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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Expat Hurdles and Yigüirro Birds

Saturday, April 24, 2010
(Click on photos to enlarge)

         After a brief but heavy rain yesterday afternoon, we enjoyed another spectacular tropical sunset, with pale blue sky breaking through gold-edged clouds, their dark hearts presenting a tantalizing threat of another shower, which never developed. As we sat out on the patio, the relentless voices of the early evening birds punctuated our reverie with staccato chirps and ringing trills, a soprano chorus welcoming the night. There are so many such breathtaking sights and sounds here; we find joy in every moment.
         With almost three months in Costa Rica now, Layne and I are more convinced than ever that we want to make a permanent home here as expats, doing some travel writing and blogging, seeking out rewarding volunteer opportunities, basking in the tropical climate, enjoying those amazing sunsets and a national temperament of warmth and good cheer. Of course, “perpetual tourists,” those who stay on as visitors rather than acquiring legal residency, are not so welcome, and for good reason. Such tourists tend to take more from this friendly and generous country than they give. The new residency law, which went into effect March 1, 2010, aims to make it more difficult for those folk who ignore the immigration rules by staying on past the 90-day tourist visa allotment or, as often happens, leaving the country every 90 days for 72 hours then returning and getting a new 90-day tourist visa. Under the new law, tourists will be able to do this twice (or alternatively, pay $100 to renew each time) but the third time they will have to stay out of Costa Rica for at least 15 days, a policy designed to encourage long-term visitors to seek another form of residency. Violators who are caught will pay dearly in money or even expulsion from the country.
         For those of us who choose to go through the rigorous process to obtain legal residency in one of several categories, the procedure can be challenging, lengthy and yet, with the right attitude, downright amusing. Without a good sense of humor, parts of it can be a royal pain! Once Layne and I made our decision this spring, we started looking for a good attorney to help us. Now, you can do all the paperwork yourself, you can deal directly with the Immigration Department, you can achieve residency on your own - BUT it is truly a daunting prospect and a little research will inform you that horror stories abound: paperwork lost, problems with language or translations, bewildering or contradictory instructions from bureaucrats, unresponsive or even dishonest attorneys -- all resulting in long waits for residency.
         The laws and regulations are definitely confusing. Indeed, written rules for implementation of the new residency law are yet to be approved. In February Costa Rica elected a new president and the task of drafting the new regulations has been deferred to her new administration, which will take over on May 8th. Meanwhile, even veteran immigration attorneys are confused as to how the new law will be enforced. Our attorney, Monika Valerio de Ford, who enjoys a top-notch reputation among the Gringos here in Atenas, is unclear on several points herself, such as whether pensionados (retirees) must show a guaranteed $1000 per month income per couple or $1000 for each person. Huge difference, of course.
         Layne and I are nowhere near the end of the process but our experience to date might be illustrative of the hurdles one must overcome along the way. First of all, after hearing of a few unfortunate situations, we would urge thorough due diligence on your attorney. Ask for references; talk to people who have used him or her; look into their track record (how long did it take them to get residency for others?); and most importantly, insist on a written contract that specifies the total amount of money they charge, what services that covers, what extra costs are NOT included, and when the monies are due. A reputable attorney will not require you to pay all the fees up front so don’t. In fact, in our contract, the final 1/3 of the total is not due until AFTER our residency is completed and we have our cedulas, or residency identification.
         Before we even signed a contract, Monika provided us with a step-by-step outline of the process we were facing: what papers we would have to get from the United States, how they would be authenticated, what kind of timeline was involved, and what steps we could handle here in Costa Rica prior to our departure. Our first task was to have eight small headshots made. When we easily had that done at a local photo studio for less than $5, we felt we were on our way to becoming residents. Little did we know what was ahead!
         We were also told to go online and register with the U.S. State Department as tourists living in a foreign country, then print out the confirmation they would send us and bring that to our next meeting with Monika. Foolishly, we failed to do this step promptly and when we realized our error had to scramble to get copies made at a local libreria (stationery and copy store) since we have no printer. At our next meeting we signed the contract, then Monika drove us into San Jose to have our fingerprints recorded by the police department there.
         The fingerprint procedure began with a lengthy wait outdoors along with two dozen Ticos sitting in a few chairs or on a low concrete wall lining the sidewalk. The wait seemed interminable and when we were finally called inside, the scene was a Third World tableau of peeling light green paint on walls and bored bureaucrats seated at ancient metal desks. But they were working on modern computers and the actual process of answering questions and fingerprinting took only a few minutes.
         Next stop: the U.S. Embassy to obtain documents proving our Social Security income but when we arrived, we learned that that section of the Embassy was open only from 8:00 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. each day. Since it was early afternoon by then, that part of our day’s activities were scrapped. The next day Layne and I went in once again, this time by bus and taxi, and got the necessary documents promptly and with little bureaucratic hassle. Quite a contrast from the fingerprinting experience.
         Lest I bore you with too much on the residency process, I’ll end this post with a very happy recent occurrence. Big numbers of the national bird of Costa Rica, the clay-colored robin named the Yigüirro, live near our casa and are the source of many of the melodious birdcalls we hear. A few days ago as Layne and I were sitting inside with the sliding door open to catch the breeze, there was a sudden movement, then a loud clunk as something hit the floor-to-ceiling window. We looked behind the sofa and there was a Yigüirro, stunned from his wrong turn into our living room! Quickly but gently, I picked him up and set him outside in the shade of a plant, hoping that his open mouth and inert body didn’t indicate a mortal injury. For long minutes, he didn’t move. I even went back out and petted him softly but got no reaction so I left him alone. Soon, I looked out to find him gingerly pecking at the ground, apparently picking up small bugs and shortly after that, I was relieved to find that he had flown away. It seemed worthy of a minor award of some kind, saving the life of a national bird! 


  1. Where to start... any decent immigration attorney is only going to ask 1/2 up front, 1/2 due when you get your cedula. Even with a "top-notch" attorney (good luck) you are going to have headaches and bewilderment, and a long wait (figure at least 16 months until you get a resolution, months more perhaps to get the cedula). This is not your attorney's fault, the fault lies squarely on Migración, but you still have to stay on top of the attorney to keep the process moving.

    Yes, Costa Rica is a nice place to live (we're for good!) but do yourself a favor and check out other countries as well that are as beautiful, less expensive, have easier residency laws, etc. Uruguay is one you should check out. CR has to be the most expensive of the latin american countries with the most byzantine, moving-target, laws on the books.

    I see you've picked up the meme from the government that perpetual tourists are somehow bad for CR. In the case of Nicas who come here and mooch off the social services, yes, for 99% of ex-pats? I've yet to see any evidence that they are bad for CR. They bring money, know-how, provide local employment, fresh ideas, and generally improve any place they occupy. The CR government loves to disguise these law changes as bettering the country somehow, but when you think about them and dig in you see it is just another way to extract money from ex-pats (and Ticos!). CR has a lot of international debt to pay off and still a long ways to go on their infrastructure.

    Enjoy your stay!!

  2. We aren't sure about the paying $100 to renew your 90 days visa. So far no one has reported that it worked, and there is some doubt about the text of the new law. We will just have to wait and see.

    Best of luck.

  3. I know the writer of this blog-site and she has quite an imagination about Costa Rica and Pura Vida, so much so that it's too involved to comment.
    Cy Bolinger

  4. Please don't take Casry's commentary as Gospel...we filed our papers with Monika just over two months ago and we already have a resolution...just waiting for the appointment now.

    As for the blogger, she has every right to imagine whatever she wants about CR and Pura Vida....enjoy life and don't bring hte Old Country with you.