• Subscribe by Email!

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Banks in Costa Rica

August 5th, 2007

For some time I have wanted to write about banking in Costa Rica. Although the overall view of banking in Costa Rica is covered in two location in The REAL Costa Rica, see here and also here, those two pages really provide only an overview of the Costa Rica banking system and how it functions. They do not speak of actually dealing with individual banks and how it is to do business on a daily basis and to interact with individual banks.

There are many banks here, and no one person could possible review all of them unless they actually had accounts in all banks, a scary thought indeed. I use three banks here, one state bank and two private banks, so today I am going to rate these banks based on my experiences over the past several years. This is a very long post, but I saw no way to shorten it.

If this topic interests you, then read on!  Also, see my follow up regarding BAC San Jose.

I currently have accounts with three banks here in Costa Rica. They are BAC San Jose, Scotia Bank (both private banks) and Banco Nacional, a state bank. For the differences in state vs local banks read this.

No FDIC?Why three? Primarily to spread the risk.

I am by far not a wealthy person (much to my wife’s dismay), so we are not talking a ton of money here, but still, it would not be a happy day if I were to lose all my available funds because some bank took a powder or just failed… and yes, banks do and have failed here, one as recently as two years ago.

While the state banks are theoretically protected, it is my understanding that it can take months or years to get the money replaced… thus three banks.

Each of my banks has its own personality as I am sure do all the others. Each had its own process to open an account. Each has its own infrastructure and ease (or unease) of use. For that reason, I designed a very informal rating system to quantify my admittedly personal opinions of these establishments. My system is simple and rates ten things.

My Bank Rating System

  1. Ease of opening a new account
  2. Number of Branch Locations
  3. Foreign language speaking employees available in branches
  4. Website functionality and usability
  5. Online banking – ease of use – functionality – support
  6. Attitude toward foreigners
  7. Overall banking services offered and ease of use
  8. Speed of service while in the bank – lines etc.
  9. Attitude/friendliness of bank employee
  10. Cost of bank services

Each of this carries a rating of from one to five, thus a perfect score would be 50. An average rating would be 30 as I am using only whole numbers and a 3 rating is in the middle.

This is of course, totally subjective. These are my opinions and others may disagree. An old saying (slightly modified) is: “Opinions are like feet. Everyone has ’em. Everyone thinks theirs don’t smell”.

I welcome opposing or supporting opinion in the comments area following this post!

Scotiabank de Costa Rica

This may be the bank that the most foreigners (read that as North Americans) use when arriving in Costa Rica. Why? They hands down have the most English speaking employees especially in those branch offices in and around Escazu, a gringo stronghold. It was also the first account I opened personally when I got off the boat.

My first impression of Scotia Bank was that they seemed polite, but distinctly unwelcoming to newcomers… again read that as North Americans. This attitude was not displayed to Ticos (Costa Ricans). It was nothing in their words or behavior exactly; it was just a deep suspicion that our banking relationship was… not cordial. I have long believed that employees of any organization reflect exactly the attitude of management. While not always true, it is pretty much always that way if you think about it. How odd is THAT considering they are foreigners themselves. Part of Scotiabank in Canada.

Thus it should not have come as a surprise when several months later, I learned that a very senior officer of Scotia Bank took a very anti north American attitude while speaking with a close friend of mine wondering “why all these foreigners were coming here and where did they get their money to put in his bank” (quoted but really a paraphrase).

This attitude prevailed for at least 2-3 three more years, but has since gotten a little better. Still, if I go to any branch other than the one where my account is located, the level of service and friendliness drops significantly.

Their debit card is pretty useless. It is not a real credit card even though it has a VISA logo. Nobody accepts it as it is not embossed. Sadly, you do need it at teller windows or when using their ATM machines.

Scotia Bank is located only the Central Valley in and around San Jose.


Rating – Subject

2 Ease of opening a new account
bit more than normal hassle – passport – requires letter from bank “back home”

1 Number of Branch Locations
around 16 – San Jose area only!

4 Foreign language speaking employees available in branches –
Lots in the Gringo strongholds

4 Website functionality and usability –
Offers English on both main bank home page and the online banking site

1 Online banking –
Online banking is incredibly slow and almost totally useless. Only reason they get a 2 is their telephone support is excellent. The 2 was a gift though.

2 Attitude toward foreigners –
Improving, but compared to other banks, even banks where I do not have an account, it still needs changes.

2 Overall banking services offered and ease of use –
Still does not offer interbank transfers nor transfers between bank customers.

2 Speed of service while in the bank – lines etc. –
Crummy. Local branch managers have never learned or been taught to open a new teller window when lines get long. Escazu office the worst! Bring lunch on paydays or Saturdays.
Rohmoser branch excellent though!

2 Attitude/friendliness of bank employee –
Depends on branch and on the manager. Improving for sure, but after 5 years, I still prefer to use my other banks. Again,
Rohmoser branch is much better!

2 Cost of bank services –
They charge more for everything. Probably have pay toilets.

Rating: 22

I still maintain an account with Scotia, though I am tiring greatly of how hard even the most mundane tasks have become. They have rules that other banks, even the state banks, do not have. If you speak Spanish or at least can get someone to help you at first, there are better banks in which to place your money.

BAC San Jose

Formerly called Banco de San José, is part of the BAC Credomatic Network, comprised of eight banks (not branches) in Central America, the Caribbean, and Panama, and Credomatic, the largest credit and debit card issuer and processor in the region. They have offices in all provinces of Costa Rica i.e. San José, Alajuela, Heredia, Cartago Guanacaste, Puntarenas, and Limón. They also have offices in the USA – Florida only.

I first opened my account with them less than two years ago based on frequent visits I made with my wife as she had one of her accounts at BAC. Their branch offices (sucursales) are far more modern and I noticed that there always seemed to be adequate teller windows open so the wait was negligible. I was planning to open a business account, so I knew I would need the usual letters of reference, a corporate personeria, my cedula (corporate and personal) in order to open the account. I went to my attorney for the legal stuff. I probably should have listened to him when he asked why on earth I would want to open an account there. I told him I had a lot of clients with accounts there, and I needed to be accessible to them. His comment was to be prepared for a LOT of issues. How right he was!

It took ELEVEN visits to get the thing opened! Granted, I can take responsibility for four of them that could have been avoided had I been a bit more organized, but what a production it was. However, after I started the process and had paid for the documents my attorney prepared, I was sort of stuck, and I was still brainwashed by the no waiting thing.

I then learned a LOT… too late… about just how screwy is BAC San Jose!

The first surprise is that regardless of anything, BAC does not permit the deposit of a check drawn on a non Costa Rica bank for the first year! HUH? Is it me or does that make no sense whatsoever? First, most banks will not make funds available from a foreign check for about three weeks even though that check can clear easily in 3-4 business days. So what is the risk to them? Too late, I had to live with these rules.

So after about 18 months, I merrily went in to the bank to deposit a check from the USA. Nope! That one year thing is not automatic. I again had to go visit the manager to get approval to do this… and this after having had my trouble free account for all that time. THAT was two weeks ago. I was told the approval was pretty much automatic and should be set up “tomorrow”. Ha! As of yesterday, it still had not been processed. I was told it would be “tomorrow”. We shall see.

Next, I found that to transfer funds to another BAC account holder required a trip to the branch to manually add them before you could make a transfer online. Now as I said, the teller lines are short, but that does not apply to those waiting to speak with a “personal banker” type person. Those lines are much longer. This problem has since been remedied however and as of now, this is no longer a requirement.

I will say that after all the hassles mentioned above, BAC has proven to be an OK bank, and the teller lines are still short. Their web site is functional and online banking is available in English though I no longer need it to be so.

Ask for a debit card. They are available for in-country use, and you can request in international card you can use while traveling or on the Internet. Very handy and not available at Scotiabank or Banco Nacional.

So here is how BAC stands up:

BAC San Jose

Rating – Subject

1 Ease of opening a new account
Nasty! Read the text above. Be prepared for a LOT of wasted time. This is not just for foreigners. Everyone has the same problems.

4 Number of Branch Locations
All over Costa Rica in many major towns. Not as good as Banco Nacional (below) but still far better than Scotiabank.

2 Foreign language speaking employees available in branches –
Almost none. Be prepared to speak Spanish or take someone with you to assist.

4 Website functionality and usability –
Bank’s home page is only in Spanish, but the online banking is available in English, is very useful (now) and getting better.

5 Online banking –
Online banking is very good and easy to use, though you may have to visit the branch for assistance. You must sign up for online banking at the branch. Do this when you open the account. Available in English.
No online help. Free next day interbank transfers. Very good thing especially for businesses.

4 Attitude toward foreigners –
Seems OK. I never felt the discrimination and over my many visits, they have always been friendly and helpful.

4 Overall banking services offered and ease of use –
Offers a full range of banking services, though as I mention, nothing is easy to set up. They are tied to Credomatic, so that may help you for both personal and business banking.

4 Speed of service while in the bank – lines etc. –
Very good if waiting for teller service. If waiting for a banker, visit the bank early and avoid lunch hours, paydays, etc.

4 Attitude/friendliness of bank employee –
Above average. Nice folks.

3 Cost of bank services –
Reasonable. Free next day interbank transfers.

Rating: 35

If you can deal with all the silliness and caveats above, a good choice.
Banco Nacional de Costa Rica

This is a state bank and by now, you should have read about state banks in Costa Rica. They are the closest thing you will find to a secure location for your money, though that is not to say the private banks are not financially sound. It just means you have more recourse should anything bad occur.

Banco Nacional (BN) has locations just about everywhere in Costa Rica, including just about every town and village of any size.

To open an account is pretty much of a no brainer. You just need your passport or cedula, 2 or three reference letters (this changes) and some money. I say that as they do have minimums to open though no minimums to maintain. They also will not provide a checking account if you are not a legal resident, but that really means nothing as unless you are a business, you will not pay bills by check anyway.

Lines are always nasty… worse than Scotiabank! I have rarely been able to visit a teller without having to wait at least 10-15 minutes, though again, if you go early, you stand a much better chance of getting in and out quickly. Talking to a banker is also a hassle as there are always lines.

I have my own formula to determine if I even want to wait! I take the number of people in line in front of me and divide that number by the number of open teller windows (never enough). If the answer is 4 or less, I wait. If more than 4, I plan another visit unless I am feeling really patient. Keeps my blood pressure down!

English is never spoken, and in several years, I have yet to meet an English speaking employee though of course they must exist. This is not as important as it may seem if you can speak even a tad of Spanish. You may have to wait to talk to them, but when you do, they are very nice people… and patient!

Make sure you get a debit card! While it cannot be used for international transactions on the Internet or if traveling outside the country, it is embossed, is honored everywhere in Costa Rica and is quite useful.

Banco Nacional de Costa Rica

Rating – Subject

4 Ease of opening a new account
Easy. Savings account only. Checking a hassle.

5 Number of Branch Locations
All over Costa Rica in many major towns. Not as good as Banco Nacional (below) but still far better than Scotiabank.

2 Foreign language speaking employees available in branches –
Almost none. Be prepared to speak Spanish or take someone with you to assist.

2 Website functionality and usability –
Bank’s home page is only in Spanish as is their online banking site. You will need someone to teach you how to do online banking, though once learned, it goes OK.

4 Online banking –
Online banking is only available in Spanish. Get someone to show you how to use it. I gave them a 4 because you get these promotional credits every time you pay a bill online, and those points can be used for free admission to movies, free or discounted admission to theme parks and other stuff. A nice perk! They offer the ability to pay online to far more vendors of services than the other banks. Bad thing… they also charge for all interbank transfers.

3 Attitude toward foreigners –
Seems OK. I never felt the discrimination and over my many visits, they have always been friendly and helpful.

4 Overall banking services offered and ease of use –
Offers a full range of banking services, but I suspect a working knowledge of Spanish will make that process go smoother.

1 Speed of service while in the bank – lines etc. –
Go early or bring your patience. If stuck in a long line, be nice! Practice your Spanish. Make a friend.

4 Attitude/friendliness of bank employee –
Above average. Nice folks.

3 Cost of bank services –
Reasonable, but they do charge for all interbank transfers, so if you cannot pay using their pre-set online payments, it will cost you money

Rating: 30

Regardless of the average rating of 30, they are still probably the best first bank account you should open when coming here.

42 Responses to “Banks in Costa Rica”

  1. Rod & Rena Mitchell on August 6, 2007 1:23 pm

    The banking question was only one of many questions my wife and I have had as we consider relocating to Coast Rica in a couple of years, when we retire. Of course, your blog provides many answers and we are getting up to speed. The next big thing is visiting Coasta Rica for the first time. We have no idea where to go, especially where other westerners have relocated. We wish we could locate other Texans who have relocated to CR. Are there any blogs, to your knowledge, that comprise Texans. Want to talk about climate adjustment, etc.
    Thank you so much for your informative blog. It has been very helpful to us.
    Warm regards,
    Rod & Rena Mitchell

  2. Curtis Elliott on August 7, 2007 7:05 am

    I found your comments about Scotiabank to be very subjective. Actually they do have a branch here in San Isidro, Perez Zeledon. Are extremely helpful and friendly toward foreigners, they even offered me coffee while I waited for a friend to open her account. They will have even more branch locations opening since they bought out Banco Interfin. So, we will have 2 branches here in San Isidro. I agree that the ATM/Visa card is pretty cheesy. However, better than Banco Nacional because you don’t have to have your passport to transact. The last time I went to take money out of my Banco Nacional account, they wouldn’t accept my U.S. driver’s license and copy of passport. I had to return home and get my actual passport to draw money out. I was hot.

    But, as you admit, all is subjective. They wanted 2 bank reference letters from the states addressed directly to them. That would make it difficult for some to open an account.

    Otherwise, once you get past the initial pain of opening the account, they pretty good to do business with.

    Curtis Elliott

  3. Tim on August 7, 2007 10:54 am

    Curtis… thanks for the feedback!

    So much depends on the local branch manager I think. I also wonder if the attitude toward foreigners is different once you get out of the San Jose area. Your local is very laid back and more friendly than the city.

    The card is convenient for teller use, though the other banks just need my cedula to do business. Getting one card out of my wallet is just the same as getting another out 🙂 You make a good point, though, that those who must still use a passport, as they do not yet have residency, can be mightily inconvenienced.

  4. ricky wilson on August 13, 2007 12:11 pm

    hello again,
    i plan on moving to costa rica and purchasing a house in the La-Tigra area as far as I know now. I have read all the information on your blog and it all seems confusing, though very thorough. In your opinion, where should I open an account that wil make it easy to get access to my $$. I will be having direct deposit from social security and veterans administration pension cheks. should i open an account in florida that has the same banks in costa rica and then have money transfer there or have it directly deposited in whch bank in costa rica.

    thank you again

  5. Tim on August 13, 2007 7:50 pm

    I recommend the State bank Banco Nacional de Costa Rica. They can accept your social security money and you can then transfer it to your Colones Account.

    If you are a Pensionista or Rentista, check with your attorney or http://www.arcr.net as to requirements for conversion conversion.

  6. Marcel M. Pfister on August 14, 2007 7:14 am

    I find your article about the three banks your work with interesting, but very anecdotal. It’s hardly a serious paper on customer relationship management at banks in Costa Rica.

    Anecdotes – as real as they may be – don’t make up for serious market research.


    Marcel M. Pfister

  7. Tim on August 14, 2007 9:30 am


    Of COURSE it was anecdotal! Serious paper? Please!

    I had no intention of doing market research nor a white paper on banking here. I am not trying to sell people on these banks. I am relating my experiences and nothing more. Take it or leave it. My readers are adults and I treat them as adults, capable of making their own informed decisions.

  8. Dr. Yvonne Vosburgh on August 19, 2007 5:37 pm

    Senor Tim,

    I find it interesting, that someone would read something on your website, a website in my opinion, that is professional, informative, thoughtful, intelligent, funny, one that I know you must have put hundreds of hours into and then criticize you for your opinion on a subject—that’s funny!

    I want to thank you for the information on your blog and website. My daughter, arrived in Costa Rica two weeks ago. I was a extremely apprehensive about her going to a Latin country by herself. Your website has calmed most of my concerns.

    Keep up the good work.


  9. Tim on August 20, 2007 7:42 am