Should You Import Your Car With You To Belize?
Ordinarily, we recommend not shipping your vehicle with you when you make a move overseas.
Why might Belize be an exception to this rule?
The answer is a combination of the tax structure in Belize, its proximity to the United States, the nature of public transportation here, and the condition of what passes for roads in this tropical, English-speaking paradise just south of Mexico’s Yucatán.
Belize is a small country with a small population (320,000 in an area the size of Massachusetts), the majority of which works for US$30 to US$40 per day. That’s not a very big pool for a small, new (Belize gained independence from Britain in 1981), and underfunded government to extract taxes from.
Worker’s compensation for a full-time worker is less than US$4 per day, and property taxes are generally in the neighborhood of about US$25 per year.
One of the ways the Belizean government funds itself is through import duties, which are as much as 50% to 70% on some items. A sliding scale is used to figure import duty for vehicles brought into the country, with four-cylinder pickup trucks charged 20% and luxury six- and eight-cylinder SUVs paying the maximum amount.
Sales tax of 12.5% and environmental tax of 2% are also added to the tab. A vehicle’s valuation is based on the Kelley Blue Book value.
These are the official rules. Like everything in Belize, however, they’re open to interpretation. Hiring a customs broker at the border allowed us to bring in a 2008 Toyota pickup truck paying US$900 in duty; we had expected to pay US$3,000 to US$5,000. The broker was easy to find on the Internet and well worth the 75 Belizean dollars (US$37.50) we paid him.
The tax on what Belize considers luxury vehicles—SUVs, for example—is not the only reason to reconsider your plans to bring a luxury car into Belize. You won’t find a dealer here, the import duty also applies to parts, and roads worthy of your vehicle are few and far between.
Import duties are reflected in the prices of cars for sale in Belize. I recently priced a clean-looking Honda Element, for example. It’s a rugged, relatively fuel-efficient little vehicle with lots of cargo space and high clearance—a good car for these roads. It was a 2004 with 122,000 miles on it. The asking price was 19,000 Belizean dollars (US$9,500).
Kelley Blue Book values the car at around US$5,500, and that’s assuming it’s in good condition. It’s doubtful any car driven on Belize roads would be.
I don’t know how negotiable the price may have been. It was set so dauntingly high to start with that I didn’t inquire. Someone paid the duty to import that car once upon a time, and it seemed to me from the pricing that that someone was trying to recover nearly the entire duty amount on this sale, 122,000 miles later.
Avoid The Import Tax As A QRP
It is possible to avoid Belizean taxes when importing a vehicle into the country by becoming a Qualified Retired Person (QRP). One of the benefits of the retiree residency program is the ability to import your car into the country with you duty free.
In fact, after you’ve been approved as a QRP, you can import one car (three years old or less), one boat, and one airplane every three years. And, in fact, you can take advantage of this tax exemption even if you decide to purchase a car in Belize (rather than bringing one with you), as long as the car is three years old or less.
In addition to the astronomical pricing of vehicles offered for sale, buying a car in Belize also means rolling the dice on what you’re getting. You know it’s been driven rough—there’s no other way to drive on these roads. It’s hard to tell how well a car or truck has been maintained, and there’s no required government inspection of vehicles, period.
A friend informed me that it’s common practice to buy salvaged vehicles in the United States, drive them the 1,500 miles from Brownsville, Texas, beautify them in Belize, and then sell them off as nearly-new, with no disclosure of their history. The U.S. practice of marking such vehicles as “salvage” on their title does not exist in Belize.
Of course, it is possible to buy a new car here from a reputable dealer and get the same warranty as in the United States, knowing you’ll be making good use of the warranty. Just be prepared—financing does not exist. It’s cash or nothing.
Highways And Byways
Belize has four main, paved highways: the Western Highway (officially George Price Highway), the Northern Highway (officially Philip Goldson Highway), the Southern Highway, and the Hummingbird Highway, said to be the country’s most beautiful, which winds through mountains en route to the southern coast and connects the Western and Southern highways.
These two-lane roads feature adequate paving for most of their lengths, and it’s possible to go 50 to 60 miles per hour on them.
Some roads in town are also paved. Good paving graces the main roads of Spanish Lookout, the Mennonite settlement in Cayo District and the commercial center of the country. A two- to four-lane bypass around its regional neighbors Santa Elena and San Ignacio is in progress and partially completed. The road all the way down the Placencia Peninsula has recently been paved.
Beyond these, the paved and unpaved roads are a patchwork of potholes. When they’re not paved, roads are studded by rocks. You no longer have to save your quarters for the vibrating bed in your motel room—these roads will vibrate the fillings out of your teeth.
The Cayes: No Car, No Problem
Alternatives to owning a vehicle are few in Belize. The exceptions are Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, where cars are not allowed. Living on either of these little Caribbean islands, you can depend on your bicycle or your own two feet to get around, which is very doable, or you can purchase a golf cart. Be aware that parts and maintenance for these are significantly more expensive than for a car, making those bicycles even more interesting.
Public transportation in Belize exists in the form of resurrected American school buses (with no air conditioning) and taxis. A backpacker I met at an eco-lodge found these buses to be an efficient mode of transport. Luxury-style, air-conditioned buses connect Belize with neighboring Guatemala.
Drive Yourself To Belize
The proximity to the United States makes driving or transporting your own vehicle to Belize worth considering. For US$2,400 to US$4,000 you can have your vehicle shipped to Belize City, sometimes including the customs brokering.
Driving through Mexico is also an option. My husband David did this in December 2015; the drive took three full days from Brownsville, Texas. Stay safe by sticking to toll roads.
Toyotas are well regarded in Belize, and pickup trucks of any kind are useful for hauling not only building and agricultural materials but also whole soccer teams of kids. My husband had two offers for his truck between the Mexican border at Chetumal and our home in Cayo.
Another factor to consider in selecting a vehicle is the price of gas. It’s currently 9.85 Belizean dollars (about US$5) per gallon. For 2,200 to 2,600 Belizean dollars, you can have your gas-powered vehicle converted to butane, which sells for about US$4 per gallon. This conversion would pay for itself in about nine months, depending on the amount of gas used per week.
One Final Tip
I don’t recommend driving at night in Belize. Major junctions tend to be marked with just one small sign. At night they’re hard to read and easy to miss.
I recently drove alone from Placencia on the coast to my home in Cayo, well after sunset. It was an adrenalin-raising experience I’m not eager to repeat. Hummingbird Highway is particularly winding and hilly, breathtaking in the daytime but a test of anyone’s night vision in the darkness. It has no center line markings and driving it you cross a half-dozen single-lane bridges, most with poor signage.
For In Focus: Belize