How to Use Costa Rican Currency
Costa Rica’s national currency is known as the colón (plural: colones), but dollars are widely accepted in tourist areas and other places around the country. But should you pay in dollars or colones? Where can you get the best exchange rates? Where should you definitely not change money? Will your ATM card work in Costa Rica? How about your credit cards? Read on for the practical, factual answers.
Banks & ATMs
Even if you plan on spending the entirety of your Costa Rica vacation exploring the depths of the rainforest in one of the country’s 26 national parks and nature reserves, you’ll need to get your hands on some cash from time to time. Fortunately, the commercial banking sector in Costa Rica is a lot better—and more convenient—than it used to be, so follow these tips when you’re out and about to ensure you’re not left without your money:
Using US dollars
Something many visitors to Costa Rica find convenient is the fact that U.S. dollars are accepted virtually everywhere. This means you won’t have to waste a lot of time converting your cash into Costa Rican colones before you can start shopping. It’s worth noting, however, that bills larger than $20 may not be taken by some businesses. Also, when paying for goods and services in dollars, you’ll more than likely get your change in colones.
If you’re carrying a lot of $50 and $100 bills or exchanging larger amounts (beyond what you might use in a store), we suggest going directly to the bank for the best rates.
Carry cash—but only enough to get by
Something else you’ll need to bear in mind when venturing to the farthest-flung corners of Costa Rica: while some places will accept credit cards, the likelihood of this diminishes the further you go out into the countryside. There are several reasons an establishment may not accept credit cards.
For example, merchant service charges for credit card machines can be prohibitively expensive in some parts of the country, while other areas may not have the most reliable electrical service, making running a card reader more of a hassle than it’s worth. As such, keep enough cash on you to handle everyday expenses like meals, but don’t carry so much that you’ll worry about losing it or becoming a victim of theft.
Most major towns and even some small villages have at least one ATM, so using these machines is a great way to ensure you’ve got access to your money when you need it.
Here is what to do before you travel:
- Make sure that you have a 4 digit pin number, otherwise you won’t be able to take money out.
- Check with your card issuer about the charge for using your credit or debit card while abroad; some banks may be more forgiving than others.
- Notify your bank and credit card issuer of your travel plans, so your vacation spending isn’t flagged as suspicious activity that could end up with your card being suspended.
Once here, follow these tips to avoid issues:
- Expect to pay a flat fee of between $1 and $3 per transaction, much as you would at a non-chain ATM back home.
- If you’re having trouble with a particular transaction, be wary of trying repeatedly—the machine might just swallow your card. It may be worth carrying two ATM cards to prepare for this, just to be safe.
- Virtually all ATMs “close” at around 10 p.m., so don’t count on being able to make a withdrawal in the wee hours of the morning!
- When possible, only use ATMs that are marked with ATH. This means a todas horas or “all hours”, meaning if you do have any issues at the ATM—like the machine swallowing your card—then you can call for someone to come help you 24/7.
The colón is the official currency in Costa Rica. The coin is named after Cristobal Columbus—the admiral that discovered Costa Rica in 1502—and was established in the first decades of the 20th century. Before that, during the colonial times, cacao seeds were implemented as the coin. Later on, in the 1840 decade, coffee plantation workers were using “coffee tickets” to exchange goods in shops.
The design of the first coins appeared in 1935 and remained without changes until 1978; this included national symbols such as the coat of arms.
Since 2012 the bills have a new colorful design inspired by Costa Rica’s wild animals, introducing new patterns with the sloth, the hummingbird, the morpho butterfly and the white-headed capuchin monkey. This innovative design was also created with new materials so that visually impaired people can distinguish the bills.
The Central Bank of Costa Rica determinates and manages the value of colones with the Exchange Rate Band System. The exchange rate is actually two rates: a floor and a roof, meaning that all financial entities in Costa Rica cannot exceed the amount they pay or collect when selling or buying dollars. For example, $1 = ¢529 is the floor (to buy- the minimum you should receive when changing money) and $1 = ¢542 is the roof (to sell- likely the maximum you will receive).
Every day banks update the exchange rates; they fluctuate slightly on a daily basis. Check online, in banks or in the newspaper for the official exchange rate. Please note that while changing money in the airport may be convenient, they offer some of the worst exchange rates of all. Changing money directly in the bank will give you the best rate.