I hate to see people struggling with how to move to Costa Rica. It is not that hard but can be overwhelming at first, so I hope our timeline will be a helpful guide for you – either to follow our steps or to use as a template to forge your own way.
Five years before we moved, we started researching options and getting rid of anything we were not taking. I was surprised at how much work and emotional energy it took to decide what to do with all that we had accumulated in a large home over the years. The more you’ve accumulated and the more emotionally attached you are to your belongings, the longer and more difficult it will be for you to go through this process. Some people ship everything down; it’s a personal decision, but not one I recommend.
2009 to 2013 Downsizing
We spent these years getting rid of stuff and moving to smaller and smaller homes. From a 5000 sf. home, we moved to a 1600 sf. townhome, then to a 600 sf. apartment and finally to a rented room in a person’s home. Our goal was to get our lives down to ten suitcases we could take to Costa Rica.
We moved everything that fit in boxes (and that we did not need every day) to a 10’x12’ storage unit where we could sort through it to keep, sell, store, give away or discard. I highly recommend using a storage unit as a staging area since it gives you a separate location to spread out and sort. And at the end of the day, you can walk away and clear your mind.
We started by selling furniture and books in consignment stores and by hiring an eBay assistant who took our most valuable possessions (e.g., jewelry, collectibles) and advertised them, sold them, and shipped them for a 15% cut. Next, we sold things on Craigslist like bikes, tools, and china. Finally, we took the last items to Goodwill after we tried two yard sales — I don’t recommend this because they consume time and energy and are unprofitable.
I had our photo albums and VHS tapes – all our wonderful memories – digitized by ScanCafe. ScanCafe sends you a box, and for a set price they scan everything you can fit in the box. They return the items along with a DVD of all the images. One happy surprise was that I discovered several photos I had forgotten or had not seen that I could now easily share with family on Facebook. After the photos were secured, my wife stored all of our kids’ memorabilia in labeled, individual storage bins that a friend agreed to store for us.
An essential checkpoint occurred in the summer of 2012 – my wife’s buy-in. I had heard that unless the husband and wife are on the same page about moving to Costa Rica, a move may end in disaster. So, to get my wife’s approval and support, I sent her to Costa Rica for the summer. Jeni had not traveled alone to a foreign country, so it was going to be an adventure.
To prepare for the move, I bought every book about Costa Rica from Amazon, which at the time was only ten books. I particularly liked If She Can Do It, So Can I! by Lisa Valencia, a single woman who moved to Costa Rica sight-unseen to start a new life. Lisa bought and ran her own guest house, so I took a chance and contracted with her to pick up my wife at the airport, take her to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean and make her love Costa Rica. The whole experience went well and my wife came back from a summer in Costa Rica refreshed and excited about moving.
We spent the last months of 2012 getting the townhouse ready to sell but waited until after Christmas to put it on the market.
2013 Document collection and living small
The house sold quickly but I was still working, so we found a small apartment and learned to “live small.” It was rather romantic as it reminded us of our first year in married students’ housing!
For $100 I joined the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR), an organization that helps expats assimilate into Costa Rica. The last Thursday and Friday of every month, ARCR runs a seminar ($75) to introduce people to moving to Costa Rica. I scheduled us for the January 2014 seminar, booked our flights, and began planning an itinerary for starting the residency process and for a two-week tour of the Central Valley.
We also began to identify and collect our residency documents (birth and marriage certificates, police reports, pension letter). Note: these documents need to be original and no older than six months, so I learned how to get them but waited until the end of the year to actually order them. The police report was a little challenging: my local police department had no idea what I was talking about, so they suggested I try the county sheriff who actually had a department that created police reports on the spot.
Here is my wife in our storage unit sorting through our stuff with the goal of having everything fit in these four suitcases and two plastic storage containers with none weighing over 70 pounds.
At the end of 2013, I created an account with St. Brendan’s Isle (SBI) mail forwarding service in Florida. SBI is set up to serve the needs of expats, RVers, cruisers, business execs, missionaries, traveling nurses, etc., who need to manage physical mail while they travel. SBI receives my mail and sends me an email alert. I then select: (1) open and scan, (2) forward to me, (3) store it or (4) archive it. SBI also helped me apply for residency in Florida, get a Florida driver’s license and change my voter registration to Florida. I can sign on to the SBI site, check my mail and peruse the scanned content. It is amazing what you can do remotely – a check arrives in the mail in Florida, but I only see it on my computer screen; I then take a picture so I can deposit it without ever physically touching the check!
To make sure I could manage my mail remotely from the US before trying it in Costa Rica, I submitted a change of address A YEAR before we left. I then alerted anyone where to sent me mail and converted to their paperless options wherever possible.
Also at the end of 2013, I contacted Residency in Costa Rica, recommended by Paul and Gloria at Retire for Less in Costa Rica, to handle my residency application. Javier Zavaleta, the owner, is located in Los Angeles, CA. Then I collected all my documents and sent them to Javier who had them authenticated with an apostille and then forwarded them to his sister, Mayanye, in San José.
Finally, I converted our landline to Google Voice (GV). GV is a free service provided by Google to give people a virtual phone number that can be used anywhere. For $20 I switched my home phone to GV, so I could make and receive calls from my cell phone, iPad, or computer. GV uses our old landline number and rings on our devices (even on a touchtone phone using an OBI adapter). GV will receive the call, take a message, convert voice to text and send the text to my email, which is super convenient, especially for screening calls. So now my wife has a prepaid local phone number (cell phone chip, $2 a month); I have a T-Mobile cell phone account from the US which automatically switches to Movistar in Costa Rica ($50 a month), and we have GV which uses our old landline number.
Note: make sure your name is consistent on all accounts. Over the years, I’ve used several variations of my name (full name, first initials, no middle name) to sign papers. Consistency is essential in Costa Rica. Banks, immigration and government officials are sticklers for everything matching, so now is the time to start working on that consistency. Follow this link to see what I did.
2014 – Things get real
We flew to San Jose, Costa Rica in January 2014. After two days of orientation with ARCR , we visited the ARCR office and they helped us open a bank account and get a local phone and phone number. I opened the bank account at Banco Nacional (one of two national banks) with my passport, which you will hear cannot be done. I also brought a letter of introduction (per ARCR suggestion) from my credit union stating I was an excellent customer with excellent credit. An interesting aspect of Costa Rica banking is that they don’t seem to have the concept of a joint account. So, the bank made my wife a beneficiary, which allows her to use the account, but I am the primary owner. Follow this link to see more details of our banking experience.
Note: when we returned ten months later, my CR phone number and bank account had been suspended for non-use. No big deal: it was easy to reactivate them.
We then met with Mayanye of Residency in Costa Rica, who took us first to the police station to be fingerprinted for an Interpol background check and then to an attorney to sign power-of-attorney papers so they could represent us to immigration. We left and Mayanye submitted our paperwork to immigration. Note: at the police station we were asked in Spanish for our height (cm), weight (kg), hair and eye color, and where we lived in CR, so be prepared to give directions and a description (we used our hotel for our home).
We then took a two-week exploratory tour of the Central Valley to select where we wanted to live. I hired Paul Yeatman to tour us around San Ramón, San José, Heredia, and Grecia. I was initially attracted to San Ramón because my company, IBM, recruits there, which I thought was a good sign. Besides, San Ramón has some of the coolest expats in the Central Valley doing all kinds of interesting things for themselves and the community.
In San Ramón, we visited “The Cabinas” as expats call these seven cabins located outside the town where many gringos start their Costa Rica life. We checked out the property, took pictures, and told the manager we would be back at the end of 2014. It was a big relief knowing where we were going to live. We then returned to the US to finish our preparations.
Our lease on the one-bedroom apartment was up, so we moved to a furnished room in a person’s house in order to jettison more things and to be free to leave when we were ready. Being an adult living in another person’s home seemed strange at first, but the experience was good training for renting furnished homes in Costa Rica. We paid $25/day, all-inclusive, to live in a large, beautiful home. We moved our last items from a 10’x12’ to a 5’x6’ storage unit as we made progress.
At the end of October 2014, we were told our residency had been approved – 8 months after submission. Once approved, the applicant has 90 days to take Costa Rica’s offer. We made final arrangements and flew to Costa Rica in November; Paul Yeatman picked us up and took us to the Cabinas. We each brought three pieces of check-in luggage (two suitcases and one plastic trunk) plus our backpacks and carry-ons. We brought mostly clothes, bedding, towels, and kitchen gear to set up our new home. We used the trunks to bring delicate essentials (Instant Pot, a blender, and a sewing machine). Later, we used the trunks as coffee tables.
After settling in, I hired Martin Rojas, [(506) 8827 3612; firstname.lastname@example.org] who assists expats with navigating the Costa Rican system. Martin first took us to the post office to rent a PO box, and then to the San Ramón EBAIS to register with the CAJA (health services). We paid the first month’s CAJA payment at the Red Cross, which has to be done before going to immigration, and we went to BCR (the other national bank) to deposit money in special accounts required by immigration. The next day, we traveled to immigration in San José, met Mayanye and completed the paperwork and took the picture for our DIMEX (ID) card. If we had been seniors (age 65), they would have given us our cards on the spot, but instead, they asked for the nearest post office to send the finished card. Back in San Ramón, we provided the EBAIS with our final paperwork to complete the registration with the Caja.
Two weeks later, I went to the San Ramón post office and picked up our picture IDs which had a two-year expiration. We then traveled to San José and had ARCR help us get our Costa Rica driver’s licenses. All we needed was a simple doctor’s exam and our valid US licenses to get a Costa Rica license. That was it. We were official residents with a place to live, a bank account, a CR driver’s license, a phone, and a PO box.
2016 – Renew our vows
Married expats have a logistical problem when they renew their residency and Caja: their marriage certificate has to be original and authenticated with an apostille from the US that is not more than 30 days old. Someone pointed out that it would be much easier (and it is!) if we all had CR marriage certificates, so on Valentine’s Day, we joined 200 other couples and got remarried in Atenas.
Our residency renewal was due in November, but we couldn’t get an appointment until February of 2017. Having an expired DIMEX did not cause many problems except at the bank; however, all I needed was to show the paper proving I had an appointment for renewal, and all was well.
2017 – Second Temporary (renewal)
In February, we renewed our temporary residency and had to submit the same paperwork, including proof of income for life (a new pension letter or Social Security letter). For this renewal, we used Rafael Valverde of Outlier Legal Service because we were impressed with his work and he was nearby. Oh, he married us in the Costa Rica wedding ceremony mentioned above.
2018 – Time to change from Temporary to Permanent Status
By 2018 we had been legal residents for three years, which meant we could apply for a change of status from temporary to permanent. Unfortunately, instead of giving us three years on our permanent card, immigration only gave us six months. Rafael tried to get it fixed but to no avail.
2019 – Correcting a mistake
So, we returned to immigration in February to renew our permanent residency, which is now good until 2022. Some benefits of permanent residency don’t matter to me (such as being eligible to work), but I am happy not to have to track down another pension letter every time since it has always been a difficult process.
Other Articles by Rob Evans:
- Change Your Name Before Moving To Costa Rica, by Rob Evans
- My 2018 Healthcare Update, by Rob Evans
- The Best Way to Live for Less in Costa Rica (or Anywhere), by Rob Evans
- Our Costa Rica Cost of Living, by Rob Evans
- Banking in Costa Rica: Our Experience, by Rob Evans