Much of the information here is from either a) somebody who did do it, or b) someone who should know (like the tax office). YMMV.
I do not recommend that you do this. Just buy a car here.
Prices are as of summer 1995 except as noted.
There is an old story about somebody who shipped a car here with all of his personal belongings in it, and the car was empty when it arrived. One of the companies explicitly forbids leaving stuff in the car, another claims they will charge you $285 per item in the car, and I was told by mine that it should be empty. Be careful and keep records (and photos) in any case.
Miscellaneous general requirements:
The shippers will presumably tell you the rest of the rules when you call them. You need a lot more paper work to bring a car to the states from Puerto Rico than the other way around, some of which has to be done at the last minute.
There are several issues in bringing a car to Puerto Rico:
Basically, you call a company and have them do it. There are two basic ways to go: You can drive your car to the dock (either Jacksonville FL or Elizabeth NJ) and use one of the big shipping companies to get it to the dock in San Juan, or you can use a more general shipping company that does a point-to-point move where they pick up your car wherever it is, truck it to the port, and ship it. It will probably still end up at the dock in San Juan, however.
The Observatory hasn't done this in years, but you may be able to do it this way yourself.
Capitol Transport will arrange for shipping your car if you are also shipping household goods. If you're being moved by the Observatory, this is the way to go. They shipped mine, and it worked OK. They may well simply use another service to do it. One advantage was that they were willing to do the paper (and leg) work to pay the import tax, and also delivered the car to the Observatory. They charged a 10% fee for those services, which was more than worthwhile in my case (it came to about $80 extra). If the tax comes out to be large though, you may well feel differently. It takes them a while to get around to things, too (welcome to Puerto Rico). When the car arrives at the observatory, you must pay the delivery person in cash the tax (minimum USD750.00) + about $40 for injury liability insurance ("ACAA") + $99 for property damage liability ("Seguro Obligatorio") + 10%. Make sure you find out what that will add up to ahead of time. Keep all of your receipts, as you will need them again to register your car.
What happened was: North American Van Lines came to my house, had me fill out some paperwork, and drove my car away. They told me it would have about 30 extra miles on it (the distance to their warehouse), and that was about what happened. After some time and many phone calls, it arrived at the Observatory, I handed the man a large pile of cash (exact change), filled out more paperwork, and he gave me the keys. The antenna was mysteriously bent, but no other evident harm was done.
It's possible you can get them to register it here too. If you can, do. That process took me 23.5 hours and I was fairly pushy about it.
I received a report and updated some information in Feb 2000. The information he provided was qualitatively similar to my experience, though took much less time.
I have heard various things about the following companies, but I have no first hand experience with any of them.
The large shippers with their own boats that do dock-to-dock shipping are:
Crowley Maritime Corporation (updated 3/2012)Phone: 1-800-276-9539 (1-800-CROWLEY) Web site for auto shipments
A reader gave the following testimonial on 1998 June 24 (used by permission, phone numbers may be out-of-date):
[referring to another shipping company] .... This company, like others, transports their merchandise through Crowley American, with ports in the PA/NJ area [Pennsauken NJ and Jacksonville, FL -- ed.]. Since I had transported my previous car from P.R. using Crowley, and the fee three years ago was significantly less, I decided to contact them at one of their NJ offices, tel. (609)966-5800. Well, guess what? Their fees were $800-900.00 ! Basically the same price it cost me to transport my car three years ago.
From a company representative: "Horizon Lines has multiple sailings to and from the US mainland to PR each week". [Horizon Lines was formerly the US domestic part of Sea-Land, which was bought by CSX, formerly known as Chessie Systems, formerly known as the C&O and B&O railways, as seen on your Monopoly board.]
A TrailerBridge representative told me that TrailerBridge sails only between Jacksonville and San Juan, and gave a web reference that points directly to the relevant information (prices, instructions, etc.). The rate listed on that page as of March 2011 was $860 for a vehicle less than 900 cubic feet plus a fuel surcharge of $135 plus about $50-$100 in miscellaneous fees. The fuel surcharge presumably varies.
They also ship containers, and apparently will truck and ship the container from a number of other locations.
Sea Star bought Navieras de Puerto Rico (the original government-sponsored shipping company) in 2002/2003, and ships from Jacksonville and Port Everglades, Florida. They have a web page with rates and shipping information.
There are a number of other shippers that are more specialized and do point-to-point or otherwise less usual service. Most of these use the same big shippers to get it across the ocean, but they do more of the arrangements:
June 2011: A-1 Auto Transport contacted me. Their web site indicates that they do nationwide point-to-point transfers (not just from the dock) of vehicles and household goods.
August 2011: All Day Auto Transport contacted me, and appears to specialize in auto transportation. (877) 808-0213 toll-free, +1 954 752 3021 direct. They are a broker that arranges point-to-point shipping rather than a shipping company that does dock-to-dock.
July 1996: Blue Water Maritime contacted me and mentioned that they also handle automobile (and other) imports to Puerto Rico. I know nothing about them except what is on their home page. They also provided information about the tax system that I found useful, as it is otherwise a black box.
Capitol Transport told me they would arrange shipment if I was also moving household goods. It sounded like it would be cheaper and easier if I drove the car to the port, rather than having it picked up, but I got no prices. Since the port was 1500 miles away, it may only have been easier from his point of view.
La Flor de Mayo
(787) 780-5775 (San Juan), lots of other numbers listed on their web page.
September 1996: A reader suggested two other general moving companies: "La Flor de Mayo" and "La Rosa del Monte" that ship cars to/from Chicago, New York, Florida, Ohio, California, Texas, Boston, and New Jersey. He suggested that these are the companies that "commuting" Puerto Ricans use, as they are less expensive than some of the others. I have no experience with them either, except seeing their trucks driving about the island.
Shipoverseas web page describes the process pretty well. +1 888 805 4994, +1 858 547 0840.
Allied Transport Services
There's a voyage search engine that you might find useful.
One alternative scheme was mentioned: You can have a whole container shipped, and put the car (!) and the rest of your belongings in the container. This was rumored to be cheaper than having it done separately if you have a lot of stuff.
OK, so now it's in San Juan. You have to pay an import excise tax. The office is the Seccion Arbitrios Vehiculos de Motor. Apparently the current (October 2005) phone number is 787-774-1474, (In 2000, it was that number plus extension 211). If you can get a hold of them, they should be able to tell you exactly what the tax will be, given the make and model of the car. You probably need to ask them in Spanish. Don't forget to tell them 2/4 door, standard/automatic transmission, but they may be able to do it with a VIN. The last time Edith asked them, they wanted a fax of the title to give a price. Paying the duty is reported to be an all-day (or multi-day) activity, which is why I thought paying Capitol Transport $80 to do it was a fine idea; but again, how much you pay depends on how much the tax is.
Update 2006 Feb 15: Hacienda has a web site that will estimate the tax, both in English and in Spanish (web addresses as of July 2007). I do not vouch for anything about it, but it exists for the moment. One vehicle I checked was $3000 cheaper for a dealer than for a private party.
Note that the import tax on some kinds of cars is incredible: the minimum is USD850, a 5-year-old Nissan Pathfinder was $5000, and a 1998 VW Passat was $5000, cashier's check for the exact amount only, please. Be Careful.
"Shipping the vehicle back is no picnic, either, although it costs a bit less. In March of 2003, it's costing me just over $800 total for insurance and to ship the truck back to Jacksonville, FL from San Juan, PR, also using SeaStar. The bureaucratic steps to get the vehicle back are almost as complicated as the ones to bring it in, needing multiple trips to multiple offices with waits in long lines."
As I see the rules, they are in fact more complicated than when you bring it in, complicated by the fact that they have to be done at the last minute when you're probably trying to move yourself.
If your are ordered here by the military (including coast guard), you may be exempt from the import tax under some circumstances. You should investigate this possibility as soon as you receive your orders, as there seems to be a limited amount of time from that date (rather than your arrival date) to get the car imported and paperwork completed. I will happily add any information about this process if anybody can send it to me.
The motor vehicles bureau now has a web page that can do things like show you outstanding tickets on a car you're considering buying. This information is mysteriously only in English (it used to be available in either Spanish or English). 2007 July: The web page has been reorganized, and it appears to now only be in Spanish.
To get Puerto Rican plates, you have to go to the motor vehicles office. You might try to find the person you pay to do it ("gestores", maybe ask one of the "doctor/lawyer/photo" guys), though some people consider them unsavory (I don't know). There may be an advantage to going to an office other than the one in Arecibo: People have recommended the Ramey office or the Hatillo office. Note also that the procedure could be completely different from what I describe (it has now been quite a while since I've done it). The Arecibo office is new, and they may still be working the scheme out. One big advantage: the Arecibo office is air-conditioned, which helps a lot if you're standing in line a long time. Apparently many of the small offices have closed over the last few years.
The main problems are that
You need to go to the "problems" desk, so that most people have long and involved things to do involving calling various offices. Your task (transferring an out-of-state title) doesn't take long at all, but everybody else has a pile of notarized forms, has been back several times, and is in a really bad mood.
The people in the office can't take money. All money is paid at the colecturía down the hall, so people are constantly having to go there and get more stamps and pay bills, then get back in line. Oh, and the colecturía closes an hour before the rest of the office. The joy of the relics of a colonial economy.
They have to do everything both on the computer and on paper. So having the computer just makes it take longer.
There aren't nearly enough people, and they vary in diligence.
The Arecibo office is in the new building on Rt. 129 just south of where it hits 651 (if you take the "Hacia 22" cutoff left on the way to Arecibo on 651, it's right in front of you). The Ramey office is on the way to the Aguadilla Airport. There are centers in some other places as well. The Department of Transportation has a web page that may help you find the locations and hours. Look under "servicios" and then "CESCO" to find the offices. Look under "servicios" then "Cameras en Linea" for the webcam showing the line. It's not the picture at the top, you need to click the link at the bottom. Note that the times listed are for the DoT office, not the line where you pay, which is in the same building, but with different (generally shorter) hours.
July 2007: The web page now claims that the hours for the colecturía in Arecibo are now the same as for the DoT! Will wonders never cease.
You need the title, an inspection certificate, an ID, perhaps a Social Security Card (they like to see the actual card a lot in Puerto Rico, so try to find the one you lost 30 years ago or get a new one: there are a lot of things you can't get without it), the various forms they gave you when they imported your car (mainly the one saying you paid ACAA), about $180 cash, and a lot of patience. If you are missing any of those things, go back another day. It might help to have photocopies of your ID and SS card.
As you enter, there's an information desk, with the only information person in the world who doesn't speak English. Just to the left of her his or her desk is a locked door, behind which sit the people you need to talk to. The procedure is that you stand in line in front of the door. Every few hours, they come out and hand out numbers. I won't swear to it, but I think they took everybody who had a number. About 2PM, they told the remaining people waiting for numbers to forget it and go home. They also give a different kind of number for people who are there for Handicapped stickers. I arrived at 9AM. I got a number at about 11. They called it about 4. But it was too late for me, since the colecturía closes at 4, so I couldn't pay. But eventually they call you and do your registration. You need a $10 stamp for the form, though I don't think you lose anything by not having it as you enter. I'm not sure though, and it doesn't hurt. The colecturía (where you buy the stamps) doesn't take long (unless it's the end of the month), and it's in the same building.
They ask you a bunch of questions and fill out the form on the computer. I had a paper form filled out, but I don't know if that was really necessary or not. Then they give you a note that you bring to the colecturía (down the hall) to pay your registration fee ("marbete"==tag). Then you go back with the receipt and a stamp (unless you had it before), and they give you your plate, registration, a title, and a validation sticker that goes on your windshield (not on the plate). Note that separate titles are a relatively new thing, so it's not necessarily a problem if a used car you're buying doesn't have one. I don't know when the cutoff was. All new cars have titles, and I think the registration (which is always required) indicates whether the car has a separate title or not.
So my recommended procedure for the Arecibo office is:
Don't do at the beginning or end of the month. Then, everybody's renewing their marbetes, so the lines for everything are much longer.
Arrive by 7:15 AM at the latest. The 15 minutes it takes now saves you hours later. Though it might be OK (or even better) to come later if you can:
Find somebody who will stand in line for you and pay them. This person was in front of me in line, I eventually realized. He didn't get in any earlier, but he got 10 registrations done in about 20 minutes, where one had taken up to 1.5 hours for other people. There were two factors:
They were actually doing the task.
He knew how it worked, and had everything done properly beforehand: all the right stamps and papers, copies of everybody's ID, and a runner to go get the bills paid.
If that fails, then get in line in front of the door to the left of the information desk. About 7:30 (or a little later), they'll come out and decide who gets numbers. Hopefully you will rate. Unless you get really lucky and they call it right away, you might go over to the colecturía and get a $10 stamp ("sello") (and check, the price has probably gone up). The colecturía doesn't open until about 8, though. You need the same kind of stamp for a driver's license too, so it won't go to waste. Note: Once your number is permitted into the office (which is well before you are actually called unless you are really first), you are entitled to get back in if you leave. You may have to wait until somebody comes out so they open the door, and be pretty pushy. First thing in the morning, people don't realize the scheme yet and may glare at you, but it's OK. really. If you push in before your number is permitted in, you'll be sent out again. The people inside will probably realize that you are supposed to be there since they let you in in the first place.
Then, go see the information lady, who may be able to give you the forms. If the information lady arrives before the door opens, or you can bring a friend to stand in the other line, great; but it's more important to be in line at the door. If they ask you if you've seen the lady, say yes, and show them what you want.
You probably have time to get a driver's license while you wait. Get the forms from the lady, or from a "medico/photo/notario/abogado" guy (who quite likely speaks English) out front. Aug 2011: You now need a lot of stuff for a drivers license: a recently issued birth certificate or a valid passport, a utility bill showing where you live, your actual Social Security card or a W-2 with your SS# on it, probably some more things.
Update 1997 September 9: Sixto went and changed his registration from "carga" to personal vehicle in order to pay the lower non-commercial insurance rate. This involved much the same process as I described above. He says it took only two hours, though. Either they've gotten the bugs worked out or he was extremely lucky.
2003 February: I went and had my wife's SUV changed from a "carga" to personal vehicle: it was renewal time, and the renewal hadn't yet come in the mail, so I had to go anyway. I walked in as it opened (about 7:30). I stood in the "obras publicas" line, and after a few minutes, they told me to go to the inspection office. There, a man told me to go buy a $10 "comprobante" with a specific 4-digit code from the colecturía. I got that, brought it back, and moved my car to the inspection spot. A man made sure that all of the VINs matched, and wrote that he thought I was legitimately changing the car from commercial to non-commercial. He then lent me a screwdriver to remove the old license plate. Then back to obras publicas, where I was told I needed my wife's drivers license. I went and got that, went back, one more time in line at obras publicas, where they handed me my new plate, registration (with one day of validity) and the updated renewal form. Back to the colecturía to renew the marbete, and all is well. Total elapsed time: less than three hours, including 45 minutes to drive home to get the drivers license.
As that last paragraph suggests, things have changed a bit. A lot of things that used to be done at obras publicas are now done at the colecturía, so the obras publicas line isn't too bad now, but the colecturía line is often quite long.
Renewing your registration (marbete) is much easier. It's best to do it in the middle of the month because the line gets pretty long the last day, and in the beginning of the month everybody just got paid and has money. Before you renew, you need to get an inspection certificate. You used to do this after the marbete, but now (1996 March) it's before.
If your car has gotten any tickets ("multas") then you will have to pay the fines before you can renew your registration. If you buy a car, you (the buyer) are responsible to pay any unpaid tickets.
Motor vehicles should mail you your renewal form in plenty of time. If it doesn't, you go to Obras Publicas (the longer line where you get your drivers license) and it's not a big deal. You go a colecturía with the form, the inspection certificate, and the fee (which should be listed on the form, and is probably $160-180) in cash (they also accept some ATM cards, but mine didn't work). Go in the middle of the month, to avoid lines. Jo Ann Eder says the old Arecibo colecturía has no lines anymore, even on the last day of the month. The new one was certainly fine (pleasant, even) when I went, but is probably a zoo at the end of the month.
Many banks and some inspection stations will sell you your marbete so that you can avoid the line at the colecturía. It costs a few (typically 5) dollars extra. I don't think you can do it if you have any fines to pay.
They will take your paperwork and money, stamp and staple a lot, and hand you back your copy of the registration and your marbete (sticker), stapled to the registration of course.
You need to get your car inspected annually before you renew your registration. Ask around for a good place to go. They're generally old service stations. There's one popular place off Rte 129, a bit coast-ward from the 134 turnoff to the observatory. It's on a marginal road on the west side. It costs $11 and takes 10 minutes total. You're supposed to have your registration renewal form when you go, but they happily accepted the old one, and the people at the colecturía happily dealt with the result. If you're getting inspected for the first time (before you have the registration transferred from the states), they will want to see your current (stateside) registration.
Note March 1998: The inspection stations have all been renovated, and now check your alignment (sometimes) and emissions. It takes a bit longer than it used to (so the lines are longer), and there is now a substantial likelihood of failure (greater than nil, unlike before).
There are plenty of other places, and they have signs.
I reiterate that this isn't legal advice, and I may be completely wrong (I hope not).
Your registration (and your initial import permit) comes with medical liability insurance called "ACAA". It's the normal Puerto Rico scheme, and apparently there is no other kind of accident medical insurance available. You pay for it explicitly, and somewhere you should have a receipt for it.
Addendum March 1996: When I got my property damage liability insurance, I also got personal injury liability, so I guess it does exist. ACAA may be more akin to "medical payments" in the states, but I really don't know.
As of 1998, there is a mandatory $3000 property damage liability insurance that costs $99 for a personal vehicle and is charged along with your registration and ACAA. In principle, there will be a way to have private insurance cover this without paying the $99, but nobody knows how it will work yet. Ask about it if you get private insurance. March 1999: A new arrival just got private insurance on his new car, and they just deducted the $99 from his rate. I assume the amount is prorated, but I don't know (his car had a marbete from the current month).
Property damage insurance is available from private insurers.
On 1996 March 26, I went to Nationwide Insurance and got insurance. I only chose them because it was convenient. I did no research.
The Nationwide office is just off of Rte 2, a few blocks west of the intersection with 129 (just east of the old rum plant). It's on the inland side of the street, and has a sign. The actual office is on the side street, and you can park behind the building. November 2001: It's gone now.
The man was happy to sell me insurance, spoke English (after saying "only a little"), and it took about half an hour. He wanted to see my driver's license and registration, and told me I should get a new license (it was still my Arizona one). He took photos of the car, so you may need it (the car) when you go.
He wanted to sell me the minimum insurance possible, I had to argue a bit to get more. He didn't understand why I wanted it, but gave in. It cost $296/12 months for 50/100/50 for an unmarried male over 25 driving more than 10 miles to/from work or school. He wanted me to have 25/50/25, which would have saved maybe $10 (I only checked changing the last 25 to 50, and that was $3). He had to type my name in about 3 times, and got each one different until I made him fix it. I have no idea which ones mattered, but I suspect it may be important.
In principle you shouldn't need bodily injury liability or medical payments if you've paid your ACAA, but people seemed to think liability was a good idea. At least one person has had his insurance pay a fairly substantial claim against his bodily injury policy.
They expect you will want to pay in 4 installments, but are happy enough to get it in one. They took a check, though the guy in front of me paid cash. I had to ask for a copy of the binder. He said they'd send the policy in about 10 days. We'll see.
Mid-april 1996:I did in fact get the policy (actually just the "declarations page") only a little later than they said. It turns out that it has medical payments ("Gastos Medicos") as well, so the whole thing is a bit mysterious. I have no interest in learning enough about the legal system to know if this makes any sense, so I'll pay the $5 for the medical payments insurance.
June 1998: My insurance company was unable to give me a consistent answer as to how to deal with the new law, so I canceled my private insurance. By now they've probably gotten it figured out, though.
April 2003: Nationwide is no longer in Puerto Rico, at least not under that name. The office where I went still sells insurance, but is now called CAICO (Caribbean (something) Insurance (something)).
July 2007: I got insurance again from Seguros Multiples, but I never got a renewal notice, so I think it has expired.
Last modified: Thu Mar 01 11:45:31 AST 2012