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  • Writer's pictureJill Reed, Ph.D.

Owning a Vehicle in Costa Rica: Better to Ship or Purchase Locally?

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

We are in the process of deciding whether or not to ship our American car to our home in Costa Rica. When we moved here a year ago, one of the first things I did was research (lightly) and purchase a used car from an expat on his way back to the states. Here I want to share with you the structure for both shipping a car to Costa Rica and buying a new or used car locally.

Buying a car in Costa Rica

You have basically three avenues to follow for purchasing a car in Costa Rica. You can buy new from an internationally known car brand dealership, which honestly, will give you the most peace of mind. You can look for a used car on your own through message boards and word of mouth or, lastly, you can hire a third party seller to locate and manage the purchase for you.

There are quite a few things to know about car ownership in Costa Rica. There is an annual inspection process called Riteve and an annual insurance related fee called Marchamo.

Riteve requires an appointment and can also be taken care of by your mechanic, because often a car will not pass the first time and will need something addressed before it can go back for a second pass. Our mechanic charges $80 to do this, plus whatever is involved in the fine tuning.

Marchamo can be paid at the bank and is based on your vehicle’s value. For our Nissan we paid about $400 for the year. Marchamo is due December 31.

Buying New

If money is no object the easiest and most cost-effective route is to research the vehicle you want and visit a dealership to purchase it directly off the lot. Mechanical issues and maintenance will not be problematic and you will have the safety of a new car.

Be sure you are making the decision that is best for your area and the type of driving you will be doing. Pay attention to the mileage as gasoline and diesel are expensive in Costa Rica. We have found when renting new cars here that diesel gets far better mileage than gasoline does. This is especially true with a heavier 4WD SUV type of vehicle.

diesel tank old

However, we have often been told that gasoline engines are easier and less expensive to maintain in the long run. Diesel engines require a higher level of care to keep the engine and filters clean. Diesel is a dirty fuel.

Buying new is an EXPENSIVE choice.

Just for reference, if you are thinking about buying what you drove in the states, a new Toyota 4Runner starts at a base price of $68,000. Cars in Costa Rica cost twice as much as they do in the states because of import taxes. It is important to note that import taxes will get you one way or another. More on that below.

Buying Used

We found our first used car by word of mouth and a Facebook message board for our school. A family was moving back to the states and was looking to sell their 2005 Nissan XTerra, which had been purchased from their landlords who had originally shipped it down from California.

We are the third owners and at the time of purchase, it had brand new tires and shocks because the family that was leaving hadn’t anticipated doing so. They were in a pinch so we got a deal. This older car with well over 130,000 miles on it cost us $9000. Complete insanity. Get used to it. (see what I did there?)

I won’t get into how much we have had to invest in solving various mechanical issues while in our brief possession. I will note, however, that it is hugely important to have a good mechanic nearby. We found our local shop through our realtor. The mechanic also takes care of our annual inspection called Riteve for about $80.

Nissan Xterra in Costa Rica Taller

Oh look, she's in the shop again!

Additional places to look for used cars include Costa Rica Craigslist and Encuentua 24. Both of these operate like classifieds, so you are on your own to get to the car, check it out, have your mechanic look it over, and make the purchase.

We used the departing family’s attorney to close the deal. You must have an attorney to purchase almost anything in Costa Rica. Make sure you have a really good one or you might end up waiting almost four months for the title to be transferred to your name. Hindsight and bygones.

Buying Used with a Third Party Service

There are also businesses that act as third party sellers. You can think of them more as a buyer’s agent. They will locate the car you desire, take care of the mechanical inspection, and assist you with the paperwork and the transaction. You will still need an attorney to register the car and tags in your name in the national registry. 

We recommend Andy Ehler of Ehler’s Cars in San Jose. Other options include Wheels CR also located in San Jose. They will help you look for a car and then guide you through the purchase for a small fee.

Shipping Your Vehicle

If you are thinking about shipping your vehicle to your new home, you are certainly not the first. Your car will need to be free and clear and you will need to have the title in hand before you can begin the process. Part of the cost should include any payoff you might owe.

We recommend using a shipping expert like International Relocation Partner based in San Jose. They have plenty of experience in shipping cars into Costa Rica and can manage everything for you except the attorney’s portion. Shipping can cost $2000-4000 depending on whether or not you choose roll on roll off (RORO) or container shipping and where you are shipping from. The farther you are from a major port, the more it will cost.

cargo ship on open water

If you ship RORO you absolutely cannot ship anything with the car. If you choose container shipping, you may have space in the container for additional items like boxes. This can be handy if you need to move items at the same time. Also, container shipping means your car stays safer during shipment.

Upon arrival, your car will go through customs and your shipping agent can take care of this for you. Import taxes are calculated based on what Costa Rica thinks your car is worth. They will then take a percentage of that number. Vehicles less than three years old – 52.29 percent. Vehicles four to five years old – 63.91 percent. Vehicles six years or older – 79.03 percent.

You can check this government website to calculate the import tax for your car specifically. Other costs will be based on how much your agent on the Costa Rica end of shipment charges to have the car taken to Riteve for inspection and then how much your attorney will charge to register your car to your name and get new Costa Rica plates.

You may also elect to have your car delivered to you where you are residing.

Additional Tips

Hire a good attorney. We recommend Quatro Legal or Outlier Legal. Check your math, and then check it again. Be sure which option saves you the most money. Remember that in Costa Rica, nothing is as it seems. There will always be fees you weren’t prepared to find. We have attempted to give you an idea of your costs but things change constantly.

You will need to purchase, at the very least, third party insurance. Ask an independent insurance broker for help with this. We pay about $250/year for this on our Nissan.

There are many factors to consider when shipping your car to Costa Rica or deciding to simply buy a new or used car locally. We are still undecided, but we hope our tips will make it easier for you.


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