Banking in Costa Rica is generally not associated with offshore tax havens because national authorities cooperate with international agencies to prevent illicit financial schemes or other financial crimes. In 2006, Costa Rica became the 21st country to sign the Inter-American Convention against Terrorism, which was created to end the financing of terrorist-related activities, including money laundering and drug trafficking.
U.S. citizens – and other foreigners – who live in Costa Rica as residents, students, or workers may have a legitimate need to open a local personal bank account. But this is not as easy as it may sound, as there are restrictions and conditions that foreigners must adhere to in order to conduct financial transactions through their own bank accounts in the country.
So how do you get started? Here’s what you need to know to open a bank account in Costa Rica.
Key points to remember
- Policies vary by bank as to who can open bank accounts in Costa Rica.
- Most banks allow foreigners with legal resident status to open accounts.
- Expats are required to provide ID, minimum deposit, proof of residency, and proof of income before they can open an account.
- The state-owned Banco de Costa Rica also allows non-resident foreigners to access bank accounts with certain restrictions.
- Income must be declared to federal authorities as well as to the IRS.
Foreigners have generally not been able to open bank accounts in Costa Rica unless they can prove their legal residency. This meant that they had to live legally in the country before they could open and use an account. But from 2016, foreigners, including those who are not residents, can open and maintain bank accounts with Banco de Costa Rica (BCR), one of the country’s public banks. This requires a valid form of identification and a cell phone number. Non-residents are only allowed to deposit up to $ 1,000 into their account each month.
Most banks in Costa Rica, however, have different policies even today and still require account holders to be legal residents before they can conduct financial transactions. So it is best to check with each bank to make sure that foreigners, whether resident or not, are allowed to open bank accounts.
Choose a bank
Banks in Costa Rica fall into two categories: public or national banks and private institutions. You can open an account in either category. There are two state owned banks, BCR and Banco Nacional de Costa Rica, and two state banks created under public law, Banco Hipotecario de la Vivienda and Banco Popular y de Desarrollo Comunal. BAC San José, Scotiabank and Citibank are some of the private commercial banks available in Costa Rica.
There are very important differences that separate the two types of banks. Crown corporations, for example, guarantee all deposits and typically have numerous branches and automated teller machines (ABMs) – a primary consideration for residents living in rural or remote areas. However, since they are the more popular option between the two, they are also known for their incredibly long lines.
Private banks, on the other hand, tend to have shorter lines and are more likely to employ bilingual staff, which in itself may be reason enough to go private. They can also offer attractive transactional and economic benefits to Americans with whom they have already established a relationship in the United States.
Opening an account
Most banks offer accounts in colones, Costa Rican currency, or dollars. BCR also offers accounts in euros. A basic savings account is the most common type of account, and it’s also the easiest to open. That said, setting up a bank account in Costa Rica can be a laborious process, in large part because of the sheer amount of paperwork involved. Requirements vary from institution to institution, but generally revolve around the following:
- Identification (ID): Costa Rican banks require all foreign residents to present their DIMEX identity card – issued by the immigration service – if they wish to conduct banking transactions. Tourists, on the other hand, can simply present their passport and may only be eligible to open an account at certain institutions.
- Minimum deposit: It depends on the type of account, but savings accounts usually require at least $ 25 or 5,000 Costa Rican colones.
- Proof of residence: You must present a physical document such as a utility bill or rental agreement showing your local residential address.
- Additional forms: A local policy called “Conozca a Su Cliente” – Know Your Client – requires any US citizen with a Costa Rican bank, both individual and corporate, to verify and update personal information annually. Various tax forms may also be required to notify the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) of offshore bank accounts.
Anyone opening an account with most Costa Rican banks must also provide proof of income. This is to ensure that funds used by account holders come from legitimate sources and that consumers comply with federal regulations by not laundering funds, financing terrorism or trafficking drugs. Salaried employees need proof of income from their local employer, which may include a letter and / or a pay stub. Independent contractors must produce a letter or proof of income from an accountant. Other foreigners can also present proof of their holdings with US banks.
Anyone opening a bank account in Costa Rica must provide proof of income.
As stated above, foreigners, including those who are not residents, can open an account with BCR. They must have legal status in the country, a valid passport and a mobile phone number. The bank also offers consumers the option of opening accounts online, after which they receive their account number by email or text.
Declaration of your income
Costa Rica’s tax rules must be followed by Americans residing there, and U.S. citizens living and working abroad must report all of their worldwide income to the IRS on their tax return. Very expensive penalties can apply if your income is not reported correctly. (See also: The tax implications of opening a bank account abroad.)
It is possible for U.S. nationals to avoid double taxation on income earned abroad through the exclusion of income earned abroad and foreign tax credits. However, a tax return must be filed with the IRS to receive these benefits.
The bottom line
Once you’ve decided between a public and private banking institution, opening a bank account in Costa Rica should be fairly straightforward as long as you meet all the eligibility criteria.
Although the banking system itself is fairly standard, the procedures can be relatively slow, so it is a good idea to be patient. Customers are also advised to refrain from visiting branches and ATMs on local paydays to avoid even longer queues than usual. And remember, any American earning income in Costa Rica should closely observe both local and US tax filing rules.