After doing more than a year's worth of research, Margaret (not her real name) decided to move to Costa Rica.  Since she has visited here many times over the last twenty years, Margaret decided to make this her final home.  She took up residence in a local hotel for a few days while she searched for a place that she and her lovable kitty could call home.

On the second day of her search, she found her "dream spot", a beautiful 1 bedroom apartment, situated directly on the ocean and it was only $650 a month!  Ready to ink an immediate deal, the rental agent told her she needed 1st and last month's rent and a 1 month security deposit.  All totaled, she needed to pay the agent $1950 and she could move in immediately! 

WHAT NOT TO DO...

Having read stories and heard (all the overly inflated) reports of tourist crime in Costa Rica, Margaret decided she would not carry significant amounts of cash with her.  Instead, she converted her savings into BANK CHECKS of various denominations.  When she needed cash, she would simply go to a bank, present her passport and cash a check.  Or in the case of sealing the deal on her new, sea side apartment, she would merely endorse one of her $2,000 bank checks over to the landlord.  What a perfect idea?

There is only one problem with this plan, Margaret failed to do ANY RESEARCH on how Costa Rican banks work.  She had no idea how one should manage the process of bringing in money, paying bills or buying food.

So when Margaret whipped out one of her bank checks and was ready to endorse it, the Property Manager said to her "What are you doing?  That check has no value in Costa Rica."  Margaret looked startled, "What do you mean no value?  This is a two thousand dollar certified bank check.  It's guaranteed by Wells Fargo Bank.  I need it to pay for my rent."  The agent just looked at her and said abruptly "NO!  That check has no value to me here in Costa Rica.  For all I know, that check could be a fake"

Beaten but not down, Margaret suggested she give the agent all her remaining cash, $800 in order to secure the deal.  Tomorrow, she would simply go to the bank, open an account and deposit her remaining bank checks.  Then in a few days all she would have attained liquidity and all would be good.  Again, Margaret's failure to do research had lead to another colossal cluster f*ck.  You can't just waltz into a bank in this country, sign over your bank checks and open an account.  Where do you think you are... The United States of America?

SURELY THE BANK WILL HELP ME? - The Bank will NOT help you and DON'T CALL ME SURELY! 

Margaret, unable to communicate in Spanish but full of optimism, walked into the local Banco Nacional.  With some help from others, she was able to make her plight known to the Teller who had no immediate answer for her. 

The Teller disappeared for about 10 minutes with the understanding that he was going to present Margaret's situation to someone of higher authority.  When the Teller returned, Margaret saw on his face that the news was not good.  "Lo siento pero no puedo cobrar su cheque" - I am sorry but I can not cash your check."

Margaret then tried another bank down the street, Banco de Costa Rica.  Here, she was refused entrance by a "minimum wage",  armed security guard.  He wanted to look at her check first.  Upon his careful, yet unqualified securitization of this financial document, he looked at Margaret and said "No es posible aqui." 

Margaret is quickly running out of options.

I have to admit, Margaret was a positive old broad.  She said that if she can't get the place of her dreams today, there was a higher reason.  So she kept on looking and just hours later found another place.  This new place, while not ON the beach was only a one block walk to to the shore.  She traded her one bedroom apartment for a studio but this place was only $400 a month.  She only needed $800 to lock in the deal.  But if she did that, she would be flat broke! 

Good luck prevailed. The new Property Manager had a soft spot in his heart for Margaret's plight and waived the deposit fee UNTIL she established a local bank account and was able to cash her check.  He gave her 60 days to do so, else she would be out. 

Margaret was enthusiastic.  She now had a place to stay and was ready to start her new life.  But first things first... establish a bank account.

ESTABLISHING A COSTA RICAN BANK ACCOUNT

I'm not sure if Costa Rica is behind the times or is actually a glimpse of where the rest of the world is heading, but opening a bank account here is not for the faint of heart. 

Your first barrier will be the language.  Don't be surprised that the ONLY language spoken by bank personnel is Spanish.  The second barrier you will encounter will be the bureaucratic rules, that to a reasonable person, make no sense at all.  Get over it... you're in Costa Rica! 

It seems that since 9/11, the United States has implemented a series of regulations designed to thwart terror, narcotics trafficking and money laundering.  Costa Rica has interpreted these regulations and has implemented Draconian measures in order to comply with the U.S. regs.  Now, if you want to open a simple bank account, here is a minimum of what you will need in order to comply.

  • Current and Valid Costa Rican Residency or New Tourist Card (went into effect July 1, 2012)

  • Current and Valid U.S. Passport

  • Copy of the utility bill from the place you will be living.  It need not be in your name.

  • A copy of your lease agreement.  Some banks may demand it in Spanish.

  • Two letters of recommendation (in Spanish) from people living in the area

  • Previous bank statements from the U.S. showing your last two months of activity.  One bank even insisted that these copies be signed off by a Certified Public Accountant.

The requirements for opening a bank account can be (and generally is) different from bank to bank.  It all depends on how they (the bank executives) want to interpret U.S. Patriot Act Requirements.  Here are the requirements for opening an account in Scotia Bank.  DOWNLOAD PDF.

Once you have complied with all this, you can then make your deposit.  If you plan on depositing checks,

  • DO NOT ENDORSE ANY CHECK UNTIL YOU ARE INSTRUCTED TO DO SO BY THE bank executive or TELLER

  • If you are depositing checks, you may be subject to international fees of $40-70 per item and it may  take up to FORTY BUSINESS DAYS for the checks to clear. 

  • And finally, make sure that the check you are depositing is made out to you EXACTLY as your name appears on your passport.  For example: if your passport reads John Paul Jones and your check is made out to Johnny Jones, there is a great chance that you will NEVER cash/deposit that check in Costa Rica. 

  • In the end... bring cash and your ATM card!  Make sure you have several thousand dollars available to you in this account.

THERE IS ANOTHER WAY...

While having a bank account makes things easier, you may not even need one.  Initially, you may consider just using your ATM card and withdraw sufficient cash for all your daily needs.  That may mean you hit the machine up a few times in a week to cover large purchases such as rent or deposits, but you may be able to eliminate all the hassle of opening up the account.  At the very least, it might be a solution until you are sure you are going to stay awhile.

Here are a few tips you may find helpful...

  • Bring sufficient cash (US/Can dollars), enough to cover your first 2-3 month's of general expenses.  If you did your due diligence, you should know how much that will be.

  • Maintain a bank account back home (North America) in order to pay bills, receive SSI payments and to periodically transfer funds to Costa Rica.

  • During your first month in country, consider opening a bank account.  Do your research, national banks are protected in Costa Rica, private banks (Scotia, HSBC etc.) are not.  Private banks with familiar names are NOT AFFILIATED with their North American counterparts.  Their systems, nor their operating policies, function between countries.

  • When opening a Costa Rican bank account, open two accounts... one in DOLLARS and one in COLONES.  The dollar account will be used to receive cash transfers you bring in from North America.  The Colone account is used when transferring dollars into colones (residency requirement) and also for electronically paying many local bills such as electric, water etc.

  • When living here, pay everything possible with your debit card.  This provides a detailed electronic record of all your dollars to colones transactions which may be needed for a future residency renewal.

  • Notify your bank and any credit card companies back in North America that you will be traveling in Costa Rica for an extended period of time and to flag your account accordingly.

  • Maintain at least one US credit card with a "Bill To Address" in the United States.  This comes in very handy when making internet purchases such as airline tickets etc.

  • Before coming to Costa Rica, establish a process with your bank back home to quickly and easily electronically transfer money into Costa Rica.  U.S. Taxpayers Beware... always maintain a balance of LESS THAN $10,000 in any/all of your accounts, else you may be required to file additional tax reporting forms with the US government.

SO WHAT ABOUT MARGARET?

Margaret's story is real, only the names and gender may or may not have been changed to protect their identity and to stave off future embarrassment.  Margaret finally got her bank account opened at Banco Nacional but it took her twelve days to do so.  During that time she was living on her remaining cash reserves... about $300. 

Margaret's final chapter has yet to be written so please stay tuned.  But what this shows is when considering life outside the the comforts of North America, make no assumptions and take nothing for granted. 

¡Buena suerte! - .  Good luck.