"Hey guys, I'm moving down to Tamarindo next week and need to get a job," - every newbie expat on Facebook, all the time.
It's hard for expats arriving from more affluent countries to understand why they can't just roll into a new place and find work. For most of us, as long as we have some modicum of skills, and a GED, we've found getting work is a matter of time and who we know. This is still true in Costa Rica, but most of us arrive knowing few people, and with no grip on the length of time we'll toil looking for work. It's even harder for us to accept that the work, when we find it, could very well be illegal. It is against the law for anyone without permanent residency or citizenship to take a job that a Costa Rican could otherwise execute.
Don't despair. With a little knowledge and planning, you can still pursue your dreams of living in Tamarindo, or wherever, and making money. Other than the aforementioned illegally obtained job, there are essentially three ways you can make money living in Costa Rica: obtain permanent residency and get a job, find online employment, or start your own business.
Obtaining Permanent Residency and Getting a Job in Costa Rica
The first option, to get your permanent residency, takes three years living in Costa Rica with any sort of residency. The rules on applying for residency are generally the same, but the details can change without notice, so most people hire an attorney to accomplish this task. You can expect to pay, somewhere between $1000 and $3000 per person for an attorney to babysit your application through the process. That does not include your costs for submission and the money you will need to prove you have in the bank for the type of residency you desire. If it sounds complicated, that's because it is. That's is why most people hire an attorney.
My recommendation: First, read as much as you can online about the three main types of residency: Pensionado, Rentista, and Inversionista. (There is a fourth for those who marry a Costa Rican.) See which most closely approximates the sort of resident you would like assume. Then, do your due diligence to find an attorney you can trust.
How will you know you can trust that attorney? You will review as many attorneys as you can stomach, searching their names on Google, Expat forums, and just about anywhere you can find info. Ideally you know someone in Costa Rica who has been through the process and can recommend someone for you.
Before you leave your home country, you will want to make this connection, with at least three months to spare before your departure so that you have ample time to collect the documents you need for your application. You're going to have to contact government offices and agencies on both sides of the fence, and government is the same everywhere, bureaucratic and slow.
Expect the unexpected. We can't stress enough: you want to have all of your documents gathered before you step foot on a plane. Expect more unexpected once you arrive in Costa Rica.
Expert Tip: If you can make time to see the consulate for Costa Rica before you talk to your attorney, you can cut through a lot of your questions there. If you are coming from the U.S., you can even submit stateside at the consulate if you get started early enough. This is highly recommended, but you will still need an attorney in Costa Rica to follow up on your submission.
Your residency will last for two years, but it will take 1-2 years to be processed. You will need to review after two years, and after another year you can submit for permanent residency, and once you get that... you can start looking for employment.
Yup, that long.
There is a good reason many expats don't go thru this process. Alternatively you can leave Costa Rica every 90-days to have your visa stamped, but that doesn't solve your income situation. Other options?
Online Employment Options for Expats in Costa Rica
Online employment is more and more popular as an option. Depending on where you're moving from you may not need to earn as much money as you did back home. The jobs most expats arrive with are internet marketing, design jobs, and writing gigs. The internet in Costa Rica isn't the fastest in the world, topping out at around 10-mbps, but it's fast enough for most, and will eventually get faster.
The reality of Costa Rica's internet is that there are down times, especially if you want to live on the coast. Power outages are fairly regular, at least once per month, and the internet can go down for the entire day sometimes. These delays can come without warning, and can be frustrating if you are not super organized.
My recommendation: Come with a job in tow, something you've set up before leaving home. From a sanity standpoint, this is probably the best plan. It is possible to secure employment here with a company operating in Costa Rica but based elsewhere, those jobs are few and far between. Most are only available to those who "know a guy."
Expert Tip: Most users have backup plan for outages, like tethering a phone, or a finding local spot which offers WiFi (in the event that it's only your provider who is down, and not the whole country.)
Starting a Business in Costa Rica
More traditionally, expats find ways to make money by starting their own business in Costa Rica. You will be allowed to manage your business, and take from the profits, but you cannot take work from a Tico. You can't, for example, be the owner and head server for your restaurant.
Similar to the residency process, you will want to have an attorney for this one, but you don't necessarily need to secure your representation before leaving home. You can plan to come down and buy an existing business, or you can open doors on your dream business.
The risks with buying an existing business are that you could be buying the former owner's bad reputation with the deed, but on the upside you won't have to know how to start a business to get it done. You just have sign on the dotted line.
Buyer beware. Book keeping is a loosely understood and regulated process. It is not unlikely that the books you are pouring over have been cooked quite a bit or don't exist at all. For this reason, some prefer to go their own way. This is where the lawyer comes in handy.
Consider that your business might kill two birds with one stone. You will need someplace to live in Costa Rica, so consider building a home that is also your business. A home can also be a vacation rental that you lease when you are traveling, or it can be large enough to be a boutique hotel or a B&B.
My recommendation: A good business attorney can walk you through what steps you need to take to get your business off the ground. Add to the mix a good accountant, and with some patience you can get something up and running in a few months to a year. Just keep in mind that nothing happens fast, and there will be those unexpected things we mentioned before.
Expert Tip: Learn to say "Pura Vida," and understand that "manana" doesn't mean tomorrow. It means not today. Really understand these two points and the rest will be sunsets and daiquiris.
In brief, these are your main above board options, but there are alternatives out there (Online poker anyone?). There are details to hammer out, and case-by-case, there are considerations and exceptions which are best suited for an attorney. That said, you have the gist of how things work. Hopefully you have some time before your planned departure date, and hopefully you plan to get your plan together before you leave. If not, you may be that unfortunate soul posting how you'll "be right down," and "where can you get a job?" Don't be that guy.