Is Costa Rica Residency or Citizenship Worth It? Take Two, Part Two

The Alternatives to Costa Rica Residency (Besides “Expating” Somewhere Else)

This is part two of two posts on the ways of obtaining residency in Costa Rica and whether, for you, it is even worth pursuing. Part one is here

This post deals with possible alternatives to going through the time and expense to get residency or the possibility of obtaining “super-residency” aka Costa Rica citizenship.

The So-Called Perpetual Tourist

Perpetual tourism is the practice of taking advantage of Costa Rica’s relative lenience when it comes to tourist visas, especially compared to most other Latin American countries. People choosing this route, of which there are thousands, make border crossings, usually to Panamá or Nicaragua, every 90 days. 

Costa Rica does not, as many other countries do, limit the number of times you can do this in a year. However, entry or the length of stay is solely determined by the immigration officer at the border.

There are four groups of countries designated by Costa Rica Migración of which the first two groups do not require a pre-approved visa to enter the country. People from those countries who can get a visa at the border, e.g., citizens of Canada, the U.S., the EU plus many others, would be candidates for perpetual tourism.

Perpetual tourism is very much a hot button issue with many local expats, especially for those who have obtained residency here. They resent it, they decry and condemn the practice as “illegal” when it fact it is not. It is risky, however, as you could be denied entry or, as sometimes happens, you are given only 30 days on your passport.

Although PT is not technically illegal, there is a legal requirement to show that you have pre-paid passage back out of the country. Many PTs fake this with flight reservations that they have not paid for yet and fully intend to cancel. There’s even a website explicitly for this purpose.

I won’t judge the practice except to say it was never under consideration for us. The border crossing every 90 days or less would drive me batty and it would be, IMHO, too risky for anyone owning property or running a business here, but to each his own.

It’s also not cheap, in terms of the time and expense of all those border crossings but it does add flexibility to life. You do avoid the whole CAJA thing that I covered in Part One of the overall discussion.

Remaining in the Country for 20 Years

If you can prove you have lived in Costa Rica for 20 years, you are eligible for citizenship if you can pass the other requirements of citizenship (e.g. clean police record, birth certificate, passing the naturalization tests). I readily admit I’m fuzzy on the details of this because I don’t think it applies to many people, but I know people who have done it.
I know another person who has been a PT for 15 years now and plans to take this route.

I’m not sure of the details, though, such as whether the 20 years has to be contiguous, if it’s OK to have put in those 20 years under only tourist visas or even whether you could have been an illegal immigrant (say, you simply overstayed your initial tourist visa for 19 years and 9 months). I am pretty sure that there is no requirement that you obtained any type of residency along the way as that would imply that you would use the 7-year rule to obtain citizenship instead.

Costa Rica Citizenship

I discussed what citizenship is and its advantages in a previous post also. There are several ways to qualify for citizenship via residency, 20 years in-country, marriage or birth of a child all of which have different timelines.

In the case of marriage, after two years married to a Tico/a, you would be eligible to obtain citizenship. Having a child in CR gets the child citizenship, but not for the parents. However, they can jump straight to Permanent Residency. If you want residency by having a child born in Costa Rica, I recommend starting here.

In the latter case, the parents fall under the same requirement for qualifying for citizenship that most others do: 7 years in-country (not calendar time) or 5 years if you are from Latin America.

Unless you are over 70 years of age (they upped the age limit this year from 65), or obtaining citizenship by marriage, you must also pass two naturalization tests, one for social studies (civics, history, economics, culture) and one for Spanish proficiency.

The 7-year rule does not apply if you are filing for citizenship via marriage, but it will as of today probably take about 4 years to obtain it due to the 2-year qualification wait on the marriage and the new 2-year maximum limit (they'll take all of that) on the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE) processing the application. Note that gaining citizenship has nothing to do with Migración.

Another Non-Resident/Non-Citizenship Alternative

Of course, you could simply enter Costa Rica and never leave. This method would appeal to those who want to live totally off-grid. I think it would not be difficult to accomplish, especially if you didn’t care about banking here or driving here legally. I think that you could even qualify for citizenship under the 20-year rule, but I'm guessing on that point.

There are lots of places to hide and you could even avail yourself of CAJA in emergency situations by just acting like a dumb non-Spanish speaking tourist. No one there is going to care about your visa. They will charge you for care but will not stop you from leaving the hospital either with the bill unpaid.

What Good is Residency?

The three main advantages, in my opinion, of residency are 1) obviating the need for 90-day border runs, 2) obtaining a cédula (national ID card) and 3) being able to get a CR driver’s license. It’s also a path to citizenship, which obviously does not appeal to everyone, but it does to me.

Having a cédula means a lot of financial transactions are open to you without having to establish a corporation in order to make you a “person.”

Corporations are messy, expensive and taxed annually now. Every time you need to make a transaction in its name (e.g. opening a bank account), you need a special document from the National Registry known as a personería jurídica that expires after 30 days and is usually kept by the party you are doing business with anyway. That’s a hassle and costs money.

If you want to pursue citizenship and not wait 20 years or marry a CR citizen, then any other type of residency starts that clock ticking toward citizenship.

The downside, especially compared to being a PT, is having to pay CAJA. Also, you will still be viewed by Ticos as a foreigner because your cédula is of a different format. More on that in a bit.

What Good Is Citizenship?

I’ve covered what I think the benefits of citizenship are in an earlier post, but my list has grown since then:

  • Return of your residency security deposit back ($200 for me, $300 for more recent residents I believe)
  • Whether or not you belong to CAJA will never be checked unless you go to the hospital and it is possible to opt out. You can opt-in by simply paying 6 months of back premiums.
  • Your 10-year cédula (vs. 5 years max for residency) is free
  • You can get a Costa Rican passport
  • There is no physical presence requirement to keep your citizenship
  • You have a constitutional right to leave and enter the country at will
  • You cannot be extradited for crimes committed in another country
  • You can vote and run for office.
  • In short, you can avail yourself of ALL the rights guaranteed under Costa Rica’s detailed and generous constitution, which may not be available to you as a resident or tourist.

Obviously, these benefits differ in value according to the individual.

Another intangible value, according to those who have gone this path before and shared their experiences with me, is that having a citizen cédula simply makes your life easier in ways that are difficult to explain. These boil down to no longer being considered a foreigner, since you have a “normal” ID and “normal” ID number format. Many transactions, I’m told, become seamless whereas with a residency ID these processes are more sticky.

So, Is Any of It Worthwhile?

Except for Perpetual Tourism, any residency or citizenship path is for those with ready cash to pay all the costs (including any income requirements) and who are convinced they are going to plant roots here as we have. Since it’s a long-term process, however, if you amortize the costs over, say, 10 or 20 years, it’s not so expensive. 

Residency/citizenship gains you privileges and stability if I were to sum it all up succinctly. Either path is not for everyone.

There are so many paths available and so many situations that it there is no clear cut answer. I hope these brief summaries are of help to those considering long-term stays in this beautiful, peaceful country though. I’m actually taking my first naturalization exam in 3 days, so clearly I think it is all worth it. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Update 11/2018: Just got the results of my Spanish test taken earlier this month: 83% overall. In August, I took the Social Studies test and received 98%. Neither I found to be trivial. They both required substantial study. With those done, the way to citizenship is clear for me with just the turn of a few more bureaucratic cogs. Hoping that I'll have cedula in hand by Februrary.

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