This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today.
Several times in this process, I have told people that my life feels a bit like the movie The Martian, in which Matt Damon gets left behind on Mars. Spoiler alert: after getting back to earth, he talks about the moment in space when you think you’re going to die. At that point, you can either give up and die or start doing the math—solve one problem, then another. And if you solve enough problems, you get to go home. Or in my case, to Costa Rica.
In many ways we’ve felt like astronauts about to go into space. You think about leaving the familiar. You think about going into the unknown. You do all the training and hard work to prepare. Then comes the launch, and you just hold on and go for the ride. Except in our case, there are just over 3 million US expats already out there in space—twenty thousand of them in Costa Rica. This is not unexplored territory. There is data to be mined for answers.
I thought I should document some of the problems we’ve had to solve in our preparation. It might help someone else. It might be good to look back on some day in the future. But it is amazing to discover how many strange resources there are these days.
Money and Banking
The main rule is this: people really don’t want you to leave the U.S. About a month ago, my broker called with sadness in his voice telling me that his firm was breaking up with me if we were going to live overseas. I was a bit surprised by this since we will still be US citizens with a US mailing address and phone number, we will not be depositing money from Costa Rica, we do not currently have plans to even have a bank account there, and our modest draw will go into a Charles Schwab checking account, where we can access it through ATMs. But the financial industry is very touchy about money laundering and the paperwork and compliance they must do in such cases makes some firms set a policy of NO EXPATS. Thus, regarding our breakup, it wasn’t me; it was them. Fortunately, Schwab didn’t bat an eye and took our money.
And by the way, Schwab is the preferred debit card/checking account for expats because they refund all global ATM fees and do not charge a foreign conversion percentage. The standard, by the way, is $5 an ATM visit plus 2% of the money you are taking out. Ouch, babe. None of that with Schwab. So we are set.
I am now on a deep dive on Amazon for ways to hide money. Fake food cans, hairbrushes, toiletries—all designed to hide cash. Check it out yourself.
This was harder than it should have been. For living in Costa Rica, we were due to get new phones anyway, so we bought unlocked models that can take a Costa Rican pay-as-you-go sim card. That way, we get a local CR number and data, all for about $25 a month. Most folks down there, expats and locals, use What’s App for just about everything so that they don’t use up their data minutes. So, we’ll have that too.
But we also need to leave a US number with our bank and credit card companies. Enter Google Voice. You can open a free account that gives you an assigned number that works off WiFi on your computer or via an app on a mobile phone. You can stop there and just change all your banking and credit card contact numbers, or for $20, you can port your old number over to Google Voice. This kills your old phone plan as soon as you do it, so make sure you are ready to do so. This gives you the ability to get voice messages and texts and place and receive calls on your computer. But to have your mobile phone ring, you need a US number to forward your Google Voice to. So I’ve also added a burner app called Hushed to which I can forward my Google Voice so my mobile phone rings if I have WiFi. I would have just used Hushed alone except for the number-porting feature of Google Voice. I kind of wanted to keep my old number. Confusing? It’s been a bear for me to figure this out. Thus, as of today, my phone only rings or gets the Internet through WiFi. Jean still has her old service though. in case we need it. In Miami, the night before we fly to Costa Rica, we will port her number to Google Voice also.
Here’s the thing. Costa Rica doesn’t have addresses or street names. Or the government has them, but no one knows what they are or uses them. For example, the official address to my immigration lawyer’s firm: 100 mts sur y 50 mts este de los Tribunales de Atenas, Atenas, Costa Rica (100 meters south and 50 meters east of the Courts of Athens, Athens, Coast Rica). Seriously, that’s the address of a law firm. Everything down there is X meters from some landmark. Very Pittsburgh, if you ask me. So, mail is not a thing. There are some shipping and PO box options, but we will figure all that out after we get there.
But there are many mail services that assign you a US address. When they receive your mail, they email you a scan of the envelope and give you four choices: open it, scan it, and send me the PDF; throw it out; shred it; or forward it to another address. When you scan the contents, you then have the same choices again. They can even store it for you for pick up but that can get expensive if it’s going to be a while.
So, our address will have us living in Philadelphia. Suck it, Santa!
To get into Coast Rica, you do not need a COVID test, but you do need 90 days of traveler’s insurance that covers COVID. We bought a year for around $85 a month for both of us. This will be our health insurance. Just 48 hours before your flight, you fill out a Costa Rican health pass online and upload your insurance credentials. You then receive a QR code that gets you into the country. You also need to show a return plane ticket out of Costa Rica. Here’s where the genius comes in. There is a company called OnwardTicket.com that will sell you a reservation for $12. It’s not a plane ticket but a real reservation for a real flight that will cancel itself in 48 hours without you having to do anything. We’re going to be busy in Miami the night before our flight to CR, filling out health passes and getting onward tickets. I wish these things could be done sooner, but this is how it works. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the guy buying our house is coming from a 900-sq-ft condo in Boston. He needs stuff. He is gratefully taking all our furniture except for our king-size memory foam bed, our broken-down couch, and the dining room table where I have spent Thanksgivings since a young boy.
T-minus 22 days until launch. In the meantime, the couch is gone. The bed and the dining room table go tomorrow. Monday the house goes. Shit is getting real.