"Which bank do you recommend Scott?" Is a popular question...
My most frequent answer goes something like: "I don't recommend any bank in Costa Rica but, after nearly ten years of doing business here, if you would like to know which bank I still do business with - meaning the best of the worst - I would be happy to help."
Or a more common response would be:
"Recommend? A bank in Costa Rica? I wouldn't recommend any of them, they're all bloody awful!"
But then again, I've had horrible experiences with practically every bank in every country I've visited over the past ten years.
When I tried opening a bank account in Scotland a few years ago, the country in which I was born, I was told I couldn't unless I had a current, local mailing address. I informed them that I was considering buying a property but would need a bank account in order to complete this process....
"But you'll need a current street address."
OK! But how do I get a current street address if you won't let open an account to buy a home which has "a current street address?"
Costa Rica Banks - PLENTY of room for improvement
We used to have an article on this site about one of my banking experiences entitled 'ScotiaBank wins NBA Award' but changed the title because our American friends were puzzled about the connection between National Basketball Association (NBA) and the bank.
I would explain that I was just poking fun at the bank, and was actually referring to the Nigerian Banking Association however, it wouldn't surprise me if a Nigerian bank offered superior customer service these days...
Over the past few years, we have seen many acquisitions in the banking industry, and although we had been hoping that the professional banking services in Costa Rica would improve dramatically, which they desperately need to, this has not happened.
In fact, with increased regulations and more red tape imposed from outside the country and from within, opening a new account - even in a bank where you already have multiple accounts - takes longer than ever and, getting a mortgage, even with a bank where you have already previously had a mortgage is - to be blunt - a total freaking nightmare!
Customer 'service' is non existent in most Costa Rica banks. Very long lines and lots of patience are required and most people working in banks have no idea about the time value of money or, the urgency that is often required in financial transactions....
One of the best worst banks in Costa Rica.
19th September 2009 Update. Email about ScotiaBank from our VIP Members:
"Just want to update you. We had problems with Scotia Bank and our closing on our property in Tamarindo. They asked for information from people that were not even applying for a mortgage. At that point we said enough is enough and paid cash.
The bank was angry and stated that we were approved for the loan and backed off from the request for more information. Even though we had to pay the closing taxes and not bury it into the mortgage we felt more at ease than going through ScotiaBank. Needless to say, we needed to establish a banking relationship in Costa Rica and did so by using the Bank of San Jose.
Never would I recommend or use ScotiaBank in Costa Rica, Canada, or where ever else they may be located." Jeff & Mary Fresia.
I wouldn't recommend this bank to my worst enemy... Actually maybe I would.
Even though I love this country and the people in it, we should remember that Costa Rica is still a small, developing Central American country and if you own real estate here, you probably already have quite enough of your net worth invested in Costa Rica without keeping all your cash in a local bank as well.
I am not for a second suggesting that your money is at risk in a Costa Rica bank, however the advice given to my international investment clients is to keep six months worth of cash living expenses inside Costa Rica, the rest is to be safely invested offshore in Switzerland or Singapore perhaps.
This does of course depend on your nationality, for US citizens who no longer live in the "land of the free", it's no longer possible to structure your investment portfolios in such a way that you can invest privately and safely offshore. No legitimate offshore investment firm or offshore bank can do business with you without reporting all your affairs to the US.
Ten Costa Rica Banking Tips
Do everything you can to avoid actually personally visiting any bank. If you really must visit a bank, try to avoid lunchtimes and any time on Fridays.
Try and do your banking online.
Try and make sure all your regular monthly bills (maintenance, electricity, cellphone, telephone, internet) are automatically paid by the bank or paid by credit card.
When you are outside in stores and restaurants, when paying by credit card, try to never let the credit card out of your sight.
Ask anyone who must pay you, to pay you online and not to give you a cheque that must be deposited.
Make sure you have your ID with you when you visit any bank. As 2012 foreigners in Costa Rica now must have a cedula to be able to do their banking.
If you are licensed to carry a firearm do not try to walk into a state bank as they check for firearms. The private banks do not check for firearms but do post signs requesting that you do not carry firearms into the bank. I don't carry mine into the bank because I might be tempted to use it...
Do not use your cellphone to make or take phone calls or send messages in any bank, private or state!
Make sure you have a good book with you, maybe a bottle of water and that you bring all the patience you can muster...
Only buy goods online with your credit cards from reputable and secure sources. EVen better, you use a debit card with a low limit.
One of the reasons we all love Costa Rica is because of the more laid back lifestyle... Many things are left until mañana which is great and makes for a pleasant, lower stress and more relaxed lifestyle however, it's unfortunately not compatible with speedy and efficient banking services that we may have become accustomed to elsewhere...
And finally to answer your question... It's been my experience over the last ten years that the least worst Costa Rica banks are BAC San Jose, HSBC and Banco Improsa but I'm not 'recommending' any of them...