Visa and Residency
Becoming a permanent resident gives you almost all of the same rights as Costa Rican citizenship, except for the ability to vote however in order to encourage investment and attract expertise from other countries, the government has developed some very specific immigration requirements for those wanting to find their paradise in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica spent the last half of the 20th century earning a reputation for lenient immigration requirements. North Americans and Europeans looking to spend their days laying on pristine beaches and feeding howler monkeys flocked to the country that welcomed their foreign currency. Latin American refugees flooded over the borders looking for a safe, stable place to call home and Costa Rica welcomed victims of civil wars into its cities and towns. This overwhelming hospitality eventually took its toll on Costa Rica's economy and infrastructure and the government decided to tighten its immigration policies.
Very specific immigration requirements for those wanting to find their paradise in Costa Rica. Except for the various student, tourist and professional visas, emigrants are required to prove they are financially able to support themselves either through independent or business means in order to gain legal residency. This temporary residency has a number of restrictions but it is a necessary step in eventually applying for permanent resident status.
Since these new regulations and policies evolved, Costa Rica's immigration system has been in constant flux. The policies, as written by bureaucrats and politicians, rarely change but consistent enforcement is a challenge. Many decisions are left up to individuals who are under no obligation to follow policy, leaving hopeful immigrants confused and frustrated. To navigate through this ever-changing maze of rules and requirements, Paradise Hunter recommends starting the process with the Costa Rican consulate in your home country. For further assistance, you can also hire an attorney or relocation specialist.
While there are many levels of residency available to foreigners, most North American and European expatriates will be coming to Costa Rica as tourists, pensioners, entrepreneurs or investors.
Most people arrive in Costa Rica for the first time as a tourist. People carrying passports from the US, Canada and most European countries will get a stamp for their passport that allows them to stay in Costa Rica for 90 days. Tourists can do a lot while in the country. They can earn income, rent property and form a corporation. But when the 90 days are up, you have to leave the country for at least 72 hours before you can be allowed back into Costa Rica with another 90 day tourist stamp. Many expatriates waiting for residency applications have to take advantage of this system while immigration determines their fate. Of course, there are reports of some people who live for years simply going on quick vacations to Panama or Nicaragua every three months and then returning to their lives in Costa Rica. While technically legal, Costa Rican officials frown on this practice and could begin to crack down on this at any time. If you overstay your 90 day visa, you can face a fine or possibly deportation.
Types of Temporary Residency
Pensioner, or Pensionado
As the name suggests, this type of residency appeals to retirees from around the world. In this category, you have to prove you receive at least USD$600 per month in pension income from either government or private sources. This total of USD$7200 income per year must be deposited in a Costa Rican bank account in colones only. If you are married, the spouse with less retirement income is considered a dependent, along with any minor children or university students under 25 years of age. Dependents don't need to show any proof of income and gain the same immigration status as the pensionado.
This means that two people's incomes cannot be combined to make up the USD$600 per month required. However, one person's combined income from different sources is acceptable. If your income is less than USD$600 per month, you can also make up the balance by depositing five years worth of the balance in a Costa Rican bank. For example, if your income is only USD$500 per month, you can deposit USD$6000 to make up the USD$100 per month shortfall.
As a pensionado, you are allowed to own and earn income from a business but you cannot work as an employee of someone else. You also have to spend at least four nonconsecutive months of the year in Costa Rica.
You need to renew your pensionado status every two years with proof that you were in the country for at least four months of the year. You also have to prove that you have exchanged at least USD$7,200 per year into colones. Keep all banking receipts because they will prove that you withdrew money from your bank account as colones and spent the money in Costa Rica. Immigration officials will also do another Interpol background check as part of the renewal process.
Small Investor, or Rentista
For people not drawing a pension but still have a regular income either through investments or a salary from a company outside of Costa Rica, you can apply for rentista status. It's very similar to the pensionado category but requires more income. This category would apply if you are not drawing a pension. You need to prove you have an income of at least USD$1,000 per month guaranteed by a bank or you can deposit USD$60,000 into a Costa Rican bank, allowing you to withdraw USD$1,000 per month from this account. If you get permanent residency, you can withdraw all of the deposit money out of the account.
As a rentista you can own a business and earn income but you cannot work as an employee. You have to stay in the country at least four nonconsecutive months of the year. Your spouse and other dependents are also considered rentistas, but you have to guarantee an income of USD$1,000 per month more for your spouse and USD$500 more for other dependents.
You need to renew your rentista status every two years with proof that you were in the country for at least four months of the year. You also have to prove that you have exchanged at least USD$12,000 per year into colones. Keep all banking receipts because they will prove that you withdrew money from your bank account as colones and spent the money in Costa Rica. Immigration officials will also do another Interpol background check as part of the renewal process.
Large Investor, or Inversionista
While you can own and operate any business in Costa Rica with just a tourist visa, investments of USD$50,000 to USD$200,000 into certain business ventures will grant you inversionista residency status. There are certain businesses the Costa Rican government has determined to be a priority. You can qualify for inversionista if you invest as little as USD$50,000 into companies involved in tourism, forestry and low-income housing. You will have to invest USD$100,000 to USD$200,000 into a non-priority business. A local accountant and attorney will be able to help you with the details of this program.
Inversionistas have to stay in the country at least six nonconsecutive months of the year but unlike rentistas and pensionados, you cannot claim spouses or dependents. They must apply separately. You are also allowed to earn income from the specific venture in which you have invested.
Company Director, or Representante
To qualify for a representante residency, you must be a director of a company that meets certain requirements. This company has to employ a certain number of local workers and must have financial statements certified by a public accountant. As with inversionista status, you have to be in the country at least six nonconsecutive months of the year and can earn income from the company of which you are a director. Your spouse and dependents have to apply for residency separately.
Other Temporary Residency Options
Sponsored residency options are another way to go. If you are:
- A student at a public or private school or university recognized by the government.
- A domestic servant employed by a legal resident of Costa Rica.
- Someone who performs specialized services for governments, educational institutions or international bodies. Teachers, international workers or diplomats could qualify for this temporary residency.
- A specialized technical or professional worker authorized by the government prior to arrival. This usually is granted to executives of multinational corporations.
Temporary Residency Paperwork
While different categories require a variety of application elements, there are some common documents that you will need for any application. And while it's sometimes possible to apply for temporary residency while in Costa Rica, we recommend that you start the process in your home country and work with your local Costa Rican consulate. You will always need:
- Birth certificate.
- Proof of doctor's exam.
- Marriage license, if married (divorce papers are not required).
- Copies of academic degrees, if you plan on practicing your profession.
- Police certificate of good conduct from the last place you lived. It's only valid for six months, so it should be one of the last documents you acquire.
- Interpol background check. This is done in Costa Rica and you need to provide fingerprints. The background check can take over a month to clear.
- Photos. Take at least 10 front and 10 side-facing photos. You'll need to provide them throughout the application process.
- Notarized copies of dependents' birth certificates to be included in the application. For dependents over 18 years old, you have to provide a police certificate as well.
- Proof of income. For pensionado or rentista status, you need a letter from the financial institutions that will be administering your pension and other income. The financial institution needs to be an internationally recognized entity as listed in Polk's International Banking Directory. If your income is from a brokerage or other company, you have to provide a copy of its latest annual report. In these letters, the institutions have to state that if your income is reduced for any reason, they will contact the Costa Rican Tourism Institute. For inversionista status, you must provide business financial records, including balance sheets and statements. A local accountant and attorney will be able to guide you through the paperwork for this particular application.
Private documents, which are those not issued by a government institution, need to be notarized. All documents must be translated into Spanish and authenticated by the Costa Rican Consulate in your home country. Authentication means that the consulate ensures the documents are valid and the notary who notarized them is certified. Of course, there's a charge for this consular service, of around USD$40 per document.
Permanent Residency, or Permanente
Permanent residency is available to pensionados, rentistas and inversionistas after three years. To apply, you have to prove you will make a positive contribution to the country. Other ways of attaining permanent residency include: marrying a Costa Rican citizen and living with him or her for two years; being born to non-Tico parents in Costa Rica; or having a child in Costa Rica. You won't even have to live in Costa Rica for four or six months - you simply have to visit the country once a year. The application process for permanent residency can be just as frustrating and confusing as any other immigration application. It's always a good idea to consult the experts such as local lawyers, accountants and associations to help you through the process.