How to safely carry (and access) cash in other countries

Here’s how to keep your cash safe — both before you leave and while you’re travelling.

Updated

Debit and credit cards may be widely used where you live. But there are no guarantees when you’re travelling abroad. In many parts of the world, cash still rules.

Before you leave

Do some basic research

Before you visit a country, do some research online to see whether it’s a mostly cashless or cash-dependent society. It’s worth doing a quick online search to save yourself the headache later.

Also check the type of currency the country accepts and whether it accepts multiple currencies. For example, visitors to El Salvador may be surprised to learn that its official currency is the US dollar. And in the Bahamas, citizens use both the Bahamian dollar and the US dollar.

Withdraw money in your home country

Whether or not you’re travelling to a cash-dependent country, it’s best to always have at least some cash on you. While you don’t want to carry hundreds of dollars, you should leave Canada with at least some cash – it’s best not to completely rely on international ATMs to retrieve cash. You may run into many problems, such as not being able to find an ATM, having issues with an ATM that’s out of service or getting hit with unexpected ATM fees.

It’s also a good idea to stock up on small bills: If you’re travelling to a cash-dependent country, vendors may not always have change for large bills.

If you’ll get cash while travelling, know where (and where not to) go

Depending on how long you’ll stay overseas, where you’re going and how big of a spender you are, you may need access to more cash. Before leaving Canada, it’s best to do some research and know where and how you’ll get cash. You have a few options including:

  • Debit cards. You can use your debit card to withdraw money from an ATM – but remember you’ll likely have to pay a fee. To avoid a fee, check if your bank has branches or international partners abroad that can waive cash withdrawal fees at specific brands of ATMs.
  • Credit cards. Although this is an expensive way of getting cash – whether in Canada or overseas – if you’re in a bind, it can be helpful. You’ll face both a cash advance fee and a cash advance interest rate (which is charged from the moment you withdraw the funds), as well as any possible ATM fees. If the country you’re travelling in allows you to pay with credit card, this is one of your best and safest options. Compare the best credit cards to use overseas below.
  • International money transfers. If you’re staying a long time or you’re going to be making larger purchases, consider looking into international money transfer services. If you’re having trouble accessing cash, you can also have someone from home send you money using an international transfer service. Compare services in the table below.
  • Traveller’s cheques. Traveller’s cheques used to be a convenient option for getting cash overseas. However, many banks no longer issue them and even if they do, you may have trouble cashing them in if you’re going to a remote or developing country.

Consider travel insurance

If you do decide to carry a hefty sum of cash, some travel insurance policies cover you for stolen cash. Confirm whether your policy does, or consider getting a policy that includes cash protection.

Know the rules for bringing large amounts of cash overseas

Many countries require you to declare the cash you’re carrying if it exceeds a specified amount. For example, if you’re bringing the equivalent of CAD$10,000 into Canada, you need to declare the cash to customs officials.

Compare the best credit cards for use overseas

The following credit cards charge no foreign transaction fees – which means you’ll save 2.5% on every purchase. This makes these cards good for use overseas.

Name Product Purchase Interest Rate Cash Advance Rate Annual Fee Minimum Income Benefits with this card Description
HSBC World Elite® Mastercard®
19.9%
22.9%
$0 annual fee for the first year ($149 thereafter)
$80,000
Earn 3% in travel rewards on all eligible travel purchases (6 Points per $1 spent) and earn 1.5% in travel rewards on all other eligible purchases (3 Points per $1 spent).
Earn up to 60,000 Points ($300 travel value). Plus, get a full annual fee rebate for the Primary Cardholder for the first year ($149 value). Apply by August 17, 2020. This offer is only available to residents of Canada other than the province of Quebec. Conditions apply.
BMO U.S. Dollar Mastercard
19.99%
22.99%
$35 USD
$15,000
Receive an annual fee rebate with a minimum yearly spend of US$1,000. Plus, spend in US Dollars with no exchange rate surprises.
When your purchases total US$1,000 or more in a year, the next year's annual fee (US$35) is rebated to your card.
Scotiabank Gold American Express Card
19.99%
22.99%
$120
$12,000
Earn 5 Scotia Rewards points per $1 spent on eligible grocery, dining and entertainment purchases, 3 points per $1 spent on eligible gas, transportation and select streaming services, and 1 point per $1 spent on eligible purchases elsewhere.
Earn 20,000 bonus Scotia Rewards points when you spend at least $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 3 months. Apply by August 31, 2020.
Scotiabank Passport  Visa Infinite Card
19.99%
22.99%
$139
$60,000
Earn 2 Scotia Rewards points for every $1 spent on eligible grocery store, dining, entertainment and daily transit purchases, and earn 1 Scotia Rewards point for every $1 spent elsewhere.
Earn up to 40,000 bonus Scotia Rewards points (up to a $400 travel value) in your first year. Apply by August 31, 2020.
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Storing and carrying cash

Take just the right amount of cash for the day

A simple precaution is to take only the cash you’ll need each day. Store the rest in your room in a safe.

Put your cash in a safe place

Storing cash in your hotel room safe is a great option. If your room doesn’t have a safe, ask the front desk if you can store your cash in the hotel safe. (Protect yourself by getting a written receipt, if you do so).

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

For any cash that you can’t – or choose not to – store in a safe, make sure it’s not all sitting in one place. Store your cash in different nooks of your room and your physical person — in pockets, bags or money belts.

Compare your international money transfer options

Min. Transfer Amount Transfer Speed Online Transfer Fee Rate Amount Received Description CTA Details
CAD 1 Same day CAD 0.00 0.732 USD
3,660
Send money in more than 60 currencies. Fee-free international money transfers with a global brand. Go to site Show details
USD 150 1 day CAD 15.00 0.728 USD
3,630
Exclusive offer: Discounted exchange rates for your first and ongoing transactions. $0 transfer fee.
A higher exchange rate applies to non-finder customers. Send money in 45 currencies.
Go to site Show details
GBP 3,000 1 day CAD 0.00 0.728 USD
3,641
Global Reach will match any competitor's exchange rates. Conditions apply.
Get no fees for both business and personal transfers when you send your money overseas with Global Reach.
Go to site Show details
CAD 1 1 - 2 days CAD 1.99 0.728 USD
3,636
Special offers like free transfers and better exchange rates available for new customers.
Quick, affordable transfers around the world with both express and economy options.
Go to site Show details
CAD 0 Within an hour CAD 3.99 0.733 USD
3,660
Use promo code 3FREE to send your first 3 transfers with no fee. Conditions apply.
An online money transfer service with cash pick-up, bank account to bank account and airtime transfers available.
Go to site Show details
CAD 1 1 - 2 days CAD 45.00 0.736 USD
3,645
Make online transfers with transparent exchange rates, low fees and low minimum amounts. Go to site Show details

Compare up to 4 providers

Disclaimer: Exchange rates change often. Confirm the total cost with the provider before transferring money.

Obtaining and spending cash

Be careful where you get cash from

If you need to obtain more cash, do so only from reputable sources such as banks and trusted ATMs. Exchanging money with street vendors comes with a lot of risk — you may receive counterfeit or outdated currency. If you’re exchanging your currency for another currency, check the exchange rate and make sure it’s not too far off from the mid-market rate.

What's the mid-market rate?

The mid-market rate is what your money’s actually worth on the global market compared to another currency. It’s the midpoint between worldwide supply and demand for that currency — and the rate banks and transfer services use when they trade among themselves.

Ask about cash discounts

When you use your credit card in a store, the vendor typically pays a fee to its credit card company. Many small business prefer cash payments and may give you a slight discount if you use cash. It never hurts to ask!

What to do in emergencies

If you’re robbed

Hopefully you’ll have cash stashed away in a money belt or an inside coat pocket. While the thought of being mugged is unpleasant, you might want to carry a bit of cash in your pockets to relinquish if you’re robbed. It goes without saying that if you’re being robbed and your safety is in jeopardy, just hand over your cash.

If your credit or debit cards are lost or stolen, you can contact your bank and receive emergency replacement cards.

Alerting the authorities

If your cash or valuables are stolen, alert the local police and file a report. Although you may not get your possessions back, it’s still worth telling the police in the off chance they can recover what you lost and warn other tourists.
Learn more about emergency money transfers overseas.

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