Costa Rican Residency and the “Oops!” Factor

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    Featured Columnist – Retirement & Living
    Kat Sunlove

    Every nation has a procedure for obtaining legal residency and Costa Rica is no exception in requiring voluminous paperwork intended to validate your personal history, to confirm that you are not a criminal, that you have sufficient financial resources to survive without becoming indigent, or that you are not otherwise undesirable. While it may be true that some countries have a simpler process, all methods put your tolerance for bureaucracy to the test. If a document gets lost in the “To Do” file, a form is not filled out exactly to specifications, or a certified stamp fails to meet official requirements, the whole process can screech to a halt. Oops! Such errors can even force you to start all over again, costing both time and money.

    For these reasons, my husband Layne and I decided to go in person to obtain and certify each of the documents for our Costa Rican residency. Unless you are physically or financially unable to do so, we highly recommend the same approach. To avoid some of the debacles we had heard of in which a birth certificate was lost in the mail, a sloppy bureaucrat missed a deadline, or an envelope full of documentation fell off a courier’s bike, we felt that in the long run we might well save money and headaches by doing it ourselves.

    With the preliminary tasks taken care of in Costa Rica as detailed in my last column, Layne and I returned to the United States to begin collecting the rest of our documents. For most pensionado applicants, these include the following:

    • Birth certificates for you and your spouse (if married), issued by the authorities where you were born and including both parents’ names
    • Police record, issued by authorities in your last place of residence
    • Marriage certificate (if married)
    • A notarized copy of all pages in your passport

    Costa Rican Residency Application form and US Passport

    Each of these items must be authenticated by a notary public, if issued by a private entity or endorsed by a government official, such as a County Clerk for a birth certificate. The relevant Secretary of State must then certify each document and, finally, they must be authenticated by the Consul of Costa Rica for that jurisdiction. In addition, everything must be translated into Spanish. Oh, and did I mention that these documents are only valid for six months from the date they are issued? So there can be no delay in pulling the paperwork together and submitting it to the Immigration Department.

    For Layne and me, obtaining these various documents meant travel to Texas, California, Oregon and Nevada. Fortunately, we were planning to visit family and friends in most of those locales, so we combined residency business with personal pleasure during our summer travels.

    Before departing from California for our separate trips, however, we headed to the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department for what we thought would be a simple task: to obtain a letter stating that we had a clean police record. It was our understanding from the residency process outline given to us by our attorney that “local” authorities could provide the letter. We assumed this would be a simple matter of looking us up online and printing out a computerized report. Upon arriving at the sheriff’s office, we learned that we needed an appointment for fingerprints at $44 per set and they were booking dates two weeks out when we would both be out of town. Oops! Not only that, but the person who would sign the letter was not a public official, only a “sheriff’s technician.” That meant the signature would have to be notarized to meet Costa Rican requirements. And since the Sheriff’s office did not have a notary on staff, we would have to bring one with us. Undaunted, we made an appointment set for after we were to return from our travels and even located a “mobile notary” who would meet us there for a modest fee of $25.

    The author’s mother in front of the Texas State Capitol Building.

    In fact, most of the fees for our documents were “modest,” but the costs were beginning to add up as we found on our trip the next day to Nevada to get our marriage license authenticated. At the County Recorder’s office in Minden, we easily obtained a dated and embossed copy of our marriage certificate. Ka-ching — $15. But the fee at the Secretary of State’s office was where we faced sticker shock: either pay $95 for 24-hour expedited service or wait five weeks or more for the authenticated document. If you actually need to obtain the document in one hour, get ready to pay $1000! And you thought Las Vegas slot machines were the only form of legalized robbery in Nevada!

    After a drive together to Oregon where Layne would visit family and obtain his birth certificate, I flew to Texas to see my mother who had my birth certificate (the one item we had ordered by mail at a cost of $30). She and I immediately took off on a road trip to Galveston, with stops along the way to get my birth record certified and authenticated. Things went surprisingly well, with only a short wait at the Secretary of State’s office in Austin for the certification after paying a $15 fee. Then it was on to Houston to the Costa Rican Consulate, which has jurisdiction over Texas and several other states. That visit also went smoothly, other than my forgetting to bring copies — Oops! We needed the original and one copy for the Consulate, plus a copy for our attorney in Costa Rica and one for our own files.

    When I returned with the copies and the $40 fee, I learned some valuable information from a conversation between the Tica receptionist and a Gringa woman regarding her paperwork. She was obviously distressed and frustrated, having traveled from Costa Rica to Dallas, then to Boston, back to Dallas and was now in Houston, only to learn that she did not have the correct documentation. The receptionist was patiently explaining that the police clearance letter she had presented was inadequate since it was from local Boston authorities, not a state level office. As I listened, I recalled our upcoming appointment with the county sheriff. Was this another “Oops”?

    The building where the Costa Rican Consulate is housed in Houston, Texas

    When the receptionist left the room for a moment, I asked the woman about her situation. It seems she had gone to Costa Rica four years before to build a home and subsequently had a bad experience with the builder. When the economy tanked and she was unable to sell the house, she continued to live there as a “perpetual tourist” only now with the new law in place having decided to seek residency. Based on rather sketchy advice from a friend’s attorney, she had traveled in person to obtain her various documents, but operating on hazy legal counsel, she was stressed out and not feeling very happy about her quest for “Pura Vida.”

    When my turn came, I learned that although the Houston Consulate requires a statewide clearance, the receptionist was unclear whether the Los Angeles Consulate (where our other materials would be authenticated) had the same requirements. With a new president coming into power in Costa Rica, and the changes in consulate staff that might entail, no one, including our knowledgeable attorney, seemed fully informed. So much for definitive instructions!

    Our experience taught us several lessons: 1) go in person for your documents; 2) get them as quickly as possible to stay within the six-month window; 3) make multiple copies of everything; and 4) double-check all instructions through phone calls or emails to be sure the rules have not changed. And of course, start with a qualified, experienced and well-regarded attorney. With such precautions, you just might avoid the dreaded “Oops!”

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