Online ordering has its advantages and its pitfalls

Be it electronics, home appliances, clothing, books or a childish gadget for the apartment, importing from abroad to Costa Rica can be both a rewarding and challenging experience.

The variety of companies offering cargo services to buy online has increased in the last 15 years. Originally, the pioneering enterprises were Jetbox and Aerocasillas. Today, aside from those, customers may choose from Liberty Express, Skybox, Unibox, Starbox the state-run Box Correos and others who serve small local markets.

Most of them require that a customer open an account, choose a plan based on how often their services will be used and provide an address in Costa Rica where goods will be delivered.

Once the registration is over, the fun part begins. Here’s where buyers select items online, provide a personal postal box previously given by the company and then pay with a credit card.

When the merchandise arrives in the U.S. (usually Miami, Florida, sometimes Houston, Texas) it is shipped to Costa Rica. Then the customer must pay an extra shipping fee that will vary depending on weight and the packaging size of the items.

So far the reward part seems good enough to give this a try. However, there will likely be unexpected glitches in the process.

Probably the most common disappointment is the final cost of the purchase like when those fancy boots are declared a luxury because they were placed inside a huge box, or the price of that tiny electronic component skyrocketed because of special taxes.

That’s why most of the service carriers also provide calculators on their Web sites. These tools offer an estimate on the final cost of the products once taxes and shipping fees have been included.

Said Gabriela Apuy, marketing manager of Jetbox Costa Rica:

“Flat television sets pay up to 49 percent in taxes. Home appliances about 40 percent. Cell phones 13 percent and books 1 percent. There is no average, it all depends on the nature of the product.”

Another common setback happens when customers try to import food, drugs and beauty supplies. All of them are restricted items that need a special permit before being collected.

“When an item is retained by customs, the customer may either pay the company for the extra paperwork, or else go to the nearest customs office and follow the procedures,” Ms. Apuy said.

The country’s post office system (Correos de Costa Rica) has been diversifying in recent years and now claims it is easy to get packages from the U.S., and Correos will deliver them right to the door.

However, a local shipper said that Correo does not consolidate but rather charges a series of handling fees for each package going to the same customer. He calls them
fundamentally a courier service and expensive.

It is essential to take into consideration delivery times from the U.S. to Costa Rica, especially if  buying for a special occasion. Normally products will take from two to four business days after being shipped.

However, high demand and stricter controls may cause delays of up to three weeks.

Benito Coghi, the director general of the Servicio Nacional de Aduana, says purchases reach their peak during November and December. He also points out that many companies have been declaring merchandise incorrectly.

That has caused tougher controls and slower processes.

“Not all companies working out there have been properly registered with us,” Coghi said.
He said some companies go so far as to file irregular paperwork, something courts are mulling over as possible fraud.

Coghi’s advice is plain: “Make sure your company is properly registered.”

Another industry source warns consumers to stay away from shadow operations from individuals importing container loads of packages from the U.S. and offering lower prices because no taxes have been paid. He said:

“I know of several individuals who have lost thousands dollars of merchandise trying to save a buck with these shady operations. You really don’t save much if your package never arrives.”

But sometimes, delays are caused by simple misunderstandings. Such was the case with expat Carol Meeds of southern Limón province. She wrote A.M. Costa Rica complaining about how two packages from were confiscated by Costa Rican customs because officials weren’t familiar with peat cubes, which are used for planting. She said Aduana at first thought the cubes were some kind of medicine, then they thought there were seeds already inside the cubes.

She ended up paying extra fees and spent many frustrating weeks trying to convince Aduana that the peat cubes were just peat cubes. She said over the weekend that her shipment still had not arrived.

Despite the hassles, buying over the Internet is an exciting experience if an expat can afford it and stomach the potential downside, according to those in the business.

“These purchases are so popular because it’s like the entire world is your own store, and you can find anything, absolutely anything you want,” Ms. Apuy said.

The U.S. Government used this photo on a cover of a comprehensive manual on importing to Costa Rica.

The U.S. Government used this photo on a cover of a comprehensive manual on importing to Costa Rica.

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