How much currency to carry on hand? Do you need cash, credit or debit in a particular country? These questions often swirl around discussions leading up to a trip to a country new on a visitor’s destination list. For the most part, there is a simple answer regardless of visiting developed or non-developed countries. I have only come across a couple of exceptions after visiting over sixty countries – and I will share these here.
On arrival: by plane
Generally speaking, ATM machines are available in every major centre worldwide. So, if you enter a country by plane, a quick Google search will find the local ATMs. Many airports host these machines to enable cash access before stepping into your first taxi. Typically ATM withdrawals result in the most economical foreign exchange rate compared to changing money or the now archaic travellers’ cheque.
On arrival: overland borders
It is a rare find to spot an ATM while crossing a land border. Instead, money changers often swarm, calling out in attempt to convert your bills to the local currency. I think it’s fair to say that their rates are typically poor. Quality of notes can also be questionable, so if you opt for this approach recalculate the conversion yourself and keep a close watch for dirty, old and torn bills.
I find a better approach is to prearrange transport through border crossings. Long distance buses often make the transit fairly painless. Transit arrangements can usually be paid before departing or once you arrive at your destination, avoiding payment en route with changing currencies. Hotels frequently can facilitate and offer advice on the best option.
I suggest carrying some spare US, Euro or GBP currency in case a few surprises get thrown into the route.
Check your debit card’s foreign transaction fees. Many larger banks have foreign alliances. Withdrawals from their affiliated machines tend to attract lower transaction fees. Looking for these related ATMs can save enough for a morning cortado or afternoon gelato.
US Cash on hand:
American dollars are generally the widest accepted foreign currency, but this does not mean they can replace a local currency. Most local purchases will be denominated in the country’s home currency. Where there is an option, the local currency price is often preferred over an inflated foreign price tag.
That said, there are circumstances when you may need a stash of clean, crisp US, Euro or GBP bills.
Back-up cash: For those times when you cannot get your needed funds from an ATM:
Most tour packages include an amount recommended as a daily tip for guides, drivers, cooks and other staff who have made your trip possible. This recognition can be paid in local or foreign funds
- no one will turn down your cash! However, the guidelines typically quote the recommended amount in US dollars. I find that it is often easier to have this amount set aside in advance so you only have to withdraw local cash to cover daily spending needs.
Quality of notes:
Many countries only accept US bills printed from 2006 onwards – no old notes. Furthermore, torn, ripped or dirty bills are often rejected. So, be vigilant when you get any US cash to ensure it will stand up to these tests.
Other than the two quirks below, I have been able to withdraw funds from ATMs in cities across the globe from Rwanda to Honduras. Check Tripadvisor.com forums or Lonely Planet’s Thorntree blog for recent traveller accounts, if you have specific questions. Alternatively, Googling independent travellers’ blogs often yield helpful advice.
Just to keep things interesting, Cuba uses two currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso (“CUC”) and Cuban Peso (“CUP”). CUCs are dispensed by ATMs and used in most places. However, small purchases from local shops or cafes use CUPs. 1 CUC = 24 CUP, so its best to keep them straight.
Sometimes rogue money changers try to swindle tourists in central parks by converting the wrong type, so avoid these prowlers.
At the time of writing, US dollars incurred a 10% premium fee when converting dollars to CUCs in Cuba. Bring Euros, Canadian dollars or most other funds instead as they can be easily exchanged into the local currency (CUC or CUP) at Cadecas (government regulated money exchanges).
Debit cards do not work in Cuban ATMs. This is the case for US, Canadian or other foreign debit cards. Instead, ATM machines accept Visa credit cards. From my understanding, they do not accept MasterCard. In order to avoid cash advance fees from your bank, I suggest to transfer sufficient funds needed to cover your entire trip onto your credit card before travelling. Daily limits exist on withdrawals, but most centres have ATMs so this constraint is not hard to work around.
Access to the internet is controlled by the government, so be aware of this if you need to transact via internet banking while in Cuba. Government run ETECSA shops and some hotels sell cards for timed WIFI access. Access is only transmitted at prescribed locations. The number is growing, but when I visited in early 2016 WIFI access points were restricted to public parks and a few large hotels.
Do not be surprised when hotels in more remote locations only accept cash – no debit or credit cards, particularly outside main tourist centres. This is often the case in Myanmar. Prices are often quoted in US dollars, so it may be simpler to bring sufficient American currency to cover your hotels. Check with your chosen hotel’s payment policy in advance to get a sense of current practices where you will be staying.
Nancy O'Hare has lived and worked across five continents and travelled to over eighty countries. Her writing shares insights from her travels and musings about the world around us.