Getting a work visa
In order to legally work in Costa Rica, you must either be a citizen of the country or have legal permanent residence. Generally, to obtain permanent residence you must have held temporary residence for at least three years before applying.
Permanent residence or citizenship are the only two immigration statuses that carry no restrictions. Other residence options (rentista, pensionado, etc.) are considered temporary. With these visa options you can own a business but you cannot work in that business. Your responsibilities must be limited to management of the business. In other words, if you own a restaurant, you have the authority to oversee business operations, but you should not be tending to the cash register or waiting tables yourself—you must legally employ people to work and carry out the daily functions of a brick and mortar business. The law itself states: “The Temporary Resident may only carry out remunerated work or lucrative self-employed activities which have been authorized by the Department of Immigration. The Department will evaluate the recommendations of the Ministry of Labor and other criteria of convenience and opportunity in conferring any authorization.”
If you are highly skilled in an area where that job cannot be filled by a Costa Rican, you or your employer can apply for a work permit for one year, but this can be difficult to get. These laws are designed to protect workers here from foreigners who would take jobs that would otherwise be filled by a Costa Rican. It should also be noted that a work permit is not a form of residence and the two should be handled separately.
For these reasons, most expats either start a business or work online in some capacity. And that business doesn’t necessarily have to be a bricks and mortar restaurant, shop, or hotel. Many work as wedding planners, surf instructors, photographers… Some have their own online businesses, others are freelance writers or graphic designers. With online jobs you have the advantage of being paid in dollars and living in a lower cost of living location. Many take advantage of their portable income by having a flexible schedule—more time to enjoy the beach or a hike in the rainforest—and take the opportunity to travel throughout the country, the region, and the world.
Unless you have your Costa Rican citizenship or permanent residence, it’s generally advised to follow these guidelines—in addition to consulting an immigration attorney if you are pursuing a category in which you feel unsure about the law and how it would apply to you:
People who can work in Costa Rica without citizenship or permanent residence:
- Home-based businesses over the internet: Freelance writer, web or graphic design, trader—no physical location in Costa Rica, no employees: you’re in the clear. Just keep in mind that the income you’re earning online should be coming from outside of Costa Rica.
- Business owner (assuming you only have a form of temporary residence): You may oversee business operations as a shareholder, but cannot perform daily job functions as an employee of your own business.
People who can’t work in Costa Rica without citizenship or permanent residence:
- Service provider or self-employed: Think jobs such as a realtor, contractor, property manager or any professional like a lawyer or doctor.
- Employee working for a salary or set wage from a Costa Rican business: This would be seen as taking a job from a Costa Rican with the same skills.
Setting up your own business
For information on setting up your own business in Costa Rica, see the Costa Rica Embassy website. You’ll also find great advice on how to work abroad as well as many stories of people who have done just that from our Fund Your Life Overseas postcards here.