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. Not only is it quite unlikely that any U.S. bank would have so much as a single colón to exchange but if they order them the commission is very high.
The airport exchange counter at SJO or LIR is another place to wait in line to pay a huge commission and get a horrible exchange rate but it’s completely unnecessary.
U.S. Dollars are Accepted in Costa Rica
There’s no reason to change money in advance because U.S. 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 hard 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 ¢600 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 10% 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 and Euros
Canadian dollars and Euros are not accepted in Costa Rica (except for exchange in banks). It’s probably cheaper faster and easier change them to U.S. dollars at home in Europe or Canada if you want some spending cash in hand before you leave home. European and Canadian banks rarely have colones on hand and will have to order them. Because of this they typically charge higher fees or commissions when selling colones than they do when selling dollars.