Getting a Costa Rican Driver’s License

So now you’ve gotten your residency! Another important step along the way is getting your Costa Rican driver’s license. There is some information from the English newspaper The Tico Times as well as information from COSEVI (the Costa Rican equivalent of the DMV). However the former is now outdated and the latter is lacking in several key details. The residency process also can be a bit deceptive when it comes to the rights that one possesses. It’s true that for migratory reasons once you start the residency process (by submitting the application to Migración) you no longer have to leave the country every 90 days. However, a very important detail they leave out is that your permission to drive in the country expires three months after the last time you entered the country.

Costa Rican Driver's License

The process of getting a license in Costa Rica is rather simple as long as you have a valid license from another country. On the other hand the process of getting a license the conventional way (written and driving tests) is complex, lengthy, and only doable in Spanish. (Recently there was a three month back-log just to take the theoretical exam).

Preparing to get the license

Firstly you will need to following documents:

  • Passport
  • Cédula
  • Foreign, non-expired driver’s license

The first step is to get two photocopies–front and back–of the license and cédula. Also you will need two photocopies of the picture page of your passport and the page with your most recent entry stamp.

With those documents ready, you also will need to get a physical exam. Although you probably have health insurance through the Caja as a requirement for residency, they will not do this exam for you. This has to be done at a private clinic. You can even do this right outside the offices of COSEVI at several doctors offices that offer a “Dictamen médico” for your license if you want to put it off to the last minute, but most clinics anywhere in the country will offer the service for around $35. Don’t be surprised if they don’t actually examine you, the important part is that they give you a paper with the number of the exam. It is valid for six months, so you can get it well ahead of time.

Now with the photocopies and proof of medical exam in hand you have to go to the offices of COSEVI in La Uruca, San José or any of the regional branches. Unfortunately if you live far from San José, it is your only option for validating a foreign license is to go there (however down the line renewals can be done in the local branch offices). Update February 2017: One newspaper has reported that as of 2017 this can now be done in any of the offices of COSEVI throughout the country. As of February 2017 COSEVI’s website does not reflect that information, but it appears to be valid.  Now for a very important detail: your permission to drive expires three months after entering the country; however, you cannot get the license until you’ve been in the country for at least three months and a day. 

If you’ve been here long enough to have residency, you’re well away of how much sense the laws make at times. You have to wait until you no longer have permission to drive in the country to drive to San José to get a Costa Rican License.

Getting your Costa Rican License

You’ll want to get there early as they only will process the applications for individuals that arrive between 8-12 PM on Tuesdays and Wednesdays [updated for new schedule in 2017]. I managed to get there at 8:30 AM and finished at 11:58 AM. When you arrive to COSEVI you can tell the guard what you’re there for and they will give you directions to the part of the complex where you need to go to. It’s about the farthest section from the main entrance.

Once you get to the license services building, another guard will check to make sure you have all the right paperwork, and then they will send you to sit in an L shaped row of chairs against the far wall. As you sit there they will gradually call people up in small groups to the upper level. That is where the process starts.

Like any bureaucratic process–especially here–the process is needlessly redundant. First one lady will look at all your documents and staple together the photo copies into two packets (they’ll have you put your address and sign both of them). You will then sit back down and wait to go to the next office where they will again look over your documents and stamp them (and ask you to put your email and phone number). From there you…wait for it…wait in line again for a third person to look at the documents! This third person will ask a few personal details to put in the database. From there you will have to walk back to the entrance to the compound where there are two “Cajeros” where you have to pay for the license (as of April 2016 it costs 5,000 colones–1,000 of which is a service fee). You then need to bring back the receipt and wait in line again to have your picture taken. Finally after hours of queuing they then print your license on the spot and you’re finally good to go!

A few important notes. One is that they will give you a license of the same class as your foreign license. My understanding is that in order to receive a commercial license you have to prove that you’ve had that qualification in the country of origin for the license for at least three years. Another is that if your license was solicited when you were under 21 and thus have a red line on the license saying “under 21 until [date]” and you are now older than 21–even though the license is still valid–they will require that you solicit a new license and not validate that license.

22 thoughts on “Getting a Costa Rican Driver’s License

  1. Silvia Ruiz

    Hi Tyler:::: You are right!!!! without any exaggeration.. I got my License a year ago and it took 4 hrs.
    Reason: I just carry ONE last name ( paternal).

  2. Gregory N Kaldor

    Hi Tyler – Thank you for posting this information. We just received our residency and now look forward to getting our DL. However, we don’t speak Spanish. How much of a problem will it be for us going through the process without a Spanish speaking guide?

  3. John Rosenberg

    I was sick for a month in the hospital and during that period my NV license ran out. I speak no Spanish. What is my next plan of action? Go back to NV and renew the license there and come back to tradecut in for a CR license?

    I am a residente.

  4. Vanessa O.

    To John and Tyler, I also don’t have a US license. Is it possible to take the written and driving exam to get a CR license?

  5. Hans Zillmer

    Thanks for the info Tyler.
    So this whole process can be completed in a single day with the Costa Rican drivers license printed and in your hands? Or is it just the application process that takes a day? I know that in other countries it can take up to three months as they have to check up details etc and validate that it’s real. How do they do it so quick?
    Another question I have is if I can take my children with me (2 year old and 4 month old), or do they strictly only allow you by yourself?

    1. Tyler Wenzel Post author

      Yep all in one day. From the time I got to the building to license in hand was less than 4 hours. I’m not sure about children, I didn’t see any when I was there, but I didn’t see any rules.

  6. Maria

    Hi Tyler!
    I received my residency 2 months ago. How long do I have time to get the DL? Is there a time limit within which I have to do the process?


    1. Tyler Wenzel Post author

      You just have to have been in the country for 3 months then you can go get it. I know someone that got residency, but because of a few trips to Panamá and the US couldn’t get their license for a year. You just have to physically be in the country for three months (regardless of how long ago you got your residency) to get it. If you got your residency 2 months ago, but haven’t left the country you can go now.

      1. Karen Schickner

        Regarding can you apply for an initial license at any office, yes you can. On Monday, March 20, 2017 at the La Uruca office, my son was given the Cosevi brochure of where the offices are and their phone numbers. He was told that he could get a new license at any one of those offices. He would have to call to get directions (or just look on-line). Foreigners are given new licenses only on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s 7:00am – 11:00am at any office. Here are the offices listed on the brochure: La Uruca 2522-0856/2522-0857; Alajuela 2441-5448; San Ramón 2445-5937; Puntarenas 2663-7856; Rio Claro 2789-7016; Limón 2797-1183; Guápiles 2710-4268; Pérez Zeledón 2771-5571; Liberia 2665-5203; Nicoya 2685-7256; San Carlos 2460-2450; Cartago 2553-3329. Also Heredia (which was not on the list) 2260-0251/2260-0867. (We went to both the La Uruca and Alajuela offices and you can get a new one there.)

  7. Karen Schickner

    Hey Tyler, just realized this is your post. Okay, just to make something very clear. If you have a driver’s license from the United States that is an under age license (16-20 yrs old), Cosevi WILL NOT give you a reciprocal license. I found this out the hard way today. My son is 19 yrs old and has a valid Texas Driver’s License for someone under 21. The Cosevi employee said that they realize that in the United States you can get a driver’s license at the age of 16, and that the restriction is only for legal drinking age purposes in the United States, they do not have a category (class) for that in Costa Rica. It is an “under age” driver’s license and they do not have anything like that here. He would have to wait until he is 21 and get a license without the “under age” drinking restriction or take the written and driving test here in Costa Rica to get a valid driver’s license here before the age of 21. What a bummer! This changed recently because my daughter got her Costa Rica driver’s license 3 years ago when she was 19 with a Texas “under age” driver’s license. So long story short, you have to have a valid license from the U.S. 21 years or older. And as other post have noted, the picture has be in the right direction (horizontal) or no indication that it is for under age drinking purposes (such as a red line, etc.) So you might want to put this requirement at the top of your blog so that it is read first along with the other info you have listed for Preparing to get your license (Age Restriction). Just a suggestion.

    1. Tyler Wenzel Post author

      Hi Karen!

      Thanks for the heads up. I had a similar issue when I got mine. It had the red line saying under 21 until even though I was 23 at the time (license just expired last month). I had to report my license as lost/stolen to PA because they wouldn’t just issue a horizontal one. They told me at the time it was just because of the red line being a date in the past. My understanding at the time was it was more an issue of being in the past since technically when one is 18 it’s not longer a junior license (at least in PA). Maybe try doing it at one of the regional offices just to make sure, but I will definitely add a note to the article either way.

      1. Karen Schickner

        Thanks Tyler. We went to La Uruca first on Monday, then the Alajuela office today. At least at the Alajuela Office we got a much nicer and clear reason. He can not get one because he has an under age drinking license from the states and Costa Rica does not have that category. You can only get a license of the same category that you have from your home country. At the La Uruca office, they claim he could not get one because he had only a permit, and I quote “the US gives permits for anything, he does not have a real license.” The Alajuela office gave a better explanation. They also recognized he did in fact have a valid driver’s license for the states. Costa Rica just doesn’t have the need for that type of category here. You can drink at 18. : )

  8. Chip Little

    Thanks Karen for the updated info on getting a driver’s license. My wife and I live in the Guanacaste region and just cancelled our hotel room near San Jose when we learned we can get our first driver’s license in Liberia!! Do we pay the license fee at the Cosevi office or the bank and provide a receipt? Thanks Tyler for a great blog.

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