How to Bring Your Car to Latin America

Bringing your car abroad requires a good bit of research on the laws and regulations of the country you’re going to. There are emissions standards, safety requirements, and costs like luxury taxes, duties, and other fees. Plus there’s registration on the ground.

Luckily, our correspondents have done much of the homework for you. Below you’ll find the processes and requirements for bringing your car to four of our top retirement havens in Latin America… countries that you could potentially drive to from the U.S.

Mexico

The process for bringing a car into Mexico is fairly straight-forward, and is dependent on where you want to go, how long you want to keep the car in the country, and your immigration status.

b No special permit is required to take a car 16 miles into Mexico along the length of the U.S. border, into North or South Baja, and into the state of Quintana Roo, including the Riviera Maya.

To drive elsewhere in Mexico, you’ll need to obtain a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) before you cross the border. You can get it at several Mexican consulates in the U.S. Alternatively, you can obtain a TIP online through the Banjercito website—it will take 10 to 60 days and cost about $60—or you can apply at the border. You’ll also need Mexican car insurance to drive here.

Registration: If you bring a foreign-registered vehicle into Mexico, it has to leave the country when you do. To ensure this, Mexico requires a deposit of $400 for vehicles manufactured in 2007 or later, $300 for vehicles made from 2001 to 2006, and $200 for vehicles made before 2001. Once this deposit is made, you’ll receive a digital copy of your TIP. You’ll still need to register your vehicle’s entry into Mexico when you cross the border.

Your car will be legal as long as you are, whether you’re a tourist or a legal temporary resident. If you’re a temporary resident and extend your visa, you’ll need to go to the Agencia Nacional de Aduanas (Customs) to inform them that your vehicle will also remain in Mexico; otherwise, you’ll forfeit your deposit. There are Aduanas offices in most international airports.

If you have permanent residency, you can’t keep a foreign-plated vehicle in Mexico. The only exceptions are if you’re only driving in a free zone, such as in Baja or along the U.S./Mexico border, or during a 30-day grace period after your status as a permanent resident is approved.

It is possible to have certain models of cars in the U.S. nationalized (made legal in Mexico), though you’ll want to enlist the services of a broker like Super Importaciones to do it. And this must be done from outside of Mexico.

Driver’s license: If you’re a legal temporary resident or a permanent resident, you should have a Mexican driver’s license before you register your vehicle. You’ll need to have a Registro Federal de Contribuyentes (RFC number), which is similar to a Social Security number, from the Servicio de Administración Tributaria (SAT).

For more information on bringing your car to Mexico, contact your nearest Mexican consulate, you’ll find a list of U.S.- based ones here. —Wendy Justice

Belize

Belize is different from most other Caribbean countries in that it’s not an island. That means in addition to being able to ship a vehicle, you can also drive it here. Whichever method you choose for importing your vehicle, these are the steps you will need to complete…

Customs: Once your vehicle reaches the Belize border, you’ll need to clear your car through customs. For this, you’ll need the car’s original title and the help of a customs broker to do the paperwork. The customs agent will place a value on your car based on its Blue Book listing, current condition, and the agent’s frame of mind that day! There’s really nothing you can do to affect the valuation given, but a good broker may be able to argue for a lower valuation, if warranted.

Costs: The valuation determines the amount of import duty and General Sales Tax (GST) to be paid. Once the import duty has been paid, your car will be cleared to proceed into Belize. It’s important to keep track of the customs duty payment receipt. You’ll need that later when you go to register your vehicle.

Insurance: Before you drive your vehicle in Belize, you’ll need to purchase Belizean car insurance. Driving an uninsured vehicle is a jailable offense in Belize, so purchasing insurance before driving away from customs is recommended.

RF&G Insurance and Atlantic Insurance Company are the two primary insurers in Belize. To insure your vehicle you will need the title, your home country driver’s license, your passport, and proof of address in Belize. There are two types of insurance: full comprehensive and third-party liability. If your car is less than seven years old, you can purchase full comprehensive coverage. This covers both you and a third party in the event of a claim. Third-party liability covers the other party in the event you are at fault, and you if the other party is at fault.

Registration: With your insurance purchased, the final step is to register your vehicle in Belize. To do this, visit the local Department of Transportation office in the district where you reside. Contact your local office before heading there to ensure they will be open the day you plan to visit, and keep in mind they probably close for an hour at lunch time.

Registration will require proof of insurance, your passport, proof of customs duty payment, and your home country driver’s license. The yearly registration fee ranges from $135 BZD to $325 BZD ($67 to $161), depending on the weight of your vehicle.

For more information see the Department of Transport website. — Shane Kenny

Panama

While many expats have shipped their cars to Panama, it’s not something I recommend doing, simply because the expense is rarely justified. A wide range of popular car brands are sold here, it’s usually easy to find something you like.

Shipping requirements: If you do decide to bring your vehicle—perhaps it’s a collector’s item or adapted for wheelchair users—make sure your shipping or relocation company will take care of getting your car cleared through Panamanian customs. You’ll need to obtain an emissions certificate in your home country prior to shipping. You’ll also need to show proof of ownership, your purchase receipt, proof of insurance, and your registration.

Bear in mind that this can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $9,000, once all is said and done. Shipping companies often quote for shipping alone and neglect to inform customers about other fees. For example, ports will often charge storage fees… the longer your paperwork takes to clear, the more you’ll have to pay the port.

If you’re shipping only a car—zero household goods—you might consider using a roll-on, roll-off (RORO) shipper. It’s cheaper than shipping your car in a container but there are disadvantages to RORO shipping—it tends to be less secure and harder to insure.

However you choose to ship your vehicle, the entire process (including the ocean transit) will likely take 10 to 12 weeks. In the meantime, you’ll be spending on rental cars or other forms of transportation.

Red tape and other costs: Used car import fees and taxes vary, depending on the make, model, and age of the car, but plan on spending at least 20% to 30% of the car’s value after shipping. Remember that customs regulations, shipping costs, and any other relevant information is subject to change at any time. Consult an expert when you’re ready to start the process so you can get an updated quote and learn about any modifications to the law.

If you have a Pensionado Visa, you may have read that you’re entitled to duty-free importation of used household goods and cars. However, Panama is currently granting a discount—not an exemption—on used car taxes. You must have legal Pensionado status in order to apply for the discount (this must be done after the car arrives).

Once approved, you’ll pay a 7% VAT (value added tax) and 5% duty, based on the CIF (cost, insurance, and freight) value, as determined by Panama Customs. If you someday sell the vehicle to a non-pensioner, you’ll have to file more paperwork with the local customs office and pay the tax amount that was previously exempted.

Registration: Once your car is released from the port and customs, you’ll need to start on the local paperwork. To register your car in your municipality and get new plates, you’ll need to show your customs pre-declaration and declaration forms, bill of lading, and proof of payment to customs. You’ll also need to have the vehicle inspected and obtain certificates from the police (specifically the bureau of investigation known as the DIJ, or Dirección de Investigación Judicial) and the transit authority. After that you’ll be able to obtain your local registration and, finally, your Panama license plate.

If you’re planning to ship a car (or household goods) to Panama, and you have question, contact Pablo Ernesto Arias at International Relocation Partner. —Jessica Ramesch

Costa Rica

Much like in Mexico, when you arrive in Costa Rica, both you and your vehicle will get a 90-day tourist visa.

Customs agent: But if you plan to stay longer, you’ll need to officially "import" and register your car. In order to do that, you have to (by law) hire a registered customs agent. If you have an attorney in Costa Rica, they can facilitate the process, but you’ll also find a list of reliable customs agencies here.

In Costa Rica, you and your car need a tourist visa.

Taxes: The import taxes on a car can be expensive, and generally range from about 50% to 80% of the value of the car (in general, the older the car, the higher the rate). The assessed value of the car is not based on the Blue Book value, but instead on what the Costa Rican government thinks the value is (and it will be higher than the Blue Book value).

Other requirements: Once the car has a value assigned, the naturalization process does move quicker. After you’ve paid all the duties and taxes associated with importing your car, the registration must be added to the national registry (again, the customs agent can do this for you). This will enable you to apply for your Costa Rican license plates.

You’ll also need to pay Marchamo (this includes annual vehicle tax and Costa Rican auto insurance) and your car will need a DEKRA car inspection. All of these processes will be done by your customs broker, who will walk you through them and tell you what you’ll need for each step.

In 2022, Doug Teague and Amy Demick drove their 2019 Mercedes Sprinter RV conversion from Colorado to their new home in Costa Rica. Doug estimates the cost to register their vehicle in Costa Rica will be around $22,000. Their Mercedes started the naturalization process in November 2022 and (as of February 2023) it should be finalized soon.

For more information about bringing your car to Costa Rica, see the Costa Rica Embassy website. —Kathleen Evans

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