Shipping a Container to Costa Rica

You have lived in your current house for years and are getting close to retirement and considering a move to Costa Rica or another international destination.  You want to bring the majority of your belongings with you.  Not only is this a tremendous amount of work, it will be very time consuming and extremely expensive.  If this is an absolute requirement for moving, you may want to reconsider.  Here is why......

Cost

There are several factors that will determine how much your container shipment will cost.

Proximity to a major port - If you live in the center of the United States, thousands of miles from a major port such as San Francisco, Long Beach, New York or Miami, to name a few, the cost to transport your shipping container(s) via ground to the port will likely exceed the overseas cost of transporting it from the port to Costa Rica.  Even living in San Diego, our cost to get the container to Long Beach was almost just as much as from Long Beach to Costa Rica.

Dedicated or shared containers - You can get a dedicated container or the contents can be separated, palletized and shipped in container that is shared with other people.  While using this method may work fine, the odds of the items becoming damaged or lost is generally higher plus you won't be able to oversee the loading.

Live load or hired load - If you decide on a dedicated container, you have the option of doing a live load where the container is brought to you, and you load and secure the contents.  You will have a fixed amount of time to complete the load and will have to pay by the hour if you exceed this limit.  Alternately, you can hire a company to pack up, pick up and load the container without your involvement.  The downside is that you won't see how things are packed and loaded, and in my opinion, this is just one more step where things could go wrong.  Beware!.....if the container comes to you, it will be on a truck and sitting 4 feet above the ground.  The contents must be lifted as there are no ramps or lifts to assist you.

IMPORTANT! - Don't load a container so that it gets to port at the end of a week.  If it arrives on a Thursday or Friday, it will sit over the weekend and incur additional holding charges.  Avoid it arriving close to holiday of any type.  Find out from your transport company, when it will arrive at the port and schedule your load accordingly. 

Number of containers - Standard container sizes are 20 and 40 feet long by 9 feet wide.  If you are shipping a vehicle, it will likely require a 40 foot container, especially if it is going with other items.  As the number of containers increase, so does the cost.  There is no discount for shipping multiple containers.  Read our Owning a Car in Costa Rica page before deciding to take it with you.

Import fees and Taxes - Everything that arrives will be taxed at 13% of the declared value, only if the Customs Broker and Costa Rican Official agree with your assessed value.  In addition, import taxes will be applied to each item and the amount varies with each type of item.  For example, books have an import fee of about $1 USD where a vehicle can be anywhere between 50% and 90% of the Costa Rica assessed value.  In general, with the exception of furniture, household goods are inexpensive and electronics are very expensive.  While the shipping company may be able to give you an estimate, you will not know the final import fee and tax until it arrives in Costa Rica.

Delivery - Most likely you will not be able to pick up your container contents and will have to coordinate delivery to your final destination.  Similar to shipping from your home country, proximity to the port will be the main driver for delivery charges.  Also, remember manana....just because someone says it will be there tomorrow doesn't mean it will really be tomorrow.  Have patience.  This is why you moved here, for a slower and relaxed lifestyle.

Preparation

The contents will have to be well packed, and some items such as pictures, photos and electronics should be sealed and have moisture removing packets included.  Large items will have to be tied down to prevent movement and subsequent damage.  Every box must be labeled in Spanish and English and include quantity and name of each item.  You will need to include a master manifest with a declared value for each item.

What to Bring

Do not bring furniture.  Custom wood furniture is inexpensive, beautiful and durable and will withstand the extreme climate.  Most of the furniture is made out of the local Mango or Guanacaste trees.  Bringing anything that is laminated over particle board is like bring a sponge to a pool party, it will soak and hold the moisture, eventually breaking the wood down.

Do not bring a car.  You will need either a larger container or additional containers to accommodate the larger shipment, plus it must be certified as safe for travel on the ship.

Don't bring beds.  Headboards and frames can be custom made and US style pillow top mattresses are widely available.  Most don't use a box spring set and place just the mattress on top of the frame.

If you have an overabundance of tools, I would recommend scaling down to the bare minimum of what you think you will need and sell the remaining before you move.  Remember, everything down here uses the metric system.  Tools also carry a heavy import fee and may, or may not be worth bringing.

Electronics such as TVs and computers are expensive to purchase in Costa Rica.  On the flip side, the import tax is high if you bring them.  Today at the Walmart in Liberia, there was a new 75" Samsung flat panel on sale for about $1700.  If you bring a used TV and declare a value of $300, by the time you pay the VAT and import fees, it could total $500-$600.  So, depending on the age, maybe it is worth bringing, maybe not.

If you have lots of kitchen gadgets, bring them.  The ones in Costa Rica do not work well and are expensive.

Bring bed linens, comforters, towels, etc.  We haven't found any that are of good quality, and even the better ones, are really expensive.

Bring pictures and books but remember to seal and add desiccant packs to remove any moisture.

Our Shipment

We scaled down our belongings to fit into a single 20 x 9 foot container.  We took two large Samsung LED televisions, a Hobie fishing kayak on a converted jet ski trailer, fishing equipment, linens, vacuum cleaner, bedding and numerous household and kitchen items plus pictures.  We did not bring any furniture or tools.

The cost to get it from San Diego to Long Beach was about $1300, with me performing the live load myself within the two hour allocation.  Then surprise, in Long Beach, an unexpected Customs inspection in fee of $1800 meant that I was $3100 into it and it hadn't even left the port.  The cost to transport from Long Beach to Costa Rica was only $1600.  Upon arrival in Costa Rica, the total amount for import tax, VAT and delivery fee was $5200.  Total cost = $9900 USD, twice the cost of what we originally thought it would be.

Since I performed the live load and secured all of the contents, I thought they would all be safe.  Unfortunately when a third party transfer company in Long Beach coordinated the Customs and Border inspection, the seal to the container was removed, contents removed from their packing boxes, inspected, and in many cases not put back in the original packing boxes.  Everything was then put in another shipping container.  Nothing was tied down, even the kayak on the jet ski trailer, and many of the items moved during the transport and were broken.  Some items, such as fishing lures, were stolen from the tackle boxes.  My wife's sewing basket was littered about my kayak.  We still have not found the actual basket.  The people in Long Beach were horrible and didn't care about taking care of any of my items.

The shipment took about 4 weeks at sea.  I witnessed the opening of the sealed container when it arrived in Costa Rica.  Everything was handled with care and they went the extra mile to make sure everything was delivered with no further damage. 

In retrospect, if I had to purchase two new televisions ($4000), a Hobie kayak on a jet ski trailer ($7000), fishing equipment ($2000), not to mention all of the household items, it would have probably cost more than $15000 to buy it new in Costa Rica.  Considering all of the problems and damage along with the cost, we would have been better to just buy it all new.

Summary

I haven't talked to anybody in Costa Rica, that relocated from another country, that was happy with the company that they used to bring their belongings.

Some people cited damaged goods.  Others talk about about how the cost doubled and even tripled from what the estimate was.

When you get a quote, be careful, as it may only include shipping from your home and delivery to the port in Costa Rica.  Getting it through Costa Rica Customs and delivered could also be very expensive.

If you are moving down here, most likely it is to downscale and have a simpler life.  My recommendation is to sell it all before you move, save yourself the frustration, and start over in Costa Rica.

What was your experience in shipping to Costa Rica ?

Did you ship some or all of your things to Costa Rica or did you decide to just sell everything and start over ? Had a good experience? If so, tell us who you used. Likewise for the bad ones.

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