Here are the rules in summary:
Carry USD in small denominations $1, $5, $10, $20
Carry Colones in a range of denominations, both bills and coins
Keep a few thousand colones (a few dollars) for your trip back to the airport in case you are going on a toll road.
If the prices are listed in $, pay using USD and pay EXACT change unless they told you the change will be in USD. Note most won’t accept USD coins.
If the prices are listed in Colones, pay in Colones.
If you want to change CDN$, do so in the morning. Each branch has a maximum CDN that they can exchange per day and it apparently isn’t very much, after which they will only exchange USD. One of the many things my 1st world brain can’t comprehend: If they always run out, why they don’t increase the daily amount?
If you aren’t from the US, buy your USD before you fly.
If you are from Canada or the US, buy your colones before you fly. (Most banks and foreign exchange will do this, but not all do.)
If you aren’t from Canada or the US, REALLY buy your colones before you fly if you can. If you can’t, check with BCR (Bank of Costa Rica) before you travel to see if they will accept your currency (they probably won’t.)
Only convert money with BCR, not in the airport, not with vendors – don’t even use Walmart unless you have no choice.
If you HAVE to exchange at a store, go with someone like Walmart, not other stores.
Don’t worry about spending your last Colones or USD (if you are not American) – come back next year!
Here are the details:
The currency in Costa Rica is, well – someone MIGHT tell you that it is colones. But I’m going to tell you: There are TWO currencies: Colones and USD (United States Dollars) Carry BOTH with you – and make sure you carry lots of SMALL denomination US bills like $1, $5, $10 and $20. Here is why:
A lot of people will ALSO tell you that ‘no problem, except for the toll roads, EVERYBODY accepts USD’. But while this is close to true, many places have a TERRIBLE exchange rate.
Change your money at the BCR. They seem to give the best spread on USD vs Colones, 2.2% the last time I checked (2018).
Don’t change your money at the airport – I know in some countries (like when I last traveled to Turkey) you get the BEST rate at the money changers when you arrive at the airport – but THIS page is talking about Costa Rica. Note that I said the BCD has a 2.2% spread – meaning, if they will BUY $100USD they will give you the equivalent of $98.9 in Colones on a $100USD bill. But when we went through the airport – the foreign exchange promised to give me 5% MORE colones if I changed $200, 10% more if I changed $500 and 15% more if I changed $1000. This means that on a $100 bill – they gave me LESS than $85 worth of colones. It may change for the better (This was on 2018.07.27) but I’m not betting on it! 2019 update: San Jose airport – nope, still a terrible exchange rate even if I was going to change $1000USD.
If you are travelling in the dry season, and worse around Christmas and Easter, expect lineups, so if you didn’t exchange money before you travel, go to the bank early to avoid long line-ups. Note that most banks are not open on Saturdays, or the hours on Saturday will be very limited. None were open on Sunday that I’ve seen. So assume banking is a Monday to Friday, and don’t expect late opening of banks like you may be used to at home.
If you are from a country other than the US – convert your currency to the USD & colones you want before you leave, and if you are from the US – you can probably get the same rate at home’ without the line-ups.
If it wasn’t clear enough above … why should you carry BOTH USD AND Colones? Because the entiendas (the stores) usually (always in my accounting) charge a horrible exchange rate too. I went to the bank and exchanged $100USD and got something like 560 Colones. Then I went to buy from a store that had prices in USD. They told me the price was $85 for the items I wanted. I said: puetho pago en colones? (Can I pay in colones) they replied: si (yes), 570 Collones (he used his calculator to figure it out.) This means the $85 item was going to cost about $100 if I paid in Colones. I several times paid in USD for things marked in colones and was charged about a 15% exchange rate.
Locals never buy in USD, but then only tourist trap things are priced in USD. You know, trinkets to take back to your kids and friends.
Why small bills? When you pay for something, even if marked in USD, most places will give you change in Colones – and they will frequently charge you a terrible exchange rate on the change. One person reported that a specific place charged her $20 extra on a $15 tab – an exorbitant exchange rate. Places like Walmart give a ‘reasonable’ exchange rate – but still not as good as the bank – after all, they have to take your USD to the bank and exchange it later – but at least they give a pretty good exchange if you are in a pinch.
I calculated quite a few transactions on a trip in 2018, purposely paying in USD and Colones for things marked the other way and I found:
– None gave an exchange rate of less than 5%
– Several gave an exchange rate as high as 25% (I did not, like the lady above, have any charge me a 50% or higher exchange rate)
– Assuming some of them truly accidentally changed me the wrong amount (unlikely – but I admit it is possible), I can tell you with certainty – none of them ever made a mistake the wrong way. The closest I came to that is one young (teenage) girl who spoke excellent English in a convent in Liberia, charged me 800 colones for food that on the sign said 1000. When I pointed out her mistake – that she should charge me more – it took about 2 minutes of discussion before we finally realized the problem – the sign I was looking at was the price of the food WITH Coffee – though it didn’t say that, but we were only buying the food, so the price was 800, not 1000.
– The best ones were the ‘chain’ stores like Walmart (and I found out later all the ones I got good rates from where owned by Walmart – they just used the local branding.)
So … if something is marked in USD – pay exact change for it in USD, or at least to the closest dollar.
If something is marked in Colones – pay in Colones – it doesn’t matter whether you use big or small bills, because you will get your change in Colones and it will be the exact amount down to what amounts to a few cents Canadian/US.
What if you are Canadian? What should you do?
Simple – go to your bank in Canada before your trip and get a bunch of USD – small bills. If you want to have fun, ask them for some $2 USD bills. Most Canadian banks say there is no such thing as a $2 US bill.
If your bank will sell you Colones, get some, roughly what you think you will need, before you leave, in any denomination – you will likely get bills mostly in the 20,000 size – which, as of 2018.08.02 is worth roughly $50 Canadian.
Do the mental exchange before you leave. In Canada it was easy for most bills, the color of the bill is the key.
The Orangy-REDColones 20,000 was worth roughly the same as the Red Canadian $50 bill
The Green Colones 10,000 was worth roughly $25 and was approximately the same color as the Canadian $20 bill.
The BLUE Colones 2,000 was worth roughly the same as the BLUE Canadian $5 bill, and the rojo (1,000 Colones) was worth about 2.50
The following image shows them all the same size, but it reality, the 1MIL is the shortest (width) and they go up in width to the 50MIL, which is called un puma because it used to have a puma on it. And note that ‘Mil’ means ‘Thousand’, not ‘Million’.
For US$, it was also easy, 1000 colones was $2USD, but I think in CDN$ so this is more a benefit for my American friends.
But … that will change, so check the conversion rates and create your own mental comparisons. I found memorizing 4 things worked well for my brain:
- What was 1000 colones worth?
- What was 2000 colones worth?
- How much is $1 worth
- How much is $2 worth
This allowed me to very quickly do calculations to know what things were worth.
Don’t go to Costa Rica for a vacation expecting it to be much cheaper than back home. We found the prices for clothing ,food, gas etc.., to be roughly equivalent to Canadian prices for similar items. If you want specific imported items (such as imported chocolate bars, imported liquor) it is even more expensive.
If you want ‘good’ prices – buy Costa Rican, don’t buy US imports.
What about ATM’s and Debit cards? Yes, you can if you pre-authorize your Debit card for international ATM’s before you leave, though some have a limit of $100USD per transaction and $200 per day. And you will likely be charged transaction fees, $3 or $6 depending on whether your bank charges a fee as well, and/or a transaction fee of around 3%. ATM’s are available at most tourist centers. But I’d recommend you just go to a bank at the beginning of your trip. Also, if you are travelling in the dry season, and worse around Christmas and Easter, expect that the ATMs will frequently run out of money. ATM hours are about 5 or 6am to 8pm, they are not open 24 hours (at least the ones I saw.)
What about ATM’s and Credit cards? Again yes, but expect all the fees above plus your credit card company may start to charge you high rates of interest on the withdrawal from the day of the withdrawal. (I have avoided this in the past, not in Costa Rica but it should work the same, by prepaying the credit card company and having a positive balance – I overpaid – before I left.) But why do that even – just take more cash with you.
What about Credit cards in general? These will work in a lot of tourist centres, car rental (it will likely be MANDATORY if you want to rent a car), bigger hotels, fancier restaurants, international chains like Walmart, gas stations, but a lot of others do not. Be sure to let your bank know BEFORE you leave so your card doesn’t get flagged for fraud – and then your card won’t work until you contact the bank and convince them that you are really you. Many cards will charge a ‘foreign transaction fee’ on top of the currency conversion – if you travel lots, there are some cards that don’t so you may want to check into those. Note that you will very likely be charged fees for currency conversion at a rate higher than exchanging at the BCR, and if your card is not in USD, for example CDN$, it may be converted twice, once into USD and once into CDN$ – check with your credit card company ahead of time. And then finally, as above, if the items are priced in colones – you will likely be charged an unfavorable price by the vendor if they put it through on the credit card as USD instead of as Colones.
Mastercard and Visa are widely accepted. American Express is not – but American Express is trying to change it with signs that say (in Spanish) American Express Accepted ahead. The fun part of these signs, you will see one on the way to Samara, but I didn’t see even one place we visited that accepted American Express. Obviously (or at least I assume since I can’t see American Express putting up those signs if they aren’t true) there was at least one business in Samara that accepted American Express, probably a hotel I didn’t go to.
What about Travellers cheques? Don’t bother, they are not widely accepted, you’ll have to go to the bank and wait in line to exchange them.
For me: I take enough cash for the trip and don’t bother with any other sources for the trip, then I keep the excess for the next trip, and never change either the USD or the Colones back to CDN$.
Some people in Canada have the attitude that only ‘bad people’ use cash. Amazing given when I was first an adult, grocery stores wouldn’t even accept anything other than cash and sometimes cheques. How quickly things change. In Costa Rica – I do everything in cash, the other forms ‘cost’ way too much and often, cash is the only accepted form of payment.
Additional tip: Split your money up in various places. While I’ve never been robbed, I still do this so that someday when I am robbed (at home or while travelling) I won’t lose everything. When going to ‘the beach’, don’t take too much money, and:
Before you go, put what you want to carry with you to the beach in the front of the car, put the rest in the trunk, and don’t open the trunk anywhere you will be leaving the car for awhile, that way people looking into your car will see nothing, and they won’t know whether there is anything of value in the trunk. When you are done in an area, that is the time to go into the trunk, move things around for your next stop, so again, when you get to your next stop, you take everything from the main part of the car and don’t show anyone what is in your trunk.
Let me repeat the above a little different: This is important:
When you are leaving to go to a spot – put everything and ONLY you want at the next location (beach, whatever) in the passenger part of the car.
When you get to a spot – do NOT open the trunk. Do NOT let people see what valuables you have in there that they might want to damage the car to get to.
When you are ‘there’ you take everything so there is nothing to be seen in the car.
When you come back to your vehicle and are LEAVING a spot -even if it is pouring rain- open the trunk, put everything you do not need at yournextstop into the trunk, take everything you want at the next stop out of the trunk and into the passenger part of the car.
The idea: don’t EVER let someone at a destination see anything that THEY might think is valuable, hide it in the trunk before you get there and don’t open the trunk to let them peak in. When you DO let someone see in the trunk, immediately drive away, even if originally you were going to stay.
btw, I follow this rule when traveling in the USA, and I probably should follow it ‘back home’ too.