Buying a Car in Costa Rica

When we moved to Costa Rica this past July, one of our first priorities was to buy a car. We couldn’t wait to be cruising down the road, a warm breeze blowing our hair, on our way to hidden waterfalls and sleepy beaches. It all sounded so easy, just bring our own car from the United States or wait and buy one when we got here. We could handle that. We soon discovered, however, that like many things in Costa Rica, it wasn’t going to be that easy.


Highway in Costa Rica Picture


Option one, bringing our car, ended up not making sense because of import duties. When you ship a car to Costa Rica, the government taxes it a whopping 50-80% of the “retail value.” Retail value is determined by the Costa Rican government and is usually much higher than the Kelly Blue Book value. Since shipping also would be a huge hassle because of the customs process, we moved on to option two, waiting to buy until we arrived.

We knew cars are expensive in Costa Rica but prices proved to be even higher than we expected—so much so that the thought crossed our minds not to get a car at all. But after living car-less for over a month, we decided that we wouldn’t survive for long without one. Coming from Boston, we are all for public transportation but found out fast that riding the bus was not always practical. A simple trip to town to run errands would often turn into an all-day affair. Don’t get us wrong, if you live near one of the larger cities, buses are a lot easier because there are more routes. In more remote areas though, like the Southern Zone where we live now, buses are infrequent and there isn’t much within walking distance. With a little money in our pocket from the sale of our car back home and the frustration building, the hunt for some wheels was on.

Where to Look for a Car

In our extensive research, we had read some horror stories about unscrupulous used car dealerships. Not that they are all bad but some people have had bad experiences. Maybe the car had its odometer turned back or the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the body did not match the one on the frame or engine. Then there was the overwhelming thought of being taken advantage of because of the language barrier. Salespeople in the States were bad enough when we could understand them, but in Spanish, yikes! In addition, because we lived far from the capital, and most of the dealers, we couldn’t casually look around; the bus trip alone would take all day. We really wanted a local, private sale.


Used car lot Costa Rica picture

A typical used car lot in Costa Rica


Being from the United States, our first inclination was to check, where else, but Craigslist. Listings on Craigslist were a little sparse though. It was clearly not the primary site to post cars, so I asked a few locals where they look. I got two different options: and CR Autos had the most inventory by far. This website is used by a lot of the dealers in San José and Grecia and was our source to compare prices and models, in other words, to find out the going rate. Encuentra24 was also a good resource. This website is the classifieds’ page for one of Costa Rica’s larger newspapers and a lot of non-dealers post cars here. Lastly, we constantly had our eyes open. It’s not uncommon to see a “se vende” sign hanging in the window of a passing or parked car. We even waved down a few to ask the price.

What We Were Looking for

For us, a four-wheel drive SUV was essential. Many main roads in Costa Rica are nicely paved, but back roads, side streets, and driveways, like ours, can be treacherous and steep. Pair that with the unpredictable rainy season and its widespread flooding and we definitely wanted something high off the ground with good traction. Our modest budget had us looking for a compact SUV around model year 2000. That may sound old—it is old—but here in Costa Rica even a 13-year-old car is expensive. We also wanted something commonly found in Costa Rica for ease of parts availability. Lastly, we wanted something good on gas, preferably a four-cylinder or efficient diesel.

These criteria had us looking at only a handful of models: the Toyota RAV 4, Suzuki Vitara, Chevy Tracker, Daihatsu Terios, Hyundai Galloper, and Honda CRV.


Rough dirt road in Costa Rica photo

A typical muddy, bumpy road in Costa Rica


How the Process Works

With our search narrowed, we needed to make sure we understood the process so that we’d be ready to buy when the time came. A good deal doesn’t last long as we found by emailing back and forth with a few owners. Again with some help from the locals and more research, we started to understand the process. Here’s how it works:

1) Find a car.

2) Make sure the Marchamo (registration & mandatory liability insurance) and Riteve (inspection) are current. Both stickers are located on the windshield. The month that the Riteve is due coincides with the last number of the license plate, 1 is January and so on. The Marchamo is paid annually between November 1 and December 31.

3) Bring the car to a mechanic to get it checked out (one you choose). Cars in Costa Rica face very rough conditions so a thorough inspection is important.

4) Negotiate a price with the seller.

5) Complete the transaction with a notary public or lawyer (again, one you choose, who speaks your native language). A notary public/lawyer is required by law for valid title transfer. They write the bill of sale, search the government database to make sure there are no liens or fines on the car from the previous owner, and send the paperwork to San José to get you a new title.

How It Worked for Us

After about a month of looking but with very few options materializing in our local area, we decided that we needed to rent a car and drive somewhere with more options. Luckily an English-speaking mechanic was recommended to us in the nearby city of San Isidro De El General (Perez Zeledon). After a few phone conversations, we decided that he would be a great resource. He could check out a car before we purchased it and even offered to call around to see if anyone he knew was selling. San Isidro also was a good starting point for our on-the-ground search because it has a number of used car lots. And with more people driving around, we thought maybe we’d even get lucky with a private sale.

With the mobility of our rental car, we suddenly had a handful of prospects. The first option we considered was a 1998 Suzuki Sidekick, a slightly older model than we were hoping for but affordable. We test-drove it over to our trusty mechanic to get his opinion, but the concerned look on his face said it all. Many parts on the dashboard had been altered and he just didn’t seem to like it. He told us to return that car and come back to his shop.

When we returned, the mechanic had a similar car, a 2000 Chevy Tracker, in his lot. He explained that he had worked on this car for a friend and that it was in much better condition. We told him about a Toyota RAV4 we were considering at one of the dealerships, but he said that for steep hill climbs (like our driveway), he preferred the four-by-four system of the Tracker because of its low-range gear. We test-drove the Tracker and did notice a much smoother ride from the Sidekick. It was now late afternoon and we had to decide based on a ten-minute ride around town if we should buy this car today or come back in the morning for another exhausting day. We decided to trust our mechanic and go for it.

Now we needed an abogado (a lawyer). We had written down the names of a few in town who advertised that they spoke English but were unable to get in contact with any of them. With lawyer offices closing soon, we asked the mechanic for help, now putting our complete trust in him. He made some calls, then some more calls, sent a few text messages, and finally tracked down an available lawyer nearby. Within minutes, we were off. Our mechanic even came along too.

The process with the lawyer was simple. She spent about a half-hour searching the government database for information on the car and filled out paperwork while we sat and chatted with the mechanic and owner of the car. When she was finished with the bill of sale, she carefully explained it to us in English and answered our questions. We listened as she went through the title search, explained how the license plates stayed with the car when it changes owners, and how the annual Marchamo is calculated (based on the government-assigned value, not the sale price). We then signed the papers (all in Spanish) and handed over the money we’d been nervously carrying around all day to the seller. We were given a temporary document to hold while the official ones were processed in San José, told to come back in two weeks to get the papers, and handed the keys. In true Tico style, we all got into the car, mechanic and seller included, and dropped everyone off at their homes before riding off into the sunset.


Green Buggy Costa Rica Picture

We dub thee ‘Green Buggy’


Overall our car-buying experience in Costa Rica was filled with stress and anxiety. Not surprisingly, it was the locals who helped make the process somewhat bearable. Ticos don’t stress out about much and definitely wouldn’t lose sleep over the purchase of a car. We were extremely fortunate to get help from trustworthy people who were looking out for our best interests. Now that we have a set of wheels, we get to experience all of the other joys that come along with car ownership: maintenance, high gas prices, additional insurance, roadside hazards, and those crazy drivers who pass on curves. We’ll be sure to keep you posted as the wheels turn.

Additional Resources

Do you have a car in Costa Rica?

We’d love to hear how the process went for you and if you have any tips for people in the market right now. Leave us a comment below.


Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde



  1. Thanks for writing this account of your experience. We are carless and doing ok on the bus but there are always those occasions where I just want a car. I imagine we will be purchasing one sometime. This article helps know what to expect. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks for reading, Greg. Glad you found the post useful. When we were researching the process, the information on the Internet was spotty so we thought it might help others to share our experience. Props to you guys for still being car-free. If you ever take the plunge and have questions, you know who to ask.

  2. Great informative post on buying a car. We have decided to NOT buy a car for now, and we are working well with the bus system here in Grecia (but you’re right – it DOES take all day to go into town and do simple errands). Finding trust-worthy people here makes it so much easier, am glad you found some to help you. And your car looks fabulous! :)

    • Thanks Jen. Glad that the bus system is working out for you guys. We would have been much more likely not to get a car if we lived closer to San Jose like you but the buses only run a couple of times a day down here, which makes it tough. We do take the bus when it’s convenient though since gas is pretty expensive and always for long trips. Thanks for reading!

      • Did you guys needed of a residency or something like that to be able to purchase the car???

        • Nope, you just need your passport and an address to give the lawyer for the title transfer.

  3. Hi Jenn and Matt
    Thank you so much for this post, it is extremely helpful. My husband and I are moving to Uvita next year (if all goes as planned) and we were just discussing the car buying process because as you mentioned you really need a car in that area and we have heard some horror stories. We are going to be down there in a couple of weeks and we would love to get together
    To pick your brain on the whole moving process as it is a bit overwhelming. Let us know. In the meantime enjoy your new car. It looks great by the way.

    • Hi Christine, you’re very welcome, glad you found the post helpful. We’d be happy to meet up with you and your husband when you come down. Just shoot us a message via our Contact page and we can figure out the details via email. Congrats on deciding to make the move, can’t wait to hear all about it!

  4. Nice overview of the process. Perhaps you will do a follow-up a year from now to discuss maintenance. There are a large number of Mitsubishi SUVs of various sizes here, too, which are very rugged and easy to find parts for.

    • Thanks Casey. A follow up on maintenance is a great idea. I actually remember reading a related post on your blog a while back that we found really helpful- that’s why we brought along some tools to CR for basic repairs. Good tip on the Mitsubishis- we looked at some Monteros too. You do see them everywhere here.

  5. Oh man buying a car here is so not easy. Without even talking about prices, just the whole process… even for a Costa Rican. We’ve been looking into getting a new car for awhile and we use but we haven’t’ found one yet. Plus Riteve has been a nightmare for us. It’s like a full body physical for your car! Glad to hear you guys were able to get one though! It is nice to have a car here

    • Samantha, nice to know it’s not just us! Thanks for the heads up on Riteve. Now we have that to look forward to…wonder how our 13 year old buggy will fare. Only time will tell. Good luck finding a new car!

  6. Thanks so much for this. My husband is moving to Costa Rica in January and he will need a car. He is reopening an Ecolodge near Santa Maria de Dota. It’s 7500 feet above sea level in a cloud forest. Got to have a 4 x 4! Your post was very helpful in getting us started.

    • Mike and Jennie, glad to help. Exciting news that you’re reopening an ecolodge. We aren’t too far from Santa Maria de Dota; you’ll have to let us know when you’re ready for guests so we can come check it out. Best of luck with the move!

  7. Hi,
    We realized that you guys were in the exact same boat we find ourselves in. We do however find that we are needing to find a car quicker. Renting is very draining on the pocketbook! We’re looking at finding a car within a week. What we need to know are what are the expenses after giving the seller his cash? Taxes? Insurance? Lawyer? Mechanic? Any help with these questions would be greatly appreciated. And yes you guys did get a good looking car! Enjoy.

    • Hi Guy and Ros,
      Good luck with the car search! Here is some answers that will hopefully shed some more light.
      In general, use the websites we listed above to narrow down what models your interested and their price range. That way you will know if the price is out of line. We paid pretty much the average price for our buggy. We saw the same make and model for more and for less.
      The Marchamo (taxes and mandatory insurance) are paid each year between November and Dec 31 so you will need to check if it has been paid yet since we are well into November now. The price for this will depend on the gov. calculated value of the car not the sale price. You should be able to look at the registration papers in the glove box to get the previous amount paid (ours ran about $200/yr).
      Additional Insurance- You don’t have to but you can buy more insurance later through INS or another company. We upgraded our liability insurance for about $130/6months. This depends on what coverage you choose, full coverage, roadside assistance, etc. would be much more.
      Depending on the mechanic, they may or may not charge, ours did not but we gave him a tip.
      The Lawyer or Notary fee will vary depending on who you use (I’m guessing $300-500 is about the range). Sometimes the seller will split this cost with you if you negotiate it that way but make sure you go to someone you feel comfortable with.
      Hope this info helps, let us know what you end up with. A green buggy twin perhaps?
      Pura Vida,
      -Matt & Jenn

  8. Nice to get a ride in your famous car!

    • Haha, glad you liked it, Lauren!

  9. Thanks for your tips. We have a RAV4 but are looking for something bigger. We live in Tres Rios OSA up a very steep hill and sometimes have to take two runs at it. what is the name of the mechanic you used in San Isidrio. Monica

  10. Hi! Is it possible to drive your own car down into CR without paying import fees? What if you are just planning an extended stay, but not permanent move (say 6 months-1 year).

    • Hi Celeste,
      We’re not exactly sure about the details but we have seen a few cars around that have plates from the States. One thing to keep in mind is that your drivers license is only good for 90 days and needs to be renewed with your tourist Visa. Not sure if a car with US plates would also need to pass over the border to re-new it’s eligibility here. Another thing is that if you were pulled over at any time, they may see how long you have been in the country and try to make you register it here, thus paying all the taxes anyway. Hope that helps. Pura Vida and good luck with the drive down.

      • Thanks! We are coming down hopefully in April/May to check things out. Then we will have a better idea about how best to do it.

  11. When you shift other city and buy a car you will keep in our mind that you must buy a car according to their road. If you shift in Mountainous areas you must buy an SUV because you need more power. Matt & Jenn I appreciate your work. I am also shifting next week and Buy SUV.

    • Michael, we hadn’t heard that but just came across an article ( that seems to suggest that the rates did go down last Aug. to 30% for cars up to 6 years old and 40-48% for cars 7+. Not sure how reliable the article is since the prior tax rates provided go against everything we’ve ever seen. Like many things in Costa Rica, this might be a mystery you can unravel only if you’ve gone through it yourself!

  12. Great story. Thanks for sharing.
    I am planning to buy a car and build it to a expeditioncar to make a 1-year+ journey trough middle, north, back to middle and South America.
    So every info is more then welcome.

    • Patrick, that sounds like quite an adventure. Best of luck! – Jenn & Matt

  13. Hi Jenn and Matt!
    I love your blog and your stories have made our decision to move to Costa Rica a lot less scary! We will be purchasing a vehicle when we arrive, something likely very similar to the green buggy, and I’m having a hard time finding any information on how much tax is charged on used vehicles purchased in Costa Rica. What kind of tax did you pay on the green buggy?
    Thanks for your help :-)

    • Hi Robin, glad our blog is making you feel better about your move. Congrats, by the way!
      For used cars purchased in Costa Rica, you don’t pay taxes at the time of purchase but instead pay them as part of your annual Marcharmo (annual registration that includes a small amount of liability insurance). Marchamo is due by the end of the year. Ours for 2013 wasn’t too bad, I think around $200.
      One other thing you might think about doing is joining some of the expat Facebook groups for the area of Costa Rica you’re moving to. People sometimes post vehicles for sale on there, and sometimes you can get a good deal if someone needs to leave the country ASAP. Good luck with the move!

  14. Hi Matt and Jenn!
    Thanks for sharing this experience. Moving to Escazu with my wife and kids in 2 weeks. Of all of our planning, etc to make this happen, getting a car has been the “stress” most in my mind. This is very helpful in walking the through the process! I think we’ll rent for a month, regardless of the expense. It seems rushing things is not the best approach. Thanks again, just subscribed! :)

    • Hi Noel,
      Glad you found the blog helpful and thanks for subscribing! Getting a car is definitely one of the more stressful tasks ahead of you but once it’s done, it’s done. You will have a much easier time finding something near Escazu, with all of the car dealers in that area. Best of luck with the move!

  15. Hi,
    I’ll be doing the same exact thing tomorrow in San Jose. I’m under a time crunch and hope to find something in a few days. I’ve got my secret weapon with me, a friend who speaks Spanish. Can you tell me the mechanics name?

    • Aaron, Good luck with the search. There’s a lot to choose from in San Jose so you should be fine. Plus you have your secret, Spanish-speaking weapon. The mechanic is in San Isidro/Perez Zeledon so I don’t think he’ll be much help to you up in San Jose. Just make sure to find someone who is not involved in the transaction to take a look. Pura vida!

  16. Nice write up guys! I love it when people like you go into such detail about the process. It really helps to demystify a confusing process.
    I’m curious how the tracker has worked out for you? It’d be great to get a followup on how the car you chose did or didn’t fit your needs. Any insights into repairs and maintenance would be awesome, too.

    • Hi Jim, we have loved the Tracker. It has been great on gas (aprox 25miles/gal) and the 4×4 has gotten us up some pretty impressive dirt roads and driveways. We’ll be doing a follow up post soon once we get our Riteve done later in the month. Hopefully we won’t have a lot to say, but we’ll definitely cover some of the maintenance costs. Thanks for reading, Pura Vida!

      • Well it seems that you two have become the go to couple for CR info on Vehicle purchases. Maybe you could make a buck on it but you seem to be really helpful folks naturally. Just one Question, how much would you sell your “green buggy” for today if you would sell it.
        My wife and I plan to retire in CR this year. we fell in love with it two years ago on vacation.

        • Hi Bob and Brenda, thanks for reading and great that you are moving down to CR! Not sure we’d sell the green buggy since she’s treated us so well, but if you are serious about needing some help, send us an email (jennandmatt(at) and we’ll get some more details from you and see if we could work something out. We’ve had our eye on a red buggy that might be perfect.. haha..

  17. Will you please provide me with the contact name and details of the notary/lawyer you used to transfer the title on the car?

    • Max, just sent you an email with the info.

  18. Great info. We spent 3 mos. looking and based on a friends input we selected a Diesel Turbo (2003 Montero Sport 4×4) for the cost savings on gas (gov’t subsidized) of about $1/gal. Having rented a new 4×4 during the 3 mos. while looking, I found I much preferred the older car versus the new one. The new is too light and Plastic, the older being heavy and rugged feel. Asking price was $18,000 and we successfully offered $14,000. A good thing because repairs and replacements the first year cost us $3,500.
    Tks. Ron

    • Hi Ron, That’s impressive that you were able to negotiate the price down that much! Diesels are definitely popular here in Costa Rica and we have heard good things about the Montero. Good choice. Much like our car, there are plenty of them around so parts are not hard to find. Maintenance is a never ending battle with Costa Rica’s road conditions, but you’re right that the older models are more rugged than the newer plastic ones. Thanks for your comment and good luck!

  19. Hey guys – great write up. Do you have any tips for bringing a car from CR back to the US? I’ve seen a couple that I would like to bring back to Colorado, but don’t know anything about bringing them “the other way”. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them. Pura Vida!

    • Hi Rod, someone actually contacted us recently saying he was going to do this and would let us know how it goes after, so stay tuned! I think you don’t hear much about it because it’s often better to just sell it when you leave CR since cars are really expensive and retain their value. Pura vida!

  20. Second hand info from a friend in Costa Rica– Gas sold here (CR) is Regular Gas (contains lead) and the U.S gas is lead free. If the car you ship to the U.S. is a local car (CR)it may not preform well on lead free (engine pinks-knocks). If you notice local cars (CR) do not have Catalytic Converters that are required for smog control in the U.S. And of course you have all the U.S. required safety devices (Air Bags, etc.)
    Have a Great Day In Paradise.
    Pura Vida

    • We’d never heard of the gas difference Ron. I know our car is originally from the US and has a catalytic converter, oxygen sensors etc. I also thought that part of the inspection process (Riteve) includes an emissions test but since we had a mechanic bring it in, I can’t confirm that. Anyway, always learning something new about cars here, so thanks for the comment.

  21. Hello Jenn and Matt, I was wondering if you know anything about teaching english in Costa Rica. If so, how difficult will it be to land a job at one of the larger schools or at the university?

  22. Hi Jenn and Matt,
    My husband, our two small children and I are planning on taking a break from our hustle and bussel life in the U.S. to travel through South America for a year or so, starting in Costa Rica! Rather than rent a car or pay the import fees required with bring our own, we’re wanting to buy one. Can you buy a vehicle in Costa Rica without being a resident? We are just curious about registration, would we put our address from the U.S.? Any advice would be great! We are very inspired by your story and can’t wait to live the Pura Vida life for a little while!

    • Hi Stacey, that’s great that you and your family will be coming down to Costa Rica! You don’t have to be a resident to buy a car. When you have the lawyer fill out the registration you will just put your rental address or wherever you are staying here in Costa Rica. Hope that helps, good luck with your planning and thanks for reading!

  23. Hello Jenn and Matt! Like some of the commenters above, my family and I are moving to CR (Brasilito area) for most of next year and we’re getting pretty excited. We are also planning on buying a car for the time we’re there and I was wondering if you feel that Craigslist has become a better option than when you originally posted? Thanks – your blog is really an incredible resource.


    • Hi Andy, Thanks for reading! Craigslist is hit or miss but sometimes we do see some good cars on there, it all depends. No matter what, just make sure to check out the car once you get down here and bring it to a mechanic that someone you know can recommend to get it checked out. Hope that helps, good luck with your move!

  24. Hey there! This is really helpful as someone who is starting to think about how to get around when I get there. It sounds like there’s some barriers whether you ship a car or buy one there. I’m curious, did you find any companies that move cars there from the U.S. that you liked? I’ve been speaking with A-1 Auto Transport about the prospect of having my Toyota shipped. I’m aware of the cost, but I might rather pay than deal with trying to find something there, what with the all day bus trips and everything. Aside from the high taxes, is there anything else that was a deal breaker for you?

    – Jason

    • Hi Jason, we had a small car (a Civic) in the US so didn’t even entertain the idea of bringing it with us. A lot of people say they are happy they decided to bring theirs though. Like you said, either way you’re going to have some hassle, whether you buy here or ship, and the price will probably be around the same. Not sure if the procedure has changed, but some people we’ve spoken to had to make multiple trips to customs to retrieve their car and it ended up taking a month to actually get it. One benefit of bringing your own though is that you know it has been treated well- we’ve had good luck with ours but have heard some horror stories of people buying lemons here. Good luck!

  25. My wife and I are finalizing plans to move to Playa Del Coco in April this year to build our retirement home. A builder by trade, that really enjoys building and am very much looking forward to getting started on our next project. We have enlisted a local architect to design and permit the home the goal being to start construction soon after we land and settle in.

    Your post on moving property specifically your car are much appreciated please keep them coming. Would you have any comments and or know a place to look for information on the following?

    Long term rental property (6MO)
    House sitting would also be a option.
    International movers. We are in Colorado.
    Import tax on household goods.

    Have a Happy New Year and thank you in advance for any info you may have.

    Pura Vida

    Dave & Manny

    • Hi David, Congrats on your upcoming move. Here are some thoughts on your questions: (1) Finding a rental– Your best bet is to find a good real estate agent in the area. We don’t have any connections up in Coco but a good place to start would be the Playas del Coco Facebook group or the Expatriates in Costa Rica Facebook group to see if anyone has a recommendation. (2) House Sitting: This is a great option and what we’ve been doing for the past year and a half. You first need to sign up for some house sitting websites. Here’s a post we wrote about it with more info and the 3 best sites to use: (3) International movers and import taxes– We didn’t use shippers and only brought what fit in our luggage so can’t help with these ones. The ARCR forum will have info though, and again, search the Facebook groups. I know these questions have been asked before.

      Hope that helps. Best of luck with the move and building your house!

  26. Awesome article, could you share the mechanic info? My husband and I want to buy a car in Costa Rica so we don’t have to rent cars every time we visit there…. We always visit San Isidro Perez Zeledon.
    Thank you!

    • Sending you an e-mail with the info, Leoni.

  27. Hello, we are in exactly the situation you were and so appreciate your story and info. We owned a condo in Herradura and recently traded up to an oceanfront in Esterillos Oeste. Its time to buy a car as 2 weeks is not cutting it anymore!lol could we ask you for the name of the mechanic that helped you? We simply need a compact that is good on fuel. But it would be great to contact someone we could trust. Thank you again


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