Relocating to another country is a significant decision that should be given careful thought. When pondering about such a move, one can easily come up with a million questions about what to expect; something that can be attributed to the many complexities we have assigned to our modern lives.
Like many other developing countries around the world, Costa Rica has seen her fair share of change and transformation in the last few decades. It could be argued that foreigners who relocated here 20 years ago had a lot less to consider than those who are planning such a move these days. Our country is still an idyllic place to live in, but in keeping with our Western neighbors Costa Rica has managed to become a bit more complicated than she used to be.
The ten following pieces of information below are not meant to be conclusive by any means. They are just ten important things that anyone may want to consider before moving here. Some of the topics below have already been covered in previous articles, and some -like taxation- are in a constant state of flux. The Costa Rica Star strongly recommends to anyone who has detailed questions about legal issues such as immigration, investments, real estate, and taxation to consult an attorney who is admitted to practice in Costa Rica. Assistance with several of the subjects below can be provided by organizations such as the ARCR -for a fee.
A sensible word of advice for anyone who is planning to move here, or to any other nation for that matter: the worst time to undertake a country relocation is while experiencing severe emotional turmoil, such as depression. In that case, a person should get well and find emotional balance before embarking in the adventure that moving to a foreign land always becomes.
1 – Immigration
Our new immigration laws present a number of opportunities for residency: through familial relations, business capital investments, guaranteed individual income, retirement, representative of a business enterprise, and temporary employment. Citizens of Group One countries can engage in perpetual tourism, something that could get old very quickly. The immigration process involves a combination of reasonable fees, forms, document authentications, appointments, translations, and other proceedings enshrouded in old-fashioned bureaucracy that some may consider overburdening.
Work permits for non-residents require sponsorship from a domestic enterprise and are subject to restrictions. Not all residents are allowed to get on a company’s payroll, but all have the opportunity to start their own business and enjoy any income proceedings thereof.
2 – Idiosyncratic Mindset and Social Habits
People in Costa Rica are known to be friendly, gregarious, jovial, non-confrontational, and relaxed. Foreigners who are accustomed to a lifestyle underscored by efficiency and achievement may find the glacial pace of Ticos unnerving at times. Patience is a must-pack item for all visitors, especially in a country where people take time to raise orphaned baby sloths.
Ticos are generally tolerant, sociable and family-oriented. They love social networking, but are known to take years to cultivate deep friendships. Ethnicity and nationality do not preclude dating or romance, although old-fashioned class divide still lurks in some circles. Women tend to be ultra-feminine and expect courtship, while men do not easily fall into the Latin American macho stereotype.
3 – Governance, Political Ideology and Religion
Costa Rica has a rich background in peace, democracy, diplomacy, unarmed conflict resolution, and socialism. The main political factions lean to the right, nevertheless the Libertarian Movement has been gaining popularity. Our Constitution establishes the Roman Catholic faith as the state religion, but freedom of worship is guaranteed. While the population is probably 80 percent Catholic, religions such as Scientology are growing.
4 – Housing and Real Estate
Foreigners have essentially the same rights as Ticos to hold title to real property. Home prices run the gamut, the real estate profession is not under the oversight of the government, and For Sale By Owner transactions are common. Properties can be registered in the name of business entities to certain advantage (please see our Week in Review of January 28th for more information). Tenants have significant rights over landlords, and monthly rent prices are always open for negotiation. Monthly housing costs are lower than in many parts of North America and Western Europe, but higher than in other parts of Latin America.
5 – Education
Costa Rica used to enjoy the highest literacy rates in Latin America, but that honor now goes to countries like Uruguay and Chile. Free education is guaranteed by the government from grades 1st to 11th (or 12th in the case of vocational high schools). Tuition rates in private schools vary widely. Most private schools focus on bilingual education.
Tuition at the crown jewel of higher education, the University of Costa Rica, is either free or very reasonable for the hard-working students who are able to secure an admissions spot. A large number of private universities dot the educational landscape, some offering considerably low tuition rates.
6 – Health Care
Public health care is guaranteed for all residents, and all workers are expected to contribute to the system. Emergency medical care is freely provided for all, regardless of status. Tourists cannot contribute to La Caja, as the public health care system is known, but are able to obtain services at some public hospitals with prior approval, and only if they can be accommodated.
High-quality private health care options are growing, and their low cost is attracting many medical tourists. The National Insurance Institute (INS) is a former government entity that offers a variety of medical insurance policies at reasonable prices.
7 – Food, Dining and Household Goods
Costa Rica’s fertile soil and perfect climactic conditions make it a paradise for year-round fruits and vegetables. The best selection and prices can be found during the weekends at the farmer’s markets across the country. The country isn’t known for its cuisine, which isn’t particularly elaborate, but the emphasis on freshness makes it very palatable.
Some of the best dining options are Caribbean and South American restaurants.
Shopping for groceries and household goods can feel like a bargain hunting or highway robbery, depending on the chosen venue. Wal-Mart is the largest retail chain in the country, responsible for about 50 percent of all grocery and household good purchases. When it comes to electronics and appliances, it really pays to comparison shop. Newcomers should not be afraid to try new brands like Mabe and Atlas (respectively from Mexico and Brazil), as they offer high quality at low prices.
8 – Cell Phones and Internet Access
The recent breakup of the former monopoly held by the government-backed ICE is allowing more flexibility in terms of wireless services. The Costa Rica Star has an entire series of articles dedicated to wireless options in our country. Cable and DSL broadband Internet subscriptions will soon get cheaper. According to a report in business news daily La Republica, cable company Amnet will begin offering 512 Kbps packages at about $13 per month in the next few weeks.
9 – Taxes on Imports and other Excise Considerations
The price tags of both new and used vehicles seem exorbitant due to the excessive taxation imposed upon passenger cars: close to 80 percent in some cases. The maximum tax on imported motorcycles is 34 percent. There are some cases that merit exemptions, such as plug-in electric vehicles and cars that will be put into service as taxicabs.
Costa Rica has never been considered an offshore tax haven, but it has enjoyed fairly low taxation on everything except imports and value-added tax (currently at 13 percent). That may soon change due to pending legislation. One very significant tax advantage is expected to remain unchanged: taxation on foreign income will stay at zero.
10 – Public Transportation and Mass Transit
The import taxes, tolls, cost of vehicle maintenance, and high gas prices do not seem to placate Ticos’ appetite for passenger vehicles. This trend is transforming what used to be a pedestrian and mass transportation paradise into a daily gridlock.
Getting around by bus is still one of the best ways to truly experience the country. The bus system is inexpensive and fairly modern. Those images of chicken buses popularized by old Mexican movies are simply not seen in Costa Rica.
An inter-province train system is connecting parts of the Greater Metropolitan Area, and is expected to expand in the next two years, eventually making trips to both the Caribbean and the Pacific. Taxis round out the ground transportation options, and fare prices can be considerably alleviated by being split among passengers.