May 22 2011

Renewing our Costa Rica Drivers’ Licenses

We’ve been living in Costa Rica full-time for more than two years now, and our Costa Rica drivers licenses came up for renewal on May 15th.  We both got our drivers licenses a month or so after we moved here in April 2009, using our U.S. Passports and Maryland Drivers Licenses for identification, and were issued Costa Rican drivers licenses for two years.  We had heard that we would be able to renew our licenses locally here in San Ramon, so we set about doing just that.

Tuesday, Day 1:  We drove to the motor vehicle department in San Ramon to find out what we needed    to do.  We found out where we needed to stand in line and where we needed to go to pay the 11,000 colones each to renew our licenses.  Unfortunately, we also found out that we’d need to have some changes made first.  Since we obtained our licenses before we received our cedulas (Costa Rica Residency Cards), the ID#s didn’t match.  We would need to drive to San Jose to get the ID#s changed.  But, surely, there is some way around this, we thought!  We called a Tico acquaintance who “knew some people” there and he suggested we show only our passports, not our cedulas, and then there wouldn’t be an issue.  Great, we thought!  Tomorrow, that’s what we will do.

Wednesday, Day 2: We knew that Costa Rica requires a medical exam before issuing, and evidently renewing, a driver’s license, so we called another Tico friend to see how we could go about getting a certificate of health from our Caja (national medical system) doctor.  Can’t be done, he said.  Everyone, Ticos and Gringos alike, need to go to one of the doctors specifically designated to do these exams.  Instead of being free (through the Caja), it will cost us each 15,000 colones ($30) to have the exam done.

So we drive into town and the parking guy hands us a flyer for one of the Dictamen Medico locations (which, incidently, we thought meant “medical dictation” – made sense to us since these places are within blocks of the San Ramon hospital) to have our medical exams performed.  We were able to see the doctor right away.  For each of us, la doctora completed a detailed medical history, took our blood pressure, and performed a quick vision test. She filled out official looking forms entitled, “Colegio de Medicos y Cirujanos de Costa Rica Certificado Médico para Licencias de Conducir,” (which basically means “College of Physicians and Surgeons of Costa Rica Medical Certificate for Drivers Licenses”), complete with Cruz Roja (Red Cross) stamps and embossed with the doctor’s information.

We paid her 30,000 colones ($60) and, before we left, the doctor told us that we could save 1,000 colones each by paying for our drivers’ license renewals at the Bank of Costa Rica instead of at the motor vehicles department. So we left our car parked and walked the four blocks to the bank, showed our drivers licenses and told the teller that we wanted to pay to renew our drivers’ licenses.   About 15 minutes and 20,000 colones ($40) later, we had the receipts we would need to prove our payments.  By this time, it was too late to get our licenses renewed, so we headed home with plans to return in the morning to finish up.

Thursday, Day 3:  We arrive at the Ministerio de Obras Publicas & Transportes (MOPT) or Ministry of Public Works and Transportation at 8:50 a.m. with our medical forms, receipts, current drivers’ licenses and passports in-hand, ready to renew, and our cedulas tucked away out of sight.  Though there’s no apparent line, there seems to be order of some sort and everyone waiting is courteous.  The guys are mostly wearing jeans and Aeropostale t-shirts, while the girls are generally neatly dressed with color-coordinated clothes, nail polish, and accessories.  We find the end of the line and proceed to wait.  We strike up a conversation with Carmen, a local Tica, whose family lives in nearby San Isidro.  Turns out they have some land for sale (surprise, surprise – seems like everyone we meet does) and we exchange phone numbers.  Though we are standing for a while, we finally reach the chairs.

The guard at the door lets people at the front of the line into the building, about six people at a time.  Each time that happens, in true Costa Rican fashion, everyone in line stands up and moves up six chairs, sort of like musical chairs without the music.  When it’s our turn, we move into the building and take our seats in another set of chairs, and when called, we go into the renewal office and proudly present our stuff, only to be told for a second time that we would need to go to San Jose.  Our passport stamps were no longer valid since it had been more than 90 days since we entered the country.  The only thing to do would be to go to have the ID numbers on our drivers’ licenses changed to match our cedula numbers. So two hours after we arrived, we set out towards San Jose, with vague directions to a place called “Paso Ancho.”
“Paso Ancho” turns out to be the name of the barrio, and after asking several people, we find our way to  MOPT’s  Department of Control and Registration.  Once we are inside, we see a map showing “¡Usted está aquí” or “You are here!”  — kind of redundant since we, actually, already are here.  We wait in another line and  talk to the Canadian in line just ahead of us. Turns out that he had the exact same issue as us, but instead of driving an hour as we did, he had to drive from Playa Coco in Guanacaste, about 4 ½ hours each way.  We count our blessings and, after about 30 minutes it’s our turn to talk to the clerk at the window. We show him our licenses and cedulas and explain that necesitamos renovar (we need to renew) our licenses but the numbers are different. He changes the information in the system and hands us each a paper that confirms the change.

After stopping for lunch, we head back to San Ramon’s MOPT office to (finally!) finish the process.  We dutifully take our place in line and, while we are waiting, Paul goes to the door to thank the guard for such good directions to Paso Ancho earlier in the day.  They chat for a minute and the next thing we know we are ushered to the front of the line and right into the office!  We present all of the needed paperwork, have new photos taken, and watch as our new licenses are printed out right in front of us.  We are very pleased to see that this time our licenses are valid for six years and are finished within 30 minutes of arriving for the second time.

So in summary, did it take longer than it would in the States?  Yes.  Was it more expensive?  Between the $60 for the doctor, $40 for the license renewal, gas and lunch in San Jose, probably yes.  Did we have to wait in lines?  Yes, but it wasn’t that bad…we brought books to read and chatted with others in line.   But in the U.S. there wouldn’t have been a Soda (family run restaurant) right there where we could by a coffee or egg sandwich while we’re waiting.  All in all, it was just one more experience in our Costa Rican adventure, one we won’t have to experience again for six more years.  And next time, it will be easier, right?

Key Points to Remember

  1. You need to get an exam at a Dictamen Medico Para Licencias location (cost: 15,000 colones).
  2. You can prepay the renewal fee at a Banco de Costa Rica or Banco Nacional branch for 10,000 colones, or pay on-site at MOPT for 11,000 colones.
  3. If you are a legal resident, your cedula number and drivers license number must match.  If they don’t, you need to go to MOPT’s  Department of Control and Registration in Paso Ancho to have your drivers’ license number changed.
  4. If you are not a legal resident, you must renew your drivers license within 90 of your most recent entry into Costa Rica and your Passport must show the stamp.
  5. Prepare yourself mentally to wait in line, and bring a book or chat with the locals to pass the time.

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