Every year, 6.6 million U.S. citizens call another country home - including Costa Rica but many others, too.
We do so for a variety of reasons -- work assignments, warmer climates and better medical care, and a cheaper cost of living for example. But whatever the reason for buying a one-way ticket and becoming an expatriate, there are some important choices to make once we get there.
I’ve been lucky enough to live in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and travel all over the world to 47 countries on six continents and counting. I’ve also met expatriates almost everywhere I traveled, and picked their brains every chance I got.
So, if you’re considering a similar move abroad, here are some things to consider:
1. The language barrier
Communication is something we take for granted, but when you are in a foreign country you might not be able to walk right up to someone and express yourself... or ask for life’s essentials, like the bathroom, and beer. You’ll want to study and practice the language as much as possible before you go. Also, taking intensive language lessons once you arrive is a great way to meet people and ease the linguistic transition.
2. Where to go?
There are many factors that go into your choice of a new home country: climate, political stability, crime, proximity to the U.S. for a quick flight home, cost, language and customs, etc. Many people chose to expatriate to places like Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, or the Philippines for these reasons.
3. Taxes, insurance, and other nuts and bolts
Even when you’re living in another country, the IRS expects you to pay U.S. taxes as long as you’re a citizen and make income. You’ll probably also want to stay current with your U.S. health insurance, and many people conveniently forget to tell them that you don’t live in the U.S. anymore so it doesn’t cause complications. You can bank online and pay bills online these days with e-statements, but you can also get your stateside mail sent to a relative or to a post office box.
4. Medical care
It’s important to be aware of the medical services available in your communities, and how they are rated for quality and consistency, as well as access to prescription medications. Many seniors who are expats want to live in countries with medical care that is much less expensive than in the U.S. Luckily, that is most of the world.
5. Buying real estate (or a business, a car, etc.)
Your first instinct may be to plant “roots” by purchasing a home, a car, etc. but I’ve found it’s best to give it some time. Don’t make any major purchases for at least a year until you thoroughly learn the local culture, customs, and business climate. There can be some complex and Draconian rules when it comes to property and vehicle ownership, as well as bizarre registration and paperwork demands.
People get ripped off or make bad decisions all the time, so give it some time until you’re a seasoned expat and enlist the advice of a trusted local. You’ll also want to weigh out the import taxes and costs of having things like a car or furniture shipped down to you, or buying them locally.
The reality is that you have to be careful no matter where you are in the world, but with some common sense, you can stay super safe in Costa Rica. Don’t walk around with expensive (or probably any) jewelry, don’t show off valuables, don’t go into bad areas, befriend locals to show you around and watch after you, always respect others, don’t walk around late at night or get too drunk, and get a dog!
Every country (including and especially the U.S.!) suffers from street crime. But you want to avoid countries where there’s political upheaval or religious extremist groups — and Costa Rica definitely doesn’t have those problems.
7. Working, making money, and doing business
Many expats find out that life isn’t quite as cheap as they anticipated and the savings goes fast, so you’ll have some decisions to make about earning money. But do you try and open a local business? Try to keep working in the U.S., doing your job remotely from your new home country? Or jump into tourism?
Do your research and go for a low-risk consistent paycheck, not a venture that requires a huge up-front investment of time and money. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen open bikini or surf shops, bars or restaurants, but six months later they’re broke, stressed and out of business. Keep it simple.
Technology will be an invaluable tool as you try to stay connected to friends and family, do business, and get things done from your new country. With some adjustment and planning technology will be your best friend. Get a local cell phone. Almost every bar and restaurant has Wi-Fi, so iPads, laptops, iPhones (with your U.S. network turned off!), and e- readers can all be used as mini computers to keep you rocking and rolling.
Applications like Skype, Netflix, WhatsApp, Internet calling apps, language translators, currency converters, and GPS make your life easier. And a GoPro camera or drone will be super fun in Costa Rica!
9. Blending into the local community
Assimilating to the local culture is a long-term challenge, but also a constant source of connection, humor, and fascination. Be naturally curious and open to being outside of your comfort zone. Say hello and show respect to everyone, learn the local sayings, the customs, celebrate the holidays, make local friends, and even get in good with the police and officials. Attending religious services and volunteering to do charity work are great ways to foster good will and positive karma.
10. Residency and Visas
Some expats want to become citizens of their new nation; some are content staying there on extended tourist visas. If that’s the case, you might have some shuffling to do over the border to renew your visa every 90 days.
Sometimes, there are huge benefits to becoming a citizen, while for others, it’s just not worth it. So do your homework and talk to other expats because it could be a lengthy and expensive process to establish residency.
-The Official Expat,
Find out everything you need to know about moving to Costa Rica - or abroad - with my Official Expat Handbook.
Google and the other search engines receive hundreds of thousands of inquiries about Costa Rica every day. I'll share the top ten Google queries (with my answers), starting with the first five today and the next five in weeks to come.
The top 10 Google queries about Costa Rica:
1. Where is the best place to visit in Costa Rica?
There are so many wonderful places to visit in Costa Rica, that’s impossible to answer! But the good news is that the country is relatively small, so intrepid travelers can visit a whole lot of destinations in a short time. Some of the top destinations and points of interest include San José, the capital, Jacó Beach, Santa Teresa, Malpais, Montezuma, Arenal Volcano, Monteverde and Santa Elena, Tamarindo and Guanacaste, Manuel Antonio, Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of the country, and the many incredible national parks that dot the country.
2. Where is the best beach in Costa Rica?
Visitors tend to love different beaches for different reasons: diving and snorkeling, surfing, turtle and whale watching, remote jungle expeditions, or white sand and fruity drinks under an umbrella. Some of the best beaches in the country include Playa Uvita, Manuel Antonio, Samara, Tortuguero, Tamarindo, in and around Jacó, Cahuita, Malpais, Montezuma, Playa Cocles, and Playa Gandoca, just to name a few.
3. What’s the best time of year to visit Costa Rica?
There aren’t summers and winters in Costa Rica like in northern climates, but rainy and dry seasons. The dry season usually runs from mid-November until around May, while the rainy season lasts May into November. December and January are probably the best weather months, but also it’s the time of year where you’ll encounter the most crowds and higher prices. There really isn’t a bad time to visit Costa Rica, as even a little tropical afternoon rain won’t slow down your plans at all. But October tends to be the month with the most rain, so maybe plan your vacation before or after (unless you want huge discounts and no crowds!)
4. Is Costa Rica safe?
Costa Rica can be considered a safe country, but it’s important to use common sense and act responsibly at all times, just like you would in your home country. Travelers who run into problems are usually doing something illegal, wandering around drunk at night, in a place they shouldn’t be, or not keeping their wits about them. Just for peace of mind, you should look into a cheap and easy travel insurance policy for your vacation.
5. Where is the best place to see wildlife in Costa Rica?
Whales, dolphins, sloths, turtles, monkeys, toucans, and many other exotic birds and fish are on display in Costa Rica, which is one of the most ecologically diverse land masses in the world despite its small size.
Depending on what you want to see, Playa Ostional, Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, Tortuguero National Park, Santa Rosa National Park, Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay, Quepos and Manuel Antonio, Puerto Viejo, Cahuita, Manzanillo, Nicoya Peninsula, Gulf of Papagayo, Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, Cahuita National Park, Finca Baru Wildlife Refuge, Camaronal Wildlife Refuge, Manuel Antonio National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Santa Elena cloud forests in Puntarenas, Santa Rosa National Park, and La Selva Biological Station are all great options for spotting wildlife.
Drop us an email with what animal you’re most hoping to encounter and we’ll be happy to guide you.
Look for the next five Google queries in part two, or just email me if you have any questions.
And you can always turn to the #1 resource in the world for moving to Costa Rica, the Official Expat's Moving to Costa Rica Handbook.
With all of the emails I get from people thinking about moving to Costa Rica, one of the three most common questions is always about healthcare.
It’s not hard to fathom why (they’re usually from the U.S.A. – not Canada, of course) with health insurance premiums and prescription drug prices skyrocketing in the ever-more confusing and ineffective system of medical care in the states.
So, what can you really expect when it comes to healthcare if and when you relocate to Costa Rica?
The great news is that Costa Rica has a top notch system of medical care with plenty of options for expats, from utilizing their state-run socialized system for residents, opting for affordable private healthcare insurance, paying out-of-pocket, or mixing in a combination of U.S. and travel insurance coverage.
You should be encouraged by the quality of Costa Rican medicine, too. It’s no coincidence that Costa Ricans are some of the healthiest people in the world, with higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates than those in the United States. In fact, the World Health Organization frequently ranks Costa Rica well ahead of the United States and all other Central American countries for healthcare.
The amazing thing is that Costa Rica earns all of these accolades for its medical care even though healthcare spending is 87% less per capita than in the U.S.!
So as an expat, resident or just visitor to Costa Rica, you’ll enjoy great quality care for surprisingly reasonable prices.
La Caja, Costa Rica’s national healthcare system:
The state-run health system is called the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, or CCSS. However, you’ll almost always hear it referred to as, “la Caja” or just “Caja.”
It includes medical care in any of the 30 hospitals and 250 clinics throughout Costa Rica in this government-sponsored network.
All citizens and legal residents to Costa Rica get access to Caja.
Each member is required to pay a small monthly fee into Caja based on their individual income.
Costa Rican employees each pay 9% tax to fund this health insurance, with employers paying an additional 18%.
Tourists are eligible and should ensure they have adequate health insurance. However, tourists won’t be turned away from Caja medical facilities in case of emergencies.
But for those expats who plan on retiring or living in Costa Rica, it probably is worth it to establish residency, and therefore get access to low-cost medical care through Caja.
In fact, if you’re going to be a legal resident of Costa Rica, paying into Caja is REQUIRED – you can’t get any form of residency without proof of existing Caja coverage.
You just need to show at least $1,000 monthly income from Social Security, a pension, disability, or any other source to qualify for pensionado (retiree) residency status. Your spouse can even qualify as well.
Once you’re a resident, you’ll only need to pay the low monthly fee based on your income (usually between $60 and $120 for modest incomes) to join Caja.
As a member, you’ll enjoy all the benefits of Costa Rica’s public healthcare system, including free doctor’s visits, diagnostic testing, prescriptions, dental, eye health, and even major surgeries.
There’s no upper limit on the annual amounts paid out by the plan for your healthcare – and you’ll never just be canceled or see your premiums balloon like in the U.S.
An individual doctor and clinic are assigned to each patient, but you can arrange to bill for Caja through many private doctors and hospitals, too.
What’s the downside of Caja?
While it is highly accessible and inexpensive, remember that Caja is socialized medicine. You’ll probably still find it more efficient and user- friendly than many U.S. health plans, but do be prepared for long lines and generic medicines.
Wait times for testing like ultrasounds, CT scans, etc., can be weeks or months in non-emergency situations, and you may have long waits to schedule advanced surgeries or appointments with specialists. However, for the vast majority of low-middle income groups, Caja is a fantastic medical care option.
You’ll find that many of the doctors speak English, but most of the nurses and administrative staff do not, which can prove difficult when it comes time to talking about medical diagnosis and options. So you may want to bring a local Tico with you to help with translation.
Coming up in future blogs, I’ll cover health insurance options for expats in Costa Rica (more good news!), dentistry in this country, as well as typical costs for procedures and surgeries.
The Official Expat,
Want the full prognosis on medical care, health insurance, and other aspects of living as an expat in Costa Rica?
Check out The Official Expat's Moving to Costa Rica Handbook!
If you're thinking of moving to Costa Rica or just visiting, you may have a lot of questions. For instance, what's the main city? (San Jose.) When is the rainy season? (Around May to November)? What currency of money do they use in Costa Rica? (Colónes.) And how about plugs for electronics and appliances? (110-120 Volts and you probably will need an adapter.)
Want more fast facts about Costa Rica?
Country profile: Costa Rica
Roman Catholicism, but freedom of religion is well respected
Costa Rican Colón (CRC)
Is drinking the water safe?
The water is potable in most of the country. Tourists are safe using the water to brush their teeth, take a shower, etc. However, I recommend using bottled water to consume, especially in rural or coastal areas
$29 USD Country borders: Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east
51,100 square kilometers or 19,653 square miles. To give you an idea, it’s slightly smaller than West Virginia and the 128th largest country in the world
Tropical and subtropical
Dry season is December to April; rainy season is May to November
Government: Unitary presidential constitutional republic
Capital: San José
Voltage: 110-120 Volts (Same as U.S./Canada) or most other areas are 220-240 Volts)
Primary Socket Types:
North American Non-Grounded, North American Grounded
Please note that these may not be identical to U.S./Canadian sockets, and may require an adapter.
Carlos Alvarado Quesada
Tourist revenue: $2.6 billion, with an 8.3% yearly increase
Number of visitors:
2.66 million- a 9% increase from the previous year
Percentage of foreign arrivals:
Calling country code: 506
Driving: in the right lane
Common natural hazards:
Ethnic profile (by percentage):
White or Mestizo: 83.6
Mixed ethnic background: 6.7
Black or African descent: 1.1
Religious profile (by percentage):
Roman Catholic: 76.3
Jehovah’s Witness: 1.3
Other Protestant: 0.7
76.8% of total population concentrated in urban areas
97.8% of population over age 15 can read and write
The name Costa Rica means “rich coast” in Spanish and was first applied in the early colonial period of the 16th century.
Costa Rica’s seven provinces:
Alajuela, Cartago, Guanacaste, Heredia, Limon, Puntarenas, San José
A non-military nation:
Costa Rica is the only country in the world without an army or military of any kind
Ranges from humid lowland jungles to arid, bare mountain
Length of the Pacific Coastline:
Length of the Caribbean Coastline:
Costa Rica’s national tree:
Guaria morada, orchid
Need more great information about Costa Rica? Check out the Official Expat's Moving to Costa Rica Handbook - the #1 resource anywhere in the world for making the move to Costa Rica or just visiting!
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