Should I bring a car seat to Costa Rica?

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One question we often get from parents planning a family trip to Costa Rica is what to do about car seats. Should they bring a travel car seat from home? Should they rent a car seat in Costa Rica?

There’s a lot to consider and some will depend on the ages of your kids and the details of your itinerary. Read on for the important details you need to know as you make your decision about taking car seats to Costa Rica!

What are car seat laws in Costa Rica?

A colorful Red-Eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas) sitting along a vine in its tropical setting.

Costa Rica does not have its own car seat design and testing standards, so seats that are approved in other countries like the US and Canada are fine to use. But Costa Rica car seat laws are much stricter than they are in the US. There have been reports of tourists getting ticketed for breaking the rules below, and tickets run $300-400.

Here are some basic Costa Rica car seat laws you need to know before you start considering whether to bring your travel car seat or rent a car seat:

-Babies in Costa Rica must rear-face until 1 year old in an infant car seat and be seated in the middle of the back seat provided you can install the car seat properly (otherwise on the passenger side); if you have multiple kids, the lightest one goes in the middle!

-Toddlers in Costa Rica should be in a forward-facing car seat until 4 years old (up to 40lbs or 43″), again ideally in the middle seat if there isn’t a younger child there (otherwise on the passenger side); it’s not clear if you are permitted to rear-face beyond 1 year old

-Children ages 4 to 6 must ride in a highback booster seat (up to 55lbs or 57″) – this is much stricter than in the US

-Children ages 6 to 12 must ride in a backless booster seat in the back seat as long as they’re under 57″ tall or 80 lbs – this is much stricter than in the US

-Car seats are not required in tour operator vehicles, though that doesn’t mean it’s safe to take your child without one.

I’ll be totally honest: I wish that the US would adopt the same car seat laws as Costa Rica. Sure, I’d love to have a higher minimum for rear-facing, but overall these laws are a lot safer than what’s required in my home state.

In addition to those car seat regulations for Costa Rica, there are a few more details you should keep in mind:

-You are unlikely to find LATCH consistently in cars in Costa Rica. If you do, consider yourself lucky! Know how to install your car seat with a seatbelt.

-Seatbelts in Costa Rica may not lock as they do in the US. I strongly recommend that you bring a locking clip and read this article to understand how to use it.

-A top tether anchor may not be available in your rental car or taxi. It’s safest to use one when available for a forward-facing car seat, but if your child is forward-facing make sure you bring a travel car seat that doesn’t require the top tether. Note that all Cosco car seats require a top tether for forward facing, so don’t bring one of these to Costa Rica!

Should you bring your car seat to Costa Rica?

Dirt road leading to the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica.

Renting a car seat is a hot topic. Many parents do it, but many also question whether or not it’s a safe choice. There are a lot of potential pitfalls that you should read about here. Our friend Jordan has visited Costa Rica several times with her kids and was shocked to see a stack of outdated-looking car seats sitting in a pile outside – in the humidity and direct sunlight. Not ideal conditions to ensure the longevity of life-saving foam and plastics!

Our take? When we go to Costa Rica with our kids, we will definitely bring our own car seats.

The nuances of Costa Rica’s car seat laws and the limited installation options should be a part of your decision on which car seats to bring to Costa Rica. Below are some good choices by age.

Under 1 year old

Your infant car seat from home will work just fine! Leave the base at home and learn how to install with a seatbelt and locking clip.

Toddlers 1-4 years old

Choose a lightweight car seat that can forward-face for a 1 year old, does not require a top tether and has side protection. Of course if you find a car that offers a top tether anchor, you should definitely use it!

I suspect that you can get away with rear-facing a child under 2 years old, though the law doesn’t specifically permit it. Rear facing also means you don’t have to worry about the top tether issue and you can grab one of these inexpensive Cosco travel car seats – and you could always just say that your child is 1 year old.

These travel car seats do not require a top tether:

Kids 4-6 years old

Bring a lightweight highback booster seat. The new hifold folding booster seat is an amazing choice for this age group! You can read my full review here.

Kids 6-12 years old

Bring a lightweight backless booster seat. For younger kids, the Bubblebum is a great choice (full review here). Older kids will have more room in the Graco Turbo GO.

Can you use the Ride Safer travel vest in Costa Rica? While the law is silent on vests, my reading is that you can’t legally use the Ride Safer vest in Costa Rica. That doesn’t mean it isn’t safe, but an overzealous police officer looking to give an expensive ticket to a tourist may feel differently. Use at your own risk!

Read more: Important info for traveling with car seats

I hope this has been a helpful guide to navigating the Costa Rica car seat rules! Please leave a comment below if you have any questions or experiences to share.

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