Last Updated: Sep 14, 2011
Owning a car in Costa Rica can be an expensive undertaking. To avoid the expense of insurance, registration, maintenance, gasoline, and annual inspection, some transplants to Costa Rica opt for public transportation, which is inexpensive and reliable.
Licensing, Inspection and Registration
License plates are purchased and issued only once per vehicle; if the car changes ownership, the new owner inherits its plates. There is a fee to transfer title for the vehicle’s registration.
There are two annual government-mandated fiscal responsibilities for vehicle owners. The first is a maintenance and safety inspection, known as RTV, which tests the brakes, lights, turn signals, and other functions, in addition to the vehicle’s emissions. Vehicles less than five years old are subject to inspection every two years; cars older than five years must be inspected annually. Inspections are only conducted at special facilities, and appointments (made by telephone or on the RTV website) are necessary. Inspection month depends on the last digit of the license plate. The average cost for RTV inspection is $20. Many mechanics will take your vehicle to your nearest RTV facility for a fee of $20-$30.
The second annual responsibility is payment of the marchamo. The marchamo is a combination of vehicle registration and liability insurance, and is renewed each year between November 1 and December 31. Without a current marchamo, a vehicle may be impounded. The marchamo will not be issued without proof of current RTV inspection, and will be refused if any liens or tickets have been placed on the vehicle. You can pay your marchamo at your local insurance office (INS), or at many public and private banks. Cost depends on vehicle model, make and year – for example, a 2005, mid-range sedan may cost $250-$350 annually.
International insurance companies offer vehicle insurance within Costa Rica. There are several tiers of Costa Rican car insurance, including liability, collision, comprehensive, and theft. If you have a lien on your vehicle, comprehensive insurance is obligatory. If you finance a vehicle through a dealer, the dealer will usually incorporate insurance fees into your monthly payments, and set up the policy for you.
Automobile insurance beyond liability is not mandatory and, due to its expense, few drivers carry anything beyond this most basic of coverage. However, if you cause an accident and do not carry insurance, you will be responsible for all damages. Alternatively, a liability policy is available for less than $150 annually.
Maintenance and Gasoline
The good news about owning a car in Costa Rica is that repair and maintenance are inexpensive – usually about 60% less than in the U.S. Shop around before committing, as prices do vary by location. If possible, always get a personal recommendation regarding mechanics.
Gasoline, on the other hand, is very costly in Costa Rica. Prices hover around $5.00 per gallon for regular unleaded fuel, with diesel slightly less expensive. All gas stations are full-service, and since the government sets gas prices, you will pay the same at every location. Upon request, gas station attendants will check your oil, fluids and tire pressure as well.