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What You Need To Know About Expat Life In Costa Rica
American Samantha moved to Costa Rica more than six years ago, for love. And she’s come a long way since first arriving with little knowledge of the country - needing to learn Spanish, find a job, make friends, understand how the local community - and systems - tick.
She’s come so far in fact, that she and her husband Yeison were even named Tourism Ambassadors for their work on their very successful Costa Rica travel blog, mytanfeet.com. Samantha’s going to share her story of settling into life in Costa Rica, and how she navigated the integration bumps along the way.
Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with another episode of the Expat Focus podcast. Costa Rica is well known as a haven for expat retirees. But what’s it like to move to this tropical paradise in Central America if you’re not at that stage of life yet? American Samantha moved to Costa Rica more than 6 years ago, for love. And she’s come a long way since first arriving with little knowledge of the country, needing to learn Spanish, find a job, make friends, understand how the local community and systems all tick.
She’s come so far, in fact, that she and her husband Yeison were even named tourism ambassadors for their work on their very successful Costa Rica travel blog, mytannedfeet.com. Samantha’s going to share her story of settling in to life in Costa Rica, and how she navigated the integration bumps along the way. So, Samantha, your website and blog, mytanfeet.com, it aims to be the go-to resource on Costa Rica. And you and your partner were even named tourism ambassadors by the government a couple of years ago, which would have been such a big honour.
Samantha: Yes, it was, we were very, very grateful for the title [laughs].
Carlie: So, you’re originally from the USA. How did you end up living in Costa Rica, and becoming such a knowledge bank for travellers and expats?
Samantha: Well I came to Costa Rica a little over 6 years ago, and the main reason why I moved down here was actually to be with my husband, Yeison. He is Costa Rican, and back when we met, 8 years ago, he didn’t have a US visa, or was able to work in the US. So, we actually did long-distance for a couple years, and then I decided that, to move down here!
Carlie: And how much did you know about the country before you moved?
Samantha: Absolutely nothing! [laughs] We actually met in Nicaragua, when I was doing a volunteer trip. [unclear 00:02:07] was in Costa Rica for 3 days, before I went back to the US, the first time we met, and I would just come and visit him every 3 to 6 months, but I didn’t know too much before I moved. I mean I visited him a few times, but, when I came to, you know just like even basic things I, I didn’t really know that much about the country [laughs].
Carlie: It seems like such a tropical rainforest paradise. I can imagine it would have been such a lovely place to just need to keep coming back to for a couple of years to see your boyfriend.
Samantha: Oh yeah, you know, it’s a nice bonus that it’s in a beautiful country, but honestly, like when I came to visit him we stayed only in the city, which was where he was living at the time. So, I, we never really went out and did all the touristy stuff back then, I came down just to, it was to see him, so [laughs].
Carlie: I was going to ask you how it really changed when you were just visiting Costa Rica, and almost having a touristic experience, compared to when you moved.
Samantha: There’s good and bad, you know, I got to experience like, from the very first time I came here, everything that I experienced back then was everything through, through him, so everything was through his local eyes. We didn’t do, even though he was working in tourism back at that time, he wanted me to have a more grounded local experience, because we knew eventually, like, if I moved down here, I needed to have a little bit more of a concrete base and understanding of what living here would be like. But, I mean, ever since I moved here we’ve been travelling a lot, and it’s been a lot of fun!
Carlie: It’s a bit like anywhere, if you’re living by the beach, you’re not necessarily there every day just sunning yourself on the sand!
Samantha: [laughs] No, I wish! I mean, I’m sure anyone who lives near any beach in the world, like LA or Miami, you know, like anywhere in the world, even though the beach is right there, like, you’re not, you’re not sitting sipping pina coladas on the beach every single day! But, it’s nice it’s there, and, you know, it’s a nice place for us to go and relax after work, and…
Carlie: For you, the attraction to Costa Rica and what led you to Costa Rica was love. What else typically attracts expats to the country? You mention on your blog a stereotype of old and retired.
Samantha: Yeah, especially in certain parts of Costa Rica, there’s like pockets of a lot of retirees. Costa Rica has been named, you know, many many times by different publications, about how it is one of the top retirement countries in the world, it’s very high up there, because they have good healthcare, cheaper cost of living. It’s pretty easy to adapt to life here if you’re American or Canadian, because the country is very touristic, so, you know, a lot of things are in English, all of the currency is in US dollars for a lot of things, so they don’t have to work too hard, the foreigners, to adapt to living here.
But yes, it’s a, it was a little shocking for me because I didn’t know that, ‘cause I was 22, 23 when I moved, so I, I didn’t really, I wasn’t, I’m not in that stage of life. So when I moved I, we first went to a little beach town in Guanacaste on the Pacific coast, which is one of the top retiree communities in Costa Rica, and I was a bit shocked, I wasn’t expecting it, but, yes, there is a lot of retirees here, or snowbirds. So they come down during the winter months, up north.
Carlie: [laughs] I think in Australia we call them the grey nomads!
Samantha: [laughs] That’s great! I haven’t heard that one before!
Carlie: Taking their caravans up the east coast and following the sun, yeah.
Samantha: Following the sun, exactly, yeah! [laughs]
Carlie: So, how did that change the experience for you? You didn’t come to Costa Rica to retire and have a bit of an easy life. You’re definitely not at that stage, a little while off. What did that mean for you in terms of integrating, finding a job, that kind of thing?
Samantha: Because, I mean I was moving here full-time, and I need to work. I am not retired, I don’t have, you know, all my life savings, and I need to work, I need to pay bills, I need to find a place to live. I’m here full-time, I need to do all the normal things that people have to do, go to the bank, you know, get your papers.
So for me, which is, you know, when you’re living in a foreign country abroad, and, you know, for someone like me who emigrated to another country, at first I need to learn the language, I need to understand how the local system works, how, you know, because, you know it’s obviously different from where you, where you’re originally from, and so I need to learn all those little things, and I needed to integrate myself into their society, and their community.
I didn’t want to, not necessarily isolate myself, but just kind of like stick myself to only other foreigners, and only kind of get like that experience, like, I wanted, I want to be, and I have to be fully integrated into the Costa Rican system, because first of all, my husband’s Costa Rican, it’s, so I can’t be that foreigner, that person who like never learns Spanish or anything like that, or don’t know, like, how their customs and traditions are.
So for me, I mean, it’s basically, it was like basically starting our lives from scratch, you know, you learn the language, you have to learn how to drive here, you have to learn how to go to the bank by yourself, and go grocery shopping by yourself, or go to the doctor by yourself. So, for me that was, that was very different, and that was a lot of things to learn in a short period of time, but, and, and things that most retirees, snow birds, people who wanna come down here for a few months of the year, or, or like digital nomads, they don’t necessarily need to, to learn how to do that, ‘cause they’re only here for a temporary part of the period of time, whereas I’m more permanent.
Carlie: And how did you find that process of integration?
Samantha: It was interesting. I would say it’s probably, definitely one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, but, I was very lucky because, you know, I have Yeison, and I had a good support system. It was harder for me because I’m more introverted, so when it came to, you know, learning Spanish, I don’t have, I didn’t have much trouble learning the language per se, luckily, ‘cause I speak other languages already, so it wasn’t like incredibly difficult.
But just kind of like, making myself get out there and like, talk to people, and, you know, just like not be scared of talking to people and making mistakes, and like them knowing that I’m a foreigner, and I don’t speak Spanish as my first language, is a little intimidating, but it was a really good experience, that I learned a lot, and I grew a lot. People are very nice about it, and it really makes me feel proud, when, when you can like do all your errands on your own, and, you know, and then, but you always have those days where you make a mistake, or, yeah.
Carlie: Yes, definitely. And you’re, you’re understood the first time in the bakery!
Samantha: Exactly, yeah! Or like, you know, you can, you understand everything someone’s saying to you, or like you know, you’re able to accomplish something on your own, you know, so it’s a big, big deal, a big thing to be proud of.
Carlie: So all these years later, do you feel integrated into Costa Rica now, or do you still feel that element of being a foreigner? Do you think that ever truly disappears?
Samantha: I mean I will always be a foreigner. And, it doesn’t matter, you know, like it’s obvious the moment I open my mouth, but like, people here, they don’t really care too much, they’re like, ‘cause they’re so used to having people from all over the world here. But it is nice when I talk to locals and they are surprised that, you know, I do speak Spanish, and I’ve been here for a while, my husband is Tico, and things like that, they find it very nice, because they appreciate the effort that I’m making to, you know, integrate myself into their society, and everything like that.
But, you know, like, I think, like someone, maybe ‘cause I’ve only been here for 6 years, you know, my parents, they emigrated to the US, and they’ve been there for 30 years, and, you know, when I ask them and how they feel, you know, they still say, like, oh yeah, you know, like, I have an American passport, but you know I’m still Taiwanese as well, but they, they feel integrated, and I feel integrated as well. But you know, like I will never let go, like, of my roots and where I’m from, or anything like that, but I have the best of many worlds.
Carlie: Have you found much of a, a young expat community in Costa Rica where you are?
Samantha: It’s definitely growing. When it comes to, like, just expats, not like people who immigrated like I did, like, there’s a lot of younger, I do see a lot of younger people around like my age, or even like 30s or 40s, like young families. They do come down here for, whether it’s like a few months, or like a year or something. I have definitely seen it a lot, grow a lot more than when I first came down here. When I first came down here, I, I was very lonely, because it was hard for me to make friends with people who are my age, ‘cause everyone was much older. But now, I do, definitely see a lot more younger people coming here.
Carlie: What do you think is the biggest culture shock, coming from America to Costa Rica?
Samantha: Definitely if you don’t speak Spanish, definitely the language, you know, it’s very common that, commonly known that North Americans, they don’t speak anything but English. And so for them to be somewhere where they don’t understand what’s going on, or they don’t know, they can’t read the signs or anything like that, they get very flustered, and that, that is a big culture shock, you know? Even though, you know, like Spanish and English, they’re, like some similarities, but it’s a completely different language.
And then, I guess, like, a lot of people who move here, they don’t understand, or you know, they’ve never had the experience about, like, how certain systems work. A lot of people still come with that mentality of, like, I expect things to be done the same way as where I came from, whether it’s Canada or England or Australia or wherever. And so, you know, and you just have to learn and adapt to how their system works, and how, learn yourself how to work around it, ‘cause it doesn’t matter whether you move to Costa Rica or Ecuador or Japan or whatever, I mean you need to, you need to learn how the, the system works, or you will never, you know you won’t get past that hump, and you won’t feel like you’re actually able to be successfully here.
Carlie: Did you have any humps…
Carlie: …Samantha, in the first couple of years?
Samantha: Oh of course! Oh yeah, for sure. Like, the first 6 months were very difficult, ‘cause I only knew like 2 words in Spanish when I moved here. I didn’t really study it, I never studied it before in school or anything like that, I studied other languages, so it was very hard for me because I hate the feeling of not being able to express myself, or understand what’s going on.
And, I don’t like people to always have to translate for me, ‘cause I feel like a burden. So, it was so frustrating when I was first learning Spanish, and kinda like, how to get around the town that I was living in, but you know like I couldn’t, before I was so independent, I could drive wherever I wanted, I could walk wherever I wanted, I could get everything done, but, but when I moved I just depended on Yeison for so many things, and, it was very frustrating for me, and very stressful for me, ‘cause I don’t like that feeling. And just trying to get a job was very very difficult here [laughs]. Costa Rica does not give work visas very easily, and you do need to be fluent in Spanish if you want any sort of a professional position, or, you know, work in any sort of company. So, that was very frustrating as well.
Carlie: And how did it go with visas then? What visa did you come to Costa Rica on, and what are you technically on now?
Samantha: So, I came to Costa Rica on a tourist visa. I’m still on a tourist visa! But Yeison and I are planning to sign papers, so that I can get citizenship, because we’ve been together for a long time, and we’re, we’re, we were married, but not in Costa Rica yet. But we’re gonna present my papers, so that I can get my Costa Rican papers.
Carlie: What is it that makes Costa Rica so difficult visa-wise?
Samantha: Anyone who, from Cuba or Spain, who speaks Spanish, they can get a job here, like, we’ve met people who are doctors from different countries, but you do need to speak Spanish, and secondly they gave work visas to people who can’t fulfil a job that Costa Ricans can’t do. So they wanna keep their job force local. They don’t want a lot of outsiders to take their jobs, because it’s such a small country, we barely have 5 million people in the country, you know, and they need to keep their, their people employed, because it, it’s just so, such a small country, and job opportunities are very few. So, they wanna make sure that, you know, their, their people can get work first, which I think is great. I don’t see anything wrong with that. But, you know, if you can speak Spanish, for the, necessary for any position, and you take the correct tests, like if you’re a doctor, then you need to come and you need to take their tests, then you can definitely work here.
Carlie: So if you field that necessary skill, you can get a kind of work visa, otherwise you’re on tourist visas. And how long do they last? What is the application process like?
Samantha: So, ‘cause you get [unclear 00:15:30] and [unclear 00:15:31] between four groups. And the first group is for passports like US, Canada, Australia, England, and a tourist visa for that group lasts 90 days, and there’s no process, you just show up at the airport with your passport, you go through immigration, they give you a stamp and that’s it, and it’s for 90 days. If you’re in a different group, like, like China, or Nicaragua, or, like, Turkey for example, then you need to present some papers and get a consular visa, and it’s a little bit more complicated, bur for many countries in the world they don’t need to do anything, they just show up at the airport.
Carlie: So does that mean you’ve been renewing your visa every 90 days for the past few years?
Samantha: [laughs] Yes!
Carlie: Oh my God!
Samantha: I have! [laughs] Yes, so every 90, I’m always making sure I check my passport and the date, and making sure that I have to leave the country every 90 days. Luckily, we travel internationally a lot, and I go back to see my family. But, yeah, [laughs] I do have to leave the country every 90, and it’s been 6 years I’ve been doing it!
Carlie: That blows my tiny mind! I guess as an Australian, our annual migration to Europe for a 4 or 6 week holiday is such a big deal. So I, I just can’t imagine needing to get yourself organised, set those calendar dates, and make sure you’re leaving and re-entering, what, every 3 months, it’s just like, wow!
Samantha: Yeah, it’s, I’m used to it now. But luckily, I mean like Nicaragua’s very close, and then if you’re in the south like Panama’s closer, you know, a flight to the US is, I mean Florida’s like 3 hours away. So it’s easy, I think it’s easier than Australia, ‘cause you guys are an island [laughs]. Yeah, I think it takes a while for you guys to finally get anywhere, except New Zealand, but…
Carlie: Slightly shorter difference, distance, yeah. [laughs]
Samantha: Yeah, so it’s, it’s a little easier, but sometimes it, I cannot complain about it, because you know I’m very lucky that whenever I go to the airport the immigration agent like flips through my passport and they’re always like, oh you really like it here, huh? And I’m like, yeeaahh, you know, but they can’t really say anything, because technically I’m doing everything legal. Yeah, so I can’t…
Carlie: So there’s no actual limit to how many times you can enter Costa Rica as a tourist, ‘cause very obviously to immigration you’re, you’re pretty much living there, right? [laughs]
Samantha: Oh yeah, for sure, I mean, they see stamps from other countries, and I’m like oh, this is, you know, like oh yeah, like she’s been out for like 3 months or 6 months, so you’re, but, majority of the year, like, I’m here. But as long as I don’t overstay my visa, and, you know, I don’t have any tax, like, tax, like I’m not being wanted for taxes or being wanted for, you know, like, being wanted for crimes, like, I’m not like on the, like, the top 10 wanted list and…
Carlie: On the banned list, yeah!
Samantha: Yeah, yeah, exactly, like, felonies or anything like that against me, they, they don’t, yeah, they can’t say anything! [laughs] So…
Carlie: So the process you’re going to go through to get citizenship, is that the only option that you have to be a permanent resident in Costa Rica, or could you and your husband have a local wedding and do it that way?
Samantha: No, they have, mm-hmm, no, so they have, Costa Rica has several options for people. Citizenship is obviously like the longest, the hardest process, but they offer residencies as well. And residency, one of the reasons why retirees come here a lot is because they offer a residency that’s specifically for retirees. So as long as you’re retired, and you can prove that you’re getting your pension every month, from whatever country that you originally were in, and you’re not…
Carlie: So you won’t be a burden on the country, yeah.
Samantha: Yeah. Exactly. Then you can apply for residency, like a retired residency in Costa Rica. And they also have a couple other ones, but, like, they have a business one, but this one, you have to invest, which I believe is $250,000 in the country, so say you bought a piece of land and you’re building a hotel, or you like bought a restaurant, or you bought something that is a business, that’s putting, you’re putting money into the country’s economy, and then you can get a residency for that as well. But unfortunately, you know, I don’t, I’m not investing $250,000 in my…
Carlie: You’re not a property magnate, yeah!
Samantha: No, no, I’m not, I’m not doing that yet [laughs], but, you know I’m not retired, so, for me right now, this is the only option. Like, right now, the tourist visa, and then once like me and Yeison, we sign the papers here, then I can apply for the citizenship, because we’ve been together for 6 years, and, and so once we’ve proved that, you know, we’ve been partners for however many years, it’s a lot easier, especially for women, to, to get papers. Or if you have a kid. If you have a kid born here, that’s another option too. [laughs]
Carlie: Just get pregnant, then you’re fine!
Samantha: Exactly, yeah! [laughs] That’s an easy option [laughs]. Well not easy, but, you know, one of the options.
Carlie: Is there anything you miss about the USA?
Samantha: Yes! I mean, my family’s still there, so, I’m very close to my family, and I miss them all the time, and my dog. And then there’s like other little things, you know, like everything’s very accessible in the US, like whether you want to, like, even like little things, like 24 hour supermarkets, or like, in the US you can get food from like everywhere, we’re big people on food, we love food, so it’s a big deal for us [laughs]. So you can get like all kinds of food.
Or like, you know, online shopping, or just like the conveniences of having the accessibility and the convenience to, like, if you broke something, like a, I don’t know, like your laptop charger broke, you can just like order one on Amazon, or I can go to the Best Buy and purchase a new one. Here, you know, like, things are definitely, you need to work around the system a lot more, and it’s not as easy. There’s definitely that. And it’s nice, like, you know things in the US are very, not like strict, but everything is kinda more like set in stone. So you know, like, if they tell you that this costs this, that’s like what it costs, and then they’re not gonna tell you something completely different the next week from somebody else…
Carlie: You have more grey areas in Costa Rica!
Samantha: Yeah, which is, you know, it’s good and bad, ‘cause if you know how to work with the system, it can definitely work for your advantage. But, you know, like for someone like me who didn’t grow up with that, and I’m more of a person who is like OK, if he says A then it means A, like I’m very kind of linear in that sense. It’s, you know, things like that I, I do miss. But, yeah, mostly, like, you know, family, friends, food [laughs], Amazon.
Carlie: And what are the best bits about living in Costa Rica?
Samantha: Oh, definitely, like, it’s way more laid back here. Obviously the city is different, you know, San Jose is like a very typical city, people are very stressed out there, the traffic is horrible, but where we live, you know, things are definitely a lot more laid back. It’s more relaxed, and it’s nice to just like, oh, like, where we live, we can just go outside and there’s forest everywhere, and, you know, ‘cause everything about Costa Rica is very focused on nature. And also just, it’s, it’s a lot of fun, like, meeting all the people here.
I think that’s been my favourite part for the past 6 years, it’s like, every new person I meet, I always am so grateful, because I think I would have never met them otherwise, you know, if I, like, stayed in the US, or if I, you know like, like, stayed where I was, where I grew up. Because here you find people from everywhere, ‘cause you get tourists, and you get people who move here from all over the world. It’s such a melting pot here, and it’s been really fun to like meet so many different kinds of people, and it teaches you a lot. So I really really enjoy that part, and, you know, just, it has good weather. Sometimes it can get really really really hot where we are, but you know, like we can just drive an hour and a half and we get to somewhere with, like, cool weather, or rain, or something different, and that’s very nice too, is all the different microclimates around.
Carlie: Finally, Samantha, anyone who is looking at moving to Costa Rica, whether as a retiree or someone still in the workforce, maybe for love, like yourself, what would be your biggest piece of advice to them, to help make their expat experience that little bit easier?
Samantha: First, like, don’t come with the expectation that it’s like, like a tropical paradise, like it is, but it isn’t. You know, if you’re coming here to live, you know, you’re coming here to live and to work, like, you’re, you’re not gonna be, like I said, you know, you’re not gonna be on the beach sipping pina coladas every day, or surfing every single morning. I would definitely say, like, if you can, come down for like a few months at a time, and really really get to, get a good feel of, you know, like do you think that, like, this is something that you can deal with, this, do you think that this is something bad?
You would want for, whether you move here for the rest of your life, or, you know like for a stage of your life, because it’s, it’s very nice, and a lot of tourists always say oh my God, like, I wish I could live here, like yeah oh it’s amazing, but, I mean, there is such a huge difference between travelling somewhere as a tourist, and living somewhere.
No matter like how beautiful the beach is, or how amazing that rainforest is, I mean you’re not gonna be doing that every single day, and, that’s something that people need to realise. I feel like a lot of people kind of get, like, glitter goggles, and they just come with like everything is just amazing and incredible, and, and then they realise, oh shoot, like, I need to learn this, or shoot, this is not how it is, or like, oh why, why is this not working? Not lower your expectations, but have more realistic expectations.
Because you’re, you know, you’re not coming to vacation 24/7, so [laughs] I think that would be like one of my biggest pieces of advice, because, like, I’ve met a lot of people and I know a lot of people who, they move down here with the dream to like open a restaurant, or open a smoothie shop, or something like that, and then they have, they, it doesn’t work out, you know, they never learned how the system worked, and they never really like integrated, and they just like couldn’t get over that hump. And so they like went back home, or, or something like that. If I could go back in time and tell myself anything, that would probably be it, be it as well, have more realistic expectations! [laughs]
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you have any questions for Samantha about life in Costa Rica, or wanna share your own experiences, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our Costa Rica forum or facebook group. You’ll find more episodes on our website, or your favourite podcasting app, including a chat with Ian Usher about the time he spent living off the grid on his very own island off the coast of Panama. If you like what we do, please leave us a review, and I’ll catch you next time.
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