Earlier today, I was working with someone interested in importing a Land Cruiser from Costa Rica. He was confused by the process and had some questions about the process and when you own an imported vehicle. He thought that it was when you title it so I wanted to clear up confusion by answering this question on our site.

Similarity to the States

When do you own a vehicle in the States? In most states, the transfer of ownership is with the bill of sale.  The bill of sale says, “I gave you money, you give me vehicle.”  That is the legal moment when ownership of a vehicle transfers from one person to another. For example, if you purchase a car in Indiana, and transport it to Nevada.  You would not be required to title it in Indiana to prove ownership.  Rather, you would simply take the title from Indiana and the bill of sale and title the vehicle in Nevada.

In Costa Rica, that part of the process is very similar. When you pay for the vehicle, the attorney creates a “Bill of Sale” document.  It is not called that here, but it affects the very same purpose. Thus, from the moment that money is transferred and the original owner signs this “Bill of Sale” the vehicle is yours.  You own it. From that point, you could title it in Costa Rica, export it, run it off a cliff, or whatever you’d like to do.  It is yours.

Not Similar to the States

Unlike the States, the process of selling and buying a vehicle takes place in the presence of an attorney. In many ways, it is more legal (if that’s a phrase).  An attorney has a ledger which keeps all of the “Actos” that they do.  These “Actos” are the legal actions that they helped perform. The bottom line is that the attorneys witness the transfer of the funds and the transfer of ownership. They put their stamp on each of those transactions so that the National Registry knows the transfer was legal.

Does the title have to be changed prior to leaving Costa Rica?

One other point of clarification.  The title of the vehicle doesn’t transfer ownership. It is a document that states ownership, but if you have a title with the former owner’s name on it and a bill of sale that says that owner sold to you, then you’re good.  It is exactly the same in the States when you title a car. The new owner NEVER has a title with his or her name until they take the old title into DMV and have it legally changed.

So, when you’re importing a car from Costa Rica, you’re not going to need to transfer the title to your name prior to the car leaving for the States. The old title will travel with the vehicle along with the bill of sale and all of the customs and shipping documents. Those will prove you’re the owner and give you the right to register the car (get a new title) in your home State.

Can you think of any additional questions regarding ownership that I didn’t cover? If so, comment below.