Excellent! All the public transportation options common in first world countries are available here (although “public transportation” is somewhat of a misnomer – all bus lines are owned and operated by private companies).
Buses: Costa Rica is covered by a comprehensive network of local buses. Most are based out of San José, are inexpensive, and visit even the most remote local areas. The buses are generally clean, modern (though there are still some converted school buses used in the more remote areas) and maintained in good repair. Local buses do not run on a strict schedule, but all lines make frequent runs with multiple buses, so missing one can generally mean only a very short wait until the next one comes along.
Longer trips to outlying cities or neighboring countries are handled by several different, separate bus lines. These are ultra-modern well equipped buses (with air conditioning and televisions) which can efficiently take the traveler to almost any of the more distant destination, inside or outside the country.
Taxis: Every community has multiple taxis; there are privately owned taxis (called Pirate taxis) and the “official” red taxis (those who service airport customers exclusively are orange). San José has literally thousands of the red taxis, whose meter rates are determined by law, which will take you anywhere in the local area for a reasonable cost. Outlying communities also have red taxis which operate in their local areas. Rates for pirate taxis may be less than the red taxis and rates can sometimes be negotiated.
Uber: Costa Rica has seen an explosion of Uber-style taxi services in recent years. These services operate exactly the same as they do in other countries; they require a “subscription” that automatically bills fares to a previously established credit card account. Uber drivers, many of whom speak English, are polite and their vehicles are modern, safe, clean, and efficient.
Are taxis safe? - Without question. Red taxis and Uber are as safe to use as their counterparts are in any other country. Nowhere in the world is every situation 100% safe 100% of the time, but in Costa Rica the local population uses both types without hesitation. This is not to say that the pirate taxis are unsafe, but there is a greater possibility of having a dispute over the amount of the fare with them.
Choosing what kind of vehicle to own depends somewhat on the location where one chooses to live and/or travel. Most major roads are paved and generally a basic car will suffice. But for those who like to explore the back roads, or who live in less developed areas, a hardier vehicle like a SUV may be more appropriate.
Four-wheel drive is not a necessity for most areas. The type of driving and location where the owner chooses to live, plus the conditions encountered during the rainy season, should be the prime consideration in making a decision if 4WD is required. For most, 4WD is a back-up safety feature that is there if needed.
Fuel prices in Costa Rica are relatively high by North American standards, and economy may be an issue for some. Electric and hybrid cars are becoming more common, but consideration of purchasing these kinds of vehicles should only be made by those residing in the urban, more populous areas.
Vehicle prices in Costa Rica are generally much higher than those found in North America, and transfer and ownership expenses can come as a shock to some. For more information on purchase prices and ownership expenses, read FAQs #35 and #36.
Yes, but . . . - Driving a treasured vehicle to Costa Rica may seem like an exciting adventure for the hardier individual, HOWEVER, TRANSITING SOME AREAS OF CENTRAL AMERICA CAN BE EXTREMELY HAZARDOUS. Driving it may be cheaper than shipping, but can end up costing you more. Driving your vehicle to Costa Rica is strongly not advised!
Optional - The total cost for importing a vehicle to Costa Rica, including shipping costs, hiring the import agent to get it properly imported (inspected and licensed), and with the import duties figured in, can be roughly equal to buying an equivalent vehicle here. Said another way, a $10,000 vehicle can cost upwards of another $8,000 to import, including the charges for the services required to make it legal after it arrives.
To find out how much the import duties (not including shipping or import agent fees) for your vehicle would be, go to: www.hacienda.go.cr/autohacienda/autovalor.aspx Google search cannot find this address
Importing a vehicle comes with a second set of potential problems which can be avoided by buying locally because:
1) Many Costa Rica new car dealers will flatly refuse to work on any vehicle that was not originally purchased in Costa Rica (Nissan, Chevrolet, Honda, for example.)
2) Vehicles built for sale in the US and Canadian markets are often mechanically and / or functionally different from identical appearing vehicles sold in the Latin American market; sometimes systems mandated for inclusion in North American market vehicles are not incorporated in those sold outside North America (some safety and emission control systems, for example). Other things like a US standard engine were never offered in Costa Rica.
These things can lead to larger problems if an imported vehicle needs repairs and / or parts. Costa Rican dealers do not stock replacement parts for non-Costa Rican models, and will not usually go out of their way to order them. Costa Rican sources for replacement parts for US spec vehicles are not common and the only solution may be to obtain the part(s) elsewhere and have them shipped here. There is a time penalty involved with that strategy, plus the expense; in addition to the purchase price and shipping costs, imported parts may be assessed import duties. Those charges can double the price of the part.
Additionally, sometimes obtaining the correct part from a US supplier can be difficult because, even among US market vehicles, manufacturers are sometimes inconsistent in the parts they use, making running changes during a model-year production cycle. Obtaining an incorrect part can add significant time while a vehicle is out of service while a second part is ordered. Plus, the incorrect part is difficult to return.
It is understandable that some people have a vehicle in which they have sizable investment and / or to which they have an emotional attachment. However, it is wisest that the owners harden their hearts (and wallets) and leave it behind.
Note: No matter how a vehicle arrives in Costa Rica, all vehicles must pay the import duties. Those driven in must be inspected, licensed, and duties paid within 90 days of arrival or they can be seized. If a vehicle has not complied with the importation laws, and is taken out of the country, it CANNOT be brought in again at a later date.
Most vehicle purchases by expats are cash deals. (Information about obtaining purchase money is covered later in this FAQ.)
When the buyer and seller have agreed on a price, and the money is available, the buyer should have a reliable mechanic of their choice (not the seller’s mechanic, for obvious reasons) inspect the vehicle. If the vehicle is satisfactory the next step is to go to an attorney to complete the transfer.
Why do I need an attorney? In Costa Rica all that is needed to make a vehicle ownership transfer is a Notary Public. However, 99% of notaries are attorneys. An attorney / notary is required because of the laws of Costa Rica. The buyer should select the attorney, not the seller.
Paying the purchase price. (Opening a bank account in Costa Rica is possible, but restrictions apply. Read, “How Do I Open A Bank Account In Costa Rica?” in FAQ #7.)
As stated earlier, for expats, most purchases are cash. Almost certainly, a purchase from a private party will be “cash on the barrel head,” that means the buyer will bring cash to the closing, based on the previously agreed price. There are some options besides cash for transferring the money between buyer and seller, but they can be problematic:
1) Transferring the money via an international bank transfer. Transfers are best done between two banks within Costa Rica, or between two banks outside of Costa Rica. International money transfers from a buyer's US bank to a seller's Costa Rican account, for example, can be frustrating because the transfer is expensive and can take a long time to accomplish. (Expect a one-to-three-week delay before the money is made available.) Additionally, the receipt of funds is often difficult for the buyer to verify in Costa Rica. And, although the buyer may have “cleared” a sizable withdrawal/international transfer with their home bank, there can often be other difficulties:
A) The buyer’s home bank will often have multiple layers of consumer protection in place. Costa Rica is a legendary source for fraudulent credit card and bank transactions so, although an approval for a large withdrawal / transfer may have been previously obtained, a separate fraud protection department may identify the money as going to Costa Rica and therefore intervene and freeze the money before it is released. Freeing the money for transfer can require numerous complex and difficult steps involving international telephone calls, emails, and, on occasion, a third party, before the money is transferred. (And not just one call or email, but a series of them, all having to take place within a very short time frame.)
B) The Costa Rican bank may refuse a large money transaction (importing over $10,000 USD requires the Costa Rica bank to obtain documentation verifying that the source of the funds is valid; that it is not “drug money” or from another illegal source) and some banks simply won’t get involved.
2) Another option that many try is to use a debit or credit card for obtaining the money for the purchase. This can also be difficult to accomplish (for the same fraud prevention reasons listed above.) Additionally, most Costa Rica banks have a limit on the amount of funds they will disperse to a single person in one day or at one time (some ATMs are as low as $100).
3) PayPal is another option. However, most Costa Rica residents or businesses do not have PayPal accounts.
Logically, the physical transfer of the vehicle is not usually completed until the money is available to the seller; that could leave them without a vehicle or money for a period of time, and the opportunity for theft can make a seller nervous; most dealers / individuals won’t put themselves in that position. On the other side, the buyer doesn’t have the money or the vehicle, and that makes them nervous too.
Thus, cash solves all those problems.
What happens at the attorney’s office? To complete the purchase, the buyer and the seller go to an attorney’s office, both parties with their Passports and / or Cédulas, and the original papers for the ownership of the vehicle. The buyer should also bring sufficient cash to pay the transfer taxes and the attorney fees. (The usual procedure is that the buyer pays all attorneys fees and the transfer taxes. That can, however, be negotiated.)
At the attorney’s office the attorney will go on-line to the National Register and determine:
1) The seller’s valid ownership of the vehicle, and,
2) If there are any outstanding debts (liens, traffic fines, unpaid back taxes, etc.) against th vehicle. Those debts MUST be paid before the ownership transfer can take place. The debts are usually the responsibility of the seller and the attorney can collect any outstanding amounts at that time, possibly from the proceeds of the sale.
The attorney will also compute the sales taxes and total transfer fees, including the charges for their services, which must also be paid at that time. (The taxable value for transfer is set by the taxing authority, the Hacienda, and may have NO reflection on the sale price of the vehicle; tax values are generally higher than sales prices.)
Note: There are NO “standardized” valuations given to similar makes and models of vehicles by the Hacienda. Each vehicle is valued individually and widely different values can be given to two identical vehicles. Thus, a separate calculation must take place for every transfer.
Note: Attorney fees are determined by a national schedule. Some attorneys have been known to ignore that schedule and charge different amounts than the schedule specifies.
Note: All the amounts for the transfer tax and attorney fees can be determined ahead of time by giving the chosen attorney the license plate number of the vehicle being purchased and asking for the total amount of cash needed for paying the transfer, taxes, and attorney fees that will be needed at closing.
The attorney will complete all the necessary documents, both parties sign, all fees and the purchase money is paid to the seller and the attorney. The information entered in the attorney’s computer is recorded at the National Register almost immediately, so before leaving their office the attorney will print out a document that shows the buyer’s information as recorded in the National Register – this paper is good for all aspects of owning and operating the vehicle. The parties shake hands, keys are given, and everyone is free to go their separate ways. Elapsed time for the sales / transfer transaction is about one hour.
The original paper documents prepared by the attorney and signed by the buyer and seller must be physically taken by the attorney to the National Register, where they are processed by hand (the documents must be certified, stamped, etc.) That process generally takes the National Register from one to three weeks to complete before the originals are returned to the attorney, who then gives them to the buyer. That means that the buyer will have to return to the attorney’s office at a later date to obtain the final, registered documents. (Other arrangements, like mailing them to the buyer, can be made.)
Can I finance a vehicle purchase in Costa Rica? Possibly, but not likely. The type of purchase process people are most familiar with, making a down payment and financing the balance, isn’t often an option for expats – most expats do not have a credit standing here (and credit from other countries is not acceptable) thus, banks and car dealers simply don’t offer any expat financing. With used cars, it might be possible to find a lot that will carry their own “paper,” but the odds are slim.
Besides the usual gas, oil, repair, and insurance expenses, there are two other annual charges a vehicle owner will be required to pay; the Marchamo and the Riteve inspection.
What is Marchamo? - The Marchamo is the annual tax for renewal of the vehicle’s license and registration. Sales of Marchamos take place for EVERY vehicle in Costa Rica in December each year. At that time the taxes on the vehicle for the coming year, as determined by the Hacienda (the Costa Rica taxing authority) must be paid. Late payment will be subject to interest.
The value given a vehicle by the Hacienda is used to determine the amount due for the Marchamo. This valuation is specific to each vehicle and not necessarily uniform (this means that two 100% identical vehicles, with no differences of any sort, may be assigned completely different valuations for tax purposes).
When the Marchamo is paid, a document is issued which also includes a portion that is used with a window sticker (this is the equivalent of a decal put on a license plate in some countries). This sticker is displayed inside the upper, right hand area of the windshield.
How do I get a Marchamo? - The Marchamo can be purchased at multiple locations; banks are the most common, but some private businesses will also collect the tax and issue a new Marchamo.
What is a Riteve inspection? - RTV (Riteve) is the name of the Spanish company that holds the contract with Costa Rica to construct inspection stations and conduct vehicle inspections.
Once every year, each vehicle in Costa Rica must undergo a rigorous safety inspection. The due date for an inspection is the month corresponding to the last number of the vehicle’s license plate number, ie; 1=January, 8=August, and so on. A successfully passed inspection will result in the issuing of a decal which is placed on the inside, upper right hand area of the vehicle’s windshield. The decals are color coded for the year of expiration and contain, in the center area, the month and year the inspection expires.
How do I get a Riteve inspection for my vehicle? - An inspection can be conducted at any one of the thirteen inspection stations around the country. The vehicle must have an appointment. The operating hours of the inspection stations are from 6 AM to 6 PM, Monday through Saturday (except national holidays). The locations of the various inspection stations, and the form to reserve an appointment time, can be found online at: https://www.rtv.co.cr/obtener-cita/#top (The website and instructions are in Spanish.)
When do I make an appointment for my vehicle? - Appointments can be made anytime up to 30 days in advance of the month of expiration (an inspection expiring in May can be conducted at any time in April). Expired inspections can be scheduled at any time. Appointment times are not strictly adhered to – being up to one hour early or one hour late does not usually affect the success of keeping the appointment. Anyone can make the appointment and deliver the vehicle for inspection, but to complete the online inspection reservation, the person making the appointment must know the vehicle’s license plate number, and include their cédula or passport number, telephone number, and email address. If a scheduled appointment is missed, a new reservation can be made the second day after the original appointment date.
At the online reservation site, select the inspection station closest to you. It is advised that the exact physical location of the chosen inspection station be determined BEFORE actually going to the appointment.
What does Riteve inspect? - The first step for having vehicle inspected is to park in one of the spaces outside the station office. The person presenting the vehicle for inspection must take the vehicle ownership papers inside and present them to one of the clerks. That person must also show the clerk either a valid passport or current Costa Rica cédula.
The clerk will examine the papers and check the information on their computer. After the clerk has verified the data they will generate an inspection slip and the driver will be instructed to go to a second window where they will pay the inspection fee. Payment can be either in colones or via credit card. After payment the driver will be given a payment receipt and the inspection slip. They can then return to the vehicle and drive it to the rear of the building where they select and enter one of the lines for the six inspection bays. (Diesel engine and 4WD vehicles may have a special line.)
As you approach the inspection area, wait for an inspector to call you forward before you enter the building. He / she will take the inspection slip, ask to see a valid driver license, and begin the inspection. Follow the inspector’s instructions. (There may be a difference in the order of the items inspected, but all items listed below will be inspected.)
Station #1: The engine is shut off and the hood is opened. The vehicle VIN is checked against the inspection slip to verify the correct vehicle is being inspected. The engine compartment will be checked for signs of non-standard modifications and that the car battery is properly secured (an unsecured battery is an automatic FAIL). They will also assure that all front exterior lights, including the turn signals, emergency flashers, driving / fog lights (if equipped) work properly, and that the headlights are securely mounted and function. In the rear, the license plate and back-up lights, brake lights, turn signals, and emergency flasher lights must operate. The windshield washer / wiper system is checked for operation; wiper blades are inspected to assure they are in good condition and that the washer system operates. An excessively cracked windshield is cause for a FAIL.
The driver’s door will be opened and the driver asked to exit the vehicle temporarily. Inside, the inspector will check to see if the steering wheel and column are securely attached to the vehicle and if the brake pedal has looseness and proper stroke. He will record the mileage on the odometer on the inspection slip. It may be determined if the turn signals cancel by turning the steering wheel, and the horn must work. The inspector will check that all seat belts (one for each position shown on the registration), which must be accessible to the inspector and are not tucked under a seat, lock and unlock properly, and are secured to the vehicle floor. Side window mechanisms (power or manual) should operate.
Outside, all tires must have serviceable tread life and be in good condition. The complete tire and wheel assembly must be inside the fender line, the wheels must have a minimum number of lug nuts, and wheel alignment is checked. Door mounted mirrors should be securely attached to the vehicle. The presence of a gas cap will be checked and the back hatch on SUVs may be checked for proper latching.
Station #2: The vehicle’s wheels (separately, front first, then rear) are placed on vibrating platforms and a computer checks the function and condition of the shock absorbers / struts.
Station #3: Headlights (both high and low beam) are checked for operation and proper aim.
Station #4: All brakes (front / rear / parking) are checked for proper operation. First the front wheels of the vehicle are driven onto a set of rollers and the inspector has the driver depress the brake pedal firmly. A similar procedure is accomplished for the rear and parking brake systems. Any significant differences between the left and right side brake operation, front or rear or hand brake, is cause for a FAIL.
Station #5: The car is driven over a pit where the underside is examined. The left front wheel is driven onto a plate and, upon instruction from an inspector underneath the vehicle, the brakes should be applied / held / released while the inspector shakes the vehicle and looks for any excessive wear in the steering mechanism and / or suspension joints and bushings. With the brakes released, as part of the inspection, the driver will be asked to rotate the steering wheel from side to side several times. The complete underside of the vehicle is checked for corrosion and signs of excessive leaks (engine oil, transmission, brake system, etc.) and/or loose parts. Once the front suspension inspection has been completed, the driver will be asked to roll the vehicle forward until the left rear wheel is on the metal plate. A procedure similar to that conducted on the front suspension will be accomplished on the rear suspension. The exhaust system is checked for attachment, integrity, and lack of leaks.
Station #6: This is where exhaust emissions are tested (at some inspection sites this is done at Station #1). Standards are inflexible. The minimum allowable emissions are based on the date of import of the vehicle (as shown on the registration) NOT the date of vehicle manufacture. Example: A 1966 Mustang imported into Costa Rica in 2012 must meet the emission level requirements for 2012. The test also assesses the efficiency of the catalytic converter.
Before beginning the emissions test the inspector will require that the engine be shut off and the hood opened. The engine oil level will be checked (low oil level is cause for the inspection to be halted and a FAIL will be given). After restarting the engine a probe is inserted in the tailpipe and the driver is asked to accelerate the engine to 2,500 RPM and hold it there. If the vehicle is not equipped with a tachometer, one will be provided. After a period of time at 2,500 RPM the inspector will instruct the driver to allow the engine to return to idle, after which the probe will be removed.
Separate procedures are conducted for diesel powered vehicles but follow the same general scheme.
After completion of the final step, the inspector will issue the driver a form which shows any defects found. There are two categories of efects; LEVE, which is given for an item which needs attention but isn’t serious enough to prohibit issuing a “pass.” A GRAVE (which is a FAIL) denotes item(s) which MUST be repaired / corrected before a new inspection sticker will be issued.
If no GRAVE items were found, the inspector will issue a new inspection decal for the vehicle’s windshield. If any GRAVE items were discovered, the owner has 30 days to have the correction / repair made. After repairs are completed the vehicle must be re-inspected. Re-inspection can ONLY be conducted at the same station which issued the initial GRAVE. Making an appointment is advised. If the re-inspection is accomplished within 30 days following the first inspection, only the failed item(s) will be re-inspected. If over 30 days have elapsed since the first inspection, a complete new inspection will be required. The fee for all re-inspections is one-half the original inspection fee.CAUTION: Under the law, ONLY a mechanic is authorized to operate a vehicle which has received a GRAVE until a new inspection has been passed.
Expats wanting to sell a vehicle in Costa Rica face several hurdles. Knowing about them ahead of time can make the process easier.
Market - Unless you are a fluent Spanish speaker, your number of potential buyers is severely limited to English speakers. It is not impossible to sell your vehicle to a Costa Rican, but having a trusted Spanish speaker to assist you in all aspect of the negotiations will make things much easier. Be prepared for an offer less than your asking price – nobody wants to pay the asking price, no matter how fairly it has been set.
Setting a price - How do you determine what a fair price is, or even the average market price others are asking for vehicles similar to yours? “Asking around” may get you an idea of what others have paid, but that doesn’t really represent the broader market. The best answer (and price resource) can be found online; there are several websites which have listings of used cars and prices in Costa Rica. The largest is http://www.crautos.com/ which lists thousands of privately owned vehicles for sale, with prices and basic information about the vehicles being offered. The site contains an easy to use search function which can narrow a search down to an exact model and year, and / or those with specific characteristics. (The site is in Spanish, but easy to figure out how to use.) Be aware that the prices listed are “asking prices” and can range from 10%-15% higher than the price the seller is willing to take. Consider that when setting your price.
Many sellers have emotional attachments to their vehicles – they know how well (or poorly) their vehicle has served them and unconsciously figure that into their asking price. Further, they know what maintenance or upgrades they have made, and may hope to recoup some of those expenses at the time of sale. Those things have no value to a buyer – what the buyer wants is a good vehicle that is priced fairly in the market.
NOTE. When dealing with Costa Rican buyers, be prepared for a low-ball offer. Many will assume that an expat seller will be in a distressed situation and will take any offer. Also keep in mind that many Ticos are not skilled negotiators, will balk at trying to trying to find a “happy medium,” and will stop making offers after the first price reduction a seller might make. Set your price taking that in to account beforehand.
Advertising - Once you have decided on a price, letting people know your vehicle is for sale can be difficult, particularly if your target market is restricted to English speakers. The traditional method of placing a sign on the vehicle and either setting it out in a high traffic area, or driving it around, does work, but comes with language and communication difficulties. Advertising your vehicle on online bulletin boards websites, or social media frequented by other English speaking expats is the most likely way to reach a buyer. Be sure to include photos and represent the features of the vehicle (engine and transmission type, mileage, condition, recent upgrades, and price) honestly, as they are important to attract buyers. One website that has been successful for some is Craigslist. Go to: https://costarica.craigslist.org/?lang=en&cc=us for the English language version for Costa Rica.
Concluding the sale - Once an agreement to purchase and a price have been arrived at, the next step is to close the deal. Read FAQ 36 for a complete description of how the purchase money can be paid or transferred, and the legal and financial requirements for conducting a transfer of ownership.
What else should I know? - Selling and transferring a vehicle in Costa Rica comes with some legal requirements about which those from other counties should be aware. Foremost is the requirement that the seller (or their legal representative) must be physically present at the time of the transfer. An alternative, if the owner will be out of the country or is otherwise unable to attend the transfer proceedings, is to have a Power of Attorney (POA) prepared which authorizes another person (a legal representative) to conduct the sale and sign for the owner. The POA must be prepared and finalized by an attorney in Costa Rica, not from a location outside of the country.
WARNING! In Costa Rica a POA gives the holder complete and unrestricted legal authority to do ANYTHING they desire with the vehicle – they can transfer it into their own name without payment, sell it to a friend for 1,000 colones, sell it and keep the money, or just keep it and drive it themselves indefinitely – and that can mean forever. In cases where that happens, Costa Rica law makes it extremely difficult for an expat to make a recovery – a legal claim can take years to process through the courts, cost more than the vehicle is worth, and in the end the court can determine that the seller knowingly took the risk and granted the party the POA with full authority to do as they please with the vehicle, and therefore is not entitled to any compensation. The bottom line is that granting a POA to anyone should be done with extreme caution.
What other precautions should I take? - Selling a vehicle in Costa Rica can come with some hazards. Here are a few precautions you should take:
- Do not allow a potential buyer to drive your vehicle without you or your representative being present and in the vehicle with them.
- When a test drive is being made, do not allow a third party (a friend / mechanic / etc.) to ride along.
- If the buyer requests a third party mechanic inspect the vehicle, don’t allow the buyer to take it to the mechanic, deliver the vehicle to the mechanic yourself.
- Do not meet a potential buyer at night or in an isolated location. Any meeting should take place in a well populated and public area, like a mall parking lot, etc.
- Women selling a vehicle should always have a male friend along.
- If you do not speak Spanish well, and if the buyer or their third party mechanic are non-English speakers, always bring along someone who is a fluent in Spanish.