Shipping Your Goods To Costa Rica

Here are a few thoughts from those who did...


After months (or years) of research you have finally come to the decision that Costa Rica is going to become your new home (away) from home.  Now the dilemma becomes what do you bring with you.  Maybe you want to live the minimalist lifestyle like Jerry and Nancy (see video), and travel light, bringing only what you can stuff into a couple of duffle bags.  Or, maybe you decide to bring everything you own (including the old Dodge Caravan) and cram it all into two 40 foot containers!  Whatever your choice, you will still face the dilemma of what to bring in order to start your new life in Costa Rica.

A common strategy many of us have followed (including me and Fran) is to liquidate all our North American possessions and start fresh!  A noble thought but not necessarily very prudent.  As I have reported in our previous newsletter, many of the things you want and need will cost more here (see related article).  Selling your perfectly functional, $60 Cuisinart Coffee Maker for $30 and replacing it with an identical model purchased here may set you back $180 or more.

Things To Consider

What and how much you bring in country will be predicated on how you plan to live your life here.  If your strategy is to rent or buy a condominium in a gated community in Escazu, then it's obvious, you probably won't need your riding lawnmower, arc welder and heavy duty auto repair tools.   But, if you are leaning towards spending your retirement years operating a cozy B&B overlooking the Pacific coast, then by all means, you may very well need this sort of stuff.  Replacing them in Costa Rica will cost you many times what you originally paid for those items plus you stand a good chance of getting a product of diminished quality.

Since I started producing the Boomers Offshore video series, Fran and I have had the opportunity to meet many wannabe and veteran expats.  We've swapped many stories over several boxes of really good Merlot.  Recently, I queried several expats who have made the move here.  I wanted to get their thoughts on this very subject and asked them the following:

  • What do you regret not bringing with you to Costa Rica?

  • What did you bring that you now regret bringing?

I received many great responses.  I soon realized that virtually all the answers came from people who bought or built a house here.  So it stands to reason (and I'm going to paraphrase the late great comedian George Carlin)... if own a lot of stuff and you really like your stuff, and you have room for your stuff, then bring your stuff! 

The results of this informal and unscientific survey can be found here.

But I'm A Renting NOT Buying!

Like us, if you plan on renting, your decision on what to bring or not to bring may be quite different than ours.  If you are renting a furnished place, travel light.  That means you may not need to bring beds, couches, end tables, refrigerators and the like.  Your rental place will probably come equipped with most of those items.  However, you may decide to rent an unfurnished place.  In that situation, you may want to plan on bringing extra furniture.

It is important to understand that "furnished" places can vary in style and quality.  In fact, some furnished places we saw were downright nasty.  Just because it is furnished does not mean you will not need furniture.  In fact, at our first house, the new couch was so uncomfortable (as are most Tico sofas), we went out and bought a brand new sofa.  Life got better... real fast.

You should also know that an unfurnished place may not even include your basic appliances like a refrigerator or stove.  Keep these thoughts in mind if you decide to bring or not bring certain items.

Your Mileage May Vary...

Since we knew we were renting a furnished house, we were able to see the furniture, sit on the couch, lay on the bed and check out the appliances.  We had the luxury of knowing what we were getting before we got here.  So it was our decision to sell off the majority of our possessions and bring just those items we needed to start our new life in Costa Rica.  That included clothes, toys (electronics) and such.  We also made the mistake of selling off a few key items only to replace them when we got in country.

During our last two months in North Carolina, we sold off virtually all of our furniture including three bedroom suites, a leather sectional sofa, solid wood dining room set with six chairs and a hutch, two sets of china... you know, the same sort of stuff that you have. 

I got rid of all my business clothes.  And when I say all, I mean all.  The Salvation Army really scored big with me.  I wound up donating a half dozen business suits, 20 long sleeve dress shirts, and a couple dozen ties.  If the clothes even remotely suggested business... they were gone.  I did manage to keep one pair of Docker slacks but here it is, 18 months later and I still have yet to wear them.   The only time I have worn a pair of socks is when I have gone hiking.  For that purpose I kept three pair.  Today, my footwear consists of 1 pair of beach sandals, 1 pair of Keen Hiking sandals, 1 pair of high-top hiking boots and 1 pair of FitFlop sandals.  I own no regular shoes that would go with my Dockers except for a somewhat molded pair of leather Topsider deck shoes that may be getting shit-canned any day now.

Getting Your Stuff Here

After all our analysis and planning, it looked like our possessions would require about 600-700 cubic feet of space for shipping.  Since a normal 20' container accommodates roughly 1200 cubic feet (mas o menos), we were going to need about half a container.  But here's the catch... your options are (1) take the entire container or (2) share your load with others as a consolidated shipment.

I am not a big fan of consolidated shipments for two reasons.  By the time you start figuring out your cost per cubic foot and comparing your consolidated container cost against the cost of an entire container, securing an entire container may be your best bet.  The second reason I am not a fan of consolidated shipping is a personal one... I feel uneasy having all my possessions co-mingled with other people's stuff. 

In the end, Fran and I opted to get the entire 20' container, filling only half.  It is for this reason, if you bring a container, you might as well fill it.  The worst you can do is either sell your unneeded things once you get here or give the stuff away to needy Ticos... both of which is a win win for you.

When shipping a container, it can take anywhere from 4 weeks to 8 weeks from the time those steel doors slam shut at your home until your stuff is delivered here.  That means you will do without most of your possessions for two months or more.  Planning ahead will minimize that inconvenience. 

Fran and I went through our list of things we planned to bring and identified those items we would need immediately.  Those items we labeled as Day One Essentials.  The remainder of our items would go on the container.

Day One Essentials

We had already planned one more CR visit before executing our actual move.  Our plan was to load up as many extra suitcases as need be on our pre-move trip and leave them at the home of our friends Deb and Rob Klipper in Esparza.  So in January 2009 (pre-luggage restrictions), we packed loads of summer clothes, my guitar, some video equipment and lots of things we wanted to have as soon as we arrived in Costa Rica.  The remainder of the Day One Essentials would be packed into extra suitcases designated for our actual move on March 31, 2009.  In those extra suitcases we brought the remainder of our clothes, a video projector, wireless surround sound system, a 15" flat screen TV, some kitchen utensils and a bunch of spices.  In total, we brought seven suitcases and four carry-on pieces.  We were loaded to the max but the good news is we had most of what we wanted and needed.

On April 22, 2009 I received an email from our shipper stating our possessions were in Alajuela and had cleared Customs.  We were ready for delivery on the following day.

There Is No Right Answer

There are few right and wrong answers to the burning issue of what to bring or what NOT to bring.  What worked for us may not work for you or vice versa.   Your lifestyle and where you will be living will drive your decision process.  When we lived north of San Ramon, we were very glad that we packed a few sweatshirts and blue jeans.  But now, living at the beach, both items remain packed away in their plastic storage bins.

The single biggest regret we have is not bringing tour 4 burner, propane grill.  We had the room!!!  I wound up selling the grill to the guys who were painting my house back in North Carolina.  OK... I saved $200 on the price of my paint job but that was nothing compared to the price I was looking at to replace the same damn Charbroil 4 Burner Grill in Costa Rica.  Every place I looked wanted to charge me $925 plus $50 for the stupid tank.  Hell, I only paid $350 for the damn thing at Home Depot in Charlotte and that included the tank.  The good news was, after 6 months of searching, I found a floor model of that same grill.  It turned out that it was missing its cooking grate.  So I immediately went into negotiator mode and told the store manager that I would take the grill off his hands for $300 and he throw in a tank.  We settled on $375 and the free tank.  I had a steel fabricator friend of mine back in San Ramon create a custom stainless steel grate on which to cook my food.  His price was $60.  So for $435 I got my grill.  But the point is, I already had a grill, it was perfect and it would not have cost me a penny to bring it!

Have A Strategy and Stick To It

If you tend to be a pack rat and collect things throughout your life, then it is going to be decision time for you.  It's our opinion that anyone moving to Costa Rica is probably seeking a simpler life.  For 38 years, Fran and I have been hauling around boxes of memorabilia and just plain shit that we have acquired over the years. 

Before moving, we spent days sweating our butts off up in our attic rummaging through cartons, too numerous to count, pouring through memories of our life.  We laughed and we cried (a little) but mostly we asked "what the hell is this crap?"  There were lots of kid stuff we had saved plus we had INCOME TAX RETURNS dating back to 1973!  OH. MY. GOD.  Are we insane or what?

I have to admit, it was kinda cool looking back at the tax records and seeing the pitiful earnings we had back in 1975.  While looking at one of my old pay stubs from my days at the NCR Corporation, I saw a $27.00 contribution being made to my retirement account.  We looked at each other and smiled, for had we not been diligent back then, we'd be Screwed Blued and Tattooed today!

I wanted to begin throwing away all this useless crap but Fran jumped in and screamed NO!  All the old homework assignments from the kids, Christmas and Birthday cards etc. meant something to someone at one point in time.  Fran is the sentimental one in the family.  Me, I'm the process and efficiency expert.  I say toss it but Fran trumps me when it comes to this stuff... she said save it, and save it we did.

We agreed to put all this crap into neat piles, one pile for each kid, one pile for must save (legal and personal) reasons,  one pile for things we wanted to bring to Costa Rica and one pile destined for the dumpster.  We did save the last 7 years of tax returns, shredding the rest.  All our kid's stuff went to their respective piles and was crammed into a single plastic storage bin.  Old school yearbooks, along with the tax returns and a few keepsake items went into another bin (actually two) and the rest of the shit (oops... memories) went into two huge rollaway garbage bins. 

We have successfully archived our life!

Digitize As Much As You Can

Start today.  Develop a plan to digitize as much of your life as possible.  If you don't own a scanner, borrow one or better yet buy one.  They are cheap enough.  Begin with all your photos.  If you were like us, in the pre digital camera age, you took hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures which you sent off to the drug store to get developed and printed.  Today these picture sit in shoe boxes or dozens of three ring binders.  In addition, you probably have hundreds of envelopes containing the original negatives from which these pictures came.

Spend the next several months or more scanning these keepsake images. Today's new scanners will even do basic color correction, taking faded and overly saturated images and restoring them to their near original state.  But wait... some of you were zealots who shot 35 mm slides and your closets probably are home to hundreds of neatly stored and labeled Carousel slide trays!  Or you may have been an early movie buff (like me) and you have 500 or more, 3" reels of 8mm film which are slowly deteriorating.  The good news is these items can also be digitized. 

Instead of doing it yourself, I strongly recommend you outsource this task to a company who knows exactly what they are doing.  I used a U.S. firm called HOME MOVIE DEPOT.  They took over 6000 feet of my Super8 movies shot way back in the 70's and digitized it all onto DVDs.  From here I can load those memories into my computer and make real movies of that content.

Aside from pictures, you need to scan ALL your important papers.  Once scanned, bring the images with you and leave the real stuff in a secure place back home.



Now for the biggie... I am a music whore!  I owned a CD collection approaching 1200 CDs. There was no way I was going to box up all these disks and haul them around Costa Rica.  So for three months I devoted most of my spare time to digitizing (ripping) every single CD to my computer's hard drive.  The software I used to rip the CDs is called CDEX.  It is a free program and I have added as a download link (see left) if you would like to archive your music collection.

When I was finished, I had ripped 10,986 songs to a 65 gig space on my PC.  For backup purposes, I transferred all the music to two, inexpensive 300GB external drives.  I also added all my pictures and important scanned papers to the drive as a safety measure.  I gave one of the drives to my son in Pennsylvania and I have the other.  In addition, all my music is stored on a single, 120 GB iPod Classic.  So, wherever I go, whenever I go, I take my entire music collection with me.

And now for the really cool thing... I sold all my CDs on Craigslist and made almost enough money to pay for my container!

What's The Next Step?

Have you hit information overload yet?  To be brutally honest, you are no where even near overload.  If you plan on taking your personal possessions with you, then you are going to need a shipper.  But be very careful, there are many people out there calling themselves "international shippers" but in reality are only "sheeps in wolves clothing."  Do your research and get lots of feedback from those who have gone before you. Two of the most popular international movers to Costa Rica are:


SHIP TO COSTA RICA - Charles Zeller

SHIP COSTA RICA - Barry Wilson & Arden Brink


Fran and I are familiar with both companies and feel confident recommending either.  While Charles Zeller shipped our goods, I know many people who have used Barry and Arden with completely satisfying results.

Fran and I are experienced movers.  Corporate relocations, spanning our 38 year history has forced us to become experts.  We decided from the outset that we were going to pack ourselves.  This way, if something gets broken, it's probably going to be our fault.  One of the best tips we learned through our research was to incorporate "reusability and sustainability" as part of our moving plan.  We purchased about 30 plastic storage bins from stores like Target and Wal-Mart.  Yes they are more expensive then cardboard boxes but they also resist moisture and mold... a key factor to consider when you live only 7 degrees north of the equator.

To Bring or Not To Bring (My Car)... That Is The Question

This is perhaps one of the most hotly contested debates with people who are looking to move to Costa Rica.  We elected to buy a car here instead of shipping one (see related article).  But our reasons were pretty direct... we had two cars, one was a lease and the other was a hot sports car (Nissan 350Z Roadster).  In order to bring any car into this country, it must have a free and clear title.  That ruled out the lease car.  And as for the "Z",  well it had only 6 inches of ground clearance - not advisable for Costa Rican roads. 

No matter who you talk to, for every good reason there is to ship a car, there are an equal number of reasons not to.

Costa Rica's tax system penalizes you based on the age of your vehicle.  Cars that reach the ripe old age of 6 or more years are assessed tariffs at the highest rate... 79.03%, while cars 0-3 years old pay the least in taxes at 52.29%.  And cars that are 4-5 years of age are assessed at the rate of 63.91%.

Here are two examples of how the taxes are applied:

  • Let's say you bought a brand new, U.S. based 2011 Suzuki Grand Vitara. You want to ship it to Costa Rica.  By the way, this would be an excellent type of car to ship.  By the time you calculate shipping costs, insurance, car's value etc, the taxable value of that car will be somewhere in the area of value is $23,000

  • The import tax would be based on the lowest possible rate, somewhere around 53% or $12,190.  

  • The total cost of the car is now valued at $35,190.

  • Interestingly though, you can buy a brand new 2011 Suzuki Grand Vitara in Costa Rica but it will not be built on U.S. standards for around $35,500.  This is one of those situations where buying Stateside and shipping may be a better idea.

  • Now let's say you have an 10 year old Mitsubishi Montero 4x4 with low mileage and in perfect condition.  The taxable value of that car may be $6,000

  • The import tax for that vehicle will be charged at the highest level and may set you back an additional $4700

  • So with the applicable fees to nationalize the car, your total now is looking to run around $12-13,000.  That same Costa Rican version of that car purchased locally may run around $15,000

This is not such a bad deal, especially if it's a car you've owned, you know its history, or you've bought it from a reputable source and know that at least you have a car that has spent its first decade on the pretty cushy North American roads vs. having the crap beaten out of it in Costa Rica for the past 10 years.

But It Doesn't End There

In both of these examples, you'd have to factor in the actual shipping costs.  If you shipped it on its own from southern Florida, you might allow another $1200.  If you put it into your container, the cost is negligible -- ranging from basically "nothing" if you can squeeze it into the 40' container you'd already decided you needed, to $1000 if you consider the typical cost difference between a 20' and 40' container.

Once you pay you import duties don't forget...

  • You'll need to clear the car through Customs, either by yourself or with the help of a qualified a customs broker, but that too will come at an additional price!

  • If you are bringing in a new car from the the U.S., say bye bye to that warranty.  It will not be honored here.

  • If your car becomes damaged in shipping or things have been stolen (quite likely unless containerized), good luck proving it and getting insurance to pay for it.


The Tale of the Navigator

A few weeks back I received an email from a guy seeking advice on whether or not to ship his 2010 Lincoln Navigator to Costa Rica.  I chuckled under my breath for a minute knowing full well that this guy's head was firmly lodged somewhere up his ass.  It was obvious that he has done little or no research on this subject so I tried to give him the facts or my best advice (as I saw it).

  • His Navigator is a huge, gas guzzling behemoth that screams "Big Fat Ugly American."  Driving such a vehicle here helps to instill that unfortunate stereotype.

  • Operating such a car in Costa Rica will immediately make this guy the center of attention and a strong candidate to become another crime victim.  Any "ladrone" (common criminal) will see this fat cat as an easy mark, assume  he is rich and vulnerable.  And the next thing ya know... another one bites the dust! 

  • Imagine driving that big, black shiny rig down a congested street in Alejuela.  And let's not forget about finding a parking space!  Good luck to that!

  • And one last reason, the price of gasoline in Costa Rica is almost TWICE that of the Unites States.

You will pay more for a new car in Costa Rica than you will pay for the same model (if it exists) in the U.S. but the good news is the tax rate for new cars are much lower.  Dealers pay a 20% tariff based on the car's wholesale value as opposed to used cars which are based on a perceived retail value.  In addition, you will have a car with a manufacturers warranty that can be serviced locally.

In the states we tend to get in a mind-set about owning cars that are nearly new or, at most, 5 or 6 years old.  Owning a ten-year old car in the States is less and less common in regular "middle-class" life, but here in Costa Rica, many gringos quite happily own 10 to 15 year-old cars.  They find that the amount of money they spend in repairs and upkeep is fine when considered against the total amount of money (not very much) that they have invested. 

So, part of the "mind-set switch" in moving here is recognizing a car as transportation, not as status symbol.  Think in practical terms.  Good advice for the entire moving process!

For more information on shipping versus buying, here is an article written by Barry Wilson and Arden Brink that may help to clarify more of these points.  BRINGING A CAR TO COSTA RICA.PDF

OK, Let's Bring This Epic To A Close...

It all boils down to what you should bring and what not to bring.  Unfortunately, there is no right answer.  It's going to depend on...

  • Where you are moving

  • What your plans are when you get here

  • Are you buying or renting

  • Furnished or unfurnished

  • Will you need a car or ride the bus?

If you talk to a dozen people, you will get a dozen different opinions.  All correct and all wrong.  You need to do what is right for you and your lifestyle and then prey like hell you can recover from any mistakes.

While writing this article, I received many really good tips on what to bring and what not to bring.  Some made sense and some seemed bizarre to me.  In the end it will be your decision.

Check out the links to the right to see these opinions.





Contributors To This Article

I'd like to thank all those who helped supply information for this article and hats off to the individual who recommended NOT to bring your mailbox!  And a huge thanks to Arden Brink for her assistance and proof reading expertice.

  • Arden Brink - San Ramon

  • Barb Aira – Atenas

  • Donna Anderton – San Ramon

  • George Ernst – San Ramon

  • Gloria Yeatman – San Ramon

  • Heather O’Connell – Playa Hermosa

  • Kathy Bell – San Ramon

  • John Rockwell - Dominical

  • Lee and Cathy Coleman – Atenas

  • Louise Wittman – San Ramon

  • Pieter Roelofs – Playa Hermosa

  • Rolando Cline - Puriscal

  • Stephen Doyle – San Ramon

  • Toni Laws – Playa Hermosa


Chapter 12 - Ship a Car or Buy A Car

Chapter 28 - Sell It, Pack It, Ship It, Part 1

Chapter 29 - Sell It, Pack It, Ship It, Part 2:

Chapter 30 - It's All About Containers, Part 3

Chapter 31 - Suitcases Up The Wazoo, Part 4

Chapter 32 - Our Shipping Container Has Arrived

Chapter 46 - Shipping Personal Possessions

Chapter 51 - Do I Bring It, or What?


To Download your 30 Page excerpt from
"Unraveling The Mysteries of Moving To Costa Rica"

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