San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Rules Allow Tax-Free Imports

A recent and apparently not widely known change inthe country’s Customs Law allows consumers here toimport up to $500 worth of personal goods tax-free fromoutside Costa Rica every six months without ever leavingthe country.Before the change took effect at the beginning of March,Costa Ricans and foreign residents who desired to importtheir allotment of personal goods were required to traveland remain outside the country for 72 hours before they could reap the tax-free import benefits bybringing the goods into the country withthem, according to Customs spokesmanRubén Quesada.“It’s going to be very beneficial forpeople,” Quesada said of the reform.There is a catch: only one tax-free packageup of to $500 can be brought in every sixmonths, regardless of its value. In otherwords, you can’t bring in two $250 packagesand get the tax exemption on both of themwithin a six-month period.“EVEN if it’s only worth $100, youhave to wait six months,” Quesadaexplained, adding that incoming packagesare entered into the receiving office’s computersystem to keep track.However, no national cross-office registrationsystem is in place, he said. He didnot know when there would be more communicationbetween offices, and until then,he admitted, it may be possible to circumventthe law by sending packages toaddresses in different Customs jurisdictions.“If tomorrow you go to anotherCustoms office, we don’t have a way to seeit,” he explained.But Jeffrey Duchesneau, general managerof private shipping company Aerocasillas,said the General CustomsAdministration assured him they werekeeping centralized records.“What we’ve been told by Customs isthat once you get registered (for theexemption), your name is registered withinthe customs system. You are in the system,and they do keep track of you,” he said.“We’ve had no cases so far of anyonewho’s tried to beat the system.”THE tax break is part of general reformsto the country’s Customs system, accordingto Quesada, and is available to all personsordering from within Costa Rica.“It’s for anyone, students, foreigners,pensionados, rentistas,” Quesada said.The $500 maximum includes shippingcosts and insurance, and restrictions are thesame as for any imports. Medicines, plantand animal products, weapons and certainother products need permission from therespective government agency, accordingto Quesada, who added that Customs is notimposing a size limit on imported goods.Customs has a number of ways toassess the value of the package if thedeclared value seems dubious, Quesadaexplained.“Most times, depending on the product,we ask for an invoice,” he explained.“Some goods we can see are for personaluse, and are cheap, so we don’t ask for aninvoice. Most packages that come areclothes, games, and cosmetics.“We also have catalogues to compareand assess the value,” Quesada added.BEFORE the reforms, according toAerocasillas’ Duchesneau, Customsassessment was erratic.“Customs agents are in a good moodone day and let everything through, and thenext day they check everything,” he said.“This is the first time we have certaintythat your product is going to go through forfree.”Customs published the change in theofficial government newspaper La Gacetalast year and it went into effect in March,according to Aerocasillas MarketingDirector Johana Gabourel. She said it is theprivate shipping companies who are alertingthe public to the changes, because thefirms stand to benefit if customers takeadvantage of the tax break to import bigger-ticket items twice a year.“We are seeing an important effectbecause our clients are importing goods thatare worth more,” she explained, adding thatbefore they were afraid of the high importtaxes. Now, “It’s much cheaper for them.”ACCORDING to United ParcelService (UPS) Operations SupervisorAlonso Sánchez, however, the reform hasproduced both good and bad effects for privatecompanies like UPS.Though they don’t pay taxes, the package’srecipient must fill out a form specifyingthe package’s contents and value, andtake the form along with their identificationto the UPS office to collect the package,instead of having it delivered to them.“It bothers some customers becausethey don’t want to go to pick it up,”Sánchez said. “It’s a little more uncomfortablefor them.”Aerocasillas is attempting to avoidthis discomfort by offering to deal directlywith Customs; company representativeswill fill out the exemption forms andpick up the package, delivering directly toclients’ residences, if clients provide priorwritten authorization.Aerocasillas also offers a way to circumventthe law’s limitations; up to three peoplecan sign on to an Aerocasillas account, andeach is entitled to the exemption.“I can have my sister fill out the powerof attorney form and bring it in,”Duchesneau said, referring to Aerocasillas’requirement that customers provide authorizationso the company can pick up theirpackage from Customs without payingimport taxes.

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