Costa Rica Vehicle Registration – Transfer Process

National Registry Atrium

In Costa Rica, vehicle registration or transfer must be done using a lawyer one of 2 ways.  Transfer costs are roughly 3.5 % of the fiscal value of the car according to tables the Registry uses; which may be higher, lower or the same as market value. You can base it on market value to get a rough estimate, this should include lawyer’s fees and all taxes.

The National Registry

The National Registry is the central clearinghouse for all property in Costa Rica, this includes Intellectual Property (like patents and trademarks), Real Property (raw land and developed property) and Portable Property (vehicles of all types, including maritime).

While some transactions may be done personally by the owner of the property in question, the transfer of ownership may only happen when authenticated by a notary public. Who in Costa Rica are all attorneys as well. While some may criticize this set up as overly bureaucratic, it is also true that it gives the new vehicle owner peace of mind. Prior to the purchase, the attorney can check right on line the clear title and history of the vehicle. If everything is clear, the attorney will prepare the sales contract. Once this is submitted to the registry, normally the next business day, an annotation that a transfer of title is in progress. If the sales contract is in order, the registry will approve the change of ownership and the new owner’s name will appear on line in a few business days.

However, the actual property title takes a few weeks for the Registry to issue, the lawyer who did the transaction will receive this title, then the new owner can pass by the office to retrieve it, or the attorney may send it via courier or registered mail.

Case 1 – Pre-owned Cars with Permanent Tags

Vehicle registration in Costa Rica goes through the National Registry

In this case, you are purchasing a vehicle that was bought new from the dealer here, or previously imported as a used car.  It has a metal license plate and has been used on the local roads.  You may be purchasing from a private owner, or from a dealer who has taken the car as a trade in.  Either way the purchase is relatively painless, you will go to a lawyer’s office — or the lawyer will come to the dealership.

  • You will review the sales document which states the vehicle information and terms of sale.
  • You will pay the current owner cash (either by direct deposit or cashier’s check)
  • Both parties will sign the sales document, you get the keys and off you go!
  • The lawyer puts through the paperwork in the registry and in about 3 weeks the vehicle will appear in your name online: National Registry, owner info by plate number – motor – chassis – owner (account set up required)

Case 2 — Vehicles Just Being Imported to Costa Rica for the First Time

In 2010 the registry changed the process and the traditional temporary plates have been eliminated, so other information you have may be outdated.  There is now a 72 hour waiting period for vehicles coming to Costa Rica for the first time that you will buy from the dealer. The good news is that you don’t have to go through a second procedure for the metal tags, they are issued right away, but you have to allow for 3 business days while the paperwork goes through.

The change was made because in some cases people did not register the vehicle (since the expiration date on the temp tag would not be easily visible to a traffic officer), or temporary plate copies were used for nefarious enterprises.
So in this case the registration procedure is :

New cars will have a dealer tag for 2 to 3 months.
  • You pay the dealer for the vehicle and get a receipt (better use a reputable dealer!)
  • You provide your information to the dealer and sign the sales document
  • You wait 3 – 4 days while the dealer’s lawyer submits the paperwork and it goes through*
  • You return to pick up the vehicle

* You may wonder why the procedure for new plates takes so long for the dealer to complete. Here is the basic procedure: 1)Documents on sale and importation presented to registry, 2) 72 hours later the plates are ready to pick-up 3) The dealer must go to the RTV inspection station to pick up the sticker (inspection may be performed without plates, but RTV holds the sticker until they verify that plates were issued) 4) The dealer must go to the Promerica Bank to pick up the marchamo – which may not be issued until the RTV sticker is on the windshield.

Dealer Plates

Often in our PASS Service (Help with Car Buying in Costa Rica) our clients want to fly into San José and get out of town as quickly as possible.  In that case, we can limit the search to vehicles that are already registered in Costa Rica. The drawback is that many people prefer a car that has not been exposed to the road conditions here, so if you have things to do in San Jose in many cases it could be worth waiting. This may depend on the particular vehicle you are buying, some price ranges and vehicles will be similar condition and quality in either case, or it may be a year model that the dealers don’t import anyway.

Alternately, some dealers have AGV plates, which are for test driving vehicles, but in many cases the dealer will let you use them and take the car away immediately.  However you must return to the dealer to return the AGV plate and pick up the permanent plate, normally by the following week.

If you are looking to purchase a used or new car in Costa Rica, can help you with our PASS service. Click here, used car buying assistance in Costa Rica for details. Click here, New Cars in Costa Rica for information on the peculiar process.

If you would like to see information about other vehicle types and models, click here — Vehicle Makes and Models in Costa Rica — for a list of articles on our site.

Published by Russ Martin

Helping expats locate reliable used vehicles since 2006. I have lived in Costa Rica since 1994.

4 thoughts on “Costa Rica Vehicle Registration – Transfer Process

    1. Yes, under the constitution in Costa Rica foreigners have the same rights as Costa Ricans, which includes the ability to own property. This is independent of migratory status, so most of our clients actually do not have legal residency when they purchase the car — although most also are in the process of getting work permits or official residency status.

    1. It is the same procedure, it would fall only under case 1. You will use an attorney to prepare the sales contract and submit the change of ownership to the National Registry.

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