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Shipping vs. Buying

Last Updated: Apr 20, 2012

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 - Costa Rica

"What should I take?" is one of the most common questions when moving to Costa Rica. Many who choose to relocate here do so in part to simplify their lives. You can begin downsizing before you move, by thinking carefully about what possessions you can’t live without and bringing the bare minimum. It’s not necessary to pack much – local stores can supply most necessities and luxury items – but inventory is limited in Costa Rica, so some items may be challenging to find, or much more expensive than you’re used to.  

  • Electronics: All are subject to high import taxes, so you may want to bring any portable device – mp3 player, camera, laptop, or hard drive – that fits in your suitcase. 
  • English-language books: The selection in Costa Rica is small, and prices are steep.
  • Linens: Quality, high thread-count linens cost more than double their standard price in the United States.
  • Music & movies: Most video rentals and music stores carry only mainstream choices. Netflix instant and iTunes downloads are now available in Costa Rica.
  • Toiletries & cosmetics: If you’re partial to a certain brand and don’t want to pay high prices, bring a few months’ supply.
  • Vitamins & supplements: Certain brands may be unavailable, and specialized supplements can be tough to find. You'll pay duties on vitamins and nutritional supplements imported by mail. 

Just a Suitcase

Selling off or donating your large possessions is not only liberating, but will allow you to pack light. If you rent a furnished apartment, you won’t need much upon arrival; so a few stuffed suitcases will do the trick. The advantage to packing light is that you can start from scratch in Costa Rica. Setting up house is enjoyable, especially when you couple shopping with exploring the country. San Jose’s department stores and specialty boutiques are excellent for purchasing household goods, while local fabric stores create window treatments for a song. Head to Sarchi or Palmares for custom-made furniture in gorgeous local woods. Purchase a hardwood table and six chairs for less than $800, and a complete living room set for around $1500. 

Major appliances are a significant expense when setting up house in Costa Rica. For such big-ticket purchases, head to the Golfito duty-free zone, where you can buy up to $1,000 worth of duty-free goods every six months. You’ll find prices significantly lower than of the rest of Costa Rica. Even better, Golfito shipping companies offer door-to-door service for 3% of the value of your purchase. 

Checked Baggage 

Extra checked baggage is a great way to bring a large quantity of smaller items. Used personal or household items not intended for commericial use are not subject to import duties. These items include, but are not limited to, clothing, tools, musical instruments, and sporting goods. For a fee, many airlines allow cardboard boxes or plastic tubs as additional luggage – just make sure the box does not exceed maximum allowable dimensions. For example, US Airways charges $25 for the first bag, $35 for the second and $125 per bag for the 3rd-9th checked bags, so you could theoretically bring two suitcases plus seven large boxes for less than $1,000. Make sure to check with your airline first, and review the list of items permitted in checked baggage. 

Another option is to hire an international moving company that will import boxes or pallets for very reasonable fees, taxes included. For $90-$100, you can ship a 5 cubic-foot box into the country, and the company will take care of any customs charges and delivery, usually to a local warehouse or the closest international airport.  

Air Cargo 

Many major airlines offer airfreight services to Costa Rica. You can import one item up to $500 in value every six months duty-free; all additional goods may be subject to import taxes, and you are required to provide an itemized list of articles and their values. Rates for air cargo are competitive and most depend on the distance between departure and destination airports. For example, Continental Airlines charges $72 for the first 15.4 pounds plus $3.19 per pound over this amount.  

Shipping Containers 

If you’re intent on bringing all your household items to Costa Rica, a shipboard container is your best option. A shipping container from the United States, usually measuring 20 or 40 feet in length, runs $6,000-$15,000, including taxes and delivery. Generally, you will be responsible for packing all boxes and loading the moving truck, and the company will take care of the rest. This includes transportation to the closest domestic port, maritime transportation, offloading in Limon, local customs, and delivery to your new home. The process can take up to two months for U.S. shipments. 

Remember that the same funds could easily furnish a 3,000-square foot home. However, shipping your entire household allows you to be more particular about how you furnish your home, and is the best way to import family heirlooms or antiques. 

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