There are obvious destinations for expats considering their next move abroad, such as Singapore, which ranks at the top of HSBC’s Expat Explorer Survey. However, there are of course other, less obvious destinations, which might offer the expat an equally rewarding experience. One such country is Costa Rica.
According to the 2016 Expat Insider survey, out of 67 countries measured, Costa Rica ranked 5th for quality of life, just ahead of Singapore in 8th position. Costa Rica also ranked number one for personal happiness and 9th for health and well-being, compared to Singapore which ranked 52nd and 29th respectively.
So, for expats who may be seeking a happier and healthier work-life balance, away from densely populated and highly competitive commercial hotspots, Costa Rica could be an attractive alternative.
Social (culture and language)
As Costa Rica is a popular tourist location, many people in major areas are used to speaking English and are welcoming and friendly. This could be one of the major reasons why expats ranked Costa Rica second out of 67 countries for ease of settling in, according to InterNation’s Expat Insider Index.
Those hoping to learn Spanish during their stay may find it to be a challenge, especially in Puerto Viejo, where English-speakers are surprisingly common. Even so, to help prepare expats with their move, it is worth learning the basics of Spanish for use in shops, taxis, and for visits to areas off the beaten track.
Costa Rican culture is similar to that of a small-town community, meaning it is highly beneficial to get to know the people in the local area, as they are likely to be supportive and keen to help with settling in.
While this can prove to be a pleasant change of pace, the difference in culture can be jarring for some expats who are used to the often-fiercely competitive culture associated with major metropolitan business centers.
Lifestyle and Entertainment
While Costa Rica is not a cheap place to live, it is comparable to living in America or the UK. The lack of materialism has the potential to be a huge culture shock as the latest fashions and technology may not always be easy to find, but embracing this is a part of the lifestyle.
The locals tend to operate on “pura vida” (pure life) time, which means taking a laid-back attitude to most aspects of life. Though, there is a downside to pura vida. As this attitude applies to most public services, roads are worn out, signage is poorly maintained, and the processes behind official paperwork for driving licenses, etc. can last months or years.
This might be jarring having been used to American customer service, but it can soon become second nature to slow down and relax into this new way of life. Adapting to new norms is a perennial feature of expat life abroad, otherwise, why be an expat?
Climate, Geography, and Nature
While Costa Rica’s natural environment is beautiful, it is also home to all kinds of tropical creatures, so be wary of critters that can be a nuisance in daily life. Ants, termites, and cockroaches are unavoidable, making it important to check shoes, clothing, and bedding. It is also important to make sure that kitchens are always clean and that food is securely stored.
While some creatures can be a nuisance, the 500,000 different animal species (from macaws and herons, to pumas and ocelots, to dolphins and sea turtles) that call Costa Rica home are some truly incredible neighbors.
Due to its location, Costa Rica sees earthquakes as a constant risk. The rainy season (May – November) can also see increased risk of flooding and hurricanes. In case of emergency, U.S. expats can receive emergency information from the U.S. embassy via e-mail, text, and/or radio to help keep them safe.
In terms of climate, Costa Rica was only bested by Malta on the 2016 Expat Insider survey, but humidity can be a big issue for those who are unaccustomed to it. The regions close to beaches are much more humid than the mountains. As a result, Central Valley’s central location, just outside San Jose, makes it a popular location for expats to live. There, residents enjoy warm temperatures but have little need for either heating or air conditioning.
Health and Well-Being (diet and medical emergencies)
With such a scenic location, getting outdoors and keeping fit in the beach towns of Costa Rica is easy, as many people get around by bicycle. In addition, the range of farmer’s markets and restaurants in tourist towns offers a great opportunity to eat healthily, as they make fresh food very inexpensive. With plenty of exercise and fresh food, expats’ well-being will be in good stead in Costa Rica.
The United Nations regards Costa Rica’s healthcare system to be one of the best in Latin America. The Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS) provides healthcare to both citizens and residents. While the quality of care is regarded to be excellent, waiting times for a non-emergency are often rather long. To enjoy free healthcare under the “Caja” system, expats must be legally recognized as residents. Tourists and visitors can only use this healthcare for emergencies.
Local doctors can be found at neighborhood clinics known as EBAIS (Básicos de Atención Integral en Salud), and their costs are generally low. House calls and dental work can be inexpensive, considering their quality. However, to guard against things like longer waiting times, many expats take out global health insurance. Another reason many expats choose this option is because the Instituto Nacional de Seguros (INS) is the only authorized health insurance provider available domestically in Costa Rica.
The Final Decision
With dangerous creatures and a risk from earthquakes, Costa Rica might seem like an unusual choice for expats, but with a high-quality healthcare system, warm weather, and a lower cost of living than the U.S., Costa Rica has a great deal to offer expats looking for a gentler, yet equally rewarding, way of life overseas.
Popular destinations, like Singapore, clearly have a lot to offer the expat with respect to economic opportunities, culture, diversity, healthcare, and lifestyle. As such, the final decision of which country to choose may depend on an expat’s personal preference and career opportunities on offer.
While Costa Rica may not be known as a global economic powerhouse, or international center of finance, there are still plenty of other economic sectors for expats to consider when looking for an opportunity to live abroad. For instance, the country’s major industries include tourism, real estate, agriculture, and electronics exports, all of which could appeal to expats skilled in these sectors.