Shipping / bringing your household items to Costa Rica
As previously stated, the old pensionado program allowed retirees to
import household items including an automobile virtually duty-free. Since
most of these privileges were rescinded more than a decade ago, you may
well have second thoughts about importing anything.
Keep in mind that most imported used items are also taxed. Taxes range
from 40 to 90 percent or more of the value of the article plus your shipping
costs. Taxes can be raised at the whim of the Costa Rican government. You
can, however, save money by purchasing many imported items at the dutyfree
zone or depósito libre in the southern city of Golfito.
After taking high shipping costs into consideration, you may be reluctant
to ship any household items from the United States. This is a matter of personal
choice. Most foreign residents and even Costa Ricans prefer U.S. products
because of their higher quality. However, many retirees live comfortably and
happily without luxuries and expensive appliances.
You can rent a furnished apartment. If you choose, you can furnish
an apartment, excluding stove and refrigerator, for a few hundred dollars.
Wooden furniture is inexpensive in Costa Rica. You can also purchase good
used furniture and appliances from expatriates and others moving out of
the country. Check the local English-language newspapers. What you need
to import depends on your personal preference and budget.
Make an effort to get rid of “clutter” and bulky items, and do not ship
what can be easily or cheaply replaced in Costa Rica. Try to leave large
appliances and furniture at home. You pay more for these items in Costa
Rica, but in the long run they turn out to be less expensive when you take
shipping costs and taxes into consideration. Talk to other foreign residents
and retirees to see what they think is absolutely necessary to bring to Costa
Rica. One person who moved here recently recommends, “Only bring what
you absolutely cannot live without.”
If you still want to import your U.S. belongings and household goods
and want to save time and money, purchase and ship them from Los Angeles,
Houston, New Orleans or, preferably, Miami. The latter is the U.S. port
nearest to Costa Rica, and shipping costs are lower. Look in the Yellow Pages
of the Miami phone book for a shipping company.
Other Ways to Bring Your Belongings into Costa Rica
Here are some money-saving tips for bringing items to Costa Rica.
First, when entering the country as a tourist by plane, you can bring in a
lot of personal effects and small appliances. A tourist is sometimes waved
through Customs without ever having to open any luggage. Costa Rica has
become a popular tourist destination.
Flying into Costa Rica
The government understands that tourists come here to enjoy the country
and have many different hobbies and reasons for visiting. They know that
tourists need sports equipment, such as surfboards, bicycles, kayaks or
fishing equipment, photographic equipment, small stereos, clothing, toys,
a personal computer, radios, tapes and musical instruments. Personal items
are not limited to this list. Almost any article that will be used by the resident
or traveler while in the country, whether to work or play, may be considered
a “personal item.”
The government permits items for personal use not intended for resale.
The number of these personal items has to be reasonable in relation to the
length of the stay or needed for the exercise of one’s profession during his
or her trip. All items have to be portable and considered luggage.
The amount of luggage allowed on the plane by airlines is limited in
most cases to two pieces that must not exceed 50 pounds each. Sometimes
they allow excess luggage for an additional fee. If they do allow you to take
more, do so, because it is the cheapest way to bring items into Costa Rica.
While on the plane, you have to fill out a Customs declaration form.
If you are bringing anything that is not considered luggage under the law,
declare it at a very low price. Once you have picked up your luggage from
the carousel you will have to go through Customs. If they red-light you, you
must go through an inspection; otherwise you’ll walk through unstopped.
Tourists and residents have the right to bring in $500 in merchandise
purchased abroad every six months tax-free, in addition to personal items
considered part of a traveler’s luggage. Any merchandise that exceeds the
$500 limit and cannot be considered a personal article will be retained in
Customs until the import duties are paid. The back of your passport will be
stamped “bonificado,” which means you will be restricted from bringing more
imported items into the country for a period of six months. If you bring
in more items within six months, you will have to pay the corresponding
taxes. Be forewarned that Customs officials will usually stamp the passports
of people who bring in obviously new merchandise.
Used clothing and books are not subject to taxes. Do not pack them
with taxable articles or you may have to pay taxes on them anyway.
Ask friends bring a few things when they come to visit you in Costa
Rica. Always try to take as much as possible with you on the plane rather
than shipping items by boat, because most used personal things are not taxed
at the airport. Even used appliances have a good chance of clearing airport
Customs if you can fit them on the plane.
If you have a small amount of items (fewer than 500 pounds) that you cannot
take with you as luggage, you should consider sending them as air cargo.
One slightly crazy friend of mine, who has moved back and forth between
Costa Rica and the United States six times, highly recommends American
Airlines Cargo. He always uses them to ship his belongings to Costa Rica.
If you choose to ship your belongings by air, find an air cargo freight
forwarder in the yellow pages. There should be a couple near any major airport.
Ask them if they will take cargo shipment of personal effects to be shipped to
San Jose, Costa Rica. You will then have to give them the number of boxes you
are planning to ship, and the respective weight and dimensions of each box.
The operator will then figure out the approximate cost. All items will
officially be weighed at the airport cargo facility. The cost is based on either
the total weight or the combined dimensions of all your boxes, whichever
You will then be given the choice of sending your things by express or
standard freight. The latter is your best bet if you are not in a hurry. It takes
only two to five days to reach Costa Rica from the United States. The only
drawback to shipping standard rate is that it will be on a space-available
basis, and your merchandise may be slightly delayed. The cost works out to
be about a dollar per pound.
It is highly advisable to make your travel plans so as to arrive in Costa
Rica before your shipment. This way you can go directly to the Customs
house and remove your things after paying the corresponding taxes.
Be sure to pack everything in boxes or unlocked plastic bins. Use
duct tape to seal the bins. If you are shipping computers, stereos or other
electronic equipment, I recommend packing your belongings in unmarked
plain boxes. Number each box and put the name and address of the person
who will be receiving them in Costa Rica. Make a list of the contents of each
box for yourself, the airlines and customs. This will help ensure that your
boxes get there intact. Cardboard boxes should be thick and have plenty of
packing material to protect any fragile items. Airline employees often heap
heavy boxes on top of other cargo. Be sure to write ”not for resale”on any
paperwork and air bills. This will save you a lot of money when the Customs
people figure out how much you will pay in taxes.
We advise you to take a chance and not insure what you ship. This way
you will avoid paying tax on the declared value of your goods.
Always consign the shipment to your name as it appears on your passport.
If you consign it to a corporation the shipment will be considered a commercial
shipment by Costa Rican Customs and you will pay high import duties in
addition to having to provide permits and invoices.
You can use a shipping expert to clear customs or do it yourself. If you
decide to get your things out of Customs yourself, the process goes like
this. First, you will have to go to the airlines cargo facility, pay a small fee
and take the paperwork to the Customs house. When you arrive there, you
go to a couple of windows. Next, you will sit and wait until they call your
name. While you wait you can peek inside a large glass window and watch
the workers load and unload boxes of all sizes and shapes from the 20-foot
high storage shelves. When your name is finally called you go inside and the
inspector opens all of your sealed boxes and determines what the contents
are worth. Due to a lack of knowledge or because the Customs inspector will
want to, they sometimes apply the same rules as luggage and you will pay
nothing or very little. Most of the time you do not need a Customs broker
to help you with a small shipment.
Finally, you go to a window, which also serves as a branch of one of the
national banks, and pay the taxes on the items you have imported.
There are small trucks or taxis de carga available outside the Customs
building that you can hire to take your belongings to your house or apartment.
Prices are quite reasonable. I took a full load to San José and the driver only
charged me about $50. He even helped me load and unload.
If you have more than 500 pounds and large items like refrigerators, it is too
expensive to ship by air. Your best option is to send your things by boat in
a cargo container. It is more cost-effective to use a large container, and the
transit time will be shorter. As a rule of thumb, a small 20-foot container
will cost $1500 plus tax and a large 40-foot container will cost around $2000
plus tax. So it is best to use a whole container. Your Customs agent can get
all of your household items and belongings out of Customs. Surprisingly, it
is cheaper to ship your items to Costa Rica by container than to ship your
household goods across the United States.
If you don’t have enough to fill even a half container, then you should
use a freight consolidator like Charles Zeller. A consolidator has a warehouse
and receives small shipments going to Costa Rica. Once he has enough small
shipments to fill a container he lumps them together and sends a container
to Costa Rica with many small shipments inside.
Here is what one expat said about the experience of shipping his things
by container: “I moved down with everything that would fit in a 40-foot
container, from the Indianapolis area, and if I remember correctly I paid
about $5,500 to $5,800. However, if your location is close to a major seaport,
the cost should be a lot lower. My container had to go by truck to Chicago,
then by rail to the eastern seaboard (possibly New York or Virginia Beach)
before it got onto the ship, and the cost for the land portion was probably
greater than the cost of the sea voyage.
“The best part is that they left the container parked in my driveway for
several days at no extra charge. It was up on wheels of course, so I had to
build a ramp to load it. I loaded it myself with some friends and hired a crew
for the real heavy stuff.
“Having that kind of time was key to getting everything to fit right,
which was important to me because not a cubic foot was wasted — and
there were 2,261 of them. Instead of selling or giving away a ton of stuff in
the States, we brought it all down and gave it away here, and brought a lot
of additional supplies we needed for our mission work here, in addition to
all our household stuff, a couple thousand books and my 17-foot canoe.”
Driving through Mexico and Central America is another way to bring your
household goods and personal belongings to Costa Rica. However, because
of the length of the journey, delays at border crossings, risk of theft and
other hassles, this method is not recommended. Some trucking companies
will ship your belongings overland.
Whether you choose to send some of your possessions by ship or plane as
unaccompanied luggage, you will learn to exercise extreme patience. Be
prepared to face some unnecessary delays and frustrations when dealing
with the Costa Rican Customs house, or aduana. Since the new modern
Customs warehouse opened near the airport, this process has been somewhat
However, it is more usual than not to make several trips to the Customs
warehouse to get your belongings. At worst you may spend all day dealing
with mountains of paperwork, only to hear at the end of the day that you
must come back tomorrow. Furthermore, fickle Customs officials sometimes
decide the value of the shipped goods, and two identical shipments can be
taxed differently depending on who examines them at the aduana.
The documents you need to clear your shipment through customs:
- A copy of the main page of your passport and a page with the last entry
stamp when you last entered Costa Rica. In order for the shipment to
qualify as personal effects, it has to clear customs within 90 days of your
- Original Airway Bill which the freight forwarder usually sends this with
the shipment and the airline agent will have it in Costa Rica for you to
pick up after paying the Terminal Handling Fee.
- Packing inventory with the declared value of the goods.
Because of this lengthy process and hassles, most people pay a local
Customs broker, Agencia Aduanera, or hire some other person or their
lawyer to do this unpleasant task for them. It may cost a little more this way,
but it will save valuable time and hassles.
I recommend the following company (please see their ad in the classified
ads section of this guide):
Ship to Costa Rica
Toll-Free from the United States or Canada: 1-866-245-6923
Here is what Susan said about Ship to Costa Rica’s services: “Well,
finally, we have our stuff! The container arrived a week ago, but we had to
store our things because we considered moving to another spot. Then after
a hectic week of looking around, we decided we liked our spot just fine and
we had a great deal, talked to the neighbors about the reasons we considered
leaving and decided to stay here.”
“So today was the BIG day. We got a call at 8:30 this morning to say the
truck was ready at the warehouse and did we want them to come NOW. That
was three hours early—imagine that! And I groaned and said, ‘But we’re not
even dressed.’ So we did the Keystone Cops thing and ran around throwing
on clothes, throwing cats in the maid’s room, throwing the dog in the laundry
room, throwing the sheets in with the dog and getting ready for the big day.”
“And the truck came and unloaded and the other truck came and unloaded
and unloaded, and unloaded. The only space they didn’t unload into was the
hall bathroom. So that’s where we hung out for a moment of peace from
the boxes and piles of stuff. Even though we de-stuffed multiple times back
in the States we still had so much stuff that I have no idea where it will go.”
“Our maid stood wide-eyed through the entire day wondering when
the stuff would stop arriving and dreading having to unpack it. She deserves
“Today I truly felt like an American with many of the undercurrents
of what that word means to people who are not and have not got what we
have. It was almost embarrassing. But I was assured that we were perfectly
normal for Americans moving to Costa Rica.”
“After it was all delivered, the guys unwrapped all the furniture and took
away the garbage. They helped us bully several dozen boxes into a handy
storage area we have under the stairs and smiled the entire time, except for
when they delivered my 500-pound fire-proof filing cabinet up a long flight
of stairs—we affectionately call this the ‘pig’.”
“Many thanks to and hats off to Charlie Zeller of Ship to Costa Rica
and his son Charlie, Jr., the head of the moving crew. From start to finish,
these are the most professional movers I have ever worked with. They are
honest, gave me a quote up front and stuck to it right down to when I paid
them, delivered on time to my door, arranged all the paperwork and Customs
stuff. They stored my stuff in their warehouse for a week after it arrived in
Costa Rica for free and overall did a fantastic job for us. Not one piece of
furniture was damaged. I do give myself a little credit because I know how
to pack. There have been so far a few little items, mostly dishes, chipped or
broken. Nothing that can’t be replaced.”
“Five stars to Charlie and his crew. If you are looking to move to Costa
Rica, I definitely recommend them and you can find them through the
ARCR, another wonderful organization that has been immensely helpful.
“So now we are starting the unpack and my animals are sniffing around
wondering what the heck went on here all day; they are checking out every
box and all the new nooks and crannies and we are all thinking, gee, this
looks like home and it don’t echo no more in my place.”
Be sure to ask the following when choosing a customs agency: Does
the agency have English-speaking employees? Talk to them to see if they
are customer-service oriented. Find out if they have the resources to access
computerized Customs information. Talk to long-time residents who have
dealt with reputable agencies and get referrals.
You may also choose to consult the Yellow Pages for a listing of Agencias
Aduaneras (Custom’s brokers). The Association of Residents of Costa
Rica (ARCR) can give you the names of several Customs agencies.