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Travel money guide – Costa Rica

Beware of hidden fees for using your card.

Updated

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Costa Rica is a card-friendly country, so you’ll have no problem using your credit card there. You can also pay with US dollars in some places in San José, but paying in local currency will help you avoid conversion fees.

Comparing travel, debit and credit cards

Visa and Mastercard are most widely used in Costa Rica, with American Express cards coming in third. You may find ATMs and places that accept Discover cards, though Discover is overall rarely accepted.

Credit cards without foreign transaction fees are a great option for direct purchases, while debit cards are generally good for ATM cash withdrawals. The Q Costa Rica, a Latin America news portal, reported that some Costa Rican merchants may add an illegal surcharge of up to 8% on credit card purchases. Make sure you ask merchants about fees before using your card.

Pros and Cons of travel money options in Costa Rica

Travel money optionProsCons
Debit cards
  • No cash advance fee
  • No cash advance APR
  • No overdraft
  • Weak or no rewards
  • No access to a credit line
  • Potential foreign transaction fees up to 3%.
  • Potential hidden fees of up to 8% by some merchants
Prepaid travel money cards
  • Can load multiple currencies
  • No cash advance APR
  • No links to your bank account
  • Many fees, including currency conversion fees
  • May take time to load
  • No rewards
  • Potential hidden fees of up to 8% by some merchants
Credit cards
  • Credit line access
  • Rewards
  • May come with travel insurance and coverage
  • May come with concierge service
  • Cash advance fees on ATMs
  • Cash advance APR on ATMs
  • Potential hidden fees of up to 8% by some merchants
Traveler’s checks
  • Security
  • Not accepted everywhere
  • Fees for purchasing and cashing checks
Cash
  • Payment flexibility
  • Convenience
  • No need for ATMs
  • High risk of theft

How credit cards, debit cards and travel cards work in Costa Rica

Using a credit card

Many establishments, such as restaurants, hotels, bars and shops, in San José and the other large cities take credit cards. Just be sure to use a card without foreign transaction fees and ask about hidden fees.

If you frequently travel to Costa Rica, consider an airline cobranded credit card to save money on flights, in-flight purchases, checked bags or lounge access. You can also consider a travel credit card to earn rewards on your purchases and to get travel, luggage and car rental insurance.

Using a credit card in Costa Rica

Using a debit card

Debit cards work best for cash withdrawals. Most debit cards come with foreign transaction fees of up to 3% of each transaction, but there are debit cards without foreign transaction fees or ATM withdrawal fees.

What are the best travel debit cards?

Using a prepaid travel card

If you want to take a debit card that’s not linked to your bank account, a prepaid travel card could be an alternative. The travel card comes with more fees. but could be worth it for extra security if your card is lost or stolen.

What are prepaid travel cards?

Using traveler’s checks

Traveler’s checks aren’t widely accepted in Costa Rica, but you could exchange them in some of the main banks. This can be an option if you don’t want to carry a lot of cash. However, the other money options are generally cheaper and without the hassle.

Traveler’s checks explained

Paying with cash

Cash is the most accepted payment method in Costa Rica. Especially if you’re traveling in more rural areas where cards are not an option. The US dollars are also accepted in the capital but exchanging them to Costa Rican colones is best.

Compare travel credit cards

Name Product Welcome offer Rewards Annual fee Filter values
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
3x points on directly-booked flights; 4x at restaurants; 4x at US supermarkets on up to $25,000 annually (then 1x points)
$250
Earn up to 4x points on select purchases, a bevy of travel perks, and a welcome offer worth up to $600 with this upper-mid tier travel card. Rates & fees
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
80,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, a value of up to $1,000 through Chase Ultimate Rewards
5x points on Lyft, 2x points on travel and dining and 1x points on all other purchases
$95
Earn a huge signup bonus worth $1,000 with this popular travel card. Combine with other Chase Ultimate Rewards cards for even greater value.
Citi Premier® Card
60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
3x points at restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, flights and hotels and 1x points on everything else
$95
Earn 60,000 bonus points after making $4,000 in purchases with your card within the first 3 months of account opening.
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
10x points on Lyft rides, 3x points on dining and travel after earning your $300 travel credit and 1x points on all other purchases
$550
Get a generous $300 in annual travel credits, 3x points on travel and dining, and a 50% bonus on point redemptions with Chase's premier card.
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card
100,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months, plus earn 25,000 after the first anniversary of card membership (offer expires 1/13/2021)
6x points at Marriott Bonvoy hotels, 3x at US restaurants and on flights booked directly with airlines and 2x for all other purchases
$450
Earn 100,000 bonus points when you spend $5,000 or more within your first 3 months, plus earn 25,000 after the first anniversary of card membership (offer expires 1/13/2021). Rates & fees
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Compare up to 4 providers

Our pick for a prepaid travel card
Travelex Money Card

Where can I get the best exchange rate for Costa Rican colones?

You’ll find the best exchange rate for Costa Rican colones at your hotel or any bank. You can also easily withdraw colones from ATMs with your debit card and get a strong conversion rate. You’ll find the worst exchange rates at airports, so try to stay away from those.

Using money transfers to safely travel with cash

WorldRemit offers the option to send money to your destination before you depart. Once you arrive in Costa Rica, you can get your money from a local branch.

To make the transfer, you need Costa Rican phone number and an address. If you don’t have them, WorldRemit recommends using the address and number of the place where you’ll stay in. This is only in case the local agent needs to contact you. Otherwise, you can withdraw your money with your passport as identification.

What’s the USD to CRC exchange rate?

Cash pickup services in Costa Rica

The symbol for the Costa Rican colón is ₡ and the currency code is CRC. Find the best exchange rates for transferring money to Costa Rica.

Min. Transfer Amount Transfer Speed Online Transfer Fee Rate Amount Received Description CTA Details
$1 Within an hour USD 3.99 600.158 CRC 597,764 Use promo code 3FREE to send your first 3 transfers with no fee. Send to 110+ countries for bank-to-bank deposit, cash pickup or mobile top-up. Go to site Show details
$0 1 - 2 days USD 1.99 591.111 CRC 589,935 Special offers like free transfers and better exchange rates available for new customers.
Quick, affordable transfers around the world with both express and economy options.
Go to site Show details
$1 3 - 5 days USD 20.00 588.095 CRC 576,333 The biggest name in money transfers can get your funds to friends, family, or businesses in almost every corner of the globe. Show details

Compare up to 4 providers

Disclaimer: Exchange rates change often. Confirm the total cost with the provider before transferring money.

Bottom line

You can freely use plastic in Costa Rica. Save money by finding a card without foreign transaction fees, and ask merchants for hidden fees.

If you need cash, you can either exchange US dollars or make an ATM cash withdrawal. Debit cards are typically the best option as they don’t incur cash advance APR or cash advance fees.

Find out more about paying for your travel abroad, check out our travel money guide.

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