Bitcoin millionaires are moving to Puerto Rico for lower taxes and island living

In March 2021, crypto entrepreneur and investor David Johnston moved his parents, wife, three daughters, and company with him to Puerto Rico. The 36-year-old, who has been involved in the crypto ecosystem since 2012, says the decision to relocate from Austin was kind of a no-brainer. 

Beyond the fact that Puerto Rico offers a year-round tropical backdrop with picturesque beaches, the U.S. territory also has crypto-friendly policies, including huge tax breaks to those who spend at least 183 days on the island each year. Residents can keep ahold of their American passports while at the same time not having to pay any taxes on capital gains. It certainly helped seal the deal for Johnston, though for him, the bigger incentive was an overwhelming fear of missing out.

“That’s where all my friends are. I don’t have one friend left in New York, and maybe the pandemic accelerated this, but every single one of them has moved to Puerto Rico,” he said, noting that many of his California friends have also made the move. 

Johnston tells CNBC that after seeing his friends and colleagues decamp, he went to check it out himself in early 2021.

“I said, ‘Wow, okay, I get it,'” Johnston recalled of his first impression of the small island territory, whose circumference can be driven in half a day. “The island has three million people…This is big enough to build a tech center.”

Johnston says that Puerto Rico reminds him a lot of Austin in 2012. Back before Tesla, Samsung, and Apple helped turn the Texas capital into one of the country’s hottest tech hubs, he says the city felt small. But similar to Puerto Rico today, Austin had a great energy and lots of passionate people moving there, which accelerated over time. So for Johnston, making the move to Puerto Rico feels a whole lot like getting in on the ground floor.

“That’s where my community is. That’s where the people I know and love are going, and they’re going there to build something cool. Something that helps everyday people, and that’s what I love about open source. That’s what I love about blockchain. It’s open to everybody,” he said. 

David Johnston’s daughter at their home in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo

David Johnston

The perks of island living

Puerto Rico has fast become the new hot destination for the crypto contingent. 

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who told the New York Times she bought crypto “at the right time,” made the move from San Francisco to Puerto Rico last year, in part to hang with her “crypto friends” on the island. Controversial YouTube star and NFT investor Logan Paul set up shop there, as did crypto billionaire Brock Pierce, a child actor (of “Mighty Ducks” fame) turned 2020 indie presidential candidate. 

Meanwhile, Johnston says his whole office building is filling up with start-ups and crypto companies.

“Pantera Capital (a crypto fund) is on the fifth floor and then there’s a co-working space on the sixth floor. My company, DLTx, we took over the eighth floor, and NFT.com took over the twelfth floor. That’s all happened in the last 12 months,” Johnston tells CNBC. 

Redwood City Ventures, a fund that invests in bitcoin and blockchain companies, has also opened an office in the American territory.

For many, the big draw to the island has to do with Act 60, which offers significant tax savings to qualifying residents. 

In the U.S., investors pay as much as 37% on short-term capital gains and up to 20% on long-term gains, which applies to crypto and other assets held for more than a year. One of the tax breaks under Act 60, known as the Individual Investors Act, drops that tax obligation down to zero if certain qualifications are met. This is especially huge for entrepreneurs and crypto traders.

There is also a major tax incentive for business owners to set down roots in Puerto Rico. Mainland companies are subject to a 21% federal corporate tax, plus a state tax, which varies. If a firm exports its services out of Puerto Rico, to the U.S. or really, anywhere else, they pay a 4% corporate tax rate. 

David Johnston’s family celebrating Christmas in the hills of Puerto Rico

David Johnston

CPA Shehan Chandrasekera does caution that any gains realized before arriving to Puerto Rico are still subject to the standard capital gains tax rates on the U.S. mainland. It is just the gains that are earned after becoming a Puerto Rican resident that are excluded from taxes.

“That’s the part that people are not talking about,” said Chandrasekera, who heads tax strategy at crypto tax software company CoinTracker.io. 

But there is a workaround.

If an investor has a certain amount of gain, they can go to Puerto Rico, establish residency, sell their stake, and then buy it back as a new position. That way, they avoid muddying the waters with any gains they carry over from the U.S.

Build it and they’ll come

Crypto investor George Burke had been thinking about making the move since 2018, but he finally went for it last year.

“With the performance of how 2021 was going with bitcoin, and the performance of my company, I knew I needed to make a change, so Puerto Rico became a really good option,” said Burke.

Though Burke wouldn’t share an exact dollar figure with CNBC, he did say that his crypto holdings rise to the mid-seven figure range. “I was in the crowd sale of ethereum…There were only like 6,000 people who were able to do that,” said Burke, who tells CNBC that he also worked on the first bitcoin debit card back in 2013.

As for the move itself, Burke says the process was relatively straightforward.

“I got on a plane, I established my residency the same day that I got off the plane just by renting a room at my friend’s house, and I started the clock,” he said. 

Burke added that he didn’t have to apply before arriving. He put in an app for the individual investor’s exemption himself, and he paid an attorney $15,000 to help with his business exemption.

It was a similar experience for Johnston, who says it took between six and nine months to go through all the perfunctory reviews, though it “didn’t take a huge amount of effort.”

“I mean, it’s America,” said Johnston. “You don’t need a visa. You don’t have to apply for residency. You don’t need a passport. You can just grab a domestic flight and show up in San Juan, grab a driver’s license, buy a house, and open an office downtown.”

“It was pretty smooth,” he added. 

Inside Puerto Rico’s crypto clique

Read More:
Bitcoin millionaires are moving to Puerto Rico for lower taxes and island living