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Getting Adjusted to Costa Rica

For someone who’s seen his fair share of countries around the world, I know the ups and downs of moving to a foreign land. Each country presents its own possibilities and, I intend to be

Santa Ana, San Jose, Costa Rica

For someone who’s seen his fair share of countries around the world, I know the ups and downs of moving to a foreign land. Each country presents its own possibilities and, I intend to be honest with you, its own problems. Sometimes you just fit straight in, on other occasions it takes time to settle and find your place in a country. Sometimes, you decide that where you landed is not the place for you.

Costa Rica is no different in many respects. However, the country has a high level of expats from around the world who have decided that it is the place for them, many who have lived here thirty or forty years and whose children now have Costa Rican families of their own.

I’ve set out below some of the experiences you might encounter in Costa Rica over the first year of living here. However, you can’t evaluate a country if you go there and gave up after a couple of weeks, nor are you giving people a true reflection if you only tell them about the great experience you’re having in your second year of residency. The first option isn’t giving the country a chance, and the second isn’t preparing a visitor for some of the challenges they might face. So, I’ve covered my experience here in my first month, after around six months, and after my first full year here in the country. I’ve also shared the experiences of some other expats who took the same decision as me to settle in this wonderful, friendly country.

The First Month

∙ What to bring

One of the first experiences of the first month is regretting to bring the right things with you. Tourists, backpackers, and expats often share these experiences, frequently looking back and laughing at the naivety of their early expectations.

For example, a friend of mine told me, “I thought I was being professional, bringing a business suit for my job interviews. The truth is, most interviews for jobs in Costa Rica are smart-casual and that’s the way we dress for work here. I wish I’d saved that luggage space for more practical things like insect repellent, shower gel, toiletries, and medication; things the stores in downtown San Jose they charged me a fortune for when they saw my pale skin an inappropriate attire. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t everyone who tries to rip off North Americans and Brits, it’s just a matter of where you go. Tourists are money.”

Unless you’re bringing all of your possessions down as part of a resettlement into the country, but are only carrying what you can take on a plane, don’t pack more than a couple of sweaters, you won’t need them. Leave your second pair of dress shoes at home and forget about the winter coats. You will only melt away inside it. Instead, bring a breathable, lightweight waterproof jacket. It will serve you better.

∙ Documents

The first month is great in that you are probably here on a 90-day tourist visa. No need yet to deal with immigration forms and setting up your online tax and insurance system. However, if you’re planning on a long-term stay, or staying for good, begin to look into these things early. One thing that everyone agrees on about the Costa Rican immigration system, Ticos, and visitors alike, is that it’s extremely slow, complicated and bureaucratic. If you’re planning to work here, bring documents you’ll need to do so. Check out what you’ll need on the official embassy website for Costa Rica, but you will certainly need an apostilled copy of your birth certificate and a police check, both produced and apostille-certified within the last three months. Without these, you won’t be able to work outside of your tourist visa timeframe. A British friend of mine told me, “I wish I’d thought about this before I left. Once I wasn’t in the UK and able to identify myself in person, it took months and a lot of money to get sorted out and I was running the risk of becoming an illegal immigrant. A scary position to be in.”

∙ Enjoy your first month, but also think of the future

Although you might imagine that I’d tell you the first month in Costa Rica will be the toughest, this is not always true. The first month should be one of great experience, and I urge you not to waste it. Take the time to explore the coastal areas, the food, and the local culture while you can. Like back home, once you are working, you will have limited vacation time and those beautiful beaches will seem as far away as if you’re sitting in Arizona or Alice Springs if you haven’t got the time to visit. Find apps with bus timetables and inexpensive car hire outlets. Check out the leisure activities, the canopy rides across the rain forests, white water rafting, whale watching trips, all the country has to offer while you can still count your days completely your own.

However, it’s easy to get sucked into the holiday mindset. Not a bad state of mind if you’re lucky enough to be retiring here. When you first arrive in this Central American paradise, you can easily find yourself in holiday mode for quite a long time. However, it is your intention to work to pay your way in the country, you need to set a strict timetable and stick to it. An English friend of mine told me, “When I first came here, with a good amount of savings in the bank, I told myself I’d give myself a week’s holiday, then get down to the serious business of job and apartment hunting. A month into my arrival and my savings, I was still enjoying the party atmosphere and how relaxed the country made me feel after a stressful working life in London. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have saved more of that money as I was going to need it.” So, the moral of the story is, plan ahead. Your dollars will go a long way in Costa Rica if you haven’t blown them in the holiday mood of the first few weeks.

∙ Networking and word of mouth

When you first arrive, you may also be looking for an apartment, and if needs be, a job. Like any other country, word of mouth and connections can be the best way into either. However, if you don’t really know anyone, it isn’t that easy. So, find out about the expat community, and find places to meet the local Ticos who can help you settle in and can give you advice about how not to fall victim to the companies and landlords who will attempt to take advantage. Talk to local Ticos in bars and in shops; if the language barrier isn’t an obstacle, I’ve found that they’ll take pleasure in trying to help you out. They can point you to the many genuine people who only want to give you a fair deal and do a little business. Check out the expat groups on Facebook. They have a lot to say about the country, positive and negative. But there is a lot of good advice to be found if you avoid some of the prejudices.

After Six Months

After six months, it’s possible that you might have made up your mind about Costa Rica and judged whether you’re going to stay. I’ve known countless people who’ve seen the six-month time frame as decision time and left. Often, they’ve moved on in a positive way, wanting to check out the neighbouring countries of Panama, Nicaragua, Columbia, Peru, or have plans further afield, Europe or Asia. More often than not, they are backpackers using English teaching as a stepping stone, or students on a gap year. Often, this pattern of behavior can make you feel left behind. Having made some good friends, they’re moving on. All I can say to you, is to accept this as a natural part of the cycle. If it was never their intention to hang around for longer, it is not a reflection of the country you might be deciding to call home. As time progresses you will make contact with the expatriates, those who’ve found Costa Rica to be a wonderful place and know that this is well they will spend the rest of their days. Even when I visit Chicago, the city where I was born, I still know that I will be going home to Costa Rica. And those friends you met here who moved on? It’s likely they’ll remain your Facebook friends and, down the line, and some will let you know that they regret not staying in Costa Rica for longer and many yearn to return.

But there are those who do leave because they have found Costa Rica tough going, and to be honest, it can be. The bureaucracy and permit-hunting I mentioned earlier are not for the feint-hearted and it can be almost impossible to navigate all of this without paying for a lawyer and preparing to wait. However, that’s the nature of the country, and it doesn’t move any quicker, or with any greater degree of certainty for the Ticos, and they’re some of the happiest people on the planet.

And it’s funny how you can change your mind. A friend of mine, who I met in his first few weeks, told me that he was going to teach here for a few months then head onto Asia to reside there. Nearly three years later, he’s still here. “I just slowly found out that my life was here. I didn’t plan it that way, but then I ended up with a whole lot of Tico friends, a good job that I love, and I thought, why would I give this up? I’m more relaxed and feel more at home than I think I’ve ever done.”

If you think that Costa Rica can be the place for you, then these glitches that appear after the six-month period will eventually be overcome. Stick with it.

After One Year

You’ve made your mind up and you’re here. After a year, it’s probable that you’re a legal resident or on a rolling work permit if you have a job. Either way, you can, and do, feel more settled. After a year, you start thinking about those more long-term plans, buying a car or a home, getting married and having kids. And this is not a bad place for any of those things. Property is considerably cheaper than in many parts of the U.S. or Western Europe, although cars can be a bit pricey to buy and to run. As to getting married and having kids? This happens to many expats, who meet Costa Ricans or fellow expats and have children. Perhaps you’re already married and thinking of having kids. Perhaps your kids have grown up and you’re here to relax, allowing them the occasional visit as long as they don’t encamp in the spare bedroom on a permanent basis.

After a year you’ll realise that there are few places better in the world for any of these plans. For example:

∙ Costa Rica often appears on or at the top of global surveys of “The happiest places to live.”

∙ Its entire beautiful country is all within a six-hour drive of San Jose.

∙ It possesses an excellent healthcare system free at point of use by all residents who pay into the system without need for added insurance.

∙ Costa Rica is a democratic and stable country which encourages tourism and business investment.

∙ It has the second-highest degree of English language speaker in Latin Central and South America.

∙ According to International Living it is one of the top ten places in the world in which to retire.

∙ It also clearly values education, health care, and employment and works to deliver those to all citizens and residents.

∙ Ticos can be absolutely lovely and are some of the friendliest people you could hope to meet.


It takes about a year to really discover the country and to appreciate all of these benefits. After a year, its likely that any homesickness will have been overcome, friends will have come to visit and been so blown away by the place that it rejuvenates your own attraction to the country. After a year, you will have learned how to navigate the red tape, how to know what are fair and ‘local’ prices, and will have made good friends in your community. Statistically, most people who stay in Costa Rica for a year go on to stay indefinitely or for the rest of their lives. That’s how I feel about Costa Rica, as do the many people I know who’ve moved here. I’m guessing that if you decide to move here, there’s a good chance that you will, too.



William Harris has lived in Costa Rica (on and off) since 2004. He has a Masters in Applied Linguistics and has worked in the ESL/EFL field for 20 years. His interests include writing fiction and poetry, playing bass, and traveling locally and internationally.

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