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 However the former is now outdated and the latter is lacking in several key details.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.
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:
- 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.