Red Tape in Costa Rica
Dealing With Bureaucracy
Just as in the rest of Latin America, Costa Rica is plagued by a more
inefficient bureaucratic system than the United States is. This situation is
exaggerated by the Latin American temperament, the seemingly lackadaisical
attitude of most bureaucrats, and the slower pace of life. The concept of
time is much different from that in North America. When someone says
they’ll do something “ahorita” (which literally means “right now”), it will
take from a few minutes to a week, or maybe forever. It is not unusual
to wait in lines for hours in banks and government offices and experience
This situation is very frustrating for foreigners who are used to fast,
efficient service. It can be especially irritating if you don’t speak Spanish well.
Since very few people working in offices speak English, and most North
Americans speak little else, it is advisable to study basic Spanish. However,
if language is an insurmountable obstacle at first, use a competent bilingual
lawyer or ask the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR) to help
you deal with Costa Rica’s bureaucracy or “red tape jungle,” as it is known.
Above all, learn to be patient and remember that you can get the best results
if you do not push or pressure people. Try having a good sense of humor
and using a smile. You will be surprised at the results.
You shouldn’t despair if Costa Rica’s “bureaucrazy” gets you down. For
a small fee, you can get a person (gavilán) to wait in line for you while you
run errands or make better use of your time.
A few words of caution: there are some individuals, (choriceros in popular
jargon), who pass themselves off as lawyers or who befriend you and offer to
help you with red tape, claiming they can shortcut the bureaucratic system
because of their contacts. As a general rule, avoid such individuals or you
will lose valuable time, run the risk of acquiring forged documents, most
certainly lose money, and experience indescribable grief.
Since bribery and payoffs are common in most Latin American countries
and government employees are underpaid, some people advise paying them
extra money to speed up paperwork or circumvent normal channels. This
bribery is illegal and not recommended for foreigners, who can be deported
for breaking the law. However, in some instances it may be necessary to pay
extra money to get things done. Use your own discretion in such matters.
A tip here and there for a small favor can accelerate bureaucratic delays. I
have a friend who was in the process of getting all of the required paper work
to marry a Costa Rican. He was in a hurry and did not have time to waste.
He went to the National Registry to get his future wife’s birth certificate
and was told he would have to wait a week. So, he passed out a little extra
money and had it the next morning.
A Trip Through Costa Rica’s Bureaucratic Maze
by Loyd Newton
It’s always an adventure in paradise when you have to deal with the
bureaucracy in any of its many forms. Fortunately, it’s not something
I have to do very often. I’ve been in Costa Rica for a little over two
years now and things are starting to expire and renewal times coming
near. My driver’s license was due to expire at the end of this week so
Monday I went down to the offices in San Jose on Calle 7 to renew it.
I parked my car in one of the public parking lots and they
conveniently had a sign posted with the requirements for new and
renewed licenses. Besides money, I needed to get a doctor’s exam
for my renewal. I didn’t even make it halfway from the parking lot
to the drivers license office when I was waved into a doctors office.
The exam took about 5 minutes which consisted of answering a few
questions and reading the eye-chart above the green line. The doctor
also mentioned he had a private practice near my home town and
handed me a few business cards to take with me.
At the office I discovered a line that went out the door. Luckily
for me, the line that stretched out the door was for new licenses.
The one for renewals was doubled around the inside of the offices.
I noticed a lot of people armed with newspapers for the long wait.
My helper (interpreter, guide, etc.) went to get us a newspaper while
I started my hour long wait in line. The people in line near me were
very friendly and immediately started up conversations. The man ahead
of me spoke English pretty well and was a fountain of information
about the process. So instead of reading a newspaper, I spent my
hour in line conversing with the ticos and the time went by quickly.
Once I got to the head of the line, I showed my doctors certificate
and old license to the man at the first stop. He was very concerned
about the fact that my residency card was expiring in June but said I
could renew my license. Just use my passport he said and don’t show
them the residency card. Well, to be honest, I figured out what he
was saying at the time but didn’t understand what he meant until I
hit the last stop.
I took my papers, got back in another line for the bank. There I
paid 10,000 colones for my 5 year license. I told them the sign said it
was only 4000 colones but they explained that was for the 2 year license.
Sounded good to me, so I took my receipt and got into another line
for the cameras. After about 15 minutes, I made it to the head of the
line and went up to have my photo taken for the new license. When
I got there, I handed over my papers and receipts and the man asked
for my cédula. My big mistake was in giving it to him. He took one
look at it and said he would not take my photo. He took me back
to the start, “do not pass go, do not collect license”. There the man
asked me why I showed the man my cédula and I explained because
he asked me for it. He told me, that the man would not take my
photo or give me the license because my cédula was expiring in two
months. This didn’t make any sense to me, since I don’t even need
residency to get a license here.
When people get a little excited here, they talk very fast so I
was having a hard time understanding what they were telling me.
My helper had gotten separated from me between the last stop and
the return to go. Fortunately, a tica came over and translated for
me. There are some wonderfully helpful people here! While they
were explaining the man’s reason for not taking my photo, another
photographer stepped up and said he would do it. So they took me
around to another camera station, and within 5 minutes I had my
new driver’s license.
A low level bureaucrat that likes to have little power or just doesn’t
like gringos decided that a cédula that expires in 2 months was a big
problem. Fortunately for me, kinder hearted people stepped in and
took care of things. “I have always depended upon the kindness
of strangers.” So I left the place with mixed feelings….distaste for
the petty bureaucrat and the hitch after over an hour of waiting and
happiness that the good ticos and ticas won out and I could finish
business that day.
I felt so good about not having anything else to do this week,
that I went out and played 18 holes of golf today at Valle del Sol.
First time I’ve played golf in a year so I gave up keeping score on the
first hole. A great day to be outside and enjoy the weather though
so I thoroughly enjoyed it though my golf game needs a lot of work.
Guess I’ll just have to get out once a week and practice on it.