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Can You Shop at Costco without a Membership? Yes! Here are 5 Ways

Last updated by on August 11, 2016

If you are not one to compromise food quality (like me), but still seek out a good deal – the odds are strong that you have a Costco membership.

And if you don’t, you should seriously consider it.

Just check out some of the Costco prices that I highlighted in my best warehouse deals post in comparison to the reputably inexpensive Trader Joe’s:

  • Kirkland organic quinoa: 4.5 lb., $11.99, $2.66/lb. (compared to $3.49/lb. at Trader Joe’s)
  • organic frozen broccoli: 4 lb. bag, $5.99, $1.49/lb. (compared to $2.49/lb. at Trader Joe’s)
  • Kirkland walnuts: 3 lb. bag, $9.99, $3.33/lb. (compared to $7.49/lb. at Trader Joe’s)
  • Chicken of the Sea canned tuna: 12 – 7 oz. cans, $12.99, $0.19/oz (compared to $0.33/oz at Trader Joe’s)

Costco prices can commonly be anywhere from 15-50% of the prices found at Trader Joe’s – and even more when compared to other grocery stores. It’s not an apples to apples comparison – Costco does have limited SKU’s and the items you purchase are often in bulk volume.

Nevertheless, there are some great deals to be had and once you’ve optimized your Costco routine, it can be frugal heaven.

To get access to that kind of pricing – there’s a cost. Costco memberships range from $55 (per household) to $110 (for the executive plan, which has a 2% kickback). Those fees are not insignificant. And they just so happen to be how Costco makes a good share of its profits. In fact, 75% of Costco’s profit comes from its membership fees – Costco’s markups on food pricing are razor thin, which benefits its members. The more food essentials you buy and eat from there, the more you benefit (just stay away from the other stuff).

What if you don’t want to commit to a $55 membership and just want to see if a membership will be worth your while? It turns out there are a few under-the-radar ways to shop and buy from Costco, without a membership. Also, for those interested, I since have published a list of ways you can shop at Sam’s Club without a membership too!

Is there a Free Costco Membership?

shop at costco without a membershipUnfortunately, there is no free Costco membership, day pass, guest pass, or trial period where you can walk up to the door and get some kind of magic wristband for a day, or something.

However, if you’d simply like to see what the store has to offer, you are welcome to enter and walk around and purchase some products. I have never been asked for my membership card when I enter a Costco, even though they do have greeters who seemingly are there to encourage you to show it.

To buy most goods, you must be a member or have a member make the purchase (with the few big exceptions, which I’ll get in to).

Of course, you might not be comfortable doing that and it could get old pretty quick for the member. There is another way…

The Costco membership refund policy states:

“We will refund your membership fee in full at any time if you are dissatisfied.”

So, you could pay your membership fee, give it a trial run, and if you feel you are not getting the value from it that you’d like – ask for a refund. You can do so at any time.

But what if you just want to get in the door and walk around to see what Costco has to offer, pricing, and all that good stuff – but you don’t know a member you are comfortable tagging along with?

Buying Alcohol at Costco without Membership

I was not able to find any official Costco messaging on this, but it appears from my research that Costco allows alcohol sales to non-members (of legal drinking age, of course). In fact, the idea for this post was spurred by a conversation from someone who had done just that and told me about the exception, much to my surprise.

This may vary by state, but as far as I can tell, it is a national policy. Are their alcohol regulations around the policy? I’m not quite sure.

Having bought alcohol at Costco – I can vouch for the deals to be had. A case of pint-size Guinness cans for $23.99? You bet. 1.75 liters of Kirkland brand Canadian whiskey for $20? Yep.

Letting the door attendant know that you are there to buy alcohol, they should let you in the door. And once you’re in, you can walk around and check everything out.

Buying Prescriptions at Costco without Membership

Costco pharmacy non memberPrescription drug sales, like alcohol, are highly regulated. And Costco and other membership stores must offer equal access and pricing for prescriptions to all consumers, regardless of membership status.

So, you could let the door attendant know that you are a non-member who is picking up a prescription. That should get you in the door.

And by the way, prescriptions at the Costco pharmacy are very inexpensive. Costco even has the cheapest flu shots for those without insurance (all insurance plans must now cover flu shots). You can buy immunizations at Costco without a membership.

Alcohol and drugs? What could go wrong.

Get Food from the Costco Food Court without a Membership

I’ve seen many sites that give the tip that you can get food from the Costco food court restaurant without a membership, but only if it is an outdoor food court. This is not true. Since anyone can get in to a Costco, anyone can get food from the Costco food courts – outdoors or indoors.

You will, however, need cash to pay.

The deals at the Costco restaurant are very good, but the options are typically limited to hot dogs/sausages, soda, pizza, rotisserie chicken, sundaes, and frozen yogurt.

Using Costco Optical Services without a Membership

You can get an eye exam at Costco optical, however, to buy glasses and/or contacts, you do need a Costco membership.

Non-Members Can Purchase from

Non-members can purchase from Costco’s website,, at any time. There is a downside, however:

“Non-members will be charged a 5% surcharge over the member’s posted product prices (except for prescription drugs).”

The food offering on is extremely limited as well.

The Costco Cash Card Can be Used by Non-Members:

Costco also has a cash card (fancy name for a gift card). With a Costco cash card, any non-member can show the card to get in the door and use it to make a purchase.

The trick with the Costco cash card is that it can be purchased by a member only. Again, you’ll have to rely on a member, which makes you a bit of a moocher, and raises costs for every membership-buying member. And once the card is depleted, you’ll have to get another fresh one from a member.

If you know someone who is game, one or two cards wouldn’t hurt. I have heard (not tested), that the entire purchase does not have to be made with the card. In other words, if you only had $10 left on a card and had $150 worth of purchases, you could use the card for $10 and then use another form of payment for the remainder. Which is a great segue…

Costco Forms of Payment:

While you may get in the door and even be able to purchase items, note that Costco stores do not accept Discover, American Express, or MasterCard credit cards as payment. Accepted forms of payment include: cash, check, debit cards, the previously mentioned Costco cash cards, and Visa credit cards (including the Costco branded Costco Anywhere Visa Card, which gets 2% cash back on Costco purchases.

Shopping at Costco Discussion:

  • What are your favorite Costco shopping hacks?
  • What are your favorite items at Costco?

About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 10,000+ others by getting FREE email updates. You can also explore every post I have written, in order.

  • dnabrice says:

    I’ve been told by Costco Employees on a couple occasions, that you will always get at least a $55 Executive rebate. So if you get the membership, you might as well get the Executive.

    • Craig says:

      They’ve told me that almost everyone spends enough to get $55 back and that if you don’t you can get a refund for the executive membership add on price. So they make it sound prett risk-free.

      • David says:

        It sounds risk free but it’s not hassle free. How the guarantee works is the same as the normal membership guarantee. In other words you have to cancel your executive membership to get the refund. If you have their credit card this means when you sign up they’ll send you a new set of cards you have to activate, hen when you downgrade to get the refund they’ll send you another set.

  • dnabrice says:

    Their Kirkland branded Vodka is great, I did a taste test vs some Absolute that I had. It’s $13 for a 1.75L, and $24 for the 1.75L of their Grey Goose equivalent. Their Kirkland brand Champagne this past Christmas was produced by Veuve Cliqout and was half the price…$19.99 for a 750ml.

  • K says:

    I’ve had two different experiences at 2 different store locations. One has allowed me several times to make purchases using a cash card, and placing the remaining balance on my debit card. Even making a purchase more than $100 over the amount of the cash card. But they always have to call a supervisor for an override.

    The other store refused to sell to me for an amount significantly over what was on the cash card. Like, they said they might go a couple dollars over and allow me to cover it with another form of payment.

    So far I guess I can either stick with the one store, or get gift cards in larger denominations.

    Or get my own membership for just $55. I think I could make that back in 6 mos on coconut oil purchases, alone. Not to mention all the other stuff I would buy there, just because I could.

  • Janet says:

    Don’t forget many Costco locations have gas, too. Usually the best price localy.

  • Lisa says:

    I am not a Costco member but fill all my prescriptions there. One of them is almost $150/month, but at Costco, I get THREE months for a total of $25! And my Costco has told me more than once that I would save even more on meds if I were a member, contrary to what your article said.

  • Melissa says:

    I am considering buying a Costco membership, even though there’s only two adults in my household. I wasn’t sure it would be worth it for us until I saw Janet’s comment about Costco gas.

    I just did a quick online search and learned Costco gas prices are currently $.15/gallon less than the average in my city right now. At the rate we use fuel, assuming the savings remains constant, the gas savings alone will be $117/year. Not to mention, Costco is only a couple blocks from my work and directly on my route home every day. (I won’t add any additional mileage when filling up.)

  • Earnest says:

    I hear, that if you know other members of Costco, they may have free membership spots on their cards. Maybe they’ll share or let you on their card at a discount price.

  • Sandy says:

    i think you should be able to go in and look around and see if it would benefit you to buy a membership. Then if you think it would then buy a membership. Why buy a membership if it is not beneficial to you.

  • maria says:

    I had bad experience yesterday try to buy stuff groceries using my causing card and they don’t let me my shopping card was full and the cashier toll me I have to sign to purchase there was very uncomfortable anyways a left the store wiywith out anything on my hands a lost my time

  • bwguy says:

    In certain states and I am sure states where these clubs operate, it is against the law to require memberships to purchase Alcohol, Pharmacy (Medicine), and Optical products because these are federally regulated items. Same goes for Costco’ competitor you can enter and purchase these products without memberships.

    • D/P says:

      It’s Federal, not state-reliant.

      It is a part of the Alcohol and Liquor board licensing terms. Any place that sells alcohol must allow everyone to be able to purchase. According to Company policy, if you go in for alcohol, you MUST be escorted. Same goes for Pharmacy, but in most cases, they are lazy and let you in the door.
      Also, purchasing with a Cash Card is sometimes a huge hassle when you purchase during a busy period of the day, because if the supervisors are preoccupied, it can cause a huge wait behind you.

      Best bet: if you can’t afford the totally non-commitment-necessary-small-fee-of-55-measley-dollars, you shouldn’t be shopping at Costco, it really just isn’t for everyone. However, I do totally encourage you to sign up and give it a try, it really is RISK-FREE!

      Current Costco Employee

      • Reality says:

        If the membership is so measly and trivial, why doesn’t this big talker pay it for me? Too cheap I guess. The entire scheme there is to cause shoppers to overbuy in large volume. Most members end up with far more product than they’ll really consume. Comparable prices to these wholesale warehouse scams can be found at many open retailers for those that shop and pay attention. Sometimes better deals.

  • Sidney says:

    I’m curious to know if you have ever done a comparision of Costco -vs- BJ’s? We are members of the later.

    Also I love this blog 3 plus years following you (!) and have turned other friends & family onto it. I only follow one other blog……….
    Am happy that you have not sold out to the evil ad people.


    • Nathanael says:

      I’ve found that Costco per unit price is cheaper than BJs. But you tend to have to buy larger quantities. BJs also had a slightly

      I also think the customer experience at Costco is better than BJs. Though on the surface they are very similar. That’s one of the reasons Costco has a very strong following that you don’t quite have with BJs.

      The Kirkland brand is also superior to Berkley and Jensen.

    • Kat says:

      So I just typed out this long reply outlining the major differences between BJs and Costco. When I hit submit, they body of my message disappeared. Then I typed a few letters just as a test to see if maybe I clicked something wrong. It worked, hence the above. Maybe I will get the motivation to retype everything. Right now, I should be working 🙁

  • Julie Limberg says:

    Do you except the bridge card?

  • Dom says:

    The problem with buying in bulk is it increases your consumption rate. So we find Costco members don’t really save more but consume more. I still think best way for real savings is by reducing your consumption to point that you can still remain satisfied. I work in healthcare field and take care of way to many people with hypertension and diabetes and these are considered lifestyle diseases.

    • SortingHat says:

      Sorry but that is not a fault of either supermarkets or Costco. That is a personal problem and choice to consume more and be fat.
      You DO save money at Costco if you don’t consume a lot and watch it and there was one time the public wasn’t even allowed to have a card period!

      Some items cost the same as the grocery store but most items are half the cost and double the amount because they once catered to business fields only and you had to be a business or medical personal to be allowed a membership card. 1980s to the late 90s.

      We moved from the mountains of Northern California to Oregon in 1997 and had a Costco membership card since 1992 according to the store’s record where Dad was a pharmacy at a hospital and was considered *medical personal* so we were allowed a card but by 1997 they allowed all public to be a member.

      We shopped at Reno Nevada and that Costco is very weird. At the time in the 90s it didn’t feature ANY chairs and you had to stand to eat. Never have seen a Costco like it since.

    • SortingHat says:

      We also shopped at the Chico California Costco in the 90s and while Reno you couldn’t sit down the Chico one did.

  • Laura says:

    SAMs Club is the same way at least in Illinois. You don’t need a membership to purchase alcohol.. But they don’t advertise that.

  • Johnathan H. says:

    Regarding the Costco Cash Card that I used at a Costco in Orange County California:

    I had $50 on the card, my purchases of food totaled ~$60. I had a $10 balance left over. You can *only* use cash or debit card for Cash Card transactions to my dismay. I was told Costco has the right to tell you to remove items from your cart if you exceed your Cash Card amount by a large amount (i.e. >$10). I was told it was a “courtesy” that they didn’t have me remove any items I wanted to buy.

    It was a frustrating experience having the cashier lady NOT explain this me as I tried to swipe my Amex Card. I had to ask the membership desk afterwards to clarify this to me. BTW, only members can reload the card. You also can’t choose how much to put on the Costco Cash card, e.g. you can’t put $10 on your card and the remaining amount on your debit card.

  • William Zolchonock says:

    Just a comment. If you don’t want people to buy without a membership and you believe it will cost members more why tell cutsey dishonest ways of beating the system.

    I can’t see how increasing your volume by buying through a member can possibly hurt. It’s volume you don’t currently have. Obviously you want to make up part of the discounts with your fee.

    No answer necessary.

    • Bridget says:

      Costco’s business model is to make money on membership only, and sell the items at cost. So it does hurt them if people are buying through someone else instead of getting their own membership.

  • Joni says:

    I currently have a SAMs membership and I think I can’t to get a costco card instead is there and way to get a tribal membership just so I can see what the difference in products are there. Also what forms of ID etc would you need to open a card.
    Thanks in advance for your help

  • GB says:

    Just as an FYI you cannot always use a Costco gift card if you are a non member. I purchased a gift card for a friend who wanted to try out Costco before getting a membership and the cashier wouldn’t take her gift card because she is a non-member. A manager came over to confirm that non-members are NOT ALLOWED to use Costco gift cards, but it is a policy that is rarely enforced. I said fine, I would just pay for the items, so they rang them up under my membership. My friend tried to hand over the Costco gift card & cash, but they wouldn’t even take it from her—she had to hand it to ME and then I had to hand to the cashier. We both were fine with the policy, but good grief they went to great lengths to embarrass my friend for being a “non-member!”

    • Christy says:

      That’s ridiculous! They need to train all their employees about correct procedures. This is directly from their website: You must be a Costco member to purchase or reload Costco Cash Cards. Members and non-members may use Costco Cash Cards to shop at any Costco location in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, online at and Costco Cash Card balances may be used toward membership or merchandise…

    • LMC says:

      According to Costco’s website, non-members ARE permitted to use Cash Cards: “You must be a Costco member to purchase or reload Costco Cash Cards. Members and non-members may use the cash cards to shop at any Costco location in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and online at or on Costco Cash balances may be used toward membership or merchandise.”

    • Jerad says:

      “Members and non-members may use the cash cards to shop at any Costco location in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and online at or on”

    • Nancy says:

      I spoke with an employee about this. Apparently, there is a difference between a Costco gift card and a cash card. Members only can use a gift card. Members and non-members can use a cash card but the cash cards can only be purchased by a member.

  • Joe says:

    I am an executive member and tried using a costco cash card to make my purchase without showing my membership card. Cashier wouldn’t allow me to make the purchase without first showing that I was a member. (Henderson, Nevada)

    • Fan says:

      I think Costco really need to change the cash card description on their website, because the truth is a non member is not allowed to shop with a cash card. I have the same experience where the cashier and the manager didn’t allow me to use the cash card without a membership. I do have a membership, but my wife doesn’t, and I want her to shop at Costco without me coming along. The first time she tried to use the cash card, she got humiliated by the manager and the customer service, they guarded her from the register to the front customer service area and tried to kick her out. So, I called the customer service center, complained about my wife’s bad experience, and once again made sure if a non member is allowed to use the cash card to shop, and they said YES. So, I went again with her to Costco and tried to use the cash card without showing my membership, and they still didn’t let me to make the purchase. I showed the manager the website that says “Members and non-members may use Costco Cash Cards to shop at any Costco…” and he seemed confused and never seen that policy before. I thought Costco is well managed company that cares about their customer satisfaction, but I guess I was wrong. Maybe someone who works at Costco can answer our problems here? (Location: Costco Torrance, CA)

      • SortingHat says:

        I saw you’re location and no wonder! Torrance is a horrible place and you will find many people like the manager who is rude. My grandma who is 80 something years old moved in 2000 from Torrance to Port Townsend Washington where partially to be closer to family but also to get away from the rude people and gang life.

        Grandma lived in Torrance most of her life and has seen the many changes it has gone from being a small nothing town far from anything to a sprawling urban mess without any real planning.

      • SortingHat says:

        My comment about the friendly door greeters didn’t make it thru.

        It seems when I type a lot websites don’t let me post where if I type super short *facebook style* then it gets approved.

  • Barbara says:

    We have Sam’s Club here but many people are not as happy with Sam’s as we once were. Might be a new manager, who knows, but some of their grocery and candy offerings sit on the shelves too long and are not as fresh as they should be. Sam’s does, however, let non-members come in and purchase whatever they want using any of their regularly accepted payment methods, as long as they come in with a member.

    I wonder why Costco stores are so few and far between in some areas. Do they only locate in large metropolitan areas? I would like to see a Costco in Western Wisconsin. Right now the nearest Costco to me is over 80 miles, one way.

  • Carol says:

    Some states have laws against “member clubs” regarding alcohol. In Hawaii, they have to allow you in to purchase alcohol regardless.

  • Y says:

    I’m trying to find a cheap membership so I can buy tubs of cheap protein powder with my foodstamps. Why can’t I just pay for the membership with my foodstamp card? >.>

    • kim says:

      are you serious? wow i am disabled and fighting for my benefits for 4 yrs after working 30, my 6 chronic illnesses have become too much for me, to see someone who wants to use their ebt card to get a membership is beyond my comprehension sorry but that is odd

  • Bill says:

    I’m a member of SAMs club with the closest one being about 45 miles away. There is a Costco about 60 miles away. I think it’s ridiculous that they don’t offer at least a one day trial membership. How could that possibly hurt them?

  • Stephanie says:

    I’m in a Seattle suburb and I used a Costco cash card with only 5 cents on it to get in the door and make a purchase for $30. I paid the remainder in cash. The cashier was very nice, the manager came over to approve and left with no problem. And because of this easy experience I was able to check out a costco and decide to buy a membership.
    Really sucks that so many people have had issues using a card, especially when their policy states otherwise. Costco REALLY needs to consider letting people have a 9ne time guest pass or something.

  • Karen Hillton says:

    Only a knucklehead pays for the privilege to shop at a store.

    Go to Walmart instead for the best prices and for food package sizes that are not designed for large circus families.

    • Nathanael says:

      Apparently there are a lot of knuckleheads out there that are willing to pay the membership. You might want to consider that if there’s something so good that millions of people are signing up for it, it might actually be good…Mine actually pays for itself, so I really don’t pay for it (Executive is the way to go).

      Not to mention, Costco provides a large number of services and is extremely customer focused. You think you have a good shopping experience when you go to Walmart? Easy return policies? We’re talking $50 bucks a year for the membership…

      Yeah, you can always find cheaper deals for certain things, but in general the prices are great. If you don’t want to shop there, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t go around telling other people that they’re knuckleheads/have circus families because they’ve found a superior retailer.

  • Benjamin says:

    Costco disgusts me.

    Their door greeter is a blatant attempt to keep out people that can legally purchase beer and wine, use the pharmacy and use the eyecare provider onsite in an attempt to scare off non-paying members. They set up obnoxious, in-your-face pressure salesmen peddling questionable things like DirectTV memberships, cutlery and ‘special’ pillows, and they act like they’re doing you a favor when you shop there. Employees are terribly rude. Their ‘special’ deals on things like HVAC or plumbing contractors are -universally- 20% higher than the average contractor pulled off of a reputable site, and they push extended warranties and accidental damage coverage that do absolutely nothing.

    And then on top of that their prices just aren’t very good on most items.

  • PopeyeBluto says:

    I went to Costco and they let me go in and look around. I found out that other places are cheaper if you watch your sales and clearance items, use coupons (especially if the store doubles or triples coupons), stack coupons if allowed, submit rebates, and limit your quantities by not buying a year’s supply. Close dated grocery items are always a good bargain, also.


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