How to Use Costa Rican Currency

Costa Rica’s national currency is the colón (plural: colones), but dollars are widely accepted in tourist areas and other countries. But should you pay in dollars or colones? Where can you get the best exchange rates? Where should you 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

Many visitors to Costa Rica find it convenient because US dollars are accepted virtually everywhere, so 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 some businesses may not take bills larger than $20. Also, when paying for goods and services in dollars, you’ll likely get your change in colones.
If you’re carrying a lot of $50 and $100 bills or exchanging more significant 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 remember 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. At the same time, other areas may not have the most reliable electrical service, making running a card reader more 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.

Use ATMs

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 access to your money when you need it.
Here is what to do before you travel:
  • Make sure you have a four-digit PIN; 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 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 a 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 repeatedly trying—the machine might swallow your card. It may be worth carrying two ATM cards to prepare for this, 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 marked with ATH, which means a todas horas or “all hours,” meaning if you have any issues at the ATM—like the machine swallowing your card—you can call for someone to help you 24/7.
Sunset over San José, where most of the big banks are


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 colonial times, cacao seeds were implemented as the coin. Later, in the 1840 decade, coffee plantation workers used “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 visually impaired people could distinguish the bills.

Exchange Rate

The Central Bank of Costa Rica determines and manages the value of colones with the Exchange Rate Band System. The exchange rate is 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 daily. So check the official exchange rate online, in banks, or the newspaper. While changing money in the airport may be convenient, they offer some of the worst exchange rates. Changing money directly in the bank will give you the best rate.

FAQs with Costa Rican Currency

How much is $1 US in Costa Rica?

The exchange rates change daily, so we suggest you check your bank or the internet to find out precisely. But, writing this article, $1.00 in the US is worth 648 Costa Rican colones.

What is the best currency to take to Costa Rica?

We suggest you take dollars, but if you can grab some colones at your bank, it will make the beginning of your trip much more manageable. For example, if you have a taxi, they may take only colones. If you need to go to the local market before you head to your hotel, they may not be able to take dollars. 

Is $20 a lot in Costa Rica?

It can be a lot, but it depends on your buying. However, you can easily find an excellent meal for two people for around $20 in Costa Rica, along with some great fruits, vegetables, and other goodies at the markets or soda shops. 

How much cash should I take to Costa Rica?

That depends on you and what you feel comfortable with taking. Remember, many places accept credit cards, but I think taking $200 - $400 may be a good start, and then you can always convert it to colones in Costa Rica if you feel comfortable going to the bank.
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