Editor’s Note: We posted an updated version of this process in 2018. Click here to read it!
Driving in Costa Rica can sometimes be a harrying experience. It can become even more so if you are stopped by the Traffic Police, whose responsibility it is to monitor all traffic and assure that vehicles and drivers comply with local traffic laws.
Tourists can legally drive in Costa Rica using home-country driver’s licenses for the period of time they are visiting, up to 90 days. However, “perpetual tourists” (people who live here and renew tourist visas every three months) may be in jeopardy – Costa Rican law says non-tourists are required to have Costa Rican driver’s licenses. If traffic cops check your passport and determine that you are a repeat visitor, they can issue you a very expensive ticket, currently ₡293,000 (more than $500!).
So why not get a Costa Rican driver’s license issued and decrease the risk of having to lay out some big bucks? It is pretty easy and not expensive. Don’t know how? Here’s the procedure:
Costa Rican driver’s licenses are issued by the Roadway Safety Council (COSEVI), part of the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT), at their San José location in the northwestern district of La Uruca, weekdays from 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. (See below for directions.)
To obtain a license you will need several things: 1) An original foreign license and photocopy, with both sides of the license. 2) A passport and photocopy of the identity page and most recent visa stamp. This assumes your visa is current. Otherwise, if you have proof of residency (a cedula, or national identification card) or proof that you have started the residency application process (a letter saying the process is “en trámite”), make sure and bring copies. 3) A current physical examination including blood type. 4) A receipt showing you have paid the required fee to the appropriate Banco National account. No written or driving examination is required if your existing foreign license is valid.
Let’s assume you go without anything but the basic documents. Located in close vicinity to the MOPT compound entrance are numerous businesses that offer the services you’ll need. Find a parking space (parking is allowed at the MOPT parking lot), and along the street within a few meters you’ll find businesses that can make copies, administer the physical exam and do the blood test. Simply walk to one and tell them what you need.
The physical exam is perfunctory – they will ask you general health questions, check your eyesight, blood pressure, weight, reflexes, etc., and issue you a document describing the required items. (You won’t need to take any clothes off.) Exams last less than 15 minutes, unless there is a long line. As a part of the process, someone will draw a blood sample for typing. Or, if you have a valid card, such as a Red Cross donor card that shows your blood type, use that instead. Charges may vary, but the total should be about ₡22,000 ($44): ₡15,000 ($30) for the exam and ₡7,000 ($14) for the blood test. As an alternative, you can obtain the health exam and blood typing from a local doctor.
With your copies and medical documents in hand, proceed to the nearby Banco Nacional and pay the fee, which is approximately ₡11,000 ($22).
Once that’s done, enter the MOPT compound. The driver’s license building is in the back, a short walk from the gate. Get in line. Friendly personnel will direct you to the appropriate place. Generally, foreigners are first sent to upstairs offices where documents will be reviewed and the proper computer entries made.
You will then be sent downstairs for a picture and to receive your new license, which is generally good for two years. And that’s it!
If you do not possess a valid foreign driver’s license you will be required to take both a written and a driving test (in Spanish). Automatic transmission cars have recently been re-approved for tests.
If you already have a Costa Rican driver’s license and it was lost or stolen, or if it needs to be renewed, the procedure is roughly the same. However, there are some small caveats.
Costa Rican driver’s licenses use either a passport or cedula number as the control number. If either of those numbers has changed since your last license was issued, you will need to go to the COSEVI administrative office in the southern San José district of Paso Ancho for them to make the change in the MOPT database before you go to COSEVI in La Uruca. (Take your old passport or cedula with you.)
After presenting the correct documents, the examiner will tell you how much to pay. Exit the compound and pay at the same Banco Nacional branch. When you return, go to the head of the line. Return to the examiner with your receipt and your license will be issued.
If you are simply renewing a license that has or is about to expire, you will need a current physical exam and blood type information. Follow the same procedure described above for obtaining an original license. You must also pay the renewal fee. This is a standard amount and can be paid at Banco Nacional before entering the compound. It should be noted that traveling to San José for a renewal isn’t necessary. License renewals can be obtained at COSEVI offices in various Costa Rican cities, where the same requirements and procedures apply.
As with all things Costa Rican, charges and procedures may change over time. Good luck and happy motoring!
Getting There: While directions in Costa Rica can be challenging, finding the COSEVI office in La Uruca isn’t difficult: Leaving San José on the General Cañas Highway north, exit at the Irazú Best Western Motel and Denny’s Restaurant. Drive parallel to the highway for 100 meters until the traffic circle. Bear right (north, as if you were going to Heredia). Drive to the first traffic light, approximately 300 meters, turn right (east) and proceed about 2.5 km. On the left you will spot a Yamaha dealership, then a Mercedes dealer. The MOPT compound is on the opposite side of the street. If you get to the Shell station you’ve gone too far.
If driving toward San José on the highway, exit at Hospital Mexico or just past it (there are two exits before the overpass), and continue three-quarters of the way around the traffic circle, going under the overpass and to the stoplight.