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Breaking into Expat Life in Costa Rica

Posted by Katie on January 18, 2018
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Chances are, you already know someone who lives as an expat in Costa Rica. For more than 20 years, people from all corners of the globe have packed their belongings and permanently moved to the Central American tropics. And why not? With ideal weather, improved entrepreneurship opportunities, and the chance to live in relative luxury for around $2,000 a month, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of draw-backs. In fact, there are a lot more advantages than that.

A quick chat with any expats you may know will already be enough to convince you of the beauty of Costa Rican life, but be prepared for a somewhat difficult break-through period. It is true that Costa Ricans are known for their friendliness and inclusiveness, and it’s also true that you can navigate this well-developed country rather well with limited Spanish, but you’re still going to need time to adjust to an entirely new culture. From preparing to your trip to building your new local community, we’re here to help your transition go as smoothly as possible.

Preparing for your Trip

In preparation for your trip, there’s nothing more important you can do than joining one of the countless online groups for Costa Rican expats. This can be via your favorite social media network or through online expat organizations. Here, group members are typically quick and generous with information, and they’ll be able to clear up any questions you have in no time. This will be a good way to narrow down your list of possible city destinations and create a packing list.

Many families look into purchasing a shipping container for their move. This would give them the opportunity to bring all their large appliances with them during their move, even including the family car. This is a personal decision and the pros and cons will need to be weighed. Look into shipping companies in your hometown. There are few options based in Costa Rica and they will be more expensive. This option will be right for some people, but not for the majority of people. This is an expensive way to move, and everything you will be shipping can be found new in Costa Rica. Not having large appliances will give you the opportunity to rent a furnished place temporarily while you tour the country, get used to your surroundings, and ultimately decide on a permanent city. Once settled, you can start buying your collection of household appliances. You will find that your needs and wants change after a few months in Costa Rica, so you may be happy for the opportunity to buy completely new home goods.

When preparing for your move, remember, less is more. If you can come to your new home with only your wardrobe, sentimental items, and must-haves from your home country, you’ll have an easier time transitioning. It will be easier to live somewhat material-free for the time being. If you choose to buy a home, furnishing your new tropical house will prove to be a very different task than was furnishing your previous home.

Settling Down

Costa Rica has 7 provinces, all with their differences in climate, city atmospheres, and living styles. While most expats tend to congregate along the Pacific Coast, the booming city of San Jose and the peaceful Caribbean beaches must be taken into account as well. Fortunately, you’ll have time to try it all out.

In general, you’re going to want to rent before buying. You’ll still need to spend at least 6 months living full-time in the country before you can settle on a permanent city. During this transition period, you can take advantage of the inexpensive rental houses to slowly browse home options and patiently wait for the right time to buy. You can spend a couple months in each city of interest and see how your lifestyle changes between locations. This will help you better known your new home country and decide on a more permanent situation. Fortunately, you will not spend a bundle renting homes. Check out local Facebook groups and listing sites such as encuentra24.com to find a suitable rental home. Make sure you speak to the owner about what furniture is included. While you’re still in your 6 months transition period it will be a good idea to rent a fully furnished home. This will make moving around the region much easier and will give you the opportunity to pick out totally new home furnishings if you do decide to buy one day.

If you never decide to buy, you’re still in luck. Rental prices are very affordable, and while they fluctuate largely depending on what part of the country you reside in, a hard search will always find a good deal. Once you find a city where you would like to live more permanently, look into unfurnished homes. Your rental prices will quickly be cut in half, and you can slowly start to furnish your new home. If you plan on staying in Costa Rica for more than a couple years, renting an unfurnished home and buying new home décor is definitely the way to go.

Working

Most expats plan large moves around a professional path. Odds are, you already have a general plan for how you will support your new life in Costa Rica. Living here is much less expensive than the living in the US, but remember, you may not be able to live totally like a local. You’ll still need to pay any loans back home, save up for an at least annual trip to your hometown, and indulge in a few weekly comforts. Your monthly budget will go way down, but you’ll still need a way to support your lifestyle.

Often, professionals from the United States are able to arrange a work-from-home position with their current employers, or even find an entirely new job that will allow for this working situation. If that is your case, you may have it easy. Those coming for retirement with a pension will also have their financial situation taken care of.

Coming to Costa Rica to look for a job is not a very common situation, and it’s not recommendable. The job market in Costa Rica is difficult, as it is all over the world, but here the local salaries may not be enough to accommodate an even modest lifestyle. A regular Costa Rican company will not pay more than $800 a month to an entry level worker. If this is your plan, your best bet will be to make contact with non-profits, governmental agencies, or international industries before your move. Finding a job upon landing will not be easy, and the salary will be less than you are expecting. Furthermore, Costa Rican jobs will only be available to those with legal residency. If you do not have residency, you may still be able to get a temporary job with a foreign non-profit, but will need to get your papers in order for a higher-level job.

Commonly, people come to Costa Rica to start their own business. This could happen immediately upon arrival or after a couple years of working at a local non-profit or teaching English in a local language school. Those who live along the well-traveled tourist path often open travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, and bars. Others may open clothing shops, consultancies, or professional services. Few incomers, those with special knowledge, end up in the northern region starting an agricultural project, such as coffee plantations.

In Costa Rica, foreigners without residency can own a business legally, but they must have a formally inscribed local partner. This can be a silent Costa Rican partner, such as a lawyer who offers legal advice and is paid hourly when needed. Once you have your residency, you can own your business without a local counterpart.

Building your Community

Almost immediately after arriving in Costa Rica, you’ll begin to have questions. You’ll need to know where to find the best food products and how to look for good, local schools. The best place to go for fast advice is a local Facebook group. There are multiple English language Facebook groups run by expats who have made the journey before you. They are quick to respond to questions and give advice. These pages will also publicize local events and news, keeping you in touch with your new community. For in-person advice on expat living in Costa Rica, join an international group, such as Internations, and attend any local events. Many of these are well established communities promoting international living. They have experience, tips, and friendships in the making.

Your priority when moving will be to find appropriate living conditions and receive any advice on local daily life. This may be stressful, but it will take less time than you would imagine. Before long, you’ll be looking for a group of likeminded friends. For families putting small children through local schools, this may be an easy task. For others, it can be difficult understanding exactly how to build a community. Fortunately, you have the advice of the thousands of expats in Costa Rica who arrived before you.

New incomers to Costa Rica report joining an active group as their main source of friendships. Wherever you decide to settle down, you’ll have your choice of yoga groups, hiking groups, gyms, and salsa dancing classes. You’ll meet people from every walk of life, both locals and expats, and will enjoy active time with them. Moving to a new country is already a huge life change, and taking opportunity of the change to increase your health status could bring you both health and happiness. Groups will range from extreme long-distance running societies to hiking trails for retirees. Dance classes will be available for participants of all ages and skill levels. Regardless of your interests and ability levels, you’ll find suitable active group for you.

Another common form of building a community is through volunteering. While Costa Rica is quickly developing, it still has a need for volunteers. This makes it a hot-spot for international non-profits and charities. You can offer your professional skills or simply spend time reading with children. You may find a volunteer opportunity helping young students learn English or even teaching soccer in an after-school care program. You’ll learn more about your region, actively contribute to your community, and find like-minded volunteers within your program.