MAKING THE MOVE
A RELOCATION GUIDE TO COSTA RICA
This is a short guide to life and living in Costa Rica. This guide is
intended to be for people from many different nations, some of whom will
find life in Costa Rica to be a completely alien experience, compared to
life in their home country. As such, this guide will serve as their first
step into a completely new, somewhat confusing and exotically foreign world.
To others, it will be a statement of the most obvious. It is a collection of
basic information and advice for everyone and anyone, finally, who is
considering relocating to Costa Rica.
In order to make the transition to Costa Rica at least somewhat easier, it
is recommended that you use the "Buddy System." Somehow, find a reliable
compañero. You may read about and research life in Costa Rica forever.
There are certainly more than enough guidebooks available on the subject,
but actually knowing someone in Costa Rica is the single best way in which
to understand just how things actually work there. Somehow, get a Buddy.
He or she could be a foreign worker with real life experience in Costa Rica,
or perhaps a friend or family member who got here before you. It could be
your real estate broker, Costa Rican attorney, or another professional
interested in seeing that you get off to a good start. Whoever it may be,
ensure, as best you can, that it’s someone who you can trust and are
While your Buddy may make every effort he or she can to facilitate your
adaptation to living and working in Costa Rica, it is important that you
understand that it is you, finally, who holds the primary responsibilities
associated with your relocation. Most who come here find Costa Rica a
welcoming, wonderful place to live and work, and adapt relatively quickly to
the changes in culture and lifestyle. While we can encourage you to get
involved with community activities, learn some basic Spanish and establish
relationships through colleagues and peers, wherever in Costa Rica you are
going to live, it is ultimately up to you. Those who have been most
successful in creating a great life in Costa Rica consistently agree that
the key for adaptation is thorough and enthusiastic immersion in the
culture, language, and viewpoints of the host country, and to avoid the“ghetto” life of 100% American communities. If you are considering living
in Costa Rica, then think about, at least in part, living with and among
Costa Ricans and things Costa Rican. Regardless of your age and cultural
sensibilities, to the degree that you can, we encourage you to jump into
Costa Rica with both feet.
What your buddy can help you with:
Advising you regarding real estate, language, currency, how to receive mail,
get a phone line and utilities connected, bills paid, safety and security,
location of places to shop, go, see and do, finding and dealing with honest,
competent employees, bureaucrats and the million eccentricities of things“Tico.”
Provide general guidance to your new living environment, how to get around,
what to do and what to avoid there.
Serve as a sounding board for questions and problems which may arise during
the first few months of your living in Costa Rica.
Introduce you to others who have joyfully and successfully adapted to life
in Costa Rica, and ensure that you avoid the inevitable loser, sometimes to
be found at American bars, who finds something negative to say about
everywhere and everything, yet who would never dream of returning to the
States or Europe, because there, too, in his or her world view, it is “even
Remember: in Costa Rica never be afraid to speak Spanish, nor to ask
questions. “Ticos” are, perhaps more than anywhere in the world, very, very
decent, hospitable people and are willing to take their time and help you
when they can. The success of your Costa Rica relocation lies in both your
independence and in your establishment of strong relationships with Costa
Ricans, as well as other expatriates. Your Buddy may help you as best he or
she can, but the net result will really depend upon you. Be as fearless as
you can be and realize just how fortunate you are to have discovered Costa
Rica, and to have made the move. Know how many people “back home” wish that
they could do so.
MONEY AND BANKING; WHERE TO BEGIN?
While a percentage of the Costa Rican population get by without checking
accounts, virtually all international people utilize the services of a bank.
Today there are many international banks, especially in the Central Valley
of Costa Rica, as well as three national banks. Ordinarily, to avoid
unnecessarily carrying around large amounts of cash, whether in the national
currency, colones, or in U.S. dollars, most deposit any funds brought
directly, or wired here, or brought here in the form of a personal check or
cashiers check or traveler’s checks with the bank of their choice. Once the
funds are deposited into a checking account, most ordinary expenses can be
paid through personal checks drafted on that account. For example, your
rent, mortgage payment, telephone bill, and electric bill can all be paid
with personal checks today. This is significantly more intelligent than
carrying large sums of colones or dollars in your pockets, for payment of
Savings accounts or certificates of deposit are used by many who seek to
reserve a portion of their funds. That is, to save whatever money that has
not been expended on living expenses. Savings accounts pay interest, as do,
of course, certificates of deposit, while most checking accounts do not.
Accordingly, it may be best to transfer amounts to savings as they become
available, and from there, as necessary, to a checking account, for living
expenses. As well, most international people today keep the majority of
their funds in U.S. dollars, and then make weekly or monthly transfers of
dollars into Costa Rican colones, usually online, in order to take optimum
advantage of the currency exchange. There are daily devaluations of the
Costa Rican colon, and the day’s exchange rate between dollars and colones,
is noted and posted in all newspapers, all banks, and online. Of course,
you always have access to the money you have placed in either a checking or
savings account via either a bank teller, or a 24-hour automated teller.
Such access is much more abundant and easier in the Central Valley, than in
the smaller coastal towns. There are, even today, beach communities with no
banks, let alone automated 24-hour access to funds.
While ordinary transfers of funds in your accounts are made through personal
checks, cash disbursements through automatic teller machines are becoming
more and more available everywhere in Costa Rica; the demand, created by
today’s Costa Rican, as well as by the international community, is so great.
Ordinarily, your bank will issue you a small plastic card. This card will
allow you to access, with your personal secret code, your checking account,
through any back-operated teller machine or an affiliated network. For
example, if you bank at ABC Bank, you will be able to access your account
through any ABC Bank teller machine, regardless of location. If your bank
belongs to an automatic teller machine (ATM) network, you may access your
account through any ATM Machine on that network. Such automatic teller
machines, while virtually non-existent just a few years ago, are now located
at most gas stations, larger supermarkets, malls, as well as just outside
all banks. Costa Rica is an explosively developing country, and what was a
country dirt road, leading to a “mom and pop” corner store, called a “pulperia”, and little else, just 3 years ago will often, in today’s Costa
Rica, be a blacktopped road with heavy traffic roaring by a strip mall with
an international supermarket, a bank with headquarters in Mexico City,
another bank with headquarters in Miami, Florida, as well as a Costa Rican
national bank, and two or three restaurants, including an inevitable KFC or
a McDonalds. (No comment.)
OPENING AN ACCOUNT:
Most banks require personal or corporate identification, notarized by an
attorney, in addition to, perhaps, a copy of a utilities bill with your name
on it, as well as one or two letters of reference from Costa Rican
individuals or companies, to open a personal checking account. There are
today new international banks with substantially simpler requirements for
opening a bank account in Costa Rica, but with the heightened security fears
and subsequent regulation being pushed by the government of the United
States, as well as world-wide regulations to stem money laundering, it
appears as though opening a bank account in Costa Rica is not, for a time to
come, going to be a simple procedure. Your attorney, as well as your buddy
and your real estate person, will be able to help you get through this
process with minimal time lost and minimal gnawing of fingernails.
When you are ready to open a bank account, you should ask for a reference by
new friends, your buddy, your real estate person, or your attorney as to
which banks they have used and prefer. International people usually have
strongly held opinions as to which bank in Costa Rica is the best. Banks in
Costa Rica operate under strict guidelines and the deposit of funds with
either national or international banks in Costa Rica is essentially
risk-free. In hundreds of years now, there has been only one bank failure
in Costa Rica, and this bank, before closing, covered all deposits. Once you
have selected your bank, you should visit the branch and meet with a special
services representative of the bank, This person will usually be located in
a section of the bank referred to as the “plataforma” . Explain to the
representative that you need to open a checking (and, possibly, a savings)
account with their institution. The services representative will explain to
you the requisite, appropriate paperwork as required by that particular
bank. The opening of a new checking account generally takes from between two
days to a couple of weeks. Be advised. Of course, you will be able to shop
with cash which you may withdraw from your account at any time.
Never, never send U.S. dollars or cash (in any currency) through the mail.
It is actually illegal in the U.S. to mail cash, and the chances are very
high that it will simply “disappear” if mailed within Costa Rica, and you
have absolutely no recourse if the money just vanishes. It is equally
dangerous and prohibited to send cash via international couriers such as
DHL, Federal Express, etc.
HOGAR, DULCE HOGAR (HOME SWEET HOME)
Of course you'll want to get settled as soon as possible, and move out of
that hotel. You might want to purchase a home, a condo or an apartment, and,
if you do buy right, at the right price and at the right location, the value
of your purchase will substantially increase within a year or two, and so
there are obvious advantages as to buying, rather than renting or leasing.
Property values in Costa Rica, in some areas, have gone up 25% to 100% a
year, yet in other areas they have appreciated 10% a year. You should ask
other international people, as well as your trusted real estate person, as
to locations and values. And remember that in Costa Rica, virtually“everyone” is a real estate agent, so some intelligence, common sense, and
homework may be necessary before settling on one real estate agency over
another. Be advised that simply because an agency bears an international
franchise name such as Century 21 or Coldwell Banker, does not necessarily
guarantee either greater competence nor trustworthiness than an independent
office that has been in business for many years and which has a good
WHERE IN COSTA RICA?
Everyone will give you their opinions and advise you as to which areas of
the country are safe, have the best amenities, are appreciating in value
fastest, and why. There are no Multiple Listing Services that are
comprehensive, and FSBO, or For Sale by Owner listings, can appear to save
you money and allow you to go directly to the seller. But there are reasons
in any field for using a trusted and competent professional, and this holds
especially true in negotiating the sometimes murky waters of Costa Rica’s
real estate market. The barefoot smiling farmer, or the taxi driver with a“cousin who has to sell todayS” may appear to offer you the best possible
price. But thorough due diligence on the legitimacy and salability of a
specific property takes much more than paying an attorney and getting a
receipt for your cash from that smiling farmer.
In selecting your new home, do not be bashful about inquiring about the
neighborhood. While most Costa Rica communities are safe to live in, there
are crime areas which must be strictly avoided. Seek an area with a minimum
of tourism, if possible, as highly-touristed areas are the areas with the
greatest level of crime, due, at least in part, to the obvious conditions of “us and them”, or the unfortunate inevitability of what happens when “the
transient haves” and the “permanent have nots” are in tight relationship
with one another and there are virtually no police.
Most houses and condos in Costa Rica require the execution of a lease. A
lease is a contract whereby the tenant promises to rent a given unit for a
certain amount of time at a certain price. The general rule is: the longer
the lease, the lower the monthly payment. Since you will probably be
acquiring your first home in Costa Rica, it may be a good idea to avoid a
long-term lease commitment. If you sign a one-year lease and are unhappy
with your housing, or if you find a place to purchase right away, you can
always move next year or sooner, with a relatively small penalty to pay for
breaking that lease. If you sign a three-year lease, even though the monthly
lease fee may be less than a one-year fee, you may be stuck longer than you
would like. Occasionally, in areas of high vacancy, it may be possible for
you to negotiate a month-to-month arrangement with the landlord. Although
this may cost you a little more money each month, it may be worthwhile,
since it will give you continuous flexibility to relocate at your
convenience. There are places called “aparthotels” in Costa Rica that offer
week to week, or month to month rentals, and which offer complete furnished
units with kitchens, etc.
Also its important to remember that commuting distance to a place of
employment or even the supermarket is an important factor, considering the’s world-famous roads.
FURNITURE AND APPLIANCES
Once you have purchased or rented your home, you will probably be eager to
furnish it. Today, Costa Rica has a wide variety of furniture and
accessories dealers, and you would do well to shop around thoroughly before
making any final purchases. Many choose to have their furniture made at
cabinet and furniture shops, in select tropical hardwoods. Often the prices
of these handmade, one of a kind furniture pieces is competitive to
mass-made furniture. Additionally, roadside vendors offer interesting
pieces made of softwoods and the cost of these furnishings is usually very
inexpensive. One can find very similar furnishings at extremely different
price ranges. Take the time to shop around.
As regards kitchen appliances such as stove and refrigerator, many people
will advise you to drive to the free port town of Golfito, by the Panamanian
border for these. Although the savings may be substantial, one has to
factor in the hassle, costs and time necessary to drive there and spend a
couple of days in order effect these free port purchases. There are people
available who work as runners to and from Golfito, and for a fee, will
deliver your order right to your house. Again, do some price comparing and
decide. Then, in the Tico Times weekly English language newspaper, as well as in the
online classified ads, there are listed used furnishings of all kinds and in
all price ranges. If you are lucky, you could find an entire household of
nearly new furniture, being sold by an American or European, who, for
whatever reason, is selling “absolutely everything” quickly and cheaply.
One last item: it is always advisable, when purchasing or leasing a home, to
get a place that comes with phone lines already installed. It could
possibly be a very long wait, depending on location, for phone service, and
not having to go through that aggravation is worth a great deal. Do not
think that you will be able to handle all telecommunications with a
purchased cell phone and cell phone line, even if these are easily
available, as there are many corners of the country that are just not
accessible by mobile phone.
Much of Costa Rica, even today, gets from place to place by bus. You could
do so too. Its inexpensive, and on a bus you meet Costa Ricans and share
their adventures and misadventures. These will range from performers
jumping on the bus, singing and dancing, and passing the hat, to elderly
Nicaraguans selling homemade cooked food from the front of the bus, to the
blind and lame being let aboard for free and being guided to a place to sit.
In many rural and even suburban areas, Costa Ricans use horses, oxen and
carts, bicycles and their feet, as well as buses, to get around. The more
affluent rural people generally drive older pickup trucks.
Should you decide to buy a used car here, the conditions are not totally
different than they are in the States or Europe. Used car dealers - and
many individuals selling used vehicles - often conceal defects or problems
in an effort to unload the vehicle as quickly as possible. While most new
vehicles offer warranties on services, the buyer of a non-warranted used
vehicle has virtually no recourse. Because of very high import duties on
automobiles, and the constantly changing regulations on these duties, many people who expatriate to Costa Rica just decide to avoid the potential
import hassles and simply buy a used car here. And often they decide to buy
from a fellow countryman. With the add-ons of import duties and shipping a
car here from the States, a car that would normally sell for $10,000 in,
say, California, here might cost as much as $25,000.
Whether purchasing a new or used vehicle, it is important to keep the
following in mind:
Unless you are an expert car mechanic, it is in your interest to ask a
friend or colleague or mechanic with prior experience in purchasing cars in
Costa Rica to accompany you and assist you in decision making. This friend
may be able to help you in getting the price down and in spotting hidden
trouble signs in the vehicle that you are thinking about buying.
Although Costa Rica is a developing country, it does have high health and
sanitary standards. However, changes in lifestyle, climate, and eatinghabits can have an impact upon the health of anyone who has recently arrived
here. With a little common sense, you can avoid health problems in Costa
Rica, your new living environment.
It is always surprising to foreigners just how many people they will see on
the roads early in the morning, especially in the Central Valley, doing
their daily jogging and exercising. The gyms are everywhere and are well
attended. Although lower class Costa Ricans tend to eat more fried foods
and sweets today than they did ten years ago, the same trends that exist in
the States towards healthier eating and active exercise habits are also
evident here. Educated middle-class Costa Ricans today are eating less
fried foods, sweets, and high cholesterol foods. They are returning, full
cycle, back to eating more fruits and vegetables, leaner meats and seafood,
and watching their salt and fat intake. When Costa Ricans were less
affluent and could not afford meat and fatty fast foods and junk food
offered by American chains such as McDonalds, and their diet consisted
mostly of beans and rice and fruit and only an occasional piece of meat,
they were a very healthy, active people. The educated Costa Rican is
returning to this awareness. You will notice relatively few fat and obese
Some things to be aware of: Do not make sudden, dramatic changes in your
diet just after arriving in Costa Rica. Attempt to maintain your known,
regular eating routine, much as you had in your own country. As time goes
by, you can incorporate Costa Rican foods into your diet.
If your culture does not use heavily spiced foods, stay away from spicy
foods. Try these foods in small amounts and make sure that your body is
comfortable in digesting them.
Water is potable throughout Costa Rica. Nevertheless, some areas, especially
in the country, are served by wells, and other areas have water supplements
such as chlorine or fluoride. If you find the water in your locality
distasteful, you may either purchase a water filter or purchase bottled
water at any grocery store.
If you are moving to a new climate - for example, from North Dakota to the
Pacific coast of Costa Rica - make sure that your wardrobe and dress habits
are consistent with your new environment.
In addition to staying physically fit, your mental health is something which
merits close attention. You are in a new country, with new friends, in a new
situation entirely. You are eating new foods, watching new television
programs and shopping in new stores. Virtually everything around you is a
new stimulus and different people react in different ways to so much new
stimulation. Most young expatriates in Costa Rica enjoy the change and do
everything they can to experience as much of Costa Rican culture as
possible. Occasionally, however, homesickness sets in and the new immigrant
finds himself or herself longing for home. In order to preserve cultural
identity, as well as experience Costa Rica in the fullest sense, without
longing for things back home, remember to:
Write and call home regularly; send friends and family back home small gift
packages showing them photos, what you are eating, where you have visited in
Costa Rica; share everything. Sooner or later, the longing for home will
Join local community organizations, churches, where others sharing your
culture meet and gather.
Staying healthy in Costa Rica is not difficult if you eat sensibly,
exercise, and maintain a healthy perspective on both your newfound life and
your personal cultural background.
SHOPPING AND SURVIVING
Many newly arrived foreigners find that there is not a great deal to buy
that they have not already seen "back home", and what is available is often
more expensive. Americans have been spoiled by places such as Pier 1
Imports, and other mass market inport stores. Americans are spoiled also by
the sheer abundancy of things available in their home country.
Yet, for a Costa Rican, shopping does not necessarily mean parting with
one’s colones or dollars. Visit the local outdoor farmer’s markets, and
there is one in almost any town in Costa Rica on weekends, or crafts market
or mall on any Saturday and you will see thousands of people just
window-shopping, strolling, planning, and simply browsing through the
merchandise available. It is like a village faire from the 16th century.
Do remember: consumer credit is now readily available in Costa Rica and is
frequently tempting, much as it was back in your home country. Each year,
thousands of Costa Ricans and foreigners alike incur tremendous amounts of
consumer debt because of uncontrolled credit card spending. Visit any store
in today’s Costa Rica, and if you lack the personal self-discipline, it is
very easy to amass far more debt than you can reasonably pay off in a short
period of time. Since these local credit cards invariably charge incredibly
high rates of interest, you may wind up paying for years on a very small
purchase. 30% and more interest rate is not uncommon! Credit is useful and
has its purpose, but remember to part with your money carefully in Costa
Rica and to not spend more than you normally would.
As a foreigner, you may be an easy target for unethical salesmen, agents
selling anything you could think of to ask for, etc. Maintain a healthy
skepticism and remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it
usually is. For years foreigners invested with a group called "The
Brothers", located in Escazu. The Brothers paid over 40% on money invested
with them! Then one day they just disappeared, taking with them perhaps a
billion dollars of investment funds.
Consult your colleagues before making any major purchasing decisions and
remember that you, the buyer, are the decision maker. Finally, its all up to