Working Legally in Costa Rica
by Tom Rosenberger of Costa Rica Home Builder
Costa Rica's exotic attractions are a dream come true for many visitors and those fortunate enough to live here amidst the breathtaking volcanoes, tropical rain forests and awesome beaches. Many come to enjoy the tropical beauty and ideal climate. Others, who are more entrepreneurial, see tremendous investment potential and an opportunity for a simpler lifestyle and want to find a way to work here and support themselves. Many foreigners who are considering moving to CR for an extended period of time in excess of the 90 day tourist permit wonder if they can get a job and work here legally. You can get deported from Costa Rica if you are illegally living or working here and once deported you may not be allowed to return to for 10 years.
Unless you have a job established with a large company it will be difficult to obtain a work permit on your own. I know several Americans working for large international corporations who never had to file one document in order to receive a work permit. These large multi-national corporations such as Intel and Proctor and Gamble have full time departments in human resources that obtain the legal work permits for the foreign employees they wish to employ in CR.
According to the immigration law a foreigner here as a tourist must leave the country for at least 72 hours after he or she has been in CR for 90 days. As far as having to travel outside of CR every 90 days for a 72 hours to renew your tourist status, it's not that big of a deal and can be fun. Many people travel to David or Bocas del Toro, Panama or Granada, Nicaragua on inexpensive bus tours for a weekend. It gives you a chance to see the neighboring countries and absorb some of their culture. When you return your passport is stamped and you can legally remain in CR for another 90 days. Many foreigners who stay here under this status are referred to as "perpetual tourists"
As far as working in CR is concerned. One might ask how are all these foreigners that you see offering products and services getting around all these immigration regulations. Many are not and run the risk of being deported if and when the CR government would crack down.
As far as I know from being here since 1992 the government only cracks down on targeted areas of business like those that cater to illegal activates such as prostitution or bars that cater to drug users or minors. Occasionally the immigration police operate a sting in popular beach towns to catch foreigners staying here beyond the legal 90 day term. These illegal foreigners are usually working in some sort of business to sustain their lifestyle in CR and technically they can be deported without the possibility of returning to CR for 10 years. I have not heard of anyone being deported except those that have been involved in illegal activities.
Many foreigners that you may come into contact with here who are offering products or services probably formed a CR corporation and as an officer of the company are conducting business on behalf of the company (sociedad anonima). Technically a CR company (SA) translates to anonymous society. You can place Costa Rican nationals as the officers of your SA then they become your partners, unless your lawyer writes the by-laws of the SA to give only you the power of attorney to conduct business on behalf of the company.
Here are a few legal details concerning foreigners working in CR and the CR Employment and Occupational Law.
First, the law prohibits employment while someone is a tourist or in one of several types of residencies favored by foreigners. But here too, there are the laws that closely control professionals and certain job categories. For example, a tour guide must be a Costa Rican national, according to a 2003 law. And anyone who wants to be a trucker has to have a registration from one of the Central American nations. No motor vehicle, trailer, or tractor-trailer with foreign license plates outside of Central America may transport goods within the territory of Costa Rica.
The summary of Costa Rican employment and occupational laws is part of an annex negotiation between the government and the United States as part of the free trade treaty. The annex summarizes existing Costa Rican laws, and the United States agrees to respect the measures. For example, according to the annex, foreign nationals who wish to act as captain of a vessel with Costa Rican registry must post a bond equivalent to at least half of the value of the vessel under his/her command. And only Costa Rican nationals or enterprises may supply domestic air transport services, whether regular or non-regular. And only Costa Rican nationals may act as customs brokers, according to the law. The law also said that directors and administrators of enterprises supplying radio and television services must be Costa Rican by birth or must have been naturalized Costa Ricans for at least ten years. A lot of foreigners who are considering Costa Rica are members of recognized professions. But simply being a professional does not mean a person can work in Costa Rica. Each profession is governed by legislatively sanctioned professional societies or colleges.
To join the professional associations of public accountants, pharmacists, geologists, agricultural engineers, physicians and surgeons, veterinarians, dental surgeons, journalists, medical and surgical technicians, computer and information technology, nurses and official translators and interpreters, foreigners must be residents in Costa Rica at the time of applying for membership, as well as have a certain minimum number of years of residence, said the summary.
There are special rules for medical personnel. All physicians and surgeons, dental surgeons, microbiologists, pharmacists, nurses, and nutritionists must perform the equivalent of a one-year continuous, for-pay mandatory social services requirement, the annex text notes. In other words, work for the government. Foreign professionals in political sciences and international relations specialists may only be hired by public or private entities when they are active members of the professional association and there are not enough Costa Rican professionals said the annex. Being a university teacher might be difficult, too. No less than 85 percent of the faculty, administrative faculty, and administrative staff of a private institute of higher education must be Costa Rican nationals, according to the laws here. And mass media and advertising services may only be provided by enterprises incorporated in Costa Rica under Costa Rican law, the summary notes. Foreigners might also find difficulty in going fishing. Catching shrimp or fish commercially is only allowed in Costa Rica with vessels built in the country with wood obtained in Costa Rica and made by Costa Rican nationals, according to the law.
Laws are enforced irregularly and usually only when there is some economic pressure or a series of crimes has received media attention. And some professions can give temporary licenses for those who seek to work here. Still the legal hurdles are substantial and different for each profession.
In conclusion if you are serious about moving or doing business in Costa Rica you should first and foremost plan on learning the local language and the Latin culture. Additionally, you can easily and inexpensively hire a lawyer to establish yourself here legally and then you can enjoy all this wonderful country has to offer. The positive business environment, low operational costs and an abundance of natural resources are the primary reasons why investment opportunities in Costa Rica continue to grow. From my fourteen years of residency here and over twenty-five years of business experience, I can tell you that no matter what problem pops up down here, there is usually an inexpensive solution that enables one to continue enjoying the pura vida! The climate is ideal, the Costa Ricans are friendly, peaceful people and the business community welcomes foreign investment. Hope to see you soon here in paradise!