Importing a vehicle to Costa Rica can definitely be done but it will be expensive. There is a sliding import tax scale that ranges from between about 50% and 80% of the value depending on the age of the car. Typically, the older the vehicle, the higher the tax rate. The assessed value will also be higher than in the United States and is not based on the Kelly blue book value, but instead is based on what the Costa Rican government thinks the vehicle is worth in this country. Vehicles that are too old will not be accepted for import at all.
It is important to consider the cost of putting a vehicle in a shipping container with anything else you are importing to Costa Rica. Shipping containers are available in 20 and 40 foot lengths. If bringing a car pushes you to a larger container or an additional container, it probably isn’t worth the cost of importing the vehicle.
Vehicles entering Costa Rica must be certified as safe for overseas travel, which includes draining any flammable liquids (you should have no more than a 1/4 tank of gas). Make sure you have all of the necessary paperwork, including the bill of sale, and the car should be in good working order.
Once it arrives in Costa Rica, the vehicle must be inspected and pass Riteve, the national Costa Rica vehicle inspection organization. You will also have to pay for the Marchamo registration fee, which is a mandatory annual insurance. The entire process from when the car arrives in Costa Rica to when you are able to pick it up is about three months.
The great news is that although cars are relatively expensive, they are cheap to maintain. For repairs that would cost thousands back in the U.S., you’ll pay hundreds here. And cars hold their value very well. Expect to not get much less than you paid if and when you decide to sell your car.
On average, new cars and trucks in Costa Rica are about 25-30% more expensive than in the United States. This can work out to be close to the same as the cost of importing a used vehicle to Costa Rica. It is important to make a thorough assessment to see if it is worth your time and effort to bring a car to Costa Rica. It may likely be more in your favor to sell it before you leave your home country and purchase a new one when you move to Costa Rica.
When buying a new car in Costa Rica, keep in mind that dealers won’t always have the car you want in stock. The cars you see on display are actually ready for delivery to other customers who have already purchased them. It will take about six to eight weeks for delivery if you would like to select color, option package, and model. This wait time can be remedied by purchasing a car before you move to Costa Rica, which many dealerships will be happy to arrange for you.
Bear in mind that not all dealerships in Costa Rica will have English-speaking sales agents. Getting the information you need to find the right car for you may be a challenge if you don’t speak Spanish and the purchase procedure may be difficult. It can help to hire an English-speaker broker in Costa Rica to help you shop around.
The most popular car brands on the roads in Costa Rica are Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi. The Japanese models are considered to be more reliable and their parts are easier to source locally. Because they are so numerous, mechanics in Costa Rica will tend to have more experience with these brands. By far, the easiest car brand in Costa Rica to get parts for and maintain is Toyota, which is why the prices for Toyotas in Costa will be at a premium, even if used.
If you do decide to bring your vehicle to Costa Rica, you may want to check that there will be parts available locally for the model of your vehicle. If not, parts will have to be imported. This will be expensive and take a lot of time. A Toyota from the U.S. or Canada will not be exactly the same as the counterpart models that are prevalent in Costa Rica. There are numerous differences, for instance, between a Toyota Hilux in Costa Rica and a Toyota Tacoma in the United States.
It may seem intuitive to think that the Jeep Wrangler would be the perfect car for Costa Rica because it was built for off-pavement driving, which is still prevalent in our South Pacific region. However, the inability to find parts locally makes them a challenge to own. You can eventually get parts but they will have to be imported and this will cost time and money, including potentially renting a vehicle while you wait for repairs.
You will, however, want to buy a 4×4 in Costa Rica that is comfortable and reliable. Four-wheel drive is not necessary if you live near the city, but in South Pacific Costa Rica, at least half the fun requires driving down a few dirt roads to get to. If you plan to live in a more rural area as we do, an SUV with high clearance is the way to go.
Cars in Costa Rica will tend to have lower mileage than in other countries because of the small size of this landscape because people are not generally commuting a hundred miles a day. Even still, there are other obvious signs of age such as wear and tear from bumpy dirt roads and rust from the humid, salty air.
There are some used cars in Costa Rica that have rolled back mileage/km (especially if the car’s odometer is in miles). You can use CarFax to check the VIN report of any car that has been imported from the U.S. (this report costs $40). However, it is important to mention that cars that have been imported from the U.S. may also be in a far better state than those from elsewhere as they have likely not been driven on as many bumpy roads and can tend to have less rust damage, especially if from a state with no snow and therefore no road salt damage.
When looking at used cars in Costa Rica, it is highly recommended to buy from one of the reputable used car dealerships around the country that have a good reputation. Still, you will want to get any used car inspected prior to purchase. Some notable things for you or your mechanic to look over when purchasing a used car include checking the oil dipstick looking for signs of engine failure. Check the four-wheel-drive by jacking up one side of the car at a time to see if both wheels spin. Also, check the undercarriage for rust and make sure that the chassis is straight as these are all signs of more serious (read: expensive) issues.
New car dealerships are always a top option for those who can afford to buy a new car in Costa Rica. Most of these are found in and around San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital. You can find most of the top global brands, including Audi, BYD, Chery, Chevrolet, Citroen, Ford, Geely, Hino, Honda, Hyundai, Isuzu, JAC, Jaguar, Jeep, Land Rover, Lexus, Maserati, Mahindra, Maxus, Mercedes Benz, MG Morris Garage, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, Ram, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, Volkswagen, ZNA.
When it comes to buying a used car, some say that the best used car lots in the country are also in and around San José, which has a drier climate, and better-maintained roads. About an hour northwest of San José is Grécia, a small town known throughout the country for its used car lots that line the road from the PanAmerican Highway to the center of town.
There are also a number of reputable used vehicle dealerships around Costa Rica that offer warranty on the cars they sell. These dealerships include:
Kings Automotive Group is a car sourcing and sales business with a full-service shop and paint shop. They offer a one-year warranty on all vehicles they sell, which are predominantly Toyotas. They also operate Off-Road Kings, selling ATVs, UTVs, Jet Skis, motocross, and more.
Price Automotive Group offers a one-year bumper to bumper warranty and has a reputation for selling used cars in top condition. They do tend to be more expensive than their competition but their service center is top-quality. They reject around 80% of the vehicles they inspect, meaning they ensure that their product will be at the highest level. They are 100% turnkey, take care of all legalities and licensing, offering their clients a stress-free experience, including delivering your car to the airport for you when you arrive. You can literally walk out of the airport, sign the papers and drive home.
Audacious Alchemy Tracy Cielto in Uvita will also source a car for you before you get here and deliver it to you anywhere in the country. They offer a one-year bumper-to-bumper warranty, full-coverage insurance, nationwide roadside assistance, and free maintenance for a year.
GoodwinTravelCR is a private, family-owned company that sources vehicles for their clients’ exact needs and wants. Their prices are with everything included, such as lawyer’s fees, mechanical checks, and warranty.
For used cars, buying from a private owner can often get you a better price for a car, although you are taking on more risk without the warranty that comes from a reputable used car dealer. People willing to go this route will look on the websites Encuentra24, crautos, and Facebook marketplace. You will have to find a mechanic who can look it over and an attorney who can handle the title change, fees, and registration.
Purdy Motors sells new and used vehicles with a reliable guarantee. They are a no-brainer go-to for Toyota car purchases in Costa Rica.
Expo Movil is an annual car expo that used to be in-person and has moved to a virtual expo since Covid. Happening in mid-August, you can find every dealer under one roof with great sales on new and barely used vehicles. Buyers can commit to a vehicle with a $500 deposit and there are vehicles available from $10,000 – $200,000 with lawyers on hand to do a title transfer at no cost, as well as insurance brokers and bank financing.
You don’t need to be a Costa Rican resident or citizen to buy a car, you can buy it in your name or in your Costa Rican corporation if you have one.
Once you find the car you want, and you have test driven it, it is extremely important that you have a qualified mechanic do an inspection to let you know the mechanical condition before buying the car.
The next step is to hire a Costa Rican lawyer that is also a Notary (not all lawyers in Costa Rica are public notaries). They will perform the legal work and check the history of the car. Used assets in Costa Rica can commonly have liens, notations, and collisions that are still pending in court. The lawyer will do a study of the registry where all these records are kept in Costa Rica.
The lawyer will inform you of how much you have to pay in taxes, which is a percentage of the approximate value of the vehicle. In Costa Rica, there are two values for the vehicle: the market value (the price you pay for the car) and the fiscal value (the taxable value, similar to the Blue Book value). You will pay taxes on the fiscal value, which most of the time is higher than market value. The lawyer will also charge their transfer fee based on the fiscal value.
The buyer always pays the lawyer fees and taxes unless there is an agreement otherwise.
Once the transfer document is presented in the National Registry (Registro Nacional de la Propiedad), it could take up to three weeks for the car to be transferred into your name. The average cost of this service is around $400
Not having a local bank account in Costa Rica is not a problem when looking to purchase a car. There three are very good and safe options to pay for a car in Costa Rica.
The first option is to do an international transfer from your bank anywhere in the world. The estimated time frame for this transfer is up to 72 hours, depending if your bank has to go through other bigger banks to do the transfer. Bigger banks that offer the international transfer service will take minutes to transfer the money to a bank in Costa Rica. It rarely takes more than 48 hours.
A buyer can transfer the funds to a trustworthy intermediary (like an escrow company or a local Costa Rican lawyer) rather than directly to the buyer, so there won’t be that moment of uncertainty while waiting for the money to arrive. Banks in Costa Rica will ask for proof of funds origin if the amount is over $10,000 so this is an important step to consider before transferring the money.
The second option for purchasing a vehicle in Costa Rica is to pay in cash. This option is more feasible for lower budgets, since you have the option to bring cash with you on a plane. Each person is allowed to bring up to $10,000 on their person. Paying with cash can be a point of negotiation so there can be the additional bonus of a cash discount.
When purchasing from a car dealership, the third way is to pay by credit or debit card. Individuals won’t have a way to accept a payment with this method. However, you can also use payment apps if the seller has these, the most popular of which is SINPE in Costa Rica. If you are buying from an expat, they may likely have other more familiar apps like Venmo or PayPal set up with their home bank.
Owning a car has 2 costs involved per year: Riteve and Marchamo.
Riteve is a yearly technical inspection that every car in Costa Rica must pass. It is due in the month corresponding to the last digit of the license plate (May Riteve will have the last number 5). The cost for the Riteve inspection is around $35 and when you pass, you will get a sticker that goes on the windshield.
Marchamo is a national registration and mandatory liability insurance. This mandatory form of insurance covers a minimum amount of liability (less than $13,000 in 2020) for injuries people suffer if your vehicle is in an accident, regardless of who the driver is or whether or not the driver is at fault. Marchamo fees are paid once per year between November 1 and December 31 and it allows a vehicle to circulate on the public roads of Costa Rica. The annual cost for this is 5% of the car value as per the National register office (Check your Marchamo fee). You also get a windshield sticker for this.
Cars being registered for the first time in Costa Rica are paid on a prorated basis when the car is imported. If you purchase a vehicle that already has a license plate then the Marchamo should be valid (the license plate never changes on a car).