Driving an Automobile to Costa Rica
If you have sufficient time and enjoy adventure, drive your automobile to
Costa Rica. The journey from the United States to Costa Rica (depending
on where you cross the Mexican border), takes about three weeks if driving
at a moderate speed. The shortest land distance from the United States to
Costa Rica is 2,250 miles through Brownsville, Texas.
Take your time to stop and see some of the sights. I recommend
driving only during the day since most roads are poorly lit, if at all. At
night, large animals—cows, donkeys and horses— can stray onto the road
and cause serious accidents.
Your car must be in good mechanical condition before your trip. Carry
spare tires and necessary parts. Take a can of gas and try to keep your gas
tank as full as possible, because service stations are few and far between.
Have your required visas, passports and other necessary papers in order
to avoid problems at border crossings. Remember, passports are required for
all U.S. citizens driving through Central America. You also need complete
car insurance, a valid driver’s license and vehicle registration.
You can purchase insurance from AAA in the United States., or contact
Sanborn’s Insurance in the United States Tel: 800-222-0158, Fax: (956)-
686-0732 or www.sambornsinsurance.com. They offer both Mexican and
Central American policies.
Instant Auto Insurance offers a 24-hour 800 number and fax service
so you can have your policy ready. In the United States and Canada, call
1-800-345-47-01 or Fax: (619)-690-6533.
The web site www.drivemeloco.com has information about border
crossings and people’s experiences making the trip.
You can also buy insurance at the border before entering Mexico. Having
an accident in Mexico is a felony, not a misdemeanor. So do not forget to
be fully insured.
If you are missing a driver’s license, a vehicle registration or insurance,
border guards can make your life miserable. Also, remember that some border
crossings close at night, so plan to arrive at all borders between 8 a.m. and
5 p.m., just to be safe.
When you finally arrive at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, expect to be
delayed clearing Customs. If you bring many personal possessions to live in
Costa Rica permanently, some or all of them may be inventoried and taken
to the Custom’s warehouse in San José. You may pick them up at a later date
after you have paid the necessary taxes. However, if you come in as a tourist
you usually will not be hassled by Customs at the border.
As a foreigner in Costa Rica (a non-resident) you are allowed to drive a
car with a tourist permit for three months without paying taxes. Your initial
three-month permit to drive your car in Costa Rica may be obtained at the
Customs office at the port of entry. The documents required are the title,
registration of the car and proof of having paid the local minimum insurance
(it is important to understand that this insurance does not cover any vehicle
damage. You cannot obtain additional insurance locally while driving with
this permit.) Mandatory liability insurance from the Instituto Nacional de
Seguros is $10 for three months.
Another three-month extension is usually granted, but after six months
the vehicle must leave the country or the duties must be paid. To get the
one-time three-month extension, you will have to leave the country prior
to the three-month limit for 48 hours. Upon re-entry, your passport will
be restamped, allowing you to drive the vehicle for three more months.
Warning: Do not drive the car if the permit has expired—it will be considered
an abandoned vehicle and can be confiscated.
When your second three-month extension expires, you have to either
leave the country or store the vehicle in a Customs storage facility until you
pay the Customs duties and purchase your Costa Rican license plates.
Any person who brings a car to Costa Rica and pays all of the taxes, may
keep the car in the country indefinitely once all paperwork is completed. One
advantage to bringing your vehicle yourself by land is that you don’t have
to pay taxes immediately, as you do when you have your vehicle shipped by
sea. Warning: If you have permanent residency status and bring a car by
sea, you will have to pay all of the taxes almost immediately before you can
get your car out of Customs.
For additional information about driving from the United States to
Costa Rica, you can see http://drivemeloco.com or purchase a useful
guidebook, Driving the Pan-American Highway to Mexico and Central
America, by Raymond and Audrey Pritchard, with help from Christopher
Howard. You can order this one-of-a-kind book through Amazon.com,
www.drivetocentralamerica.com or www.costaricabooks.com.
Be aware of the following rules if you want to take an automobile out
of the country. As one resident who did it pointed out, “Once you have
your car in Costa Rica and you want to drive a car across the border from
Costa Rica and back, you need to get a permiso para salida del país from
the Registro Nacional in Costa Rica (there is an office in Liberia, I am told),
which will require:
1. A certified, written permission from the owner of the vehicle (you will
need to see your lawyer for this)
2. A copy of the title
3. The paid and current marchamo certificate
4. The current Riteve inspection document. They will do a search of the
Registro files to ensure that there are no unsatisfied liens on the vehicle.
They will also make sure that the corporation that owns it, if there is
one, is on the up and up regarding liabilities and unpaid taxes.
5. If the vehicle is owned by a corporation, you will also have to supply a
certified copy of the corporate constitution.
6. And a recent personería jurídica, for the corporation showing that the
person seeking authorization to drive the car out is the officer of the
corporation and is legally authorized to make such a decision.
Personerías are normally good for only three months, so make sure it is
new enough that it will still be valid when you try to come back. The permiso
document you receive from the Registro is good for one journey of no more
than 30 days. The car must leave the country within 30 days of the time the
permiso is issued for it to be valid. At the border, you will have to have some
or all of the above documents will be examined by Customs on both sides
of the border, going each direction.
Be prepared with at least two certified copies of each; you may be asked
for them, and if you are and don’t have them, you’re sunk — there’s no
copy center at Peñas Blancas. You will be asked for copies of the personería
jurídica as well as the marchamo by the Costa Rican aduana (Customs)
going out. Getting across takes about three hours.
Here is what one resident said about his experience at the border.
“Going into Panama last year at Paso Canoas, all the officials on both sides
were happy with my paperwork, yet I still had to wait in line behind a long
line of truck drivers in the Customs office on the Panama side. And when
my turn finally came, I had to wait while the Panamanian aduana typed
out a six-page form, in four copies, hunting and pecking through it on her
40-year old Smith Corona that didn’t advance the ribbon anymore. The
document she produced was a Derecho de Circulación of which every cop
I encountered in Panama wanted to see my copy, as did the aduanas on
both sides coming back into Costa Rica. I was asked to surrender it to the
aduanas on the Costa Rican side coming back.”