Using a credit card in Costa Rica

Beware of hidden fees of up to 8% when using plastic in this popular tourist destination.

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Due to the large number of tourists visiting Costa Rica, card payments are generally safe and widely accepted. Aside from Visa and Mastercard, American Express is also quite popular.

However, there are some potential fees to watch out for when you’re paying with plastic:

  • Foreign transaction fees. A non-sterling fee of around 3% per transaction can apply, depending on your credit card. That’s £30 in fees for every £1,000 spent with your card.
  • Merchant currency conversion fees. Sometimes, a merchant will offer to take payment in pounds instead of in colones. This is known as a dynamic currency conversion (DCC) and often comes with higher fees than if you paid in the local currency.
  • Cash advance fees. Your card issuer may charge a fee for cash advances (withdrawing cash using your card). Cash machine providers sometimes charge a fee too.
  • ATM fees. The provider of a cash machine may charge a fee if you withdraw cash using your card.
  • Hidden fees. Watch out for hidden charges at hostels and hotels when paying with your card. Some of them may add up to an 8% fee to your bill.

It’s also worth noting that when it comes to cash advances and non-sterling transactions, card issuers will often start charging interest on the day your account is debited, rather than the customary “up to 55 days interest-free” that applies when you clear your balance in full each month.

Here’s a section of a fairly typical T&Cs document showing the charges applicable when spending abroad:

section of credit card summary box document

So how can I avoid the fees?

Consider taking out a credit card offering commission-free currency conversion (see table below), even if you only use it when you’re abroad. Once you have one of these cards, if a merchant offers to take payment in sterling, say you’re happy to pay in colones, since you know your own bank won’t charge you for the privilege.

Generally speaking it’s not a great idea to use a credit card to withdraw cash, but some travel credit cards won’t penalise you for this either. Finally, make sure to check whether the ATM you use is going to charge a fee. Bank ATMs are generally a safer bet than those in convenience stores or bars.

Compare cards with fee-free currency conversion in Costa Rica

Table: sorted by representative APR, promoted deals first
Updated November 14th, 2019
Name Product Purchases Annual/monthly fees Credit limits Rep. APR Incentive Representative example
9.9%
£0
Min. limit £300, max. limit not specified.
9.9% p.a. (variable)
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 9.9% (variable) p.a., your representative rate is 9.9% APR (variable).
9.9%
£0
Min. limit £300, max. limit not specified.
9.9% p.a. (variable)
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 9.9% (variable) p.a., your representative rate is 9.9% APR (variable).
24.9%
£0
Min. limit £500, max. limit £1,500.
24.9% p.a. (variable)
No fees for making purchases or withdrawing cash abroad – currencies are converted at the standard Mastercard exchange rate.
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 24.9% (variable) p.a., your representative rate is 24.9% APR (variable).
9.9%
£0
Min. limit £500, max. limit not specified.
9.9% p.a. (variable)
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 9.9% (variable) p.a., your representative rate is 9.9% APR (variable).
9.9%
£0
Min. limit £500, max. limit not specified.
9.9% p.a. (variable)
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 9.9% (variable) p.a., your representative rate is 9.9% APR (variable).
9.9%
£0
Min. limit £400, max. limit not specified.
9.9% p.a. (variable)
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 9.9% (variable) p.a., your representative rate is 9.9% APR (variable).
14.71%
£0
Min. limit not specified, max. limit not specified.
14.7% p.a. (variable)
Eligible for Coutts Travel Rewards, receive a cash reward at participating retailers in selected countries.
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 14.71% (variable) p.a., your representative rate is 14.7% APR (variable).
0% for 12 months reverting to 15.9%
£0
Min. limit £500, max. limit not specified.
15.9% p.a. (variable)
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 15.9% (variable) p.a., your representative rate is 15.9% APR (variable).

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Are American Express cards accepted in Costa Rica?

American Express cards are more popular in Costa Rica than in other countries, but Visa and Mastercard are still the most widely accepted. If you decide to make a cash withdrawal with your Amex card, look for Banco BAC San Jose ATMs.

Chip-and-PIN credit cards

Chip-and-PIN credit cards aren’t common in Costa Rica, but you can still freely pay with your chip-and-PIN card wherever cards are accepted.

To avoid unpleasant situations when withdrawing money or checking out, make sure your card’s logo matches one of the logos on the ATM or POS terminal.

Is it safe to use my credit card in Costa Rica?

Yes, it’s generally safe to use your credit card in Costa Rica. You can always practice good safety habits to better protect your finances, though. Consider these precautions:

  • Use an ATM within a bank. In case the ATM holds your card for some reason, you’ll be able to get it back with ease. Also, ATMs that are within a bank are much less likely to be tampered with.
  • Take two credit cards. If something happens to your primary card, you’ll have a backup in your hotel room safe.
  • Keep your card in sight. Costa Rica isn’t known to have a big card cloning issue but just in case, always keep an eye on your card.

Do taxis in Costa Rica accept credit cards?

No, taxis in Costa Rica don’t accept credit cards. But you can request Uber rides if you need to pay with your credit card. Keep in mind that while Uber is cheaper in Costa Rica, it’s also a grey area – not entirely legal, but not illegal either.

How to prepare before traveling to Costa Rica

  1. Get a credit card without foreign transaction fees. Travel cards usually come with no foreign transaction fees.
  2. Opt for a Mastercard or Visa. They’re more universally accepted, though American Express is also popular in Costa Rica.
  3. Get a back-up card. This is particularly useful if something happens to your primary card. With a back-up card, you’ll never be caught without money.
  4. Get some cash. If you’re unable to pay by card, cash is fail-safe option.
  5. Inform your bank you’re travelling to Costa Rica. This way, you’ll avoid the bank blocking your card.
  6. Get your bank’s phone number. In case you lose your card or have other issues, you can quickly call your bank and sort it out.

Bottom line

When you travel to Costa Rica, you shouldn’t have a problem using your credit card in large cities. But if you go to the countryside, you’ll want to have some cash on hand. Be careful to not incur fees you can otherwise avoid. With a decent travel credit card, you can avoid a poor exchange rate or foreign transaction fees by simply declining the DCC when offered.

However, some merchants may add additional fees to credit card transactions. Make sure you ask about them before you make a payment to avoid unnecessary charges.

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