New rule on driver’s license bars many expats

A.M. Costa Rica file graphics

The new traffic law prevents foreigners from obtaining a Costa Rican license until they have a residency cédula in hand.

This is another of those apparent unintended consequences of new legislation.

New expat Jerry Embry of San Isidro de El General found this out Thursday, and a detailed check of the new traffic law shows that his account is correct.

The legal change that just took effect means that persons who apply for residency cannot obtain a Costa Rican driver’s license until the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería gives them an official cédula. Embry said he found out that workers at the driver’s license bureau in La Uruca would not honor paperwork from immigration that says he already has applied as a pensionado.

The legislation also prevents so-called perpetual tourists from obtaining a local license.

Embry, who speaks Spanish, is the former chief mate on the research vessel JOIDES Resolution.

He retired in January.

Until now, a foreigner who had a valid driver’s license from his or her own country could obtain one in Costa Rica without the need to take a written exam or a driving test. Even foreigners in Costa Rica as tourists could obtain one.

Typically those who sought residency here would obtain a Costa Rican license quickly even before they filed paperwork with immigration.

Now an entire class of foreigners, those awaiting approval of their residency status, can either risk a significant fine for driving without a license or leave the country every 90 days to renew their tourism visa in order to keep their curent license valid. In the past, once an expat filed for residency he or she was free of the need to renew their tourism visa by travel.

Because of the weekend, traffic officials and lawmakers were not available to explain why they made the change.

The specific part of the new traffic law is under article 91 (b) iii, which establishes requirements. The section says that a foreigner soliciting a Costa Rican license by virtue of having one in his or her home country must have legal residency here. Presumably that could be pensionado, rentista or any one of the many residency types listed in the immigration law.

This was a condition that was not discussed in public during the two years when the new legislation was under study in the Asamblea Legislativa.

What is left unsaid is if foreigners who do not have residency will be able to renew the licenses that they already have acquired.

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