How to legally store a foreign vehicle in Costa Rica
We set out on the Pan-American trip knowing that we would have to complete it in two sections. We work six months out of the year, and do not have enough money to skip a fire season, so the only solution we could come up with was to store the vehicle in Central America, and to complete the second leg the following off season. Seems very simple, but of course nothing is as easy as it seems. Vehicles are worth a lot more in Central America than they are back at home, and apparently it used to be a really good deal to buy something cheap, drive it down, and flip it for more, funding the trip in the process. Of course, governments caught on, and the days of doing that legally and above board are over. We enter each country on a temporary vehicle import permit. These are only good for 30-90 days, at which point you and your vehicle must be out of the country. You are not allowed to sell the vehicle, and some countries will not let you leave without it (Honduras stamped the vehicle info directly into Paul’s passport). I don’t know what would happen if you were to try and leave with an expired import permit, but I have heard horror stories of confiscation without compensation.
The only information we found about storage was that you have to use a bonded government storage warehouse, which apparently is expensive, and somewhat inaccessible. Needless to say, we wanted to do it above board, and cheap. We started researching super early, but there is very little information on the internet about this, and most expats who will be in Central for any length of time, go through with the full import process paying the high taxes to get local plates and unlimited time. There had to be another way… we decided to arrive in San Jose early, spend a couple of days setting up the storage, and then book our flights home knowing that if this doesn’t work we might have to drive back in record time. We found it fairly accessible and a lot less hassle than we expected. Mario, the guy who works at the customs office at San Jose airport was super helpful (and hot), and with a little bit of perseverance and some knowledge of the Spanish language, I am convinced anyone would be able to get a pretty good deal.
1. Get to San Jose Airport
2. Find a bonded storage warehouse that suits your price range and expectations. These are privately run, so the security and set up varies a lot. Some are indoors, others are outdoors. Some quoted us six dollars a day, while the cheapest one (the one we went with) quoted us three dollars a day. Though there are many more, and probably better deals to be had with a bit of bargaining.The Spanish word for bonded storage is Almacén Fiscal, there are many by the airport, and the man in the customs office can give you a list of all of them with their phone numbers.
We chose to store in Almacan fiscal ‘El Coco’. This one is hard to find. The guy at the Aduana could not give us the phone number, but did give us directions. Follow the signs for the strip club ‘Fiesta Polano’. They start right from before you even get to the Aduana. Once you pass the club, follow the same road for 2km, and you will see El Coco on your right. Really cheap, but we did not look into indoor storage options, so I don’t know if they have it.
3. Store your vehicle. Drop your vehicle off at the bonded warehouse during their open hours. If it is outdoors, and you plan to store it over the wet season, you might want to tarp it, and prepare it for rain, sun, and general rough weather. The warehouse will give you a sheet. Keep this safe.
Dropping it off went pretty smoothly. We spent quite a bit of time sorting it out with a tarp. We had to insist that they give us a flat spot to park the truck.
4. Bring the warehouse paper, along with your temporary vehicle import papers to the customs office at the airport (Aduana Santamaria). Here they will suspend your vehicle import, and you can leave the country. Upon returning you will get the remainder of the time on your permit.
As with everything bureaucratic in Costa Rica, this can take a while. We were lucky to be in and out in less than 2 hours. The paperwork they give you is super important. We are making many copies.
Picking the car up might have more steps, so we will update this when we return in October. I hope that that picking it up goes as smoothly as dropping it off…