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Opening a bank account in Costa Rica as a foreigner can be surprisingly easy, or it can be confusing and frustrating. It all depends on several factors, such as the bank you choose or the experience of the employee who attends to you. Another factor is your knowledge of the local banking culture, so you know what to look for and the questions to ask when opening an account.
Without experience with the Costa Rica banking system, you may find yourself driving to the bank multiple times and enduring long lines to complete requirements that could’ve been all accomplished in one visit. A task that should take a couple of days now takes weeks, all while having no local access to cash or credit.
So to help things go smoothly, we’re providing some tips on how to open a bank account in Costa Rica. Following these steps can make your experience easier, so you can ensure your experience living in Costa Rica gets off to a stress-free start!
Why open a bank account in Costa Rica
If you’re thinking of moving to Costa Rica or spending several months of the year here, a bank account will be a helpful asset. You can use a Costa Rican bank account to pay a utility bill, register your vehicle and purchase data for your cellphone without poor exchange rates or expensive fees. Moreover, you can use your Costa Rica local bank account to pay rent, and it’ll be easier to make a lease agreement.
A Costa Rica bank card allows you to withdraw money from ATMs and pay for goods and services at most shops and restaurants. If you work in Costa Rica, a local employer can directly deposit money into your account. There are many financial and convenience benefits of opening a bank account in Costa Rica.
Choosing a Costa Rica bank
Costa Rica banks fall into two categories: government-owned banks and private banks.
The three state-owned banks are Banco de Costa Rica (BCR), Banco Nacional de Costa Rica (BN) and Banco Popular (BP). Both BCR and Banco Nacional accommodate non-residents and tourists who can open a bank account without legal residency status. They’re generally safer than private banks and guarantee all deposits. Your money is also fully insured. These banks don’t need to make a profit, so their fees are more reasonable.
State-run banks are larger than private banks. Banco Nacional is the third largest bank in Central America, with almost $12 billion in assets.
Government-run banks have more locations and more ATMs, which makes a public bank a better choice if you need banking services or cash withdrawals in a remote location.
The downside to public banks is because they’re so popular, there can be long lines and wait times, especially on paydays. (Hint: Try to avoid going to the bank on Fridays or the last weekday of the month.) Making wait times even longer are inconvenient hours in some areas. In Guanacaste, for example, most branches of the Banco Nacional are open weekdays only from 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. and are closed on weekends.
On the private side of Costa Rican banks, there’s a variety to choose from, including:
Among the private Costa Rican banks, Global Finance magazine recently ranked BAC Credomatic as the best due to its advancements in digital technology and online banking.
Some foreigners prefer private banks because they tend to offer better service, and there’s a better chance that you’ll encounter an employee who speaks English. Lines and wait times are shorter, but ATMs are more difficult to find. To open a bank account, most banks will require proof of residency, a corporation number or a cédula de identidad (Costa Rica identity card), and won’t let non-residents or those here on a tourist visa open an account.
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There are also several international banks doing business in Costa Rica, including:
Scotiabank has most of its locations in the urban centers in and around San José, and you may have a difficult time finding an ATM. Citibank and Bank of America have a presence in Costa Rica, but no branches or ATMs.
What you’ll need when opening a bank account in Costa Rica
The documentation and information required to open bank accounts in Costa Rica vary from bank to bank. Keep in mind, you may need to prove where any deposits into your account come from because the Costa Rica government works with international authorities in fighting money laundering and financial crimes.
Another note: Try to get all your documents ready beforehand. If you meet your bank rep and you don’t have everything, you’ll need to leave the bank, gather your missing documents and return another day to wait in another line. It’s also recommended that you print everything. One bank rep may accept a digital copy of your documents, but another may not. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
To help you get ready, here are some of the documents the bank may ask you for:
- The original copy of your passport and a photocopy of the identification page.
- A cellphone number and email address.
- If you’re a resident, your DIMEX ID card, issued by the Costa Rica immigration department.
- A minimum deposit of between $25 and $100 USD.
- A proof-of-income letter from a local employer. This is called a constancia de salario and needs to be in Spanish. Some banks require the employer to be based in Costa Rica.
- A utility bill with proof of address.
- Three months of bank statements from your current bank.
Some banks may require more, some less. Banco de Costa Rica, for example, only requires a passport and a cellphone number. If you’re a non-resident, Banco Nacional may ask for a letter (in Spanish) from another BN account holder verifying your identity and vouching for your character and standing in the community.
Costa Rica banking fees
Besides the minimum deposit, there are no fees to open a Costa Rica bank account. However, there are fees for some financial transactions. For example, banks will charge you a fee to withdraw money from another bank’s ATM. It’s also expensive to transfer money from a bank in your home country to a bank in Costa Rica.
Some restrictions apply
If you’re a foreigner without residency, banks in Costa Rica may impose limits on your account. Non-residents often have a maximum monthly deposit of $1,500, sometimes less. Exceptions can occur if you submit a constancia de salario (see above) or show proof of a monthly pension.
Also, if you’re not a legal resident, you may not be eligible for SINPE, the National Electronic Payment System. SINPE is controlled by the Central Bank of Costa Rica and connects financial and public institutions via a telecommunications network. SINPE is a convenient way to pay for goods and services with your smartphone, with no need for cash or a credit card. Only account holders with a cédula de identidad or DIMEX card are eligible for SINPE.
Questions to ask
A common experience with foreigners opening bank accounts in Costa Rica is that bank employees will not offer certain services if you don’t ask for them. Some staff may not even be aware of the bank’s policies for opening accounts for foreigners. Some questions to ask include:
Can I have an account with dual currency?
Most banks offer accounts available in both Costa Rica colones (CRC) and United States dollars (USD). BCR and BN also offer accounts in euros (EUR). Be sure to ask for an account with dual currency, as this gives you more payment and deposit flexibility.
Can you set up online banking for me now?
Once your bank approves your account, it can take at least a week for your bank card to arrive at the bank branch. There are no temporary cards, and you’ll need to return to the bank to pick your new card up.
If the customer service rep doesn’t offer, make sure you ask for online banking access. If you don’t, you’ll get home and realize you have no online access to your account, and you’ll have to drive back to the bank. Get someone to set you up with a digital cellphone token (a two-step security feature that allows you to bank online). Download all the bank apps onto your phone while you’re there, and make sure you have online banking access before you leave.
Can I see a manager or supervisor?
If your bank employee doesn’t know how to help you, don’t be afraid to ask to talk to a manager to get the help you need.
Opening a bank account in Costa Rica: Last steps
Once you have an account and your bank card in hand, go to the closest ATM and make sure your PIN works and you can withdraw money from your account. And next time you go to a store, restaurant or gas station, pay with your debit card. You’ll find that you can avoid carrying around a lot of cash by relying on your debit card for most transactions. Welcome to the convenience of having a bank account in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica’s laid-back, relaxed culture extends into its banking sector, so things can appear a little lackadaisical to foreigners. The best advice we can offer is to roll with it and try not to get frustrated if you encounter bureaucratic roadblocks and confusing or contradictory information.