A Complete Guide to Costa Rica Currency for Vacationers

It has been more than 400 years since Christopher Columbus first made landfall in what is now Costa Rica, and his influence is still commemorated throughout the country. Even the Costa Rican currency, the colón, is named after the European explorer.

Of course, you don’t need a lesson in Spanish colonization to understand Costa Rica’s currency. In fact, depending on what you plan to do in Costa Rica, you might not need to use colones much at all.

Read on to learn more about the Costa Rican currency, whether it’s better to use colones or U.S. dollars, and how much cash to carry in Costa Rica.

Costa Rican colón to U.S. dollar exchange rate

Without getting too academic, the Costa Rican colón varies slightly in value each day at an exchange rate established by the country’s banks.

As of this post’s published date, 580 Costa Rican colones (₡) is equivalent to one U.S. dollar. This has remained relatively stable over the past five years; in 2014, $1 was equivalent to ₡530. But if you ever need to find the current exchange rate between colones and dollars, click here or use the converter tool below.

If you’re uncertain about a price, you can quickly convert from colones to dollars by remembering that ₡1,000 is about $2). So an item that costs ₡3,000 is roughly $6; something that is ₡15,000 is about $30.

Like most other countries, Costa Rica uses a mix of coins and banknotes. There are coins ranging in value from ₡5 to ₡500, and bills from ₡1,000 to ₡50,000. The banknotes are colorful and feature illustrations of Costa Rican wildlife — including sloths, monkeys and hummingbirds — and don’t be surprised that some of the bills feel as if they were made of plastic.

Photo credit: Banknote News

And if you accidentally call Costa Rican currency “pesos” instead of “colones,” don’t be too embarrassed. Ticos have many nicknames for their currency, and “pesos” is one of them.

Are US dollars accepted in Costa Rica?

U.S. dollars are widely accepted throughout Costa Rica. Nearly all hotels, tour operators and restaurants in tourist-heavy towns will list prices in colones and dollars, and accept both currencies.

So what’s the best currency to use in Costa Rica? As a general rule of thumb, if a price is listed in U.S. dollars, pay in the North American currency. If it’s listed in colones, pay in colones. This will help you avoid getting an unfavorable exchange rate. Be prepared, though, that some places in Costa Rica won’t accept $50 or $100 bills.

The vast majority of businesses in Costa Rica take credit cards (Visa, MasterCard and American Express), though there are some notable exceptions. You’ll find that many restaurants in remote tourist communities like Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula and the towns of Santa Teresa and Tamarindo on the Nicoya Peninsula have a tendency to be cash only.

Remember to let your credit card company know before you travel abroad, and make sure you’re aware of any foreign transaction fees they might charge. If your credit card company adds an extra cost to every international transaction, you may want to rely more heavily on cash.

Getting cash at the best exchange rate in Costa Rica

Costa Rica remains a cash-heavy economy, and there are ATMs in nearly every town that allow you to withdraw money in either U.S. dollars or colones. Short of waiting in line at a bank to exchange currency, ATMs are the best way to get colones in Costa Rica.

As always, though, a little research before your trip will save you a lot of headache once you’re here.

Your U.S. bank may charge withdrawal fees, so double-check with them before you get a nasty surprise. Some ATMs in Costa Rica also impose small charges, but you can minimize the impact by taking a single withdrawal of a larger amount — rather than several transactions of smaller amounts.

Finally, Costa Rican ATMs and your U.S. bank set daily withdrawal limits. If you expect to have a large cash expense, bring that money with you, or start withdrawing a couple days in advance in case you hit the limit.

How much cash should you carry in Costa Rica?

Your needs and travel plans will dictate how much cash you should carry when you’re in Costa Rica.

While Costa Rica is generally quite safe, there are cases of petty theft, and tourists can sometimes be targeted. Since your vacation may involve activities during which your wallet or purse isn’t a top priority (think: relaxing at the beach, zip lining through the forest canopy, whitewater rafting), you generally shouldn’t carry a wallet stuffed full of cash.

In the end, the best solution is a mix of all three options. You can arrive in Costa Rica with some dollars and rely on your U.S. debit or credit card — if it has no foreign transaction fees — for most purchases. But it’s helpful to carry spare colones for the times when those aren’t accepted.

You wouldn’t want to miss out on a traditional farmer’s market, a local fruit stand or a talented roadside artisan because you didn’t have the local currency.

Summary

Costa Rica’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, so if you’re on vacation here and trying to spend your money, you probably won’t have any difficulty in doing so.

That said, remember these tips to avoid spending more than you have to (or wasting your money on bad exchange rates) when you visit Costa Rica:

  • Check with your bank and credit card company before visiting Costa Rica. Let them know your travel dates, and make sure you understand their foreign transaction fees and ATM charges.
  • You can use U.S. dollars and credit cards in most places in Costa Rica, but having a small cash reserve (in both currencies) is useful.
  • For the best exchange rate, go to a bank in Costa Rica — or for efficiency’s sake, you can simply withdraw colones from ATMs.

And, of course, make sure you take a moment to appreciate the colorful artwork on Costa Rica’s bills. Like much of the country, it’s quite beautiful.