There are plenty of reasons to import a car or truck into Belize if you’re going to be spending any extended time there.
Renting vehicles is expensive. US$400 may get you an SUV for a week, but it may have 175,000 miles on it and you will feel every one of them on Belize’s roads.
Buying a used vehicle in Belize is more of a gamble than it is elsewhere. As everywhere, you just can’t know the history of the vehicle. Has it been driven Mario Andretti-style on Belize’s rocky and potholed roads? If so, the actual mileage may be deceiving.
The greater risk comes from a popular Belizean enterprise—importing salvage vehicles from the U.S., making them look pretty, and selling them based on their looks. This sounds like a paranoid fantasy, but our recent visit to the customs office in Corozal at the Mexican border demonstrated how widespread this practice is.
The parking lot was loaded with less than beautiful vehicles, towing others that were even less beautiful. It appears cars do not have to be running to be imported; their damaged condition drastically reduces the duty owed on them, and they can be sold at a hefty profit in Belize—likely doubling the importer’s money or more.
The above snapshot is a particularly horrific example of this—a Toyota pickup (very popular and in demand in Belize) with 135,000 miles on it.
Personally, I would only buy a new car in Belize, and only from a dealer. If you are buying a new car in Belize as a QRP (Qualified Retired Person), you save on sales tax as well as import duties. You can also bring in one car every three years, but only cars three years old or less qualify.
To bring your car into Belize permanently, you have to have a customs broker. The phone numbers you’ll find on the internet (google: customs brokers Belize) are guys that sit in their office and send their minions out to help you. We had great luck with one of them last year, and not such great luck this year with the same agent but different minion. Next time I would take potluck, looking to find a customs broker I could trust, as a 25-year expat we met at customs recommended. This expat only had to show up when it was time to pay and collect his items, the broker did the rest.
Both at the immigration booth before customs, and as you arrive at the huge customs hall building, many customs brokers will approach you. Take your pick. The one we used charged BZ$75 (US$37.50) both times we needed to make use of their services; I heard other folks mentioning BZ$100 (US$50) as the fee for clearing a car alone (without contents, which are also subject to duty).
The timing of your visit can determine how long you wait—which can, in the worst case, be all day, or even overnight. Both times I did it, I had driven down from California through Mexico and arrived to the Belize border at 10:30 a.m. Belize time (the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is an hour ahead of Belize, at least in the winter) and did not escape until 5 p.m.
We did see several people who had arrived before us finish by early afternoon, but the bulk of people arriving were only allowed to leave after inspections of their vehicles’ cargo, which took place between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., office closing time.
The customs inspections at the cargo department, which are mandatory if you’re bringing your car to stay in Belize, operate 9–5 Monday through Friday. Mondays are the worst day, as that’s the day imported vegetables are also processed. The day after a holiday, such as the five days around Christmas, are also likely to have longer waits.
If you arrive too late in the day, your processing will not get done that day. There are no facilities other than a rudimentary toilet (no paper, no seat) by the customs hall, so you would have to rent a car or get a taxi to find a hotel. (Chetumal, on the Mexican side, can sell out during holiday periods. We got the last room available online arriving at 3 p.m. on December 28.) Arriving first thing in the morning might allow you to get out by early afternoon. Otherwise, it appeared that those who arrived in late morning or early afternoon all had to wait until 5 p.m.
Although it was possible last year to have the vehicle and cargo inspected and taxed in one step, that no longer seems possible. That means your customs agent stands in line with everyone else to get the papers on your car, and then repeats the process with your cargo.
Duty on importing cars into Belize is substantial, from 33% for four-cylinder pickup trucks (the least expensive category) to 66% for a four-cylinder car to 77% for six-cylinder vehicles. The priciest category is for elegant eight-cylinder SUVs, a rich man’s vehicle in Belize. That duty is based on what the customs officials determine is the blue book of your vehicle. The lower the blue book, the lower your duty.
Here’s one way that playing the game will save you big bucks. After your agent has done his initial action with the bureaucrats behind the two doors at the end of the customs hall, you will be called in to answer questions of a customs official. “What’s wrong with the car?” he will ask you. Our car was not a wreck or a salvage, and we were painfully honest. I would suggest you dramatize every little thing that could possibly be considered a defect of the car.
For the second time in two trips, once with a Toyota pickup and once again with my Honda Element, our suspension that was repaired/replaced just before leaving California developed clunking noises on the trip through Mexico, indicating it was loose or had failed. We could have emphasized that much more and saved ourselves some money, but we didn’t think of it. Your customs agent will have looked at the car and entered some details like “minor dings and scratches.” I recommend emphasizing every single one of these.
Your customs man will then decide on the blue book value of your car and give you an officially stamped paper to that effect. That’s the starting point of negotiations. Your customs broker will ask if you want him to get a better price. We were asked this at two points during the day; we said yes, and each time he came back with a better price. The total saved was about US$500. Seeking the best deal may have cost us a lot of time, however; the agent told us he had to wait a quite a while for one of the officials he bargained with to return to the office.
Once that step’s completed and your agent obtains your “exit,” then the fun begins for the goods inside the car. Duty on most imported items runs about 30%. We paid BZ$600 on BZ$1700 worth of goods, because I was foolish enough to give them a complete list.
If you provide a list of what’s in the car, the evaluation will most likely be based on that. It’s up to you to estimate the value of the item. As far as I’m concerned, that could be the value you’d get at an emergency “everything goes” moving sale, not the purchase or replacement value. If I did it again, I would craft my list more carefully.
For example, I would list one of each item, no matter how many I was bringing. We had two sets of three sconces each. I wrote down two sets of three sconces each. I could easily have declared one or two wall lamps, and whichever one was inspected would be the one on the list.
There will be an inspection of your goods, but it will probably be cursory, probably just before closing time. The officer pointed to a bright yellow carpenter’s planer and asked me what it was. It was on the list, we were good. We had to open a bike which was in a box. She wanted to know what kind of bike it was.
My husband had stuffed all kinds of other things in the bike box to save space. Among those things was a printer still in a box that had somehow not made it on the list. The agent turned her back, and the printer disappeared to an already inspected area of the car.
You can pay your duty with a credit card or cash.
Islands in Belize are known as cayes (pronounced “keys”). They number around 450, including those on the outer atolls, and run for 300 kms off the Belizean coast, forming part of the Belize barrier reef.
The Belize barrier reef is part of the Mesoamerican reef that runs for 900 kms along the coast of the Yucatán peninsula. The reef was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 for its natural beauty and for being home to many endangered species. It is the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere and the second largest in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Like any reef system, it is vulnerable to climate change and pollution, and though it’s located in a sparsely populated area where the effects of human action are less than in other parts of the world, the reef was placed on UNESCO’s “in danger” list in 2009 due to excessive cutting of mangrove forests in the area.
Once you’re finally free from customs, you have one more stop to make—you have to purchase Belizean liability insurance (comprehensive is only available on cars eight years old or less, according to my insurance agent). There is one agent in a white building on the right just as you leave customs. He’s an agent of ICB, which is one of the insurance companies in Belize. You can purchase a week’s worth or a whole year’s worth from him, whatever works for you.
Although you have miles of Belizean roads to go before you sleep (unless you live in Corozal), resist the temptation to skip the insurance purchase. Both times that my husband David has exited customs, police officers checking for insurance were stationed just down the road.
The agent at customs was out of the stickers that belong in the left hand corner of the windshield. He told us we could show the papers he gave us to the police if we were stopped. We were stopped, we did as we were told, and we were soon on our way.
If you are not planning on staying in Belize long-term, you can opt to obtain a temporary import permit for a vehicle. Instead of having to pay duty on your vehicle, you can pay a small bond, which is stamped into your passport and valid for one month. This option is available at the borders 24/7.
To have the bond stamp removed/canceled from your passport, the vehicle has to leave the country within the 30-day timeframe or be officially imported.
The bond can be extended for up to six months, but to do this, you must go to the main customs department in Belize City Port.