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Importing a Car

Last Updated: Feb 21, 2012

taxi license plate number 
 - Costa Rica

Due to heavy taxes, purchasing a new vehicle in Costa Rica is significantly more expensive than in North America and Europe, so some expats choose to import their own cars from back home. Note that in most cases, importing a new or used vehicle will cost about the same – if not more – than buying a similar car in Costa Rica.

From an economic standpoint, it is almost always best to purchase a used vehicle in Costa Rica. In addition to the $1000+ freight cost to ship your foreign car, the Costa Rican government taxes all imported vehicles 45%-85%.  All car values are determined by the Costa Rican government, and are normally assigned a higher value than stated in the Blue Book. In addition, your foreign vehicle may not be common in Costa Rica, and parts therefore may be expensive and difficult to find. 

Pros and Cons

American cars generally receive routine maintenance and haven’t been exposed to the rigors of Costa Rican highways. It is also possible to check the vehicle history through the VIN number to verify previous accidents. However, importing a vehicle can be costly – and not just for import duties. A car valued at $20,000 will cost you nearly $14,000 in fees to import to Costa Rica. Furthermore, many vehicle makes popular in the United States, Europe and Canada are uncommon in Costa Rica, resulting in expensive parts that are difficult to find. The most common vehicles are Toyota, Hyundai, Mitsubishi and Suzuki, but keep in mind that not all models available abroad, even for the most common brands, are available in Costa Rica. 

Shipping

Reliable shipping companies will arrange everything in advance: shipping schedule, import duties, vehicle registration, etc. Several companies also offer a complete vehicle package, including purchasing a U.S. vehicle, shipping it to Costa Rica, and paying import duties on your behalf. Freight costs run approximately $500-$1,000, depending on the company and exit port. 

Import Duties

When you first enter Costa Rica, you will be granted a temporary import permit that is valid for as long as you are allowed to stay in country - usually 90 days. When this expires, the option to exit the country and re-enter with an import permit extension is no longer offered. You will be required to either permanently take the vehicle out of the country or pay the corresponding import taxes. Import taxes vary by vehicle and are calculated as the following: 

  • Market Value: The market values for used cars are much higher in Costa Rica than in the United States and Canada. Customs officials calculate a vehicle’s market value based on the vehicle’s age. Since used cars are more expensive in Costa Rica, this value is higher than the Blue Book or Black Book value. 
  • Vehicle’s Appraised Value (VCAV): This is the sum of the market value, freight and freight insurance. Note that for those driving into Costa Rica, the cost of freight is calculated as 7% of the vehicle’s market value. Freight insurance is the cost to insure the vehicle or, if no insurance was purchased, this value is calculated 1.5% of the combined sum of market value + freight, multiplied by 110. For example, the VCAV of a vehicle valued at $10,000 would be $10,877. 
  • Customs Duty Percentage (CDP): Customs tax is based on a percentage of the VCAV, depending on the age of the vehicle. Vehicles less than 3 years old have a duty rate of 52.28%; 4-5 years old equates to 63%; and 6 plus years old is 79.02%. If the $10,000 vehicle referenced above were four years old, you would be required to pay $6,852 of import tax.

Inspection & Annual Taxes

All vehicles more than ten years old are required to undergo an annual technical inspection, known as Riteve (newer cars must do this once every two years). Car owners must also pay a vehicle tax (Marchamo) annually. The RTV technical inspection costs about $22, and tests for emissions, brakes, shocks, lights, tires, seat belts, and all electrical components. The vehicle tax is calculated as a small percentage of the vehicle’s market value and usually runs between $100 and $1,000 annually. 

Registration & License Plates

After paying import duties, inspection, and vehicle taxes, it is necessary to register your vehicle with the Public Registry. This process may take several days. When finished, you must take all vehicle documents to the Ministry of Public Works, which will issue you temporary paper plates. Obtaining the permanent metal license plates may take up to one year.

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