“I’m thinking about moving to Costa Rica,” are words I see every day in emails, Facebook messages, and from people who have read my articles about life as an expat in that country. More and more, people in the U.S. and Canada are thinking about making the move down to the Central American tropical paradise to live with the spirit of pura vida — the pure life.
“I want to move down to Costa Rica to live, buy a house, and open a business,” is the usual agenda, but their life-plan isn’t well thought out after that. I see a lot of people rushing into their big move, spurred on by visions of a stress-free, easy life on the beach. Their experience can either truly be “living the dream,” or a complete nightmare based on what happens next.
I go into every nut and bolt about moving down to Costa Rica in my new handbook, but I wanted to give you a snapshot of the most common mistakes people make when they’re considering becoming an expat in Costa Rica. Here are the top five mistakes I see, in no particular order:
Costa Rica truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but what do you truly know about it? If you think all-day, everyday life there is sitting on a postcard-like beach, you might be shocked to hear that people actually have problems and challenges there, just like they do back home in your current life.
Establishing residency in Costa Rica can be an expensive and timely proposition (unless you marry a Tica!) So don’t worry about residency just yet — the country will grant you a 90 day tourist visa, so all you have to do is leave the country for a few days — or a few hours — after that (called the Border Shuffle), and come right back in on a new visa. You can still get a driver’s license and function just fine without residency, while still keeping your options open. Take your time and make sure it’s where you want to be before establishing residency.
I recommend visiting for prolonged periods of time, first, to get to know the country, the different towns, the people, and the culture, before you commit to it. Start out with a month or two and go from there. If you really want to see what it’s like, go during their rainy season/low tourist season. Don’t treat your visit like a vacation, but instead, meet as many locals and expats who live there as possible, exploring different parts of the country.
No matter how beautiful Costa Rica may be, it’s always good to get back Stateside for a little bit every year to “recharge the batteries” by seeing family, friends, enjoying cooler weather, etc. The best schedule I can imagine is splitting the year between Central America and the U.S. (or wherever your home country is).
Err on the side of caution with buying real estate in Costa Rica (or any country) too soon. Not only will you not know or understand their local markets, but there can be issues with holding title, getting loans, etc. You also may fall victim to ridiculously overpriced condominiums and projects plagued by HOA issues. Wait at LEAST a year before you even think about buying real estate. You can always find a nice, inexpensive place to rent, giving yourself time to research and get to know about the housing market.
Too many people who move to Costa Rica try to open a business immediately, investing their life savings in it. Unfortunately, many of them lose all of their money, becoming so stressed in the process that they don’t enjoy daily life anymore.
There are a lot of considerations when opening a business in Costa Rica. A Costa Rican (Tico) might need to be on the paperwork for an official business, which could further complicate things. You also need to see what it’s like in the low season, too, before making accurate projections on profitability.
So if you’re going to start a business in Costa Rica, make sure it’s a low-risk endeavor that doesn’t cost you much. Try being an employee, first, just until you understand employment and business practices a little better. Many expats work as teachers, real estate agents, or in tourism in Costa Rica without official reisidency and a work permit. But plenty of U.S and foreign companies do business there and need English-speaking employees, and there are also plenty of options for working virtually, no matter where you are.
I have much more advice for you but, to summarize, the best ways to avoid these common mistakes is to the take your time and be conservative: check out a lot of places before committing to one, keep your cash someplace safe, don’t rush into residency, buying a house, or starting a business, keep working abroad to replenish your funds, and perhaps come back to the U.S. to recharge your batteries a few months every year.