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Immigration Options for Self Employed People

When planning on moving to Costa Rica, many people ask themselves some of questions about working. Some of the most recurring questions are: Can I work while I live in Costa Rica? Can I get

Immigration Options for Self Employed People

When planning on moving to Costa Rica, many people ask themselves some of questions about working. Some of the most recurring questions are:

  • Can I work while I live in Costa Rica?
  • Can I get a job in Costa Rica?
  • What type of jobs are available in Costa Rica?

There is the misconception that foreigners cannot work in Costa Rica. This is true to some immigration categories, but there are plenty of options for people to live and work legally in Costa Rica. While there are some work categories that allow companies to sponser foreign workers in Costa Rica, there also some options for people who are self employed, whether they do work locally or provide services abroad.

Today, we will review the options for people who are self employed and plan to be in Costa Rica long term, contraty to the brand new category of Digital Nomad Visa which is available for people that soley make income from abroad, not from Costa Rica.

What Options are Out There?

There are mainly two options available for self employed people, one is a residency called Temporary Residency for Specialized or Skilled Self Employed People, and the other is a Special Category for People with a Registered Business.

A. Temporary Residency for Self Employed Skilled Worker

The name is very self-explanatory. This category is available for people who are self-employed and possess some sort of skill. Regarding the skill, the law means any sort of skill the person has acquired either through education or experience. Any kind of professional who has graduated from college or technical school can qualify for this category, as well of people who are experts in any given industry regardless of whether they went to school or not.

Recent Updates
Costa Rica’s Labour Department has issued a resolution suggesting Immigration to refrain from approving certain Temporary Residencies under the Self-Employed Category. This to protect local workforce.

Issuing a list of non-accepted professions is a yearly occurrence. The Ministry issues a list of professions that will not be approved early in the year and reviews it by the end. Furthermore, considering that unemployment is expected to rise after the covid crisis, it is also to be expected that this list will remain in place or even grow.

If interested in filing under the Self Employed Category, Outlier Legal will review your case and will surely do everything to assist, aiming for a positive resolution. Nonetheless, it is important to raise the alert.

College Graduates
People who have obtained a degree from a university will qualify for this category. There are some professions that require obtaining a license, such as attorneys, accountants, physicians, psychologists, so on and so forth. People in these fields are eligible for residency, however, they need to obtain the license from the corresponding professional association, which are called Colegios Profesionales.

People applying for this type of residency must complete the licensing simultaneously with the immigration process. There is a catch 22, the immigration department is not going to grant residency unless the person has the license, and the Professional Association is not going to grant the license unless the person has residency. However, most of the Professional Associations will grant a provisional license and will issue the permanent license upon completion of the immigration process. This provisional license will allow the immigration department to issue the approval for the residency.

There are other professions which do not require a license such as web developers, marketing consultants, graphic designers, writers, so on and so forth. People in these fields, the main requirement is to produce the college diploma (along with all other regular requirements). The college diploma must be translated and apostilled to be admissible for the immigration department.

Some of these professions do not necessarily require going to school to learn the skill. Some people are self-taught and could learn (whether it is programming, design, photography) on their own terms. For this type of people, it is still possible to obtain this category of residency. Instead of producing a college diploma they will have to produce an affidavit and evidence to demonstrate they possess the skill, such as a portfolio of projects completed. The most extreme case we had was for a florist who had ten years of experience being a florist. We could comply with the main requirement by producing an affidavit and portfolio of projects.

Another specific requirement is to get registered to pay taxes. While expats with only a tourist visa can get a Tax ID, it is advisable to get a company registered. For this type of professionals who are self-employed, the right legal structure for a business is an EIRL (Individual Limited Liability Company) which is basically an LLC for one person. Under Costa Rican law, LLCs (or Sociedad de Responsabilidad Limitada S.R.L.) require at least two partners to be created, and corporations (or Sociedad Anonina S.A.) require a board of directors with at least three board members. Thus, the most applicable option for people who are self-employed is an EIRL. This legal structure will allow the person to obtain a tax ID and to be able to do contracts and hire services such as power, phone, water, open a bank account, should it be needed.

This category of residency does not require to have a brick and mortar operation, people can work from home. The two main requirements for this category is to have a verifiable skill and to obtain a Tax ID.

There are two important factors to consider for this category: it allows the applicant to include immediate relatives, and it will also allow the applicant to obtain permanent residency after three years, which is not applicable to the special category which we will look at next.

B. Special Category for Self Employed People with a Registered Business

Unlike the previous category which is applicable to people who have a skill, in this category, the skill does not matter. The main requirement is to have a registered operating business.

This is not the investor category!!!
When I talk about this category, people immediately think of the investor category. So, let me tell you how this is different from the Investor Category:

  1. You are not required to invest $150,000 USD: In fact, there is no minimum amount of money required to be invested to qualify. If you can open a business with $10,000 USD, that will be fine.
  2. You are not required to hire ticos: The purpose of the investor category is to create an investment for foreigners to invest in Costa Rica and to open businesses that will be good for the local economy, which includes hiring local workforce for that business. This is not required under the self-employed category, which in turn, creates allows the opportunity for a person with a business to obtain immigration status.
  3. You can work in your own business and to receive a salary: While the investor category does not allow you to work on your own business and get a paycheck (instead, you should receive dividends), this category allows you to put yourself in payroll and get a paycheck every month.

As you can see, there are great differences between these two categories. While this self-employed category may look advantageous, there are some caveats, such as not being able to obtain permanent residency and not being able to bring other relatives.

For some reason, congress decided that people under this category must do a renewal every year. The main requirement to renew is to confirm that the business is still operating, to that end, the applicant must produce the company documents (licenses, taxes, permits, certificate of good standing, so on and so forth). It is not too cumbersome to produce these documents every year as long as the business is kept in order. And for another obscure reason, this category does not allow to obtain permanent residency, which means that the applicant must keep the business running to be able to remain in the country with valid immigration status. Finally, the most adverse aspect of this category is that it is not possible to obtain this category for the spouse or children. While it may be possible for the spouse to also obtain this category if she/he is part of the business, the children will not be able to acquire this category. Weird.

What does it mean to have a registered business?

Any business can qualify for this category as long as it is a legitimate registered business. Being registered means that it must comply with the following requirements:

  1. To be incorporated: The regulation does not specifically require you to get legal structure, but is extremely essential to get a company registered in order to operate a business. Once again, if the business is only for one person, it is suggested to get a EIRL, if it is for two people a SRL will work.
  2. Tax ID: Once the EIRL is registered, the company should obtain a Tax ID with the Revenue Service (DGTD or Dirección General de Tributación Directa).
  3. Business License from the Municipality: For this category, it is required to have a brick and mortar operation and thus, your company should obtain a business license from the local municipality.
    • Health Permit: While the immigration regulations do not directly require you to obtain a health permit, this permit is required to obtain the license from the municipality.
    • Zoning Permit: The municipality will also require obtaining a zoning permit (uso de suelo).
  4. CAJA Registration: Notwithstanding that you can be the only employee in your business, it is required to get registered as an employer with CAJA (the social security system).
    • Workers Compensation Insurance: Along with other requirements, you must obtain an insurance policy to protect your employees (including you) in case of an accident at work.

This may look a little overwhelming, but any entrepreneur knows that starting a business is not easy. Whether you are planning on obtaining an immigration category or not, you must comply with a lot of requirements to just open a business.

For immigration purposes, you can qualify for this category whether you already have an existing business or are about to open a new one. Regardless your situation, you must keep in mind that you must comply with all these documents to successfully obtain this category.

  • It is possible to obtain this category regardless of the type of business that you have. This is a non-exhaustive list of businesses eligible for this category:
  • Shops and stores: such as shoe store, boutique, souvenir shop, or any type of specialty store.
  • Restaurants and bars, anything such as coffees shop, taco stand, restaurant, bakery, ice cream shop, pizzeria, so on and so forth.
  • Hotels, such as cabinas, hostel, hotel, etc.
  • Tour operators. Tour services, tour operators, transportation, booking services.

What category is applicable for me?

Once we had a baker with over ten years of experience and had been operating his bakery at the beach for the past two years. While this person did not attend cooking school, he certainly had a lot of experience and had an operating business. He could qualify for either of the two categories, so we did the temporary residency as he had a wife.

These two categories are not applicable to everyone, each person must take a look at the situation to determine which one is the best option.  The best category of the two is the Temporary Residency for Self Employed Skilled Worker. On the one hand, it has fewer requirements, while the other category requires having an operating business which can be burdensome and costly. On the other hand, this category is a temporary residency which allows you to obtain permanent residency after three years as well as to obtain this category for immediate relatives.

If the applicant does not have the possibility to obtain the temporary residency but has a business (or is planning on having one) it will be possible to obtain the special category with the caveat that it will not be possible to obtain permanent residency or to obtain this category for any other relatives.



Attorney and Entrepreneur with more than 15 years experience in: immigration law in the US and Latin American countries including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Costa Rica and Panama. In addition, Rafael has extensive experience in Business Law, Estate Planning, and Real Estate. Lastly, Rafael has developed experience in people management, talent development and business development.

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