Importing Vehicles

Importing a vehicle is expensive simply for the import duties. If purchasing a car that is already here in Costa Rica or at a dealership one will pay more, obviously for sales agents commissions and mark ups, which is why people choose to import vehicles. When bringing a car to Costa Rica by any means, driving, shipping it, etc. individuals are charged import duties. These duties are shockingly high. The import duty on a used car here runs from 45% to 70% of the government's declared retail value of the car. This is not the Kelly Blue Book value nor what someone actually paid for the car, not even close. It is the "Costa Rica book" and it is not cheap.

For vehicles, the government maintains an incredibly huge database with hundreds of thousands of valuations based on all the possible details on the vehicle. The import duty and inscription costs are based on the correct classification for each car and there's no fudging it.

Even on used cars the duties can be almost 100% depending on the year of the car. Logically, newer cars actually pay more duty than older cars currently. Older than 10 years, cars pay slightly less. This is expected to change and have newer cars pay a little less and older cars more to start cleaning up the roads and offering people the chance to own newer cars and keep emmissions down.

These numbers change almost every year as the Congress and Ministry of Customs change regulations. The taxes are so high to prevent overcrowding the streets and highways with more accessible cars. There are plans to prohibit the importation of older vehicles in the making.

Once the vehicle is here, the new owner will still need to have it inspected, pay a  Marchamo and pass RTV, and car insurance (optional). With all these costs, it is almost better to have an older car that can be repaired inexpensively and pays less of all of the above.

Next, models of cars in the USA and other countries are not the same as here. Some are not offered, some have different model names, and some cars offered here are not offered in North America. Please consider the model of car being selecting because it could give an owner problems when looking for repair parts. If someone brings a car that is rare it is very difficult to find parts and the car could be out of commission for weeks while waiting to import parts. Warranties for vehicles purchased in other countries are not usually valid here.

Sounds like all terrible news. However, as a result of all of these barriers surprisingly the cars here are able to hold their value for much longer.  AMAZING, cars do not automatically lose 80% of the value when new owners drive them off the lot despite the poor condition of many roads here.

There are two ways of bringing a vehicle to Costa Rica. One is by driving it into the country and the other is shipping it lose or in a container on a barge. Below is an explaination of the ways someone can bring a vehicle into Costa Rica:

Driving into Costa Rica from North America

Many people feel that driving down to Costa Rica is an adventure and a good way to save money. This is a long and dangerous road. The road is not always in the best of conditions. Accomodations are scarce and not very comfortable.

This is a challenge and it is not considered extrememly safe so please do so with caution. Civil war has plagued countries in route from the US to Costa Rica for years and these countries are still considered politically unstable and violent. To come down someone really should be fairly fluent in Spanish to do this trip. Even most Ticos will share that they would not do the trip because it is dangerous, there are suspicious officials to be bribed at almost every border crossing, and it is a long two lane road in shotty condition in many parts. There have even been stories that sometimes theifs and gangs through innocent little kids in the streets so people have to stop. Then a gang will come out of nowhere to rob or potentially kill people. It is no joke.

If despite the warnings a person decides to do the trip anyway, take out a special 15 day minimum insurance policy since North American policies are not valid South of the border. It is also highly recommended to have a fully equipped emergency kit.

At gas stations beware of scammer attendants looking to take advantage of foreigners  by swapping bills, not clearning the pump before pumping to charge more, and putting in the incorrect type of gas. The driving time is 8 days of 10 hours of driving per day minimum from Texas. Do not try and drive at night it is extremely dangerous.

In the end after paying gas, accomodations, bribes, being ripped off at gas stations, and potentially being robbed it is better to simply ship the vehicle and not have to risk ones life. Afterall, onewill still have to pay the same amount of import taxes.

Shipping Vehicles by Barge

The majority of the vehicles that enter Costa Rica enter by sea by means of a shipping vessel. The largest port in Costa Rica for this type of merchandise is Puerto Limón on the Atlantic Coast. The second main port, is Puerto Caldera on the Pacific Coast. The least inexpensive way is from Florida to Limon usually costing around $800. Or from California to Puntarenas Punta Caldera about $1300 or more.

Unless a vehicle departs from California or Vancouver, it will most likely arrive in Puerto Limón. New owners can select a direct route or other companies do make stops. The length of time required to ship a  vehicle depends on which shipping company one works with, but most vary between 4 days and 10 days. Tack on a couple more days if the vehicle for whatever reason is detained in customs.  Honestly, to avoid a lot of hassel then you should just avoid Puerto Caldera.

If shipping a vehicle it is recommended to go through a freight forwarder/customs broker. Very few companies have offices in North America and Costa Rica so you will have one company coordinate with a Costa Rican company.

Evaluate a couple companies because some will charge more and less and leave things out to mkae their quote more competitive so make sure to compare apples to apples and not apples to oranges.

Select whether to ship your vehicle inside a container on a barge or simply as loose cargo. Of course it is more expensive in a container, but the vehicle will receive protection from the elements on the course of the trip. A vehicle is much more secure from damage or theft inside a container. Usually these containers hold more than one car held down with straps.  The possibility of damage and theft exists more with the non-container form of shipment. If it is affordable, it is highly recommend to use a container.

Depending on what freight forwarder is used, one should have the opportunity to clear the vehicle through to San José. This means that the vehicle will not go through customs in either Puerto Limón or Puerto Caldera.

If a vehicle was shipped in a container, the container itself will not be opened until it arrives to the capital of San José. An additional fee is required for this clearing service.  Vehicles tend to clear customs much quicker in San José than they do at the ports.

Clearing a vehicle by oneself  is a complicated procedure even if  someone knows Spanish. The procedure to clear your vehicle can be accomplished within one day or two days as long as you follow procedure. If you are going to do this process then do it from San Jose.

As a tourist, individuals are afforded the right to drive the vehicle for three months without paying taxes. The time begins when the person enters the country, not when the vehicle enters the country.  Individuals will be required to pay a local tax, some additional fees, all of which add up to around $90.00 US. At the end of three months, individuals have the right to extend the right to drive the vehicle for an additional three months.

Individuals have to leave the country prior to the three month limit for 48 hours. When the person and vehicle re-enter, they will re-stamp the persons passport, which will allow a person to drive the vehicle for three additional months. If someone waits until the three month period is up, theoretically one is required by law to pay the taxes on the vehicle.

Any vehicle being driven after the permit has expired is by law, is considered an abandoned vehicle. The police have the legal right to confiscate the vehicle and are not required to give it back. Most likely, they will compound the vehicle until the taxes are paid.


Buying a Car in Costa Rica

To buy a car here, it is recommended to go through a major dealer, used or new.  There are no firm records about what An individuales might have done to their cars. There have even been stories of people bringing in cars like this: They buy stolen cars on the black market in North America (new and older models), they cut them in half, they send the halves in different shipments as scrap & spare parts so they do not have to pay duties. Once here  they mend the cars back together. So please make SURE to have the car fully inspected by a competent mechanic before you sign the papers.  It must be able to pass RTV (emmissions), if not, there could be a lot of hidden expenses. Also, make sure the odometer has not been tampered with and make sure it works during a test drive. This is a very common issue in Costa Rica and can turn a great deal into a terrible purchase.  Just as a rule of thumb a car is usually driven about 15,000 miles a year in light circumstances so if a 1995 model only has 25,000 miles this should be a red flag.  Another red flag, is that a used dealer has several variety of vehicles and years of vehicles, yet the mileage on all them is VERY similar.

A private sale is not out of the question, but then, the mechanic's inspection is even more important.  The best prices are always in the Spanish language newspapers like La Nación. Also, there is a ton of paperwork buying a car here and the dealer will do all the footwork. There are several websites to check out new and used cars too like

Make sure to revise the VIN number of the car, visible through the windshield. If it is a car brought from the US one can use to get a history on the vehicle. The dealers make a brisk business buying cars at auction in the USA, bringing them here and selling them 'para inscribir'. The purchaser has to register the vehicle at the Public registry.

It is important to note here that once cars enter into Costa Rica and are given license plates these are the plates for life tied to the car. Cars are then bought and sold with their original plate number. If a car is totalled this number will be taken out of circulation. If buying a used car this makes the process easier so that buyers can look on the National Registry to see if the car has been in any accidents or has any legal issues. This is called a title search. A lawyer can also be paid to do a deeper investigation which is especially recommended if buying a used car to make sure it does not have any legal problems or is not stolen.

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