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Living in Costa Rica on a pending residency and legally drive your car

Living in Costa Rica on a pending residency and legally drive your car

If you decide to settle down and start living in Costa Rica or are giving it an extended tryout, you’re going to have to leave the country every 90 days for a bit of time. I previously mentioned this awhile ago, that within any government, sometimes the left hand and the right hand don’t always agree.

The Costa Rican immigration department says once your application for legal residency has been accepted it is your right to be living in Costa Rica without leaving for as long as it takes to get your “cedula de residencia” (the official legal residency card).

Very true, but with the other hand, the Costa Rican transit authority says that your visa stamp on your passport validates your driver’s license, which in turn also keeps your Costa Rican automobile insurance valid. Costa Rican visa stamps are good for only 90 days and are renewed upon each re-entry to Costa Rica.

Therefore, you’ll need to exit every 90 days so that you can return through immigration, get your visa renewed and continue to drive and be insured here legally. (If you plan to walk or only take taxis and buses, you’ll never have to leave once your residency application is in process.)

There’s one other little left hand vs. right hand governmental thing having to do with driving when living in Costa Rica. On one hand, Costa Rica is a signatory to the international driver’s license agreement recognizing the International Driver’s License as a valid document. In theory, holding a valid international driver’s license, procured though a U.S. or Canadian automobile club office, would exempt you from having to leave Costa Rica in order to renew your visa, which in turn re-validates your right to drive using your country’s or state’s driver’s license, which in turn continues to validate your Costa Rican automobile insurance. However, the state-owned INS insurance agency will not recognize the International Driver’s License.    


Re-entry stamp to Costa Rica in passport      Tico Nuevo's California driver's license

Re-entry stamp to Costa Rica in passport                                                              Tico Nuevo’s California driver’s license


So, currently there’s no way to game the system when it comes to driving legally in Costa Rica. You’re going to have to exit the country and re-enter every 90 days for that reason alone. This can get to be a bit inconvenient and downright expensive when you realize that means getting on a plane for home or elsewhere or going to Nicaragua or Panama a total of four times a year. As an example, we submitted our residency application in early March of 2013. We received our formal acceptance last May and we still don’t have our cedula de residencia.

Now, you’re probably saying, “wait a minute, everything I’ve read says it will only take five to seven months to get my cedula and that equates to only two, maybe even just one round trip exit.” Normally, that would be true, but Costa Rica enacted a “legal residency amnesty” for illegal aliens residing here in 2013 and about 100,000 Nicaraguans applied. The amnesty applicants were given priority over legal residency applicants and the immigration system is still severely backlogged. Legal applicants are currently taking 12 months or longer to receive their cedula. Once you have your cedula, you can easily use the valid driver’s license you carry from your home country to be granted a Costa Rican driver’s license.   

A further complication happened to us last month when both my wife’s and my California driver’s licenses expired on our birthdays. They had both previously been renewed twice by mail, and we received letters that California State law requires that driver’s licenses can only be renewed two consecutive times by mail. On the next renewal, the driver must make an in-person renewal appearance to take an eye test, be photographed and fingerprinted. This would have forced us to make an expensive unscheduled trip to California. Fortunately, we were able to use our internet phone to call the DMV, and after some difficulty, and many busy signals, we got our licenses extended. We have since both received our extensions in the mail at our Costa Rican post office box, and life is good once again.    


Tico Nuevo's Costarican driver's license

Tico Nuevo’s tico driver’s license


An alternative to a roundtrip flight to somewhere in North America or the Caribbean are trips alluded to earlier to neighboring countries, Nicaragua and Panama. National and international immigration and travel policies as well as security rules are subject to frequent change or revision. I will alert you to the fact that recently we have heard of several American couples with Costa Rica residency applications in process, who flew to Panama for the principal purpose of renewing their visas and getting stopped at the border upon their return to Costa Rica.

The Panamanian customs authorities wanted to see their return tickets to the United States before they would allow them to re-enter Costa Rica. These unfortunate folks were forced into the inconvenience and expense of buying one-way, refundable airline tickets to the States before they were allowed to cross the border. Another case in point, I remember that when we first moved to Costa Rica a year ago, the airline wouldn’t allow us to board the flight to Aeropuerto Juan Santamaria without presenting them with a copy of our return flight to the States. That policy is still in effect, but it is currently not being strictly enforced.

My advice, do your best to investigate current travel rules and policies in the countries you are touching and try to be prepared if you like to be living in Costa Rica without running into too much trouble.

Next week, I’ll cover visa travel alternatives and recap our most-recent visa-renewal journey to Nicaragua.  

The author of this blog, Ticonuevo, is a US expat who moved to Costa Rica and used the services of GoDutch Realty to purchase a property in Costa Rica. In his blogs, Ticonuevo describes his own experiences of taking the step of moving to Costa Rica and getting a new life started.

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Ivo Henfling

If you are looking to buy a home in Costa Rica or invest in a condo anywhere in the central Valley, or looking for any property for sale in Escazu, you need to call me. I have been selling real estate in Escazu for over 20 years and can show you hundreds of happy buyers of real estate in Escazu and other areas. To me, a deal is not a good deal unless both buyer and seller are happy.

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