Steven Friedman guest posts today on a subject that is near and dear to me. Almost two years after applying for residency – we had all the requisite paperwork with all i’s dotted and t’s crossed – we still do not have our residency. I question our decision now more than ever – that may be a different post for a different time, but it does dovetail nicely into this article. 

You will remember, in addition to graciously contributing to Costa Rica Curious, Steve blogs on his satirical site My Satirical Side. As always, thanks for providing your perspective. 

To be… or not

Perhaps one of the most difficult choices you’ll face if you decide to expatriate to Costa Rica is whether or not to seek your Residency, or cedula as it is termed here.

To start with, obtaining your residency does not mean giving up your US or Canadian citizenship, nor does it mean you’ll automatically become a full citizen in Costa Rica or be able to legally work in Costa Rica. Nearly anyone can come to live in Costa Rica on a 90 day tourist Visa. This means that they must leave the country every 90 days. It is a matter of interpretation as to how long you must leave the country, but for the sake of argument, plan on being gone for at least the afternoon. When you re-enter the country, you are given another Visa stamp allowing you to stay for another 90 days, unless the border agent has a bug up his ass, and stamps your passport for a lesser stay. They can do this at their own whimsy.

Going thru the residency process exempts you from this and also allows you to get a drivers’ license, open a bank account, and get onto the National Health System – CAJA. You will have a temporary residency for at three years after which you can renew it for an extended temporary residency, or for a permanent residency. Each has their own rules, requirements, paperwork, and costs.

Becoming a temporary resident does not automatically qualify you to work here legally either. You still must also have a work permit from the government. This does not always apply if you are an investor or self-employed, but it is best to find out in advance before you start your own business here.

Currently to get your Residency, or cedula, will take you about one year, a lot of apostillized documents (more on this later), and a substantial sum of money. Word of advice – some people will tell you that you can do it all on your own. I heartily do not advise this! Most everyone uses an immigration attorney here to get their cedula and for good reason. The process can be arduous, and as Greg Seymour pointed out in his latest book – Living in and Visiting Costa Rica – Costa Ricans adhere not so much to the “letter of the Law” as they do the “Law of the letter”. By that I mean that if the translation of your documents (which you are required to provide), or something is missing, it can delay the process or force you to go and again hunt down some document.

If you have done everything you were supposed to, exactly as you were supposed to, and you and your attorney filed all the documents, you will be issued a “folio number”. This puts you at least in the queue which currently is about 9 months to a year. Getting your folio number does allow you to stay legally in the country for more than 90 days, but….. there is a catch 22. You may only legally drive on your tourist visa for the time limit on the last entry stamp. Violating this carries a heep of consequences. Thus you will still need to exit the country each 90 days not only until you get your cedula, but then after your last tourist visa has expired. Confused? No wonder!

So the question boils down to Should you apply for your residency at all, and if you do plan to apply, should you do so right away. This is a difficult question to answer, so I’ll try to lay out the arguments from both perspectives

Fuget Aboud It…..

As Hugh Grant murmured in that movie, or in other words, Forget About It! Don’t apply at all for your residency and become what has commonly known here as “A Perpetual Tourist”. There is nothing wrong with this. For a lot of Canadians who come down for only a few months of the year, this is the best course of action. You just have to be diligent and NOT stay over 90 days – come hell or high water (and sometimes this is literally the case). Given the statistic that 40% of people who come here will decide to pack up and repatriate in one to three years, this is not a totally bad idea. You also do not have to produce any documentation certifying your income. As far as the government is concerned, you are a tourist.

The consequences, other than having to leave the country every 90 days, are:

  1. You will be required to show a return ticket each time you re-enter. Sometimes you can get away with a bus ticket to Nicaragua or Panama, but airlines will not even let you board without showing a valid airline reservation to your native country. A photo copy of your airline reservation will suffice here. Many people make a fully refundable one before they leave the country, and then cancel it immediately when they return.
  2. You will not be able to open a normal bank checking account, but might still be able to get some type of bank account depending on your visa status. This means hitting the ATM’s a lot, having a pretty big limit on your credit card, or keeping a large wad of cash around. The later I would NOT recommend.
  3. You will not be eligible for CAJA, but under certain circumstances you might be permitted to use their services such as a Medical Emergency.
  4. You will not be able to obtain a Costa Rican drivers’ license, but may still drive and even purchase a vehicle with your current US or Canadian drivers’ license. You are also entitled to drive here on your US or Canadian drivers’ license as long as you are within your current Visa time limit.

Just Do it!

As my friend Arnie Schwarzenegger would say. Then the real question becomes “When should you do it?” There are some benefits to coming down and immediately starting the process. To start with you will need to produce certain documents that are Apostillized in your native country or origin. This means that they are officially certified as genuine typically by an official government agency and given a special stamp. Those documents are only valid for 6 months. You also have to consider that you will need to obtain all those documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce certificates, and the like preferably when you are in your country of origin since getting them sent down here will take a bit of doing.

Now you could consider starting the whole process before you even set foot on Costa Rican soil. In the past the Department of Immigration required that applications be filed in your country of origin through the Costa Rican Consular Office in your country of origin. Under the current law the Department of Immigration will accept applications filed directly in Costa Rica with the Department of Immigration. However, if you file in Costa Rica as opposed to outside of Costa Rica then, in addition to the $50 application fee you will be charged an additional $200 fee for a change of status fee. Also you will need to be in contact with an attorney here in Costa Rica, and some operations such as getting fingerprinted need to be done here. Remember, the Costa Rican Government will not issue you a folio unless all the required documentation is complete.

Bring Lotsa Dough

Depending on your status – Pensionado, Rentista, or Investor, you will need to produce documentation showing steady income stream, or maintain a certain amount of currency in Costa Rican bank account. For pensionado, the amount is $1000 a month USD.

Typically the cost of getting your residency including all the fees, document copies, and everything else will run you about $1500 to $2000 per person! You will need to pay at least half up front for a retainer to your attorney, and also some initial filing fees. A good attorney will literally hand-hold you through the whole process and make sure that all the correct documents are together with the proper seals and stamps and everything is translated correctly. They will also check back with the Immigration people to make sure that nothing is missing and that you are still in the queue. Some immigration attorneys here have liaison offices back in the USA or Canada that can receive and process documents on your behalf and then forward them to your attorney in Costa Rica. The whole process is like one big ticking clock. All the cogs have to work together, or the watch stops.

So with all that said, the question remains – When should you file?
As I said before, about 40% of people who come here to expatriate end up leaving within 1 to 3 years. It is not always clear way you will go, or whether you’ll decide to make your home here permanent. Although your first year may be all Unicorns and rainbows, you may find that after that, you’ll want to move on or go back. In that case you will have plunked down a lot of cash with not much ROI. Waiting does have its rewards and drawbacks, but it will put you in a more educated frame of reference to base that decision.