Costa Rica Cars and Transportation
Wondering how you'll get around in Costa Rica? Here's what you need to know about buying cars in Costa Rica, importing cars into Costa Rica, public transportation, taxis, and more.
Costa Rica Car Purchase and Importation:
What You Need To Know
It's wonderful to have the freedom to travel around Costa Rica - to go beach-hopping, to explore new towns and sites, and sometimes to wander down dirt roads until you have to turn back. A car can give you the freedom to explore a new country and enjoy it to the fullest. Costa Rica is a country where a car can be particularly valuable, as public transport networks are concentrated in the Central Valley and between larger towns and cities. To get off the beaten track, you'll want a vehicle.
Cars tend to be more expensive in Costa Rica than in the U.S. and Canada. High import taxes mean that used cars hold their value for a long time, and many people choose to buy a car in country rather than import a new car from elsewhere.
Should You Import Your Car Into Costa Rica?
Importing a car from another country into Costa Rica can be a difficult and expensive process, so we recommend taking a step back before assuming this is the right route for you. Here's what you need to know:
The Costa Rican government usually applies a 40-80% import duty on cars. The amount of the duty depends primarily on the age of the vehicle and how the Costa Rican government assesses the value of the particular make and model of the vehicle.
Certain vehicles may benefit from a low value assessment. It's always worth checking how much tax you would be charged to import your car. If you'd like help calculating this amount, please get in touch!
There is a new law allowing certain visa holders to import two vehicles duty-free, but it is yet to be implemented. This new law will impact holders of the new digital nomad visa, inversionista (investor) visa, rentista (passive income) visa, and pensionado (pensioner/retirement) visa. Unfortunately, as of January 2023 there is no clear indication of when the government will roll out new regulations to allow qualifying visa holders to import their vehicles. It is also unclear if the law will be applied retroactively to those who pay import taxes while we wait for regulations to pass.
For those who want to take advantage of the new law, we recommend waiting to import your car until regulations have been released and there are mechanisms to allow for duty-free importation. In the meantime, you can buy a car in Costa Rica and plan to resell once you can ship your car. Although cars are expensive in Costa Rica, their value does not depreciate quickly!
How to Buy a Car in Costa Rica
We recommend planning to spend some time searching online -- use Facebook Marketplace, Encuentra24, and CRautos.com -- rather than buying from a dealer. You can also work with a broker to help find the right deal.
Regardless, you should plan to bring a trustworthy mechanic with you when inspecting the car. It is relatively common in Costa Rica for dealers to roll back miles on the odometer, so you'll want to inspect a car's inner-workings especially carefully. Make sure that the Marchamo (registration & mandatory liability insurance) and Riteve (vehicle safety inspection) are current, and work with a trusted mechanic to ensure everything looks good before handing over any money.
We generally recommend buying used cars that are common in the country, so that used parts are readily available. The top brand by far in Costa Rica is Toyota. Suzuki, Hyundai, and Nissan are also fairly popular. Generally, going with a Japanese manufacturer or a more recent year from a Korean manufacturer is recommended. You will also want to be sure that the specific model of the car is fairly common in Costa Rica. It can't hurt to ask a trusted mechanic in advance for their thoughts on part availability!
If you would like help finding a quality car, StartAbroad provides that service. Learn more and book on our services page.
Public Transportation in Costa Rica
If you don't want to get around by car, there are public transport options throughout Costa Rica. Bus routes are the most prevalent public transport option, and you can find local and long-distance journeys offered by a number of bus companies. Traveling by bus is very affordable. A local bus within San Jose may cost less than $1 US, while a long cross-country bus ride is likely to set you back $10-15 US. You usually pay in cash upon boarding - it's a good idea to have coins and small bills before getting on a bus.
Buses are privately owned and there are different bus terminals for different bus companies, so be sure to check on the specific location of your bus stop. The quality and amenities available on buses also varies by company. For example, not all buses offer air conditioning!
Taxis are also readily available in most areas of Costa Rica. Licensed taxis are easy to spot, as they are painted red. They will also have a plate on the side of their door indicating which province they operate within. Official airport taxis at San Jose airport are painted orange and can take you to other provinces as well. According to Costa Rican law, every cab driver must use their meter.
Uber does operate in Costa Rica, although not in every area of the country. Rates tend to be much more affordable when compared to traditional taxis. There is plenty of Uber availability in the San Jose metropolitan area, which includes Alajuela, Heredia, and Cartago. There are some Ubers in the larger beach towns of Jaco, Quepos, Tamarindo, and Manuel Antonio. You can usually find an Uber in Liberia, where Costa Rica's second international airport is located.
Uber and other ride-sharing apps are not technically legal in Costa Rica, and licensed taxi drivers may take issue with Uber drivers. For that reason, be thoughtful if you use Uber to get to or from an airport and don't announce your rideshare to anyone.