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  • Writer's pictureFrançois Lanthier

How to Open a Bank Account in Costa Rica

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

Opening a bank account in Costa Rica as a foreigner can vary from being surprisingly uncomplicated to becoming a source of confusion and exasperation. The outcome hinges on a range of factors, including your chosen bank and the proficiency of the staff assisting you. Familiarity with the local banking norms also plays a role, enabling you to identify what to prioritize and the right queries to pose during the account initiation process.

Lacking familiarity with Costa Rica's banking framework might lead to multiple trips to the bank and enduring lengthy queues, all to fulfill prerequisites that could have been handled in a single visit. What should ideally be a task spanning a couple of days could stretch into weeks, leaving you without local cash or credit access.

To facilitate a smoother experience, we offer some guidance on initiating a bank account in Costa Rica. Adhering to these steps can simplify your journey, ensuring a hassle-free beginning to your time in Costa Rica.

If the idea of relocating to Costa Rica or spending a considerable portion of the year there has crossed your mind, having a bank account can prove to be a valuable asset. By possessing a Costa Rican bank account, you can handle tasks such as settling utility bills, vehicle registration, and purchasing mobile data without being subjected to unfavorable exchange rates or hefty charges. Additionally, utilizing your local Costa Rica bank account streamlines processes like rent payments and facilitates smoother lease agreements.

With a Costa Rica bank card, you gain the ability to withdraw funds from ATMs and make payments for products and services at numerous stores and eateries. For those employed in Costa Rica, the convenience extends to direct deposits from local employers. The advantages, both in terms of financial flexibility and convenience, are manifold when you opt to open a bank account in Costa Rica.

Choosing a Costa Rica bank

Costa Rica banks fall into two categories: government-owned banks and private banks.

Government-owned financial institutions The trio of government-owned banks comprises Banco de Costa Rica (BCR), Banco Nacional de Costa Rica (BN), and Banco Popular (BP). Both BCR and Banco Nacional are welcoming to non-residents and tourists, enabling them to establish bank accounts without necessitating legal residency status. These banks generally offer a higher level of security compared to private banks, ensuring complete deposit protection and comprehensive insurance coverage for your funds. Additionally, their fee structures are more reasonable due to not being profit-driven.

Publicly managed banks boast larger sizes in comparison to private counterparts. Banco Nacional, for instance, stands as the third largest Central American bank, boasting assets nearing $12 billion.

State-controlled banks possess a more extensive network of branch locations and ATMs, making them a preferable choice if you require banking services or cash withdrawals in remote areas.

However, the drawback of these government-run banks is their popularity, which can lead to extended queues and waiting periods, particularly around payday intervals. (Tip: It's advisable to steer clear of bank visits on Fridays or the last working day of the month.) Further elongating wait times are the somewhat inconvenient operating hours in certain regions. In Guanacaste, for instance, most branches of Banco Nacional operate solely on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., and remain closed on weekends.

Private banks

On the private side of Costa Rican banks, there’s a variety to choose from, including:

  • Banco BAC Credomatic San Jose

  • Banco BCT

  • Banco Cathay de Costa Rica

  • Banco Davivienda

  • Banco Improsa

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.

At Tammy Sells Costa Rica we highly recommend Banco BCT. Their services are available wherever you are which is not the case of all the other banks. Do ask if you can access all account services remotely if you choose another bank. Each bank does have its pros and cons.

Private banks 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. However in the case of Banco BCT, you can use any ATM free of charge. 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.

International banks

There are also several international banks doing business in Costa Rica, including:

  • Scotiabank

  • Citibank

  • Bank of America

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 except at Banco BCT where you are able to use the SINPE system (similar to Interac E-transfers in Canada or Zelle payments in the US).

May I speak with a manager or supervisor?

If the bank staff you're dealing with is unable to assist you adequately, don't hesitate to request a conversation with a manager in order to obtain the necessary assistance.

Final Steps in Initiating a Bank Account in Costa Rica:

Once you have successfully established an account and received your bank card, proceed to the nearest ATM to verify the functionality of your PIN and your ability to make withdrawals. Subsequently, when you visit stores, restaurants, or gas stations, opt to settle payments using your debit card. You'll discover that relying on your debit card for the majority of transactions allows you to avoid the need for carrying excessive cash. Welcome to the convenience of possessing a Costa Rican bank account.

Costa Rica's relaxed and unhurried cultural demeanor extends to its banking domain, which might appear somewhat leisurely to foreigners. The most valuable counsel we can provide is to embrace this pace and refrain from becoming frustrated if you come across bureaucratic obstacles or encounter bewildering and potentially conflicting information.

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