Travelers frequently ask if they need to go to the bank in the U.S. to get Costa Rican colones (the local currency) before traveling.
U.S. dollars are accepted nearly everywhere, dispensed by ATMs, used by the government to price national park fees and some taxes and many places have menus and price lists in dollars instead of colones and you have to actually do a conversion if you want to pay in colones instead.
It’s unlikely that any U.S. or other foreign bank would have so much as a single Colón in the vault and fees for special orders may be very high. Airport exchange counters also have high fees, huge commissions, and horrible exchange rates.
U.S. Dollars are Accepted in Costa Rica
For visitors from the U.S. there’s no reason to change money in advance because dollars are commonly used in Costa Rica. The taxis out in front of the airport, the restaurants and hotels all accept dollars.
Bring $20 bills or smaller (larger denominations are harder to spend because there problems with counterfeit 50s and 100s) and make sure they are in good condition with no tears.
If you do have large bills you can usually spend them for things that cost more. For example you can usually give a one hundred dollar bill and two twenty dollar bills for a $130 hotel room more easily than you can pay for a $30 bar tab with a one hundred dollar bill.
Normally when you spend dollars you’ll receive your change in colones at a fair exchange rate (approximately ¢680 per dollar). After a day or two you’ll have plenty of colones and will never have to visit a bank or exchange office.
To avoid exchange costs, pay for things priced in U.S. dollars with dollars (typically higher cost items like tours, hotels, negotiated fares for long taxi rides, restaurants). Pay for things priced in colones with colones (typically local sodas and fast food, taxis using a meter, and sometimes bar tabs). One exception is modern supermarkets (not little mini-supers or pulperias) where things are priced in colones but it does not matter what currency you use to pay because the computerized cash registers are programmed to give the current bank rate for exchange.
Sometimes the exchange rate is rounded down to ¢500 per dollar when spending dollars on things priced in colones. This is equivalent to paying a 20% commission which is a very bad rate. You should either pay in colones or ask for a fair exchange rate.
Start spending the colones where you can because if you still have them when you get ready to leave you may find yourself waiting in line to pay a huge commission and get a horrible exchange rate to convert them back to U.S. dollars. Your bank back home is not going to want them…
Canadian dollars, Pounds and Euros are not accepted by merchants in Costa Rica. To exchange these currencies requires a visit to a major bank branch (smaller banks may not provide the service), a passport and patience.
In general the best strategy for security, convenience and minimizing commissions and fees is to 1) pay with a zero international fee credit card when possible and 2) withdraw Colones and dollars from a ATMs (cash machines) using a zero fee card to pay in cash when necessary.
If you want some spending cash in hand before you arrive in Costa Rica purchase U.S. dollars at home. European, British and Canadian do not have colones in their till and will have to order them. Because of this they may charge very high fees and/or commissions when selling colones and nearly everyone in Costa Rica accepts dollars.