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,
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