Driving with a foreign license in Costa Rica

foreign driver's license costa ricaYou can find the legal base for all matters relating to foreign driver’s licenses in Costa Rica, in Law #9078 known as “Ley de Tránsito por Vías Públicas Terrestres y Seguridad Vial”. According to the law, you can drive in Costa Rica with a foreign driver’s license, but you’re subject to the same terms, regulations and fines defined for costarrican drivers.

If you’re a tourist or just passing through Costa Rica, you can simply drive with your foreign license, with no additional requirements, for up to 3 months. Remember that you can only drive the vehicles your license allows: if your license is for automobiles, you can’t use it to drive trucks or special equipment (for example). Regardless of what your foreign license you have, you can not drive public transport vehicles in any case, unless you take out a national C license.

However, if you have a foreign license for automobiles, the Law allows you to drive ATVs up to 500cc. You can’t drive UTVs, or drive on primary roads (Article 91). And you cannot drive any type of motorcycle or motorbike using an automobile license. Before 2017, you could. But on July 17, 2017, the law was changed and now you cannot drive a motorcycle unless you have a license specifically issued for motorcycles. See this link for the official press release on the subject.

What’s a primary road? A primary road is a high traffic road, which connects provinces and is used for long distance travel (that’s what the law says). Most of the country’s highways and the “circunvalación roads”, are primary roads.

After 3 months, get a costarrican driver’s license

After 3 months uninterrupted stay in the country, you have get a costarrican driver’s license. There’s two options:

  • You can go the standard route for a driver’s license: written and road test, and get your license that way.
  • Or you can also request your foreign license be validated (known as “homologating” your license)

Basically if you want to validate your foreign license, you go to the Dirección General de Educación Vial (DGEV) with your license and all relevant documentation. They evaluate it, and if everything checks out, you get your local driver’s license. Any type of foreign license that complies with international law, can be validated. You can even validate foreign licenses for driving trucks, heavy vehicles and special equipment.

In order to validate your foreign license, you need an appointment. You can schedule your appointment free over the internet, see this link on how to schedule license appointments online.

foreign driver's license validation costa rica

Requirements for validation of your foreign license in Costa Rica

To turn your foreign license into a costarrican one, you have to meet the following requirements:

  • You must be at least 18 years old. No person under 18 can validate a foreign license in Costa Rica.
  • Your license must not be expired, and has to be in good condition. If it’s expired, it’s no good.
  • Resident card, refugee card, work permit, or any other document proving that you are in the country legally, and your immigration requirements are up-to-date.
  • If you are Costa Rican and have a foreign license, you’ll need your national ID (cédula). In addition, you have to prove that you were legally in the other country, through social security, residence permits, work permits, refugee cards, etc.
  • You must have stayed in Costa Rica for more than 3 months and 1 day without interruption,at some point in your life. You must be able to prove it with clear stamps on your passport, or entry and exit certification, issued by the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería.
  • Digital medical certificate for driver’s licenses.
  • If your license is in a language other than Spanish, you have to get an official translation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can’t translate your language, you have to get a translation through your embassy or consulate.
  • If the name on your license does not match up with the name on your ID (for example if you changed your surname at marriage), you must present a document that validates that change. If it’s because of marriage, and the marriage was registered in Costa Rica, you’ll need a marriage certificate: one original and two copies. You can get these at the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones. If your marriage was registered abroad, you’ll need to get a certificate through your embassy or consulate.
  • You have to meet all the requirements for the type of license you want, you can find these in the license types section of this site. The only requirements that do not apply if you’re validating a foreign license are the basic written and driving exams.
  • If you’re validating a foreign license that has a minimum experience requirement (for example, trucks or public transportation), you can use the years you already have on your foreign license. Your foreign license must clearly state the date on which it was issued, or you must have a certification document from your embassy or consulate.
  • For licenses that have special training requirements (for example public transport or articulated trucks) you must take the necessary courses.

Where do I validate my foreign driver’s license in Costa Rica?

You can homologate your foreign driver’s license in several places:

Validation of foreign licenses is only done on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 7 to 11 AM.

Where can I find all this in the law?

Homologation (validation) requirements for foreign licenses appears in article 91 of the law.

What happens if I use a foreign driver’s license in Costa Rica for more than 3 months?

traffic fines in costa ricaIf you’re past 3 months on your foreign license, and you’re stopped by the police, they’ll confiscate the vehicle’s license plates (article 151). And from there, you’ll have to do plate recovery paperwork (which is a pain), pay the fines, and if you were in a rented vehicle, your rental company will probably charge you the fines plus commission.

As long as you have traffic fines awaiting payment, you can’t leave the country and the fined vehicle can’t leave either.

What if I’m foreign, and get a traffic ticket in Costa Rica?

In order to leave the country you must have paid all traffic fines applied to your license or to your vehicle. When you’re fined, COSEVI (the road safety authority) notifies immigration with what’s called a «border closure warrant». That’s basically an order not to allow the vehicle or the driver to leave the country.

This order is not lifted until all fines are paid. If you try to leave the country with pending fines, they’ll probably stop you at the airport or border control.

A traffic fine can be paid at most state banks (Banco de Costa Rica, Banco Nacional de Costa Rica) and private banks (BAC, Scotiabank, Davivienda). Remember the process isn’t fast: it takes 3 or 4 days for the fine to be registered at the banks, at that point you can pay, and it’ll take a couple more days for the border warrant to be lifted. Remember to pay well in advance before your departure, so the warrant is ready in time.

You do not pay fines directly to police officers, nor do you pay at the police stations. If they tell you to pay for them that way, it’s probably because the cop just wants to take the money for himself. The only place where you should pay traffic fines, is at authorized banks.

If you were fined while driving a rented vehicle, remember to let the rental company know, especially if you have already paid the fine. This will prevent the company from trying to charge your credit card for the fine later on. Sometimes the rental company will have systems in place, to make the fine payment for you, and save you the trip to a bank.

Always keep a copy or photograph of the fine payment. It may be required if the rental company tries to charge you twice for the fine, or if in the future immigration tells you that you have traffic fines pending.

What should I know before driving in Costa Rica?

driving in costa ricaWhether you’re driving with a foreign license in Costa Rica, or you have your local driver’s license, there’s several things you need to know. Your circulation rights have to be paid up by January 1 of each year. If they’re not and you’re stopped on the road, your license plates get confiscated.

You license plates can also be confiscated if you leave your car parked in a no parking zone, or if you leave it parked wrong. If you’re not around to move the car, it can be towed.

Getting your license plates back, or getting your car back if it’s towed, is a royal pain. So avoid it at all costs.

All cars need an emissions and mechanical check every year (or every 2 years if they’re new). The check is done via appointment at RITEVE SyC stations. You’ll normally have an “RTV sticker” on your windshield and a certificate which will tell you when your next check is.

If you’re renting a car, you need a valid driver’s license. Otherwise the rental company won’t give you the keys. Even if you’ve already reserved the vehicle and even made an initial payment for the rental… no license, no keys.

There’s lots of fines and lots of possible traffic violations, which you can find in the law in articles 143 through 147. You need to be especially careful of 3 types of traffic violations: criminal violations, class A violations, and class B violations. Criminal violations can get you jail time and at the very least, will get you banned from driving any type of vehicle for up to 4 years. Class A and B violations have severe fines ($400 – $600) and will probably get you sent to a “retraining” program before you can renew your license (if you have a costarrican license).

Your embassy probably won’t do much to save you if you commit a criminal, Class A or B traffic violation. So it’s up to you to know and avoid those behaviors while on the road.

Criminal traffic violations in Costa Rica

These will get you processed under the Criminal Code (#4573), in a criminal court. The sentences go from one to three years in prison, and suspension of all driving rights for two to four years. Specifically criminal violations are any form of reckless driving (as defined in article 261b of the Criminal Code #4573) and injury or death of others due to reckless driving. Your license is immediately suspended and confiscated as soon as you’re processed for a criminal traffic violation.

What traffic violations are considered criminal?

  • Taking part in unauthorized street racing (drag racing).
  • Driving over 150 KPH on any kind of road
  • Driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Causing death or injury to others due to reckless driving, or driving under the influence.

If you’re processed for a criminal traffic violation, you’ll probably be banned from leaving the country and will have to stay until the process is over (which can take months or years), either in a detention center, or in a local residence.

Class A violations

Class A violations will get you a $600 fine, and will leave you halfway to a license suspension, if you have a local driver’s license. Plus you’ll have to go through retraining to renew your license. Class A traffic violations are:

  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If your physical state is not enough to warrant criminal charges, you’ll be fined for a Class A violation. It doesn’t matter how much your alcohol level was, if you’re caught driving drunk, consider it at least a Class A.
  • Driving over 120 KPH on any road. If you’re doing over 120 KPH and on top of it, street racing, it’s automatically a criminal violation.
  • Driving with a suspended license.
  • Trying to pass other vehicles in curves, intersections, rail crossings, tunnels, bridges, or trying to pass using the shoulder or median.
  • Occupying the opposite traffic lane intentionally, in areas where there’s a double line.
  • Making U turns or left turns in places where traffic signals forbid it.
  • Refusing an alcohol test when authorities require it.
  • Driving a vehicle that produces noise, emissions or smoke in excess of what’s allowed by law.

Class B violations

Class B violations will get you a $400 fine, and will leave you a third of the way towards a license suspension, if you have a local driver’s license. If you have more than one class B, you’ll need to go to retraining.

Class B traffic violations are:

  • Transporting children under 12 years of age, and less than 1.45m tall, without special safety devices (booster or safety seats).
  • Transporting hazardous materials, without complying with permits and requirements of law.
  • Transporting children under age of 5 on motorcycle or motor bicycle.
  • Ignoring a stop sign.
  • Ignoring a red light, except during hours when it’s allowed.
  • Switching license plates with other vehicles, forging or altering plates.
  • Driving more than 40 KPH above the established speed limit.

Other traffic violations

There’s a whole lot more traffic violations in the law, that go from class C to class E. You can find them in articles 143 through 147.

Ignoring red lights in Costa Rica

The law allows you to ignore red lights, from 10 PM to 5 AM (article 104c). During these hours, red lights are equivalent to a stop sign. You must come to a complete stop, and if there’s nothing coming the other way, you can continue. If there’s vehicles going through the intersection that have a green they, they still have the right of way.

Stop signs and yield signs continue to have the same purpose 24 hours a day. You must come to a stop or yield at these signs, no matter what the hour.