If you’re going to own a vehicle in Costa Rica, you can either bring the car you already have into the country, or you can buy a new vehicle in the country. Here is what you should know about buying a vehicle in Costa Rica and the legal aspects of your purchase.
If you decide to buy a car from a used car dealer in Costa Rica, you will receive a 30-day guarantee on the vehicle. You’ll also have the option of getting financing if you need that to afford the vehicle. One thing which you should realize is that Costa Rican roads are not the greatest, so vehicles which aren’t imported may be in worse shape than vehicles that are imported by the dealer from outside the country.
If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on a car, you may find it more affordable to buy a used car which is already in the country instead of importing one from elsewhere. Even though the car may not be in the best shape compared to one which hasn’t been on Costa Rican roads for a long time, it also may be better constructed to deal with the conditions anyway, which could extend its lifetime over a foreign vehicle. You’ll get to skip the import tax that you’d have to pay to have a vehicle shipped in.
If you’re looking for a used car, you may want to check out the Pan-American Highway. There are literally dozens of used car dealerships along both sides of this highway, and a lot of great deals are probably scattered through the area. This does involve some real effort, but you’ll get the advantage of being able to see everything you’re thinking of purchasing in person, and also figuring out whether the dealer seems reputable. There are also websites like Craigslist, CRAutos.com, TicoCarros.com, and La Nación which can help you to identify used vehicles for sale.
Any car you buy should be inspected thoroughly by a mechanic for possible problems. You also may want to consult with a lawyer before buying a car to figure out how much you’ll be paying for the ownership transfer (traspaso). There is also an annual renewal fee you have to pay to own a vehicle in Costa Rica called marchamo. This is a cost you should understand before you buy a vehicle since it can be very expensive for some cars and not so bad for others (just like DMV renewal fees in the US). If you don’t have a current marchamo, you cannot legally drive in Costa Rica, just as you cannot legally drive without a current registration in the US. If you don’t display the marchamo decal on your windshield, your car may be impounded after the 1st of January. You cannot pay your fee for the marchamo if you have any outstanding tickets either, so it’s important to stay up to date with your payments for parking or moving violations. You can pay for your marchamo at an MOPT office or at a bank.
What You Should Know About Importing a Vehicle
People moving to Costa Rica often think that they can save money by bringing their own cars with them from overseas. In reality, this can actually be a hassle, and quite expensive. The import duties can be costly—and this is also the case if you buy a car in Costa Rica which has to be imported or has been imported already. If you’re bringing your own car, you have to clear it with customs. This can be a pain and can cost more money since you may decide to hire a customs agent to take care of the paperwork for you. Otherwise you’ll have to do it yourself.
How to Calculate Vehicle Taxes
If you’re calculating vehicle taxes for a car you’re importing, you need to have a commercial invoice to present which includes the purchase value. You can’t choose an arbitrary number since the customs people know better. They follow a guide, and if the value you declare isn’t within 3 percent or so of the established value in their guidelines, the value you present will be rejected. Check the Blue or Black Book to find out the prices of new and used cars. The website www.crautos.com is a good resource that pertains specifically to vehicles in Costa Rica. The site is in Spanish, but it isn’t hard to get the price estimate you need.
Regardless of the value you find in the Blue Book, you should be aware that the customs people have the final say in the value of your vehicle, and may impose a higher cost on your import than the Blue or Black Book specifies. So always be prepared to pay more than you expect. The tax is going to fall between 50-80 percent of the value of CIF, which stands for Cost, Insurance, and Freight. Many different factors are taken into account when the value is established including the make and model of your car, the year, cubic centimeters, and upgrades and extras which the vehicle includes. As a rule, newer cars will be taxed at higher amounts. Older cars (10 years and older) will be less expensive on average to import.
Perhaps the best way to get an estimate of what you’ll be paying is to visit the "Ministerio de Hacienda” website. This site allows you to enter in information about your vehicle in order to generate an estimate of the cost. Since this site may not be completely current, it is still possible the estimate will be inaccurate. You can send a fax or an email to the Association of Residents as well and provide information about your car in order to receive an estimate.
You can keep a vehicle in Costa Rica for six months before you’re going to have to start paying taxes on it. Another thing you should know is that while you can leave the country every 90 days for 3 days to renew your own visa, you cannot bring your car back in with you until it has been out of the country for 90 days. Some people try to get around this by changing the plates on their vehicles and bringing them right back, but this is illegal and may result in jail time, deportation, and a ban on entering the country again.
Once you’ve actually brought a new vehicle into Costa Rica, you are supposed to register it within two days at the tax office in San Jose. The paperwork for registration may be acquired at customs on your way into the country. The cost for registering the vehicle will be determined by the value of your car—the more valuable the car, the higher the cost will be. Your paperwork must be taken to the Public Registry as well as the Ministry of Public Works. Once you’ve registered your vehicle you’ll receive a temporary paper license plate, which should be displayed on your windshield. You’re allowed to display a copy, which is a better idea so that you can store the original somewhere safe where it won’t fade (like your glove box).
While you should get your permanent plate within a reasonable timeframe, there’s no guarantee that will happen. Unfortunately there is a fine if your paper plate expires while you’re waiting ($20-$40). On the day your paper plate expires (and not before), you may return to the Public Registry to get a renewal on it (no charge). You may do this indefinitely until you receive your permanent license plate. Once you’ve received it, you must go back to the National Registry and bring along your paper plate, your title, your registration card, and your passport or resident I.D. card.
Your basic liability insurance is included in your Marchamo, and beyond that there is no requirement that you purchase additional insurance in Costa Rica. Lots of people skip out on insurance since the cost doesn’t seem worth it for them. Just keep in mind that even if your vehicle has little monetary worth, if you have no insurance, you’re going to be responsible for damages to another vehicle or other property if you get into an accident.
Vehicle Inspections (RITEVE)
Just as you are probably used to regular vehicle inspections in your state, you’re going to have to deal with those in Costa Rica as well, where they are known as RITEVE, or RTV. Your brakes, lights, indicators, wipers, and emissions will all be checked. If your car is five years old or older, you’ll need to have it inspected each year. If your vehicle is newer than that, you only have to have it inspected every other year. Depending on the last numbers in your license plate, you’ll go in on a specific month for inspections. If your plate ends in a “1,” you have to go in for your inspection on January. If it ends in a “2,” this indicates your inspection month is February, etc. If your number ends in “0,” then you go in for your check in October. Make an appointment in advance so that you don’t have to waste time waiting in line, and so that you don’t end up late with your inspections.
When you arrive at your inspection, bring your tax receipt from last December, your ownership card, and your ID card. If your car failed a previous inspection, you will need to bring along the report from that inspection. The cost of the re-inspection is only half that of the original inspection. It is still typically worth it to have your car pre-inspected by a mechanic before going in for your inspection; this may still save you money and hassles. After you have passed your inspection, you’ll receive a certificate and a windshield decal. You require this windshield sticker in order to pay the Marchamo.
Every year you must pay the Marchamo on your vehicle (it’s like your vehicle registration renewal fee). The renewal fee is due each year between November 1st and the last day in December. It’s best to pay it sooner rather than later. You can pay it at an MOPT office or at a public or private bank. You also have the option of paying it online. The amount will be determined by the make, model and year of your vehicle and may vary from year to year. You can check the current prices online. Remember that in order to pay the Marchamo, you must have your sticker showing you passed your inspection. You also cannot have any outstanding traffic tickets. If you don’t have the Marchamo after January 1st, then you cannot legally drive your vehicle. You may get a warning at best, or your vehicle impounded at worst.
Buying or Selling a Vehicle
If you’re buying or selling a vehicle in Costa Rica, you will need to contact a notary or a lawyer to help you with the paperwork. The buyer is responsible for paying the transfer taxes (impuestos). The lawyer’s fee is split by the buyer and the seller. The transfer tax is 2.5 percent and is due to the National Public Registry, along with a registration fee of .05 percent of the purchase price. The fee the lawyer charges you will depend on the value of your vehicle. It’s the lawyer’s job to complete the paperwork and help you transfer the title. The payment should occur during or before the transfer of the title.