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Moving to Puerto Rico

A comprehensive guide to moving to Puerto Rico

If you’re looking for trustworthy information on Puerto Rico, you’ve come to the right place! Learn more about this gem in the Caribbean that allows you to enjoy sunshine all year and find out where to live, how to get around, and how to secure a visa for Puerto Rico.

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Relocating to Puerto Rico

At a Glance:

  • The tropical marine climate of Puerto Rico is responsible for year-round sunshine but also for tropical storms.
  • As Puerto Rico is a US territory, US consulates are responsible for handling visa applications.
  • Most expats settle in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, or in the south in Ponce, its second-largest city.
  • Carros Públicos (public cars) allow you to travel all over the island and reach even remote areas.
  • A working knowledge of Spanish can be of great help during the housing search in Puerto Rico.

In September 2017, Puerto Rico, along with other Caribbean islands, was hit by a series of hurricanes, one of which caused severe destruction to the infrastructure, as well as destroyed 80% of the island’s crops. At the end of 2017, large parts of the island are still without electricity and running water, leading to a severe healthcare crisis. It is unclear how long it will take the island to recover. 

As beautiful as this Caribbean island is, moving there is far less popular than moving away from it. Emigration from Puerto Rico was at its highest in the earlier and middle decades of the 20th century, when generations of young Puerto Ricans dreamed of a better life on the US mainland. Although Puerto Rico is a popular expat destination, its population keeps shrinking and many move back to the mainland again in pursuit of better opportunities.

A Short Introduction to Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a small archipelago in the northeastern Caribbean, just east of the Dominican Republic, and consists of one main and several smaller islands. The main island is the prime destination for most people. Of the smaller islands, only Vieques and Culebra are inhabited throughout the year.

Lovers of nature and those trying to escape the tourism industry are likely to consider moving to one the smaller islands. Even if some of them may lack the infrastructure to make them inhabitable all year round, they certainly make up for this with their long, sandy, deserted beaches and unspoiled nature.

Puerto Rico means “rich port”, but you’ll probably come across some other names for the island, too. Locals often refer to it as Borinquen, stemming from Borikén, the indigenous name for Puerto Rico. Another common nickname is la isla del encanto (the Island of Enchantment). Back when the first immigrants came to Puerto Rico, the island was known as San Juan Bautista, the name given to it by Christopher Columbus. In official terms, it is also often called the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a title used ever since 1950 when the territory was granted the right to draft a local constitution.

Storms and Sunshine in the Caribbean

With a land area of 8,959 km², Puerto Rico is only 8% of the size of Cuba, yet in terms of inhabitants it holds close to a third of Cuba’s population. What is more, most of Puerto Rico’s land area consists of mountains and is therefore uninhabited, so the majority of people opt to move to the island’s coastal plain belt in the north.

Puerto Rico is known for its tropical marine climate (and all that comes with it). Generally speaking, this means average temperatures of 28°C throughout the year with very little seasonal change. In the mountainous center, it can get a lot cooler, though. The hurricane season lasts from June to September.

While the beautiful beaches and year-round sunshine are great, Puerto Rico is also a geological hazard zone where earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides may occur. Frequent tremors are, in fact, nothing unusual.

Although these hazards are to be expected, Puerto Rico was hit by a series of hurricanes in September 2017 which caused significant damage across the island. At the time of writing in late 2017, large parts of the population were still without electricity and running water.

Visas and Residence Permits for Puerto Rico

As an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico has no government body dealing with external affairs. It is therefore subjected to US policy making in areas such as foreign relations, trade, customs administration, immigration and emigration, nationality and citizenship, etc. This means that you will have to deal with the US immigration authorities in order to get your visa for Puerto Rico.

Getting a residence and work permit for the US is notoriously difficult if you are not on a traditional expat assignment. A basic distinction is made between immigrant and non-immigrant visa categories. The Visa Wizard of the US Bureau of Consular Affairs can help you figure out which type of visa you need and how to apply for it. You will still need to schedule an interview appointment at the US embassy or consulate at your place of residence, though.

Residents of countries who take part in the Visa Waiver Program can travel to Puerto Rico without a visa if their stay does not exceed three months. However, they cannot take up employment during that period and they must register with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) beforehand.

Our guides on non-immigrant US visas and US immigration and citizenship offer more information on the visa application process.

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Puerto Rico’s Highlights: Where to Live and How to Get Around

Puerto Rico’s small size and mountainous interior limit the places where expats, especially working expats, tend to settle. We’ve picked the two most important cities of Puerto Rico, one on the north coast and one on the south coast, to give you a brief overview.

San Juan — The Proud Capital

With more than 395,000 inhabitants, the capital of Puerto Rico is not just the biggest city but also the most populous municipality on the island. Together with the municipalities of Bayamón, Guaynabo, Cataño, Canóvanas, Caguas, Toa Alta, Toa Baja, Carolina, and Trujillo Alto, San Juan forms a metropolitan area with approximately 2.5 million inhabitants.

Founded by Spanish colonists in 1521, San Juan is now an important economic and industrial center of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico and serves as a springboard for tourism in the whole region. San Juan experienced notable economic growth after World War II. Today, it is one of the manufacturing centers of Puerto Rico, specifically in the area of textile, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, machinery, and electronics.

The city has a corporate district called Hato Rey, which is often referred to as the “Wall Street of the Caribbean”. This is mostly due to la Milla de Oro (the golden mile), a part of the Ponce de León Avenue in Hato Rey, which is home to the headquarters of numerous local and international banks.

Ponce — The Pearl of the South

Ponce is the second largest city and municipality of Puerto Rico with a city population of about 160,000. Although the city at the southern shore lives in the shadow of its “big brother” San Juan, Ponce has its own charm. It is often referred to as La Perla del Sur (The Pearl of the South) and the Puerto Rican author Abelardo Díaz Alfaro called it a baluarte irreductible de puertoriqueñidad (a bastion of the irreducible essence of Puerto Rico).

The sugar cane industry was Ponce’s main source of income until the 1950s when the city started to diversify its economy. Today, it mostly revolves around mixed-industry manufacturing, retail, agriculture, and services. The Port of the Americas, a mega port modeled after those in Rotterdam and Singapore, has so far not brought in enough business to make up for its cost. However, there is still hope that the port will make Ponce an important trade and distribution center and give its economy a boost.

As a popular destination for cruise ships in the Caribbean, Ponce also derives significant income from tourism.. Travelers appreciate the city for its historic architecture, the many different museums, and its close proximity to Isla Caja de Muertos, with its hiking trails and gorgeous beaches.

Puerto Rico’s Transportation Connections

The island has eleven seaports, including the aforementioned Port of the Americas in Ponce and San Juan Port, enforcing Puerto Rico’s status as a center of trade and logistics in the Caribbean. If you ever want to visit the smaller islands or explore the Caribbean, the island’s ports are also where you will find the right ferry. From the port of Fajardo, for instance, you can catch a boat to Vieques or Flamenco islands.

There are three international airports on the island: Luis Muñoz International Airport in Carolina, near San Juan, is the largest air transportation hub in the region and often referred to as the Gateway to the Caribbean. In addition, there is Mercedita Airport in Ponce and Rafael Hernández Airport in Aguadilla.

The network of roads, freeways, expressways, and highways in Puerto Rico is maintained by the Highways and Transportation Authority, answering to the US Department of Transportation. In the metropolitan area of San Juan, a network of buses and a metro system (tren urbano) provide public transportation to all visitors and residents. The Autoridad de Transporte Integrado offers lots of information on how to get around town and plan your trip.

If you want to leave the capital, so-called Carros Públicos (public cars), or simply públicos for short, are a popular way to travel. They have set rates which are controlled by the Departmento de Transportación y Obras Públicas (DTOP) and offer travel on set routes and even to remote parts of the island. In fact, it is the only collective public transportation system, providing service to the entire island.

Accommodation in Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico, all types of housing are available to expats. Most of them rent their accommodation, but purchasing property is also possible if you are in for a long stay. Due to continued economic struggles and growing debt, property sales and prices have dropped significantly. Expats tend to settle mostly in in the cities, including San Juan and Ponce.

The process of finding a place to live is probably similar to what you’d do in your home country if you were looking for a new place. You can consult real estate agents, property websites, or local and national newspapers during your housing search. Although English is one of Puerto Rico’s official languages, a working knowledge of Spanish will be very useful when dealing with local landlords.

Updated on: December 19, 2017
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