Working Online In Costa Rica, Or Around The Globe, As An Ex-pat
Updated: Jul 24
Are you wondering how to work online as an ex-pat in Costa Rica (or around the globe)? If so, you're not alone. Because we live in Costa Rica, many people ask about living here and how we do it if we're not retired.
The following is an overview of how you can think about living in Costa Rica and working online.
*NOTE — Most countries have similar rules and laws to the ones I'm about to explore for ex-pats who want to work online. Consider the following a broad overview of what is possible around the globe.
About 70,000 Americans live in Costa Rica, according to the U.S. State Department, and in a June 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure, Costa Rica is a top 20 best country for Americans who want to live abroad.
There are no sure figures of how many of these 70,000 are working online, but we imagine a good percentage are.
Plus, according to www.abrotherabroad.com, the global population of digital nomads is ~ 35M, with a collective economic value of ~ USD 787B.
This means the number of digital nomads worldwide by age looks like this:
20s – 4,900,000
30s – 16,450,000
40s - 5,600,000
50s - 6,650,000
60s - 1,400,000
And, if you're reading this and in your 50s or 60s, you can see that you're not alone in your query. James and I are in our early 60s and earn a portable income while living in Costa Rica.
First, let's clear up digital nomad (a common term) vs. working online.
A digital nomad is anyone who works online performing their job. They use mobile technology, which gives them location freedom.
*NOTE—A digital nomad routinely changes their location, staying for anywhere from two days to years, but they ultimately move around. Working online doesn't mean you have to be a digital nomad.
For example, we are not digital nomads while earning a portable income. Instead, we make a home for ourselves here in Costa Rica, working online freelancing. We travel for enjoyment, but we keep a home.
Why work online in Costa Rica?
People come to Costa Rica as ex-pats for different reasons—wanting a change of lifestyle, looking for a lower cost of living, wanting to raise a family outside North America, ready to retire, and more.
Those who work online do it for different reasons—the need to earn income, the desire to stay relevant and be of service, wanting to keep working on their terms, padding retirement, and staving off social security.
Depending on your reasons for considering moving and working online, Costa Rica is an excellent country to earn an income as an ex-pat while enjoying all that it has to offer: the Pura Vida mindset, kind and generous people, waterfalls, lush green landscapes, beautiful beaches, inviting cities, good food, excellent and inexpensive healthcare, tropical climate, and a blue zone.
First, about working (not online) in Costa Rica
To legally work (in person, not online) in Costa Rica, you must be a citizen or a legal permanent resident. Therefore, you will need a work visa if you do not fit into one of those categories.
What it takes to obtain a work visa in Costa Rica can be hard-won —it costs money and takes time, so many of us work online because we can.
To be an employee…takes a lot
To work as an employee in Costa Rica, you need a work visa, which can be a 5–7+-month process. To do this, your first step is getting a residence permit.
There are different residence permits, but they don't all allow foreigners to work.
A temporary residence permit for retirees receiving social security does not allow you to work as an employee in Costa Rica.
A temporary residence permit for renters showing a stable income of $2,500 per month for two years does not allow you to work as an employee in Costa Rica.
A temporary residence permit is for executives and personnel who work for corporations established in Costa Rica. You can be an employee with this permit.
A temporary residence permit for investors who invest at least $150,000 in a business, stocks, or real estate does not allow you to be an employee but will allow you to own and manage your business. However, you MUST hire local labor.
*NOTE—It's important to remember that non-residents of Costa Rica can manage and own their business but NOT perform any business duties or tasks. Unfortunately, foreigners often make this mistake unintentionally or try to get away without "getting caught."
If you are an owner and an immigration agent stops by for a surprise inspection and catches you serving clients, you risk deportation and other severe penalties.
Being a business owner here means having at least one employee on "Seguro Social" (CAJA*).
CAJA is Costa Rica's social security system. To be a member of CAJA, you must be a resident. As a member, you pay a percentage based on your declared income level when you apply for residency.
These laws, like in all countries, are designed to protect the rights of the citizens and legal residents of Costa Rica.
Bottom line? Don't try to get away with anything when living in a foreign country.
As you can see, choosing to work in Costa Rica as a business owner or employee is complicated and takes an investment in energy, time, and money. Before going this route, consider what investment you are willing to make for what return.
To find out more about how to obtain a permit to visit, live, or work in Costa Rica, here are two reliable sites to answer your questions:
Working Online in Costa Rica
Several ways to work online don't require Costa Rica residency.
We earn portable income through freelancing, coaching, and digital marketing.
We freelance online using the skills we learned through our careers and use digital marketing to earn money as affiliates (earning commissions selling others' products and services). I, Jeanne, am a Certified Freelance Coach helping others get up online and make a freelancing income.
And because we are U.S. citizens, all the money we earn through online income is subject to U.S. taxes. So, we declare our income while living in Costa Rica, working with a U.S. accountant, just as we did in the States.
Freelancing is the simplest way to start your income, which you can begin even before you move and continue earning while living in Costa Rica. We encourage learning to freelance before you move so you land with an income.
Working Online—Is it legal?
You can apply for Costa Rica's Digital Nomad Visa, but even without the visa, working online is legal in Costa Rica.
The digital nomad visa is called "estancia" in Costa Rica.
You can be self-employed or work as an employee for a company.
You must make a steady income of at least $3,000 per month over the past year and prove that you can continue receiving at least this amount.
For a family, the threshold goes up to $4,000 per month. Incomes can be combined to meet this amount, but a marriage certificate is required.
The visa is valid for one year and renewable for an additional year if the holder has spent 180+ days in Costa Rica in their first year.
Medical insurance must be purchased for the length of stay
You can stay in Costa Rica for the whole time of your visa, with a possible extension, without having to leave every 90 days. You can come and go as you please.
You are exempt from Costa Rican income taxes (vs. being an employee)
You are exempt from import taxes on work equipment
With your valid foreign driver's license, you have driving privileges for the length of your visa without leaving every 90 days.
The process of applying online is quicker compared to other visas.
Full disclosure: We do not have a digital nomad visa. We leave the country every 90 days for the day or take a trip. 2023 is the year we are considering if we want to apply for residency.
Where can you find work?
(Our for-rent freelancing haven in Costa Rica — Casa Azul 🌴)
There are different ways to earn a portable income; freelancing, digital marketing and relationship marketing are the three most popular ways.
Freelancing is undoubtedly the easiest "jump off" point for working online. You can start a freelancing side hustle before you move to see what you can do, build confidence, and be ready to go. This is what we did.
There are several freelance sites to choose from, with 100+ total.
Freelancing is made up of categories of skills that you can use to make an income.
*NOTE —An important distinction when considering freelancing is not confusing what you did for your career and your skills. Your skills are something you do well, enabling you to have a job. You have skills…🙌🏻
For example, you could have been a dental hygienist for 25 years, wondering what you could do online. You used communication, collaboration, critical thinking, attention to detail, organization, time management, customer service, etc. These skills can be translated into freelancing for clients looking for them to solve a problem.
Freelancing allows you to manage your business, work the hours you want, where and when you want, and choose your clients.
You can control your rates and choose from various projects.
How much can you make?
Here is a glimpse into what you can earn as a freelancer. These percentages aren't measured in time but in your intensity, drive, and focus to make money as a freelancer. There's no "truth" or "fact" about it, but this will give you a way to imagine what you can do with part-time energy, part-time while planning transition energy, or even full-time power.
Casual Attention, 20%-30% intensity = $500 - $1,500 per month
Involved Attention, 40%-60% intensity = $1,500 - $3,000 per month
Focused Attention, 70%-100% intensity = $,3000+ per month
*Rates are different based on skills and offers
Other ways to earn income online include:
Remote work with a U.S. company – If you are an employee of a U.S. company, and they allow you, you can work remotely. Choosing this method is between you and your company.
Digital Marketing — Using the internet and digital technologies to promote products and services. Digital marketing includes affiliate marketing, selling other people's products and services by promoting them and earning sales commissions. This can be a good selling option and earning a commission without having your products and services. However, there can be a heavy investment and a long learning curve.
Multilevel Marketing (MLM) — This business model is based on hierarchical sales teams selling products and services to consumers while recruiting additional sales reps. MLM has been around for a long time and is considered controversial by some.
We earn a portable income here in Costa Rica. We chose this lifestyle and have found it an excellent way to go for us.
If you're considering moving here or anywhere abroad and wondering how to continue earning an income, doing it online is a viable, and maybe the only, option.
Millions are working this way around the globe, and this number doesn't appear to be slowing down soon.
Check out this article from Bloomberg to read their outlook for freelancing.
If you've considered working online, this is an excellent time to start. Click here for our website to find out more, schedule a call, or fill out our Connect Form.
Here's to your journey!
Jeanne 🌺 James