Last updated on June 4, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, founder of MEL365, following extensive travelling in Costa Rica

Rent a Car Without a Credit Card in Costa Rica: Yes or No?

Renting a car without a credit card in Costa Rica isn’t as simple as swiping a debit card or waving a bundle of cash at the rental counter.

The process is layered with checks, balances, and certain requirements that car rental agencies put in place to protect their interests. However, despite these complexities, it is possible to hire a car without a credit card in Costa Rica.

Let’s explore how.

Most rental agencies will pick you up from outside the airport - Right side as you exit the terminal
Most rental agencies in San Jose will pick you up from outside the International Airport – Right side as you exit the terminal

How to Rent a Car Without a Credit Card in Costa Rica

In short, I have summarised below a table on the options that you have, but keep reading for more detailed information

Payment OptionProsCons
Credit CardWidely accepted, convenient, possible extra insurance coverage, no deposit neededRequires good credit score, potential for high interest rates if balance isn’t paid off in full
Debit CardDirect access to funds, avoids interest feesRarely accepted, possible large deposit, could affect travel budget, may not provide additional insurance
Prepaid Credit CardCould be used if no other credit or debit card is available. It provides a credit card number for reservationsOften not accepted, often high fees, refunds can be slow and complicated
CashUseful if you have no cardsI could not find any rentals, extensive approval process, hefty deposit, fewer rental choices
How to rent a car without a credit card – A comparison

Why rental agencies want a credit card

Traditionally, car rental companies lean towards credit cards for a multitude of reasons. Primarily, credit cards allow these businesses to place a hold on a certain amount as a security deposit ($1,000-$3,000 based on the type of insurance that you want to take in Costa Rica).

This hold serves as a safety net for the rental companies, covering any extra charges that might pop up during your rental period. This could be anything from additional fuel charges to costs for any damages incurred. This routine practice, in fact, is not just restricted to Costa Rica but is a common trend in car rentals worldwide.

International car rental agencies operating in Costa Rica typically align with this preference for credit cards.

Take Sixt, for instance. This globally recognized brand has a policy firmly in place that does not accept prepaid or debit cards for rentals in Costa Rica. This strict stance is reflective of the overall industry preference that sways toward credit card transactions.

SIXT not accepting Credit Cards

In saying that, recognizing the growing demand for diverse payment options, some local companies have begun offering alternatives to credit card rentals. Payless is one such Costa Rican company that extends this facility.

They allow customers to rent cars without the prerequisite of a credit card but there are a few caveats (more of this below).

Challenges with renting a car without a credit card

Car rentals without a credit card come with their unique set of challenges and hurdles. Without the financial backing of a credit card, companies might put you through additional verification hoops to ascertain your reliability as a renter.

These might involve more in-depth background checks or even demand proof of a return flight or proof of local accommodation for the duration of your stay in Costa Rica. They are obviously worried that you rent a car in Costa Rica and you cross the border to Panama or Nicaragua.

Moreover, car rentals without a credit card in Costa Rica could also lead to added expenses. One such cost is the cash deposit that companies might demand upfront to cover potential damages or any additional charges.

It’s not uncommon for these deposits to be quite hefty, potentially locking up a considerable portion of your travel budget.

In addition to the deposit, you might also find yourself needing to invest in extra insurance coverage. This additional coverage gives rental companies an added layer of assurance, safeguarding them from any potential monetary loss if any mishaps occur during the rental period.

Renting a car in Costa Rica with a debit card

Debit cards are of course the best option if you do not have a credit card.

Like the other alternatives, debit cards are not universally accepted like their credit counterparts. However, some companies might accept debit cards, with the caveat of a large deposit.

This deposit, along with the blocked amount for the rental, could place a significant dent in your account balance. This, in turn, could unexpectedly affect your vacation budget, making it imperative to consider this factor when deciding to use a debit card.

The essential difference with the credit card is that the rental agency will hold the deposit (typically $1,000-$3,000) with the credit card, releasing it when you take back the car (less any amount for damages, etc).

With a debit card, they will actually charge you the money (the deposit will be moved to their account) and it will be sent back to you when you hand the vehicle back (again, deduct any expenses incurred for damages or other related costs).

The release of the deposit with a debit card takes much longer, up to 45 days (due to lengthy bank transactions). Keep also in mind that you will basically wire a large amount of money ($1,000-$3,000) to the rental agency. Don’t do it if renting from an unknown local company (they could disappear).

Another important thing to understand is that you can actually book on a website the car with a debit card, and most rentals accept it to pay for the actual vehicle.

However, you won’t be able to drive away if the rental agency accepts only credit cards for the security deposit. Moreover, the credit card has to be in the driver’s name.

Reductors or bumps are very common in Costa Rica
Reductors or bumps are very common in Costa Rica

Prepaid credit cards

Prepaid credit cards stand as another potential alternative for renting a car. You can easily buy it everywhere. They are typically sold at post offices in most countries. They are sometimes also called travel cards.

Once you buy and activate it, you will have to load the card with some money, surely more than the max deposit ($3,000). It basically works as a digital piggy bank, however, it’s commonly not accepted by rental companies, unfortunately.

I am going to write more below, however, for traveling I prefer debit cards to travel cards or prepaid credit cards.

Even if the prepaid credit card is accepted, you will have the same issues that I have explained for a debit card. Additionally, refunds of the deposit can be very slow, complicated, and potentially expensive.

Cash rentals

Lastly, for those considering cash rentals, there’s more to factor in than just having the cash on hand. Cash rentals usually involve an extensive approval process, and even then, you’re required to leave a hefty deposit.

Cash rental is not common practice. On one of my latest trips, I did not have a credit card and I explored the possibility to use cash but I could not find any rental company. Honestly, it was a no-sense option too, because flying with so much cash in hand is not really a wise choice.

Renting a car in Costa Rica
Renting a car in Costa Rica

Car rentals in Costa Rica without credit card

I have searched around in Costa Rica and contacted multiple companies by email or phone. In true honesty, the answers have not been outstanding, in a way that credit cards are and stay the preferred way of paying the security deposit.

I usually rent my cars from DiscoverCars, a fantastic aggregator that compares local and international companies providing the best prices around. They also have a reviewing system similar to Airbnb, but for cars, so I have better peace of mind when I book from a company.

On their booking page, you have the option “Payment card at pick-up“, select debit card and you will have a list of the companies accepting also debit cards for the security deposit. As easy as that.

Payment card at pick-up options
Payment card at pick-up options

Usually, when you select debit cards, the list of options decreases, and the price increases. This is another indication that credit cards are the preferred way.

I have also contacted over 10 rental companies and I found out that Dollar Rent a Car allows debit cards but they need full insurance on the vehicle. I reckon CDW + Full Insurance will increase the price by at least $70/day, just my guess, further investigation would be needed.

Dollar Rent a car accepts debit cards
Dollar Rent a Car accepts debit cards

On DiscoverCars I also found Payless available to take debit cards but you would have to buy additional insurance at around $20 or more based on the car model, which is not as bad.

Other companies like ACE Rent A Car, AVIS, SIXT and Mex Rent A Car have answered that they accept only credit cards. Others have not bothered answering.

Renting a car with a cheap credit card and a debit card

With all I said till now, you may realize how hard, expensive, and time-consuming is to rent a car in Costa Rica without a credit card, and in true honesty in most of the world.

I am not a fan of credit cards, especially when traveling. This is for a few reasons:

  • they have a yearly fee that I rather avoid using a debit card
  • they charge an unfavorable exchange rate every time you pay with it (International Transaction Fee)
  • when collecting cash at the ATM, they charge an even higher fee for the transaction (International Cash Advance Fee)
  • if they clone my debit card, I may not find it out even till the next bill

Honestly, the fees are the things that bother me the most, especially because I travel a lot and things add up quickly whenever I book accommodation, a local ticket of any form, flights etc. I used to spend in the 4 digits every year on these fees, till I changed my travel financial system.

I have now a bank account with Wise and a cheap credit card without a yearly fee that I use just for renting cars. Everything else I pay with my Wise debit card.

What I love the most about Wise is that they use the Google exchange rate. This is the lowest possible rate on the market. Usually, credit cards add a ~3% on top of it plus sometimes a transaction fee. Wise allows me also to take $200/month from an ATM for free (a small fee is added after that).

For every trip I make I save hundreds of dollars just by using Wise. Moreover, every time there is a transaction I have a pop-up on my mobile, so I am straight away aware if my card is used illegally.

Wise is currently offering a fee-free transfer up to £500 when you sign up with this link (and I get something too, but at no extra charge to you 😉 )

On top of Wise, I then use a local credit card here in Australia (connected to Wise for the payment). I looked up for other possibilities in UK and USA that you can explore

CountryCard NameProsCons
AustraliaColes No Annual Fee Mastercard1. No annual fee. 2. Earn flybuys points on everyday purchases. 3. Up to 55 days interest-free on purchases.1. High interest rate of 19.99% p.a. 2. Cash advance rate of 19.99% p.a.
USAChase Credit Card1. Wide range of cards to choose from. 2. Many cards offer rewards, cash back, or travel benefits.1. Specific benefits and terms depend on the particular card chosen. 2. Some cards may have annual fees.
UKRBS Longer Balance Transfer Card1. 0% interest for 30 months on balance transfers. 2. 0% interest for the first 3 months on purchases. 3. No annual fee.1. 2.99% balance transfer fee applies. 2. Balances must be transferred within 3 months of account opening. 3. Representative 23.9% APR (variable).
UKNatWest Longer Balance Transfer Card1. 0% interest for 30 months on balance transfers. 2. 0% interest for the first 3 months on purchases. 3. No annual fee.1. 2.99% balance transfer fee applies. 2. Balances must be transferred within 3 months of account opening. 3. Representative 23.9% APR (variable).
No annual fee credit cards that work great to hire a vehicle in Costa Rica

I currently have the Coles No Annual Fee Mastercard and that’s what I use for renting a car, but just for the security deposit. I pay for the car with my Wise Debit Card because exchange rates are so much better.

Please, note that I do not have any affiliation with these credit cards or banks. In fact, I believe a few of them have extremely high-interest rates which I would not suggest using for daily shopping. I see them more for dedicated use, like the security deposit.

Busy Tamarindo center in the morning
Busy Tamarindo center in the morning

Conclusion

Renting a car in Costa Rica without a credit card can indeed be a complex endeavor, but not an impossible one. The lack of a credit card does necessitate a level of creative problem-solving and extra planning, particularly when it comes to dealing with the restrictions and requirements of the various payment methods.

However, the options are out there. Using debit cards is the easiest of the solutions even if this may require a substantial deposit, more comprehensive insurance, or even full insurance. These alternatives come with their pros and cons and it’s essential to balance these against your own financial situation and comfort level.

Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

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