Receiving Internet purchases in Costa Rica has become a more expensive proposition thanks to a decree from the Ministerio de Hacienda. The tax authority announced in November that for the first time even small purchases, under $500 would be subject to tax. Fortunately the dust has settled, and it is easier to receive Internet purchases than during the last holiday shopping season when the sudden change was applied in haste.
In the past an individual was allowed to receive one shipment for personal use under $500, free of tax every six months. The tax authority decided this situation created too much potential for abuse, and ordered the collection of taxes on all packages sent by a business. Collecting the tax is relatively easy because Internet purchases usually contain receipts. Rates vary between 13 and 50 percent depending on product, however unfortunately the rules are complex.
There are four basic ways to receive Internet purchases from the United States to Costa Rica:
- U.S. Postal service to a local post office box or “Apartado Postal” in Costa Rica
- Ship via mail, parcel service or courier to a private mailbox in the U.S. that imports to Costa Rica
- International courier service, such as DHL or FedEx to an address in Costa Rica
- Ask a friend or associate to bring a package in a suitcase on their flight
While “Apartado Postal” method may not be the fastest, it is usually the least expensive method to receive packages in the Costa Rica. The annual cost of a post office box is about $20, and having one is essential for those who plan to receive mail in Costa Rica. Since the nation lacks a formal address system in common use, sending letters and packages to a home or business in Costa Rica is often a risky and inconvenient proposition.
The shipping cost of sending a package from abroad is determined, up front at the time the Internet order is initiated. Just like a letter, the post office does not change any extra delivery fees because the full shipping is included in postage. Drawbacks are that only the postal service can ship to a post office box, and the post office box holder has to go personally to collect the package. This method works best for relatively small packages that do not need to arrive in a hurry.
Under the new system, packages sent by mail can be diverted to the Zapote post office, which is equipped with a customs inspection facility. The recipient receives a note in their post office box, exchanges this for a certified letter, which the owner of the box should bring to the Zapote facility, located 200 meters south of the Catholic church. The recipient must also present a cedula or passport for identification, both at the local post office and in Zapote.
The process at Zapote is relatively simple, but it might be preferable to bring a fluent Spanish language speaker if there are any questions or doubts to discuss with the customs agent. Packages are opened and inspected in the presence of the recipient, however the customs office does the opening and looks for the receipt. Tax payment is due in cash or through deposit at the Banco de Costa Rica.
A method popular with some expats and the affluent in Costa Rica is to use services that maintain private postal facilities in the United States.
Users of the service get the U.S. address of the facility, which incorporates some kind of box or number to identify the account. They company handles the shipment via air cargo to Costa Rica, and receives the package. Typically they also offer a service were the package is delivered to the customer’s home or business in Costa Rica. The entire service can be very expensive, and the major providers are Aerocasillas, Speed Box y JetBox.
Another option is to ship via courier service, such as FedEx or DHL. Neither can deliver to a post office box, but the couriers can redirect with a phone call to the recipient. The method is popular for checks and important documents, which are not subject to taxes. The fees however, start around $40 from the United States and go up very quickly based on weight, making it an unattractive option for anything other than documents and very light packages.
Of course the final, and perhaps must trusted method for expats is to just ask a friend to “suitcase” your purchase. Removing any evidence of recent purchase makes it a great way to avoid taxes on an expensive laptop computer, designer hand bag or brand new iPhone. There are of course some limitations, and the friend should understand the situation before being asked to help. Also, attempting to bring multiple items of the same type or a larger item, obviously intended to stay in Costa Rica such as a rack mounted computer or kitchen appliance will attract the attention of customs agents.