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Living Abroad Without Breaking the Bank in Costa Rica

Costa Rica Colones on desk

Costa Rica Colones currency

In the past the Costa Rica Star published about Paypal in Costa Rica, and how it is a good solution for sending money from a bank account anywhere in the world, to Banco Nacional in Costa Rica.

One of the numerous things to consider when moving abroad is currency. I’m not trained in finance in any way, nor can I advise you in investments. What I can tell you is, I hate paying fees and have learned you can spend a small fortune in currency transaction and ATM fees while living abroad if you don’t plan ahead. Let’s face it, after Christmas we are all looking for ways to save money.

The following is an excerpt from Becoming an Expat: Costa Rica


Your local credit union was an excellent choice for you in your hometown, but as an international bank it might fall short.  Re-evaluate your current bank with the following criteria designed to suit your new life as an expat.

  • Can you fax a wire request to transfer money?
  • Are there ATM fees, if so are they excessive?
  • What is the currency transaction fee?
  • If you are receiving a pension, Social Security, or annuity, can the payments be automatically deposited to your current bank? (www.ssa.gov/foreign/index.html)
  • Do they offer mobile deposits?
  • Are they FDIC insured?
  • Is there a minimum balance requirement to avoid maintenance fees?

Most banks charge a foreign transaction fee (a percentage of your purchase) each time that you swipe your debit card for a bill that is in a currency other than that of your country of origin. For example, if your bank charges a 10% currency transaction fee (CTF) and you buy dinner for $35 USD, your currency transaction fee will be $3.50 USD! CTFs add up quickly, as do ATM fees.

I didn’t think to change banks before I moved to Costa Rica. In just 6 months of living in Costa Rica, I racked up $210.67 USD in fees just to access my money. I now proudly bank with Charles Schwab and pay zero fees (information to follow).

Many places in Costa Rica are cash driven. Some small towns don’t even have a bank or ATM. Where I live, I drive 20 mins to get to an ATM. Other towns require a trek of over an hour to access money from an ATM. As cash is becoming obsolete in the US, it is still a commodity in Costa Rica. Most tourist towns will accept the US dollar, but if you venture off the beaten path, you may run into resistance.

Check to see what your bank charges each time you access your money from an “out of network” ATM.  More often than not, the bank whose ATM you are using will also apply a fee. You could be looking at anywhere between $5-10 USD just to use the ATM! If you are withdrawing Colones instead of US Dollars, tack on the Foreign Transaction Fee.

You might conclude that your bank will not serve you well as an international resource. I have banked with Bank of America, Washington Mutual, and most recently Wells Fargo. I was paying way to much to access my money internationally, so I did some research and found a bank that offers everything I was looking for. Charles Schwab’s High Yield Investor’s Checking Account. (I do not receive any kickbacks from Charles Schwab but would love if you mentioned who sent you to them) 

Take a look at the benefits:

  • Zero maintenance fees
  • Zero minimum balance requirement
  • Free brokerage account
  • Mobile deposits
  • Online banking
  • UNLIMITED ATM FEE REIMBURSEMENTS- not only do they not charge ATM fees of their own, they take it one step further and reimburse you for the fees other banks charge to use their ATMs to access your money around the world!

End of Excerpt 

To learn more about how to move, live, work, and retire in Costa Rica read, Becoming an Expat: Costa Rica

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