Bills! How you get 'em and How to pay 'em in Costa Rica

So now you have moved to Costa Rica, and one of the first culture shock items you will encounter has to do with your finances!

Paying bills back "home"

Many people maintain their credit cards from their home country. Also, most folks have other bills that need to be paid regularly like insurance, mortgages, whatever.

For that reason, I strongly urge you to learn how to bank by Internet. 

Almost all banks offer bill pay services that actually create and mail a check to your creditor, or will make direct transfers to those accounts.  If you are not already doing this, please learn before you get here.  Get used to dealing with your bank back home so you can comfortably pay bills when due. Having bills sent here is fine, but can take from a week to a month depending on how you receive mail.  You risk late fees and interest charges if they are not paid on time.

Paying your Costa Rica bills

For those of you living in many parts of the world, you are most likely accustomed to receiving your bills by mail. Sometime during the month, or maybe the following month if you're a little short on funds, you write a check and drop it in the mail. No harm.

Boy, are YOU in for a surprise!

As the regular mail service here is not always prompt and because there really is no local mail service to your home, many local bills will arrive delivered by a man driving a motorcycle (moto). Nearly all homes have large steel gates or fences, and a entry door (porton). The delivery guy simply sticks your bill in the porton! Maybe it stays there until you see it... or maybe the wind blows it away... but no matter, it HAS been delivered.

Now let's be optimistic and presume you find it. Then what? That depends on the type of bill. As payment by check is seldom used here except by businesses, you will pay this at a local bank, various pharmacies (farmacias) or perhaps a supermarket (mercado or supermercado). What you had better NOT do is stick it in a desk drawer to pay later! The reason for this is that phones, cell phones, electric, water, and other utilities will be turned OFF if you are more than a few days late! If you are used to being able to "hold off'" for a while, forget it!

So, you decide to go to the bank! Now you be introduced to the next culture shock item. Lines. Unless you are very lucky, when you get to the bank (sometimes a challenge in itself), you will find others paying their bills or doing other banking stuff. Regardless, you could be in for a long wait. This is one of the many tests of whether you will enjoy living here or, as maybe 50% of the people, you will move back to wherever they came from, and make comments like, "Costa Ricans can't do anything efficiently!". Well get used to it, because long lines (filas) are as much part of Costa Rica as are the beaches! Hint! When in a long line, instead of mumbling nasty things, take the opportunity to practice your Spanish. Introduce yourself to others in line. The time will pass much more quickly, you'll pick up learning Spanish a bit faster, you might make a new friend, and you will NOT appear to be just another impatient foreigner!

So is there an alternative? Yes... but with caveats! Many banks offer online bill payment. The bad news is that the best ones (so far) are the State (national) Banks such as Banco Nacional and others and their web site are only in Spanish. The good news is that your bills are will be right there online and you can simply transfer the money to the account of the service vendor.

Banking online is, in my opinion, safe, but requires security measures on your part. Note I said your part. NEVER use an Internet Cafe, NEVER use a wireless connection, and NEVER use anyone's computer but your own. Read this Blog entry before you go online! I cannot stress how important it is that you read it and treat it s Gospel!

Recently, I wrote a Blog article about how you can increase your level of security when banking online and especially if using wireless. See it here.

Most bills are paid online as everyone hates standing in those lines! . You could go to that business and hand them the money and get the receipt, but again... those lines. . Even less convenient might be the supermarkets, drug stores or banks.

Other major bills, mortgage, etc., are often directly deducted from your account.

Q. Can I pay bills with my credit card?

A. That depends! Almost all insurance premiums can be paid by credit card, but as there is no on-line payments system here, so you tell them you want to pay by CC and another motorcycle guy comes to you to collect your signature! Some Cable TV companies also have plans whereby your credit card is charged monthly for services.

Banks in Costa Rica (also see Banking)

As the banking rules vary from bank to bank, there is simply no way I can provide you with information that is current and accurate.  So here is a short overview of bank services.

  • Many banks do not have English or foreign language (non Spanish) speaking employees.  If this is important to you, inquire before you open an account.

  • Opening bank accounts is often a LOT of work.  Although rules vary, expect many banks to require two or three letters of recommendation from other depositors or if you are new to Costa Rica, from your US Bank, a copy of your passport (sometimes certified by a Notary) at the minimum.  Other banks may require more.  In any case, unless you are a legal Costa Rica resident, most banks will not allow you to open a checking account at all.  Savings (ahorros) are generally no problem.  You can still bank online and do all the checking account things... except write checks!  Hint:  If you happen to be a member of ARCR, they will provide you not only with current information for most banks, they will also write you a recommendation letter!

You might also enjoy reading some info from the BLOG comparing various banks in Costa Rica.  If so,   Click Here.  An update to that Post can be seen here.

Credit Cards

Banks issue credit cards here, but treat you like you have had serious credit problems.  The policy is to require that you deposit twice the amount of your credit limit in a CD for at minimum one year and more commonly two years.  They of course pay you interest on the CD.  Be SURE you request a credit card that can be used outside of Costa Rica!  Many cards, especially the debit cards, are restricted to Costa Rica only purchases.

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