Opening a Costa Rican bank account just got harder

Roger and Mary Petersen of Petersen & Philps law firm in Costa Rica

It recently became more difficult for non-resident expats to open Costa Rican bank accounts, according to Roger Petersen, of the Costa Rican law firm Petersen & Philps.

“Rules have tightened up to the degree that to open a bank account in Costa Rica you have to provide very in-depth information about the source of your funds. You’re required to hire a CPA to certify all your financial records. Without that CPA certification, the bank won’t even look at you.”

Some workarounds have already sprung up.

While public banks like Banco Nacional and Banco de Costa Rica say they will no longer open accounts for people who don’t have residency, private institutions like Scotia Bank and Banco de San Jose (BAC) are being a little more lenient. Peterson said that when he recently investigated for an expat client, he found that Scotia Bank wouldn’t open a personal account for a non-resident but would open an account for him or her as a corporation (a Sociedad Anonima, or S.A.)  And Banco de San Jose (BAC), says Petersen, opened an account for a client who is not a resident—they just asked for a passport. “But they were adamant that you bring a letter—an original, no copies—from your bank in the U.S.,” saying that you are a customer in good standing.

Other related restrictions include that as of Oct 1, 2012, many Costa Rican banks won’t allow electronic transfers (ACH transfers) unless the account holder has a DIMEX card, which for most expats would be their residency card. Non-resident expats who already have bank accounts (opened under earlier, less stringent requirements) found, starting in late 2012, that they could no longer make electronic transfers with those accounts.

Peterson, for example, has clients who buy houses in Costa Rica for investment purposes, then go back to the U.S. They’ve been accustomed to going online to pay their utility and other household bills, but as of late 2012 that option has been disappearing.

What’s Behind the New Rules, and Will They Last?

“This is typical,” says Peterson, “of agencies not thinking through the consequences of regulations that they pass.”

He says that Costa Rica is trying to comply with regulations set out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based organization that aims to “promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.”  In 2010 the organization blacklisted Costa Rica for being ‘uncooperative’ in tax matters and fiscal transparency. The underlying message was that the OECD thought Costa Rica didn’t do enough to prevent money laundering and other shady financial dealings. “The country took those censures to heart,” says Petersen, “and then went to the other extreme.”

So Costa Rica is now off the OECD’s black list, but the country is left with regulations that push banks and their customers to the wall. Some banks (like the private ones noted above) are pushing back. Whether or not the regulators will push back against the pushback or allow for more lenient interpretations of the rules remains to be seen.

  • By Kim, December 7, 2012 @ 2:57 am

    Banco Nacional told us that the process was necessary because the US required them to do so. We had to endure the process and we had temp residency.

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, December 7, 2012 @ 7:15 am

    Hi Kim, Thanks for the comment. What exactly did Banco Nacional require of you?

  • By Harvey Doons, May 4, 2013 @ 4:05 am

    Nice try, Erin, making it sound like a ‘Paris-based organisation’ is at the root of all these new regulations. Don’t blame it on the Europeans.

    Please, it is the post 9/11 US that is imposing draconian reporting requirements on US citizens’ banking habits in all ‘friendly’ nations around the world.

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, May 4, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

    Harvey: Yes, there are US laws that make banking abroad harder. But in this particular case at least some of the pressure is coming from Europe. Nice try yourself. (Why begin a comment with such a condescending phrase?)

Other Links to this Post