Banks and Bills

There are both private and state owned banks in Costa Rica.The state owned banks have a guarantee on deposits, similar to the US federally insured deposit program, but the private banks do not.

Basically, the private banks are supposed offer faster, more personalized service and a wider range of financial products. Our experience is that they do indeed, at the very least, have shorter lines.

The drawback of private banks for the mountain areas is that there are not so very many branches available. The state banks, on the other hand, are ubiquitous.

Bank accounts can be held in Colones, US Dollars and in some banks, Euros as well.

Anyone, resident or non-resident, can open accounts with private banks, both in dollars and in colones. Not so at the state banks: you need to be a resident. On the other hand, if you are the owner of a company, you may open a company account without being a resident.

(NB: this has now changed, and residency is required to open a personal account, or more accurately, you need to show you've been in the country for 6 months. Company accounts are still available at both state and private banks).

Since a common way of owning land here in CR is to place it in a holding company (typically a Sociedad Anonima, or SA), this works out well.

This feature, by the way, also applies to utilities such as water, phone and power. Either you are a legal resident or you have a company, which owns the land for which you are applying for utilities.

Of course, opening an account is no 10 minute process in either private or state banks. This will take an hour or more, and you must come equipped with all the right documents. If opening a personal account in a private bank you’ll need a photocopy of your passport (or residency status card, a ‘cedula’), a utility bill with a physical address, and usually two reference letters. These can be from banks in your own country.

For the state banks, such as Banco Nacional, and a company account, first of all you’ll need a personeria juridica (a notarized document stating that you have the legal power of representation for the company). These currently cost around $20 and are valid for only three months. Then you’ll need to supply a photocopy of the cedula juridica of the company (a document showing the registration number and name of the company). They will also want to view the originals of these.

As well, you’ll need a utility bill such as water, power or phone, which clearly states the physical address of the property. Of course this isn’t a useful address for postal purposes as there are no street names or house numbers. Consequently, you are unlikely to ever receive such an invoice so addressed. Ask them to keep it for you at the utility office and you pick it up from there.

Most people just get a post office box for their mail, but as you need the bill to have a physical address to open your bank account you simply set it up that way first, and then change it to your PO box later. Just part of the endless red tape runaround of Costa Rica. Once you know how the game is played you can at least streamline the experience.

Once you’ve invested all this time and effort in setting all this up it runs pretty smoothly from then on, so long as you pay your utility bills on time. The basic bills – water, power, telephone, and TV can be paid by internet, and otherwise in banks, supermarkets, and sundry other stores.

Internet bill paying is a great saving in time because a Costa Rican bank is always a full bank. There are always lines. And should you forget that the beginning of the month is pension-cashing time at Banco Nacional, you’ll barely be able to squeeze in the door.

Banco Nacional now requires, in addition to the lengthy list above, 2 letters from Tico neighbours attesting to the fact that you live in their neighbourhood!

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