Money in South America

Reading time: 8 mins

Free ATMs

Some countries have free ATM’s and all have ATM’s that will add an extra fee on top of your bank. Usually it’s around $4. I wish I could remember which banks were free, but you’ll be able to find them by Googling, or just popping your card into a few ATMs until you get one that doesn’t say anything about a charge, or at least until you find the lowest. They’ll warn you before you withdraw if they’re going to add a charge. If you’re in a country for a month, it’s worth finding the free one.

Off hand, I remember there was at least one bank with no ATM fee’s in Colombia & Ecuador. I’m not sure about Peru and Bolivia but a quick google usually helps. Argentina definitely had no free ATMs.

Take Cash to Argentina

I’d recommend taking as much Euro as you’ll think you’ll need for Argentina to Buenos Aires and exchange it there. It’s obviously not ideal to carry lots of cash, but the fees in Argentina on the ATMs are so high, we decided it was worth the risk and carried about €1500. There’s a limit on withdrawals in Argentina of around €70, and the fees were about €5. It really adds up.

You can exchange cash in Banco de la Nacion and get the market exchange rate, with little to no fees. There’s one at arrivals in the airport (here’s how to find it), although we waited and exchanged in the city as there was quite a large queue. The Banco de la Nacion will give you the market exchange rate you’d see on for example. You can get better than this in areas of the centre of the city (more on that here). Supposedly they’re mostly legit, but apparently there are some where you need to watch for dodgy notes so we went straight for the bank.

Tip: If you want to leave the airport but won’t have local currency like we did, just use Uber. We never used Uber before, but found ourselves using it quite a lot in some countries. It’s much easier than dealing with taxi drivers when you’re Spanish isn’t great!

Revolut & N26

You already have Revolut. I used a combination of Revolut and N26 (similar to Revolut but with a banking licence). There’s two advantages for having both accounts. Revolut use Visa. N26 use Mastercard. More on that below. Advantage number one, is free or low withdrawal fees when taking out cash. On the free Revolut account you get up to €200 free per month and 1.7% thereafter. They also won’t charge an exchange fee. A typical Irish bank will charge a higher withdrawal fee, plus a currency exchange fee. Always use the Revolut card. You already know this.

Going Premium on N26

What you might not know, is that you can get free unlimited withdrawals with N26 if you go for the premium account. This does cost €9.90 per month, so you can work out whether this is worth it for you. You will have to sign up for 1 year. What it meant though, is if we found the free ATM in a country, which we did in say Colombia, we were taking out money for free. This makes a huge difference over a few months. Revolut does free withdrawals for up to €400 if you go Premium. Not as good, but still worth considering.

If you are signing up for n26, use my link here – I’ll get €15 🙂 You might still have time to do it if you want to. If not, Revolut is definitely good enough on it’s own.

Cash is king

This is why the free withdrawals with Revolut/N26 really help. In some countries you can pay for hostels and hotels with your card without a fee, but a lot of places will charge 5% to use the card, so you’ll find yourself using a lot of cash (if it’s cheap for you to take it out – ie you’ve found a cheap ATM). This was the case all over Colombia when we were there. However in the cities in Colombia, you could pay for things like restaurants with the card in many places, so that helped minimise the amount of cash being used.

The other reason cash is king, is that when you’re buying things like souvenirs or clothes, even in reputable shops, you can get a 10% discount with cash.

Visa, Mastercard & Inconsistencies

It seemed to be beneficial to have both Mastercard & Visa. I couldn’t find any consistent rules for when one would work and not the other. But it happened so many times, that we had to try one or the other, and one of them generally worked. This went for ATM withdrawals and card payments but we never relied on card payments, always have cash. But even at times, my Revolut card might work one day in one ATM, and not the next the exact same ATM. Get ready for some pretty frustrating ATM experiences. But we’ve found having both options to hand covered most scenarios when paying for stuff with the card, or at least using an ATM.

XE app

Download the XE app before you go and add the currencies you’re going to be using to your home screen. This is great for being quickly able to check rates, even if you don’t have internet. You’ll get the hang of the exchanges pretty quickly, but when paying for larger things it’s always good to double check it.

Safety $100 USD

We always carried around $100 with us (not out on the street every day I mean, but in our backpacks) for any unforeseen logistical issues we might run into. You never know when you might end up needing it, and it’s pretty reassuring to have something tucked away that can get you out of any situation. Everyone on the continent knows the value of $1, so you can guarantee they’ll take it as payment for whatever situation you might find yourself in, even if they might round the charges up. Not necessary, but worth considering.