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Top 10 Mistakes Expats Make When Moving to Costa Rica (and How to Avoid Them)

 Moving to Costa Rica can be the best and most exciting decision you’ll ever make. You get to enjoy a pleasant life in one of the most charming countries in the Caribbean. However, make sure you do your research before moving. You can run into challenges and problems if you don’t understand the local laws and customs beforehand. Read on to learn about the top 10 mistakes expats make when first moving to Costa Rica, and how you can avoid them.

1.  Not Learning Enough Spanish

Spanish has been the official of Costa Rica since the Spaniards started settling here in 1522, and it shows no signs of changing. You need to be very fluent in Spanish before moving here. Unfortunately, many expats don’t take enough time to learn Spanish before relocating to Costa Rica. It’s not uncommon for expats to make the decision to relocate after visiting Costa Rica on vacation. They probably learned enough Spanish to pass as a tourist, and expect that will be enough to get by permanently.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Those courses that you took from Rosetta Stone won’t cut it. If you want to be a permanent resident of Costa Rica, you need to be fluent in Spanish. The average English speaker must receive 780 instruction hours to become fluent in Spanish.

2.  Believing Laws are Never Enforced

Costa Rica is known for being a very neoliberal country, although it is gradually developing more social democratic policies. However, you shouldn’t assume that the law is nonexistent. José Rafael Fernández, an attorney in Costa Rica, says that many expats don’t understand the legal system at all. This can obviously lead to issues. Fernández warns that expats mistakenly believe that Costa Rica authorities don’t enforce laws as often as their counterparts in the United States or Europe. He implies that Americans seem to think Costa Rica doesn’t have access to the same resources to enforce laws or has less of an interest in enforcing them.

He warns that this is a big mistake. “Do not do anything you would not do in your own home town. A lot of foreigners seem to believe they can outsmart the system when they come to a less developed country. Or, it just may be the kind way most Costa Ricans behave with 'gringos,' which turn them into wishful thinkers.”

3.  Failing to Understand Visa Requirements

Costa Rica is a very hospitable country to tourists. However, you still have to follow the visa laws.

We wrote a lengthy post on visa regulations in Costa Rica, which you should read before even considering entering the country. If you are in Costa Rica for more than 90 days, then you must have permanent residence status. Penalties for violating these rules can be severe. In 2014, the Costa Rica government really started cracking down on tourists overstaying their visa.

Under the new rules, if you stay longer than 90 days without getting permanent residence status, you may be fined 100 USD for every month you overstay. People that fail to pay the fine can be barred from Costa Rica for up to three times the number of months that they overstayed.

You don’t want to run into these problems as a tourist. Save yourself the hassle by getting permanent residency.

4.  Expecting Instant Gratification

In the United States, everyone is always in a rush to get somewhere. People get very annoyed if they go to a restaurant and have to wait more than 20 minutes for their meal, or if they have to wait in long lines at the grocery store or gas station. Abandon these expectations when you move to Costa Rica. Costa Ricans don’t worship time the same way people from the United States do, and they tend to take longer to get things done. You may show up at an appointment at 10 a.m., only to wait another hour for the employees to open the doors.    You will drive yourself crazy if you want to expedite everything. Get used to waiting a little longer, and develop ways to practice more patience and keep yourself busy. After a while, you’ll realize that it isn’t so bad – and you’ll probably come to appreciate the slower pace and reduced stress of life in Costa Rica.

5.  Expecting to Live a Life of Leisure

Today Costa Rica recently published an article about the unrealistic expectations that U.S. expats face when moving to Costa Rica and other small countries. One of the biggest mistakes people make is expecting that they can simply relocate and live a casual, care-free life.

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Costa Rica is a very pleasant and relaxing place to live, but the same realities still apply. You still need money to survive. The good news is that the cost of living is much lower in Costa Rica. However, that comes with a caveat  – you need to be willing to downsize your expectations. If you want to live in a large house or eat out every night of the week, then you’ll find the cost of living isn’t much lower than the United States.

Create and stick to a realistic budget to avoid running into financial problems.

6.  Jumping into Romance

Many expats are single when they move to Costa Rica. There are so many attractive people in the country that it can be tempting to jump into a relationship with one of the locals. Resist the urge to make such a move before you are ready. The customs are very different, so you may run into some cultural misunderstandings. Stay in the country for a few months first to get a hang of the social norms before trying to date, or try dating another expat.

7.  Starting a Business Without Understanding Regulations

Costa Rica has a growing economy, which is drawing a lot of foreign direct investment. Foreign entrepreneurs and corporations invested about $2 billion in Costa Rica in 2014.

While there are many fantastic opportunities to start a business in Costa Rica, there are also complex rules to learn. Take the time to understand them before trying to launch a business. One of the most important rules is the policy against hiring illegal immigrants. Costa Rica usually requires businesses to hire local citizens, unless you are filling positions that can’t be filled by a native. This means that you won’t even be able to work in your own business unless the work is extremely specialized. Find out what permits are needed in Costa Rica before getting your business off the ground. The process is different from the United States and you may not need permits for some businesses (such as real estate agencies). Also make sure you understand the tax implications of starting a business. Speak to a lawyer if you need more information.

8.  Relying Too Much on the Bus

The bus system in Costa Rica is cost-effective, but it isn’t the most time-efficient way to travel in many parts of the country. You can travel from San Jose to anywhere else in the Central Valley in about an hour, but bus service in other parts of the country is slow and unreliable. Take the time to learn the bus schedule carefully beforehand. If the schedule isn’t conducive to your needs, then you will want to find other means of transportation.

9.  Failing to Learn Property Laws  

Property laws in Costa Rica are very different than in the United States. One of the biggest differences is squatting laws. These laws state that if a property owner allows someone to use or maintain their property for at least a year, then that person can legally acquire the property.

The same principle applies if you appear to have abandoned the property. Make sure that you visit your property occasionally and demonstrate that you are clearly the owner. Otherwise, you risk losing it to a squatter.

Eminent domain laws are also different from the United States. You should consult with a lawyer to understand how they work.

10.   Trying to Take Too Many Things With You