The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colón. In this book, prices are listed in the currency you are most likely to see quoted. Hence, nearly all hotel prices and most tour and transportation prices are listed in dollars, since the hotels, airlines, tour agencies, and transport companies quote their prices in dollars. Many restaurants do, as well. Still, a good many restaurants, as well as taxis and other local goods and services, are advertised and quoted in colones. In those cases, prices listed are in colones (C).
The colón is divided into 100 céntimos. The smallest coins are white 5- and 10-colón coins, followed by gold-hued 25-, 50-, 100-, and 500-colón coins.
Paper notes come in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 colones. You might hear people refer to a "rojo" or "tucán," which are slang terms for the red 1,000- and yellow 5,000-colón bills, respectively. One-hundred-colón denominations are called "tejas," so "cinco tejas" is 500 colones.
Forged bills are not entirely uncommon. When receiving change in colones, it’s a good idea to check the larger bills, which should have protective bands or hidden images that appear when held up to the light.
You can change money at all banks in Costa Rica, though you must produce your passport to do so. Because banks handle money exchanges, Costa Rica has very few exchange houses. One major exception to this is the Global Exchange (2431-0686) offices at the international airports. Be forewarned that they change money at more than 10% below the official exchange rate. Airport taxis accept U.S. dollars, so there isn’t necessarily any great need to exchange money the moment you arrive.
Hotels will often exchange money as well, but they might shave a few colones off the exchange rate.
If you plan on carrying around dollars to pay for goods and services, be aware that most Costa Rican businesses, be they restaurants, convenience stores, or gas stations, will give a very unfavorable exchange rate.
Your best bet for getting colones is usually by direct withdrawal from your home account via a bank card or debit card, although check in advance if you will be assessed any fees or charges by your home bank. In general, ATMs in Costa Rica still don’t add on service fees. Paying with a credit card will also get you the going bank exchange rate. But again, try to get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
It’s extremely risky to exchange money on the streets. In addition to forged bills and short counts, street money-changers often work in teams that can leave you holding neither colones nor dollars. Also be very careful when leaving a bank. Criminals are often looking for foreigners who have just withdrawn or exchanged cash.
The currency conversions provided in the "Value of the Colón vs. Other Popular Currencies" box were correct at press time. However, rates fluctuate, so before departing, consult a currency exchange website such as www.xe.com to check up-to-the-minute rates.
MasterCard and Visa are the most widely accepted credit cards in Costa Rica, followed by American Express. Most hotels and restaurants accept them, especially in touristy areas. Discover and Diners Club are far less widely accepted.
Beware of hidden credit card fees while traveling. Check with your credit or debit card issuer to see what fees, if any, will be charged for overseas transactions. Fees for credit and debit cards while out of the country—even if those charges were made in U.S. dollars—can amount to 3% or more of the purchase price. Check with your bank before departing to avoid any surprise charges on your statement.
Costa Rica has a modern and widespread network of ATMs. You should find ATMs in all but the most remote tourist destinations and isolated nature lodges. In response to several “express kidnappings” in San José, in which people were taken at gunpoint to an ATM to clean out their bank accounts, some banks shut down ATM service between 10pm and 5am. Others dispense money 24 hours a day.
It’s probably a good idea to change your PIN to a four-digit PIN. While many ATMs in Costa Rica will accept five- and six-digit PINs, some will only accept four-digit PINs.
Taxes – The national 13% value added tax (often written IVA in Costa Rica) is added to all goods and services. This includes hotel and restaurant bills. Restaurants also add a 10% service charge, for a total of 23% more on your bill. Some hotels add a 10% “resort fee.”
The airport departure tax is $29. This is almost always incorporated into most airline ticket prices at time of purchase. If not, you will be able to pay it at check-in.
Tipping – Tipping is not necessary in restaurants, where a 10% service charge is always added to your bill (along with a 13% tax). If service was particularly good, you can leave a little at your own discretion, but it’s not mandatory. Porters and bellhops get around C500 to C1,000 per bag. You don’t need to tip a taxi driver unless the service has been superior; a tip is not usually expected.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.