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Working in Costa Rica

Find out how to get a job and work in Costa Rica

Working in Costa Rica has become an option for numerous assignees, since multinationals discovered the benefits of setting up shop here. Are you one of these expats? Or are you interested in the ecotourism sector? Read on for info on the economy, permits, and business etiquette in Costa Rica!

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Employment in Costa Rica

  • When it comes to the local economy, Costa Rica makes use of its rich environment, from agriculture to ecotourism.

  • Free Trade zones have encouraged a lot of foreign investments in the country.

  • However, Costa Rica protects its local workforce by giving them priority over foreign employees.

  • Nevertheless, Costa Ricans are very open and always ready for a chat, even at the workplace.

Agriculture and Tourism: Making Use of a Lush Environment

Traditionally, Costa Rica has been world-renowned for the quality of its produce. Coffee, pineapples, and bananas have helped to put Costa Rica on the map and provided a steady flow of income for the country. Although bananas and coffee are still a valuable source of foreign exchange, today, only about 14% of the workforce is still working in the first sector, accounting for some 6.2% of the national GDP. Industry and services have long overshadowed the importance of agriculture.

The nation profits greatly from its rich flora and fauna. The environmental protection agendas many nations contemplate are actually working in Costa Rica, blessing the country with a biodiversity that is almost unparalleled. Costa Rica was trailblazing in the introduction of the ecotourism concept, and it is the Central American country which attracts most tourists.

Tourism, as the country’s main source of foreign exchange, amounts for a respectable share of the GDP. It provides work for thousands — in hotels and restaurants, as guides and vendors. 

Foreign Influences in the Economy

The large influx of foreign investments Costa Rica has been experiencing for a number of years (mainly thanks to education reforms and the FTZ, see below) has changed the image of the country deeply. International giants such as Intel and Procter & Gamble were seminal in promoting working in Costa Rica as a real alternative and lucrative step for multinationals.

The economic transformation, which began with the rise of ecotourism in the 1980s, was successfully carried on through the international investments of the following decade. In all of Latin America, Costa Rica is among the countries with the highest level of foreign direct investment per capita. Today, the production of pharmaceuticals, microprocessors, medical equipment, food processing, and garments is among the nation’s top foreign exchange earners, and 22% of the workforce has found employment working in Costa Rica’s industry.

Multinational corporations have a large part in this: Intel alone created thousands of new jobs by building a major chip factory in the country, providing thousands of people with employment. However, as of April 2014, Intel announced the closure of its Costa Rican manufacturing facilities, which resulted in 1,500 layoffs. Bank of America announced roughly 1,400 layoffs.

The industrial sector aside, working in Costa Rica today means working in the service sector for a large majority of Ticos. Over two thirds of the workforce has found employment in this sector. This figure includes people in Costa Rica’s booming tourism industry.

Free Trade Zones

Free Trade Zones (FTZ) are one of the nation’s biggest assets and among the most important reasons why so many multinational corporations are interested in working in Costa Rica. FTZ are secured areas outside of Costa Rica’s customs territory. In other words, none of the usual customs regulations apply. Instead, the zones offer nearly universal exemptions on imports of necessary goods, materials, and machinery a company might need. The additional asset of a highly skilled and motivated local workforce makes Costa Rica’s FTZs a very attractive option for many multinational corporations.

FTZ are usually located within a short distance from major transport and economic hubs in order to provide companies with easy and quick access to anything they will need. One quarter of the goods and merchandise produced can be sold on the Costa Rican market.

Of course, all those incentives of the FTZs are not just offered because of altruistic motives. They benefit the local workforce, eager to start working in the booming production industry, and thus contribute a considerable share to the nation’s GDP.

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Costa Rica: Challenges for Expats

Although the previous part of this article might paint a very rosy picture, Costa Rica does, of course, also have a number of pressing, but unresolved, issues. Unemployment is just below 10%, and around one in five are living below the poverty line. Erratic infrastructure and large amounts of red tape can make it hard for upcoming businesses to get established in the nation. Nevertheless, the country’s prospects for the future are very promising, and those problems will surely be addressed within the next few years.

Protecting the Local Workforce

Seeing how Costa Rica offers so many incentives and possibilities for companies and employees alike, many of you might be expecting some kind of catch. Unfortunately, you are right: Costa Rica is very protective of its workforce and makes it very hard for foreigners to get in and get to work.

As we have detailed in our article on living in Costa Rica, the level of education in the country is unparalleled in the region. Costa Ricans are, of course, very well aware of this fact and take more than a little pride in it. A job will only be given to an expat when capable personnel are not available domestically. Your chances of finding employment — or actually getting a work permit — are best when you have a special set of skills that Costa Rica’s workforce is lacking in.

Help with the Paperwork: Immigration Lawyers

The most convenient way of handling the application for your work visa is, of course, just letting your future employer take care of it. Many of the multinational companies in Costa Rica have special departments taking care of immigration and work permit issues, helping prospective new employees circumvent the considerable red tape involved in the process.

If you do not have any such luck, you will find the road towards employment in Costa Rica somewhat time-consuming and complicated. In any case, we strongly advise you to consult one of the many Costa Rican lawyers specializing in these issues. The embassy of your home country in Costa Rica can provide you with a list of lawyers proficient in English (and sometimes additional languages).

Even if your Spanish skills are generally fine, you should get in touch with one of those specialists, as official Costa Rican procedures can get quite confusing. Fortunately, as with almost every service in Costa Rica, lawyer’s fees are quite a bit lower than you might expect. It will definitely be money well spent.

If you are undertaking the road towards employment without the aid of a Costa Rica based employer, you can expect the whole process to take more than half a year. Costa Rican immigration law requires prospects to supply notarized translations of all documents which are not in Spanish. You cannot just let any translator do it, though; they must be government approved and must either be located in Costa Rica or work for a Costa Rican consulate. The embassy of Costa Rica in your home country will gladly help you with names and addresses.

Business Etiquette in Costa Rica

There is not much about business etiquette in Costa Rica that will surprise or alienate global minds. Western standards generally apply throughout the board. But of course, there are some country-specific cultural mannerisms expats should be aware of in order not to offend anyone or end up in embarrassing situations.

Too Close for Comfort? Personal and Business Relationships

The Costa Rican concept of personal space might take some time to adjust to, especially for North Americans and people from Central and Northern Europe. Many people, both acquaintances and strangers, will keep much less distance from you in any situation. Touching among acquaintances is also a lot more widespread in Costa Rica than it might be in your own culture. This is very normal and no cause for concern or discomfort. Just go with it, and who knows, you might come to like it!

Take some time to get to know your coworkers and colleagues. It is customary to stop and chat for a minute, even when meeting someone in passing. Family always comes first in Costa Rica, so you might want to inquire about your colleague’s family or share details about yours.

Small talk is also part of any business conversation. Do not bring up any business-related topics before your business partner does in order to not seem rude or rash. Rushing straight to the actual point or showing signs of impatience will not shed a good light on you. Again, take your time and talk a little. Topics can range from anything country-specific — nature, people, food, habits — to soccer, the nation’s favorite pastime, family, and dancing. It will be hard for you to miss that Costa Ricans love to dance and will make use of any occasion for a little display of rhythmic proficiency.

Costa Rica: A Macho Culture?

Expat women should keep in mind that machismo is still very much alive and well in Costa Rica — not only in the very traditional roles of men and women in rural areas, but also in everyday life in the big cities. Some mannerisms that would clearly be considered harassment in Western cultures are normal and accepted here.

Staring and hollering at passing women is a preferred pastime of many Costa Ricans. Advances stop at this point in the vast majority of cases, though, so there is no cause for serious concern. Still, the majority of our female readers might find this unpleasant. Unfortunately there is very little you can do about this, so it is best to just completely ignore it.

If you experience this behavior in the workplace, though, it is time to act. Confrontations and arguments are done in a fairly indirect manner in Costa Rica. Clear and direct action might confuse and irritate your coworkers. Please try to respect this, no matter how unprofessional the behavior towards you was. As in any workplace argument, it is important to bring your point across and clearly mark boundaries without blindsiding your counterpart.

Do you want to relocate? If you have never moved abroad, the process will be overwhelming, and if you have, you know the burden that lies ahead. Whatever stage you are at, InterNations GO! can help you with a complete set of relocation services, such as home finding, school search, visa solutions, and even pet relocation. Our expert expat team is ready to get your relocation going, so why not jump-start your move abroad and contact us today? Best to start early!

Updated on: December 06, 2018
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