and enjoyable language to speak, and speaking the local language will greatly deepen your experiences and connections with locals.
You can get private lessons in Costa Rica for around $10/hr or enroll in a Spanish Language school. I also like the podcast Coffee Break Spanish.
Bringing Your Kids
If you have young kids, Costa Rica has some excellent Montessori and Waldorf schools. I recommend researching the international schools in the specific towns that you’re interested in relocating to. For more information on moving to Costa Rica with kids, I recommend this article: Moving to Costa Rica With Children.
Bringing Your Pets
Friends of mine have brought dogs down with them to Costa Rica, and as you can imagine, the dogs love it. However, you do have to consider the many wild animals, tropical diseases, and aggressive dogs that live here. For more info, check out Moving Pets to Costa Rica.
The first time I came to Costa Rica, I asked someone how the mail system works here. “From the USA?” she asked, “DON’T DO IT!! IT NEVER COMES!”
Since then I have had things sent from the USA, but they take a very, very, very long time. It may stop in customs, and you’ll have to go to the capitol to pick it up. Theft is also common, so sending anything valuable is pretty much out of the question. What people typically do, is have friends coming down from the USA carry things for them in their luggage. You can also use FedEx, UPS, and DHL but it will also be slow.
In the past I have had things sent to San Jose and then shipped them down to Puerto Viejo through a service called “encomienda” where the goods are dropped at the bus station in San Jose, taken via bus, and you can then pick them up at the bus station where you are.
There’s also no address system in Costa Rica, so everything is described in proximity to landmarks, like 200 meters from that restaurant that has the best ceviche. Zip codes are not used widely either. Most people use post office boxes, but these can have long wait lists.
You can get cell phones anywhere (but the phones themselves are crappy and expensive) with inexpensive pay as you go SIM cards. Grocery stores, pharmacies, tourist shops, and electronic stores carry them. I recommend bringing down your own unlocked smart phone and putting in a local SIM. You can get unlimited data coverage for as low as $20 a month!
Many vacation rentals, most hostels/hotels, and many restaurants have wifi. However, it’s not reliable so if you need consistent wifi, I recommend purchasing an internet hotspot that you can use with a local SIM card.
Be prepared for lots of dead zones and loss of service during storms.
Paying the Bills
One of the most surprising things about Costa Rica, is that it’s extremely expensive compared to other Central American countries. Especially if you want Western luxuries. Thanks to the hefty import tax, cars cost double what they would in the USA, alcohol can be very expensive, and a small block of goat cheese costs $10. Keep in mind, this is still a country where the general wage is $2 an hour. While it’s not an excuse, this has made me understand why theft is so common here.
If you want to live “comfortably” by Western standards, expect to spend $1,000 to $2000 per month living in Costa Rica, and be willing to sacrifice many luxuries. This is still very low compared to living in the USA, but not as cheap as many people imagine.
Save money by using a bicycle instead of a car, eating less imported food and more local food, and spending your time in nature, which offers totally free entertainment.
Making a Living
Working in Costa Rica is hard. There aren’t many well paying jobs and most places require legal residency (enforced by law to protect Costa Rican citizens). Even if you are a legal resident, the wages will be significantly lower than they are in Western countries. This is why I even know Costa Ricans who leave and work seasonally in the USA or Europe. Personally, I’ve never tried to find work here, because (aside from the fact that it’s not legal) I make more money in two hours of writing online than I would make working an entire week in Costa Rica.
In my opinion you have more or less two options: create a business for yourself or work online. If you want to earn money online (which also gives you the freedom to travel anywhere in the world) check out my article How to Travel and Work From Anywhere. I’ll discuss how to open a profitable business later on.
I do have some friends who work in Costa Rica without legal residency. Some simply do work trade, which doesn’t pay but usually offers free lodging and food, a good option for long term travelers with money saved. The ones who earn the best wages do some sort of Marketing or business service, working for a tour agency or big hotel.
I also recommend reading my articles How I Afford a Life of Constant Travel, and You Can Too and How to Travel the World When You’ve Got Absolutely No Money.
Paying Your Taxes
If you’re not a legal resident and you’re working in Costa Rica, you’re either working online and earning wages outside of the country or you’re earning money under the table. In either case, don’t worry about paying taxes in Costa Rica. Woo hoo.
Sales tax is 13% and import duties are 50-90%! Now you understand why cars are so expensive here. License plate fees are paid annually but are low, and property tax is also much lower than it is in the USA.
Tourists need to pay a tax whenever they leave the country of around $25.
Opening a Business
Many friends of mine who live full time in Costa Rica own and operate businesses, and while it’s certainly not easy, it can be very rewarding. I see people making their dreams come true every day whether they’re building yoga studios, opening cafes, or renting out vacation homes. Many of whom started with tiny investments but were willing to put in the elbow grease. You can start as small as setting up a stand at the farmer’s market.
Getting Shit Done
Here comes the hard part, actually getting anything done. The sunshine, the ocean, the dance parties, the community gatherings, the waves, are all HUGE distractions. Wonderful, beautiful distractions, but distractions nonetheless.
Most people living in Costa Rica operate on “Pura Vida Time” which means you can’t expect a quick response, people are rarely on time, and you’ll probably get stood up a lot. Quickly you may begin operating on Costa Rica time yourself. You’ll become more relaxed and less motivated to “hustle.” It’s difficult to balance but the key is to remember your dreams and your goals while also allowing yourself to live the pura vida lifestyle.
One of my favorite things about Costa Rica, is that you can’t really buy anything. Nothing that you would want anyway. It’s nice, materialism doesn’t matter so much. But when you do actually need something, it’s not so great. Even in the capitol city of San Jose, it’s nearly impossible to find nice clothes, housewares, or electronics. What you will find will be expensive as well. I recommend bringing what you need down with you.
Surviving the Environment
I’m pretty sure that I was born to live in Costa Rica. I’ve always loved humidity, I don’t mind being dirty, and never in my life have I been afraid of snakes or bugs. I know that this is not the case for most people.
The heat can be intense, and you may find yourself sweating… constantly. If heat really gets to you, consider living away from the ocean at a higher elevation. In towns like La Fortuna and Monteverde, you will actually need a sweater in the evening because it’s so cool.
For the insects, try to keep your home environment meticulously clean. Don’t leave fruit on the counter even for 10 minutes. Wash your dishes immediately, keep your bed made, and make sure to always have everything picked up off the floor.
Insect bites can be particularly frustrating. Slather your skin in coconut oil when going to the beach to keep away sand fleas and wear long, loose pants in the evening to avoid getting mosquito bites. I also recommend you read my article, How I Cured Myself of Mosquito Bites Forever.
The tropics are not always kind to the Western body. Strange fungal infections, stomach bugs, and parasites are not uncommon. I recommend traveling with or making your own high quality probiotics (read my post How to Travel the World and Never Get Food Poisoning). Drinking fresh young coconut water daily will help with all viruses and infections and eating fresh papaya seeds will help kill parasites. I also recommend using coconut oil on your skin to keep infection away.
I travel with an essential oils kit as well, which has made a huge difference in my health routine. Learn more about that here.
The same way it’s hard to buy quality “stuff” in Costa Rica, it takes quite a bit of effort to buy quality food. Forget about nice supermarkets, it’s more like corner stores and road stands. Fortunately most towns have a weekly farmer’s market with organic produce and other goodies. Some even have organic delivery services, and Nosara, Costa Rica has a lovely little organic grocery store open daily.
I usually stock up on veggies, greens, tortillas, coconut oil, and eggs at the Farmer’s Market, then supplement throughout the week with organic fruit stands and the local fish counter. In most touristic towns you’ll also find delicious and some healthy restaurants too.
…is easier than you might think, and harder than you might think. In Costa Rica people tend to be less busy, more relaxed, more community oriented, and more spontaneous. Whether organizing a full moon ceremony, attending a beach BBQ, or simply having conversation, its easy to find people to connect with. However, it can be very difficult to really… get in. In Costa Rica, people come and go constantly, which has made many locals and expats hesitant about giving new visitors a chance.
I recommend regularly attending community events and getting involved in different community Facebook groups if you really want to become part of the community.
…happens much more easily than you might think. Most towns in Costa Rica are very small, which means gossip and drama occur regularly. My advice is to be patient and respectful of local culture, be very mindful of the words you speak, and learn to respond to all manners of drama with humility, peace and love.
Falling in Love
…also happens more easily than you might think. People are half naked most of the time, unbelievably fit and beautiful, and sex is always in the air. However I’ve found it very challenging to cultivate a healthy relationship here. As a woman, I’ve struggled with the local culture where fidelity is practically nonexistent. Many friends of mine have suffered in these relationships, some with children, with an unfaithful partner who they also support financially. (Read more in my post There Are Many Shades of Black.) Most men I meet in Costa Rica who do have the qualities I’m looking for, leave and move on to the next destination before there’s time for a romance to even develop.
All that said, I do know some happy couples living here, some who even met in Costa Rica. One in particular told me, “Keep following the path that makes you happy, and the right people will come into your life.” And so, so, very many beautiful friends, whom I love with all of my heart, have come into my life because of this place.
So that’s what I keep doing. Trusting that my heart will lead me where I need to go.
Will you do the same?
Want more information on Costa Rica like safety tips, what to pack, the best beach towns, and an entire healthy eating guide? Get my 150 page eBook, The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica.