Bitcoin billionaires are flocking to Puerto Rico in search of reduced taxes and a more tropical lifestyle

David Johnston, a crypto entrepreneur and investor, relocated his parents, wife, three daughters, and company to Puerto Rico in March 2021. The 36-year-old, who has been working in the crypto sector since 2012, says it was a no-brainer to relocate from Austin.

Apart from the fact that Puerto Rico enjoys a tropical climate all year and beautiful beaches, the US territory also boasts crypto-friendly legislation, such as large tax reductions for anyone who spend at least 183 days on the island each year. Residents can keep their American passports while avoiding paying capital gains taxes. It undoubtedly helped cement the deal for Johnston, but the greater motivator for him was a dread of missing out.

"That's where all my buddies are," says the narrator. "I don't have a single friend left in New York, and perhaps the epidemic has hastened this, but every single one of them has migrated to Puerto Rico," he added, adding that many of his California pals had followed suit.
 
Manatí, Puerto Rico
Manatí, Puerto Rico
According to CNBC, Johnston went to check it out himself in early 2021 after watching his friends and colleagues leave.

"I responded, 'Wow, okay, I understand it,'" says the author. Johnston recounted his initial impressions of the little island region, which can be driven around in half a day. "There are three million inhabitants on the island... This area is large enough to house a technology center."

Puerto Rico, according to Johnston, reminds him a lot of Austin in 2012. He believes the city felt small before Tesla, Samsung, and Apple helped convert it into one of the country's hottest innovation centres. However, Austin, like Puerto Rico now, had a lot of energy and a lot of passionate people moving in, which accelerated over time. Making the move to Puerto Rico, for Johnston, feels like getting in on the ground floor.

"That's where my neighborhood is." That's where my friends and family are going, and they're going to construct something wonderful. That's what I like about open source: it's something that helps regular people. That's one of the things I like about blockchain. "Everyone is welcome," he stated.
 
David Johnston's daughter at their home in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo
David Johnston’s daughter at their home in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo
David Johnston

The perks of island living

Puerto Rico has quickly established itself as a new hotspot for the crypto community.

Frances Haugen, a Facebook whistleblower who told the New York Times she bought cryptocurrency "at the appropriate time," moved from San Francisco to Puerto Rico last year, partly to hang out with her "crypto buddies" on the island. Logan Paul, a controversial YouTube personality and NFT investor, as well as crypto billionaire Brock Pierce, a child actor (of "Mighty Ducks" fame) turned 2020 indie presidential candidate, set up shop there.

Meanwhile, Johnston claims that his entire office building is being taken up by start-ups and crypto firms.

"On the fifth story, there's Pantera Capital (a crypto fund), and on the sixth floor, there's a co-working area. My company, DLTx, occupied the eighth floor, while NFT.com occupied the twelfth. "All of this happened in the last year," Johnston tells CNBC.

Redwood City Ventures, a firm that invests in bitcoin and blockchain startups, has also established a presence in the United States.

For many, the main attraction to the island is Act 60, which provides large tax benefits to qualified inhabitants.

In the United States, short-term capital gains are taxed at up to 37% and long-term capital gains are taxed at up to 20%, which applies to bitcoin and other assets held for more than a year. If certain conditions are met, one of Act 60's tax advantages, known as the Individual Investors Act, reduces that tax obligation to zero. This is particularly significant for businesses and cryptocurrency traders.

There is also a significant tax advantage for businesses to establish themselves in Puerto Rico. Mainland businesses must pay a federal corporate tax of 21% plus a state tax that varies. A company that exports its services out of Puerto Rico, to the United States, or basically anywhere else, pays a 4% corporate tax rate.

 
David Johnston's family celebrating Christmas in the hills of Puerto Rico
David Johnston’s family celebrating Christmas in the hills of Puerto Rico
David Johnston
Any gains made before landing in Puerto Rico are still subject to the usual capital gains tax rates on the mainland, according to CPA Shehan Chandrasekera. The gains made after becoming a Puerto Rican resident are the only ones that are tax-free.

"That's the aspect that no one is talking about," said Chandrasekera, who is the head of tax strategy at CoinTracker.io, a crypto tax software startup.

There is, however, a workaround.

If an investor has made a profit, they can relocate to Puerto Rico, obtain residency, sell their investment, and then repurchase it as a new position. They avoid muddying the waters by bringing over any gains from the United States in this way.

Build it and they’ll come

Puerto Rico's nearly too-good-to-be-true tax regulations were devised a decade ago to assist lure in inhabitants and revenue at a time when the island was losing both.

The region has had a streak of terrible luck in recent years, including earthquakes, hurricanes, a multi-year bankruptcy, and a global epidemic. Investors are pouring in at an all-time high, much to the government's relief.

Giovanni Mendez, a corporate and tax attorney, has been assisting in the onboarding of new Puerto Ricans. He tells CNBC that over half of his clients are now crypto firms or investors, a figure that has risen dramatically in the previous six years.

Mendez, who grew up two hours west of San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital, says he began talking to clients about moving to Florida (a tax-free state) or Puerto Rico in March 2020, just as the Covid epidemic began to shut down governments around the world. Ultimately, many people chose Puerto Rico.

"With everything going on with the pandemic, I wasn't anticipating a lot of people to move, but on the contrary, a lot of individuals just decided to pull the trigger," Mendez said. "This is almost probably accompanied by a rise in the value of crypto assets."
 
 
Crypto investor and entrepreneur George Burke in Puerto Rico
Crypto investor and entrepreneur George Burke in Puerto Rico
George Burke
George Burke, a crypto investor, had been contemplating the move since 2018, but he eventually took the plunge last year.

"I realized I needed to make a shift after the performance of 2021 with bitcoin and the performance of my firm, so Puerto Rico became a really excellent alternative," Burke said.

Burke wouldn't give a specific cash amount to CNBC, but he did claim his crypto assets are in the mid-seven figure area. "I was at an ethereum crowd sale... Only about 6,000 individuals were able to accomplish that," Burke said, adding that he also worked on the first bitcoin debit card in 2013, according to CNBC.

Burke claims that the transition was relatively painless.

"I got on an aircraft, and I created my residency the same day I got off the airline by renting a room at a friend's house, and I started the clock," he explained.

Burke also stated that he was not required to apply prior to his arrival. He applied for the individual investor's exemption on his own, and he paid a lawyer $15,000 to assist him with the business exemption.

Johnston had a similar experience, claiming that going through all of the cursory evaluations took between six and nine months, though it "didn't take a significant amount of effort."

"I mean, it's America," Johnston explained. "You do not require a visa." You are not need to submit an application for residency. A passport is not required. You may simply take a domestic trip to San Juan, obtain a driver's license, purchase a home, and launch a business downtown."

He went on to say, "It was pretty smooth."
 
El Morro Fort in Old San Juan
El Morro Fort in Old San Juan

Inside Puerto Rico’s crypto clique

Theodore Agranat told CNBC that he understood very little about Puerto Rico before moving there, except from the idea that it was an American colony. When Hurricane Maria hit, he also remembered witnessing footage of former President Donald Trump throwing paper towels into a crowd.

However, after conversing with friends who had made the move and taking a scouting trip himself this spring, the 45-year-old realized that Puerto Rico could be the kind of location he had been looking for since the birth of his first son in 2003: Agranat is part of a community of entrepreneur families with children that embraces home-schooling and alternative diets — he eats raw foods himself — while also acting as a start-up incubator, bringing together business-savvy and creative brains. In the southeast Puerto Rican city of Humacao, he discovered just that.

The financial incentives, according to Agranat, who leads an early-stage blockchain investment firm that invested in over 225 businesses last year.

So far, island living has proven to be a good fit.

Agranat and his wife homeschool their three children, and they've tailored the curriculum for their 14-year-old to incorporate crypto-related topics like NFTs, crypto games, and token trading.

Johnston, who lives in Guaynabo, a San Juan suburb, has taken a similar strategy. He and his wife homeschool their three children, and crypto has always been a part of the curriculum.

Johnston told CNBC, "My kids have had crypto wallets since they were born." "When Grandma tried to compensate them in cash for doing tasks for her, they answered, 'No thanks, Grandma.' 'Bitcoin is my preferred method.'

Many individuals congregate outside of the suburbs for Crypto Mondays, a weekly meet-up hosted at excellent hotels and restaurants in the capital, and Crypto Curious, which attracts newcomers to the industry and covers topics such as NFTs, DeFi, and how to open your own crypto wallet. Hundreds of residents have started to attend the sessions, which are now also available in Spanish.

Burke tells CNBC that he attends a luncheon every Thursday with roughly 30 to 40 other crypto-minded people who live in either Condado Beach or Old San Juan, and that his friends and crypto colleagues have been moving to Puerto Rico since the last bitcoin bull run in 2017.

After first easing restrictions for vaccinated travelers, Puerto Rico is now moving closer to requiring vaccinations for visitors.
After first easing restrictions for vaccinated travelers, Puerto Rico is now moving closer to requiring vaccinations for visitors.
David Madison | Stone | Getty Images

Some locals aren’t happy

The inflow of new residents has not been well received by all.

For one thing, residents are irritated that they do not qualify for the capital gains tax exemption, which is only available to non-Puerto Ricans. According to Mendez, the local rate for long-term capital gains in Puerto Rico is 15%, and the gap has strained relations between some natives and newcomers. On social media, an organization known as #AbolishAct60 has pushed hard against the tax breaks.

There's also the matter of whether the tax cuts are accomplishing what the government intended, such as creating jobs and injecting more money into the local economy. In December, Nobel Laureate and economist Joseph Stiglitz told a conference in San Juan that he was doubtful of the tax plan's economic benefits.

The influx of crypto millionaires into Puerto Rico has also pushed up real estate prices.

"The lack of inventory combined with the great demand has resulted in prices that have never been seen in Puerto Rico before," said Francisco Diaz Fournier of Luxury Collection Real Estate.

"I've been following the markets for a while and wasn't anticipating this...

"You have properties in Dorado Beach that have sold for more than $20 million," said Fournier, who also told CNBC that there are properties on the market right now for $27 million, $30 million, and $34 million, figures that have become increasingly common.

The rising cost of living and rising real estate prices have fanned the flames of anger.

However, Keiko Yoshino, who worked for the government in Washington, D.C. for seven years before relocating to Puerto Rico, is attempting to bridge the gap by organizing events that bring the two groups together to enable information transfer. Which, in principle, was one of the goals of the tax incentive program in the first place.

Yoshino, who is the president of the Puerto Rico Blockchain Trade Association, is a key figure in the organization and execution of Crypto Curious events. But dispelling stereotypes is a significant part of what she's aiming for.

"I was dubbed a crypto colonizer," Yoshino explained. "I'm not a crypto millionaire." I worked for the government for seven years. I don't even have any motivation.... Stereotypes must be addressed on both sides. That's one of the things I enjoy about cryptocurrency: it's not a political issue. It isn't necessary for it to be a social concern. It's a chance to bring people together."
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