Once you move down to Costa Rica and things like location, housing and job are all determined, your attention will turn to the more mundane – like banking.
In fact, setting up a Costa Rican bank account will probably be on your radar after you use the ATM several times and get charged exorbitant foreign ATM fees.
Costa Rica does have a fantastic and modern banking system, accessible to the foreigner, long-term resident, and Tico alike.
Here are some tips and best practices for banking in Costa Rica:
Costa Rica offers a host of options when it comes to safely parking and managing your money. These include:
• 1 central bank (Banco Central de Costa Rica)
• 3 state-owned commercial banks
• 12 private commercial banks
• 1 workers’ bank
• 1 state-owned mortgage bank
• 3 mutual house-building companies
• 9 private finance companies
• 28 savings and loans cooperatives
In addition, there are 2 money exchange houses, 30 investment and retirement funds or trusts run by both state and private commercial banks and the state insurance company. All of these banks and financial institutions offer services to foreigners, whether they’re residents, students or have work visas.
When you first move to Costa Rica, the biggest decision you’ll have when opening a bank account is whether to do so at a private bank or the Costa Rica state bank. There are pros and cons to each: The state-owned banks like Banco Nacional and Banco Costa Rica offer the most branches and many more ATM locations, as well as guaranteeing all deposits.
However, you’ll find some seriously long lines when you visit these banks. Fridays closest to the 15th and 31st or 1st of the month can be nightmares with crowds and long lines trying to cash their paychecks. December is typically swamped as well as around any holiday!
The private banks, like the Canadian-owned Scotiabank, may have far less branches and ATMs, but are big on service, with less waiting times, better educated and accommodating staff, and English speakers.
However, private banks don’t typically offer deposit insurance. They’ll also carefully scrutinize your corporation and its dealings if you open up a bank account for any business.
No matter which bank you choose (or both!), the majority of these banks allow you to open up accounts and make transactions in colones, dollars, or even euros in some cases.
What do you need to open an account?
Whether you’ve chosen a state-run or private bank to open an account, there are a number of guidelines:
If you’re not a Costa Rican resident, you’ll need to show your passport. Bring a second form of credible ID, like your driver’s license, too.
2. Minimum Deposit
The minimum deposit will depend on the type of account, but you’ll need to deposit at least 5,000 CRC or $25 for savings accounts or $500- $1,000 for checking accounts.
3. Utility Bill
Bring a copy of one of your utility bills to prove your address in Costa Rica.
4. Proof of Income
If you get paid a salary, you’ll be asked to provide your orden patronal, while independent workers should show a Certification of Income (Certificacion de Ingresos), which is prepared by a CPA and includes your name, occupation, and monthly or yearly income.
5. Purpose in Costa Rica
Some banks may require retired Costa Rican residents to show their ID card or official document from immigration or your attorney showing that you’re in the process of becoming a resident. If you’re a student, bring a letter from your school stating your purpose to study in Costa Rica. Foreign workers should have their orden patronal or La Caja.
6. U.S. Tax Forms
A recently enacted policy called Conozca a Su Cliente (Know Your Client), Mandates that banks report certain things for transactions about $10,000 to help prevent money laundering. U.S. citizens will be asked to fill out tax forms and other documents to alert the IRS to the presence of these offshore bank accounts.
7. Letters of Reference
Most Costa Rican banks will require a couple of letters of reference, including letters from other banks where you’ve done business or made deposits. But they can also be letters from friends who are customers of that same bank where you’re applying, stating your relationship and vouching for you as a customer. You can even bring them to the bank with you to aid the process!
Other banking notes and tips:
• There are ATMs all over the cities but far less in provinces and small towns. It’s recommended you take out colones because it might be hard for businesses to give change for big U.S. dollar bills, and you won’t get a good exchange rate.
• Don’t use the ATMs located in smaller shops, restaurants, and casinos – you’ll get killed on ATM fees.
• During power outages, holidays and busy tourist weekends, the ATMs may not work or be out of money, so prepare in advance.
• Costa Rica is well established as an offshore banking haven, with banking secrecy laws that make it impossible for governmental (or private) agencies to access to your account information without a court order.
• For that reason, Costa Rica is a favorite place to hold significant assets for foreign individuals and corporations that want protection from governmental agencies and civil litigation like in their home countries.
• Travelers can expect most higher end hotels, restaurants and shops to accept credit cards, but many common and everyday businesses won’t accept them.
• When using credit cards, expect a processing fee and a very unfavorable exchange rate.
• Unfortunately, credit card transactions are more susceptible to theft in Costa Rica. When signing your receipt, cross out a block of 4-8 numbers on your receipt and request a copy of the receipt.
• It’s a good idea to check your account balances often to spot any fraud or over-charging. Use a hide-your-IP service to keep your logins to banking websites protected.
• Unfortunately, the same banking protection laws may not keep your credit card transactions confidential. Credit card transactions don’t fall under the same jurisdiction as banking secrecy laws, and in several instances in the past, the United States IRS forced MasterCard and American Express to disclose private financial information from their users.
• So you may want to stick to using cash and visiting your local bank in Costa Rica. When you enter, remember that appropriate attire is required, and don’t wear sunglasses.
• Whether you go into a private or government bank, you’ll be divided into two lines depending on what kind of transaction you’re there for.
• For standard transactions like making deposits, withdrawals and exchanging currency, you’ll be in the standing line. But for customers who want to open new accounts, request a new debit card, or make special business transactions or wire transfers, etc., there will be a special line where you take a seat, and then they’ll call you.
• Before you sit down, make sure to take a ticketed number – called a ficha – so you’ll be in the queue when your number is called. If you lose your spot, no one will take mercy on you!
• If you’re elderly, pregnant, disabled, with a young child, you qualify for the preferential line called the fila preferencial, usually located off to the side.
Did you find that helpful?
It probably isn't your main concern now but believe me - it will be very useful once you move down to Costa Rica and need to open a bank account!
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