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The most important thing about Costa Rica cars, is that whatever you buy, it must be a 4WD. Even if you don't plan on driving off-road, unexpected road closures, flooding, mud slides can all happen at any time and send you on a different path, and many times, this will be on a dirt road. In Costa Rica, always expect the unexpected!
On average, new cars and trucks are about 25-30% more expensive than in the United States. This is due mostly to high import taxes imposed by the Costa Rican government. Used cars are therefore much more popular but still more expensive than their United States counterparts.
The most common vehicles are Toyota, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Hyundai and Kia, in that order. I have seen a few Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, but not many, and some Honda, Isuzu, BMW, Audi, Porche, Mercedes and Subaru vehicles and SUVs. If you bring, or purchase some of the higher end vehicles such as Audi, BMW, Porche and Mercedes, most likely the dealerships for service and maintenance will be limited to the San Jose area. I have a friend who has a BMV SUV that he brought from the United States and he has to take it to San Jose for service. If you can't drive it there, it must be towed and this could be an expensive towing bill depending where you are living. Bottom line is to check for dealerships around where you are thinking about moving to.
By far the easiest to get parts for and maintain is Toyota, but because of this, the price will be at a premium, even for a used Toyota. For example, a new Toyota RAV 4, 4WD is about $40,000 USD in Costa Rica as compared to around $30K in the US. However, a negotiated price of $40,000 USD turns into about $48,000 USD, out the door, by the time you add in the 13% Value Added Tax (VAT) and the pre-payed Marchamo. This price is if you pay cash!
A 4-5 year old used RAV4 in Costa Rica with moderate mileage (70-80,000 miles in very good condition is a little bit over $20K USD. A 5 year old Toyota Hilux 4WD king cab pickup truck with 65,000 miles in excellent condition is about $45,000. Now you can see why used cars are so valued.
While you may think that the Jeep Wrangler would be the perfect car for Costa Rica, people that I know are constantly complaining about the inability to find parts. You can eventually get them, but they will have to be imported and this will cost time and money.
Maintaining a car in Costa Rica is expensive. There are yearly registration fees, periodic road worthy inspections and gas is expensive. The only thing not expensive is labor. Depending on where you live, roads in poor condition will result in much more maintenance, especially brakes and suspension parts.
In our first year living in Costa Rica, other than oil changes and front brakes, there have not been any additional repairs required. I changed the front brake pads myself but they still cost $178 USD from the Toyota dealer in Liberia.
Gas has ranged from $3.60 USD to little over $5.00 USD per gallon over the last year. Diesel is much less expensive than gas in Costa Rica.
Our yearly registration fee, called Marchamo in Costa Rica, for our 2014 Toyota RAV4 with a book value of about $17,000 in 2021 was $587.
Insurance cost, at least for us, is less than living in Southern California. A good policy for our 2014 RAV4 was $672.
Then there is the vehicle technical inspection, Riteve. This is performed every two years for cars under five years old and every year for cars over 5 years. It consists of a series of tests consisting of braking, emissions and suspension, inspection of wipers, lights, windshield, tires, seat belts and safety equipment. The initial appointment cost is about $25. If there find anything wrong, you must get it fixed and return for a follow up inspection. There is also a fee for the return visit.
You can import your vehicle but it will be expensive. There is a sliding import tax scale that ranges from between about 50% and 80% of the value depending on the age of the car. The older the vehicle, the higher the tax. The assessed value will also be higher than in the United States and is not based on the Kelly blue book value, but instead is based on what the Costa Rican government thinks it is worth. Vehicles that are too old, won't be accepted at all.
If you decide to bring your vehicle, check the model to make sure parts are available. If not, parts will have to be imported. This will be expensive and take a lot of time. Just because you bring a Toyota from the US or Canada doesn't mean that it is exactly the same as the counterpart model in Costa Rica. There can still be differences between a Toyota Hilux in Costa Rica and a Toyota Tacoma in the United States, enough to be a headache.
Consider the cost of putting it in a shipping container. Containers are available in 20 and 40 foot lengths. If bringing a car pushes you to a larger container, or even worse, another container, it probably isn't worth it.
Vehicles must also be certified as safe for overseas travel, yet another headache and expense.
Once in Costa Rica, the vehicle must be inspected by Riteve, the national Costa Rica vehicle inspection organization. This process includes a visual check of the vehicle for the following items:
For us, the timing is good. Our 1999 Honda Passport with 242,000 miles and 2005 Honda Accord with 208,000 miles were too old to bring to Costa Rica and parts would have been a problem. Parts for the Passport were sometimes a problem, even in the United States.
We purchased a used 2014 Toyota RAV4 4WD with about 78,000 miles on it. Through lots of networking with professionals and friends, face to face meetings and research we found Regina and Peter Herb who own Car Center Coco to find the perfect car that met all of our requirements. For a fee they will find the car, check the history, perform a mechanical evaluation, coordinate registration with an attorney, recommend and negotiate any necessary repairs and bring it to their lot in Coco for pickup. The communication and transaction was smooth and flawless. I highly recommend using their service, especially if you are moving to the Guanacaste province in the Pacific Northwest as many ex-pats do.
You will need a reputable lawyer to buy a used car. They will research the title and make sure that it is clean and that there are no liens or tickets against the vehicle. They will also file paperwork with the Costa Rican National Registry and obtain the new title. The average costs for this service is about $400.
In my opinion, sell your vehicle before you move to Costa Rica and buy something down here, new or used. There is a lot of work and expense to bring your own car and I don't think it is worth it.