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.
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.
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.
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.
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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