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Travel money guide: South America

Hola or Olá? Cash or card? Learn about the right travel money to use in South America.

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Exchange currency online Compare cash pickup

South America is made up of 12 different countries, each with different currencies. For example, Colombia has Colombian pesos, Argentina uses Argentinian pesos, Brazil the real and Peru the nuevo sol.

We highlight cards with the lowest fees that you can use over the counter and make withdrawals from ATMs on your South American getaway.

Our picks for traveling to South America

American Express® Gold Card logo

Our pick for travel credit card

American Express® Gold Card

★★★★★
Finder rating: 4.6/5
Wise Multi-currency logo

Our pick for multi-currency debit card

Wise Multi-currency

★★★★★
Finder rating: 4.5/5
SoFi Money logo

Our pick for 0% transaction fee debit card

SoFi Money

★★★★★
Finder rating: 4.6/5

Travel card, debit card or credit card?

It’s important to take a combination of travel money options wherever you go in the world, but this is especially true for a trip to South America. Having a combination of cards and cash to use as a backup is necessary to ensure you won’t run into any spending roadblocks on your vacation.

Credit cards, debit cards and travel cards are widely accepted in South America. You’ll have no problem using your Visa or Mastercard at any business that can accept credit cards, however, American Express is typically only accepted at high-end businesses.

Stick to a Visa or Mastercard so you can make withdrawals and payments in a variety of places.

These are your options for spending money in South America

Using a credit card

Look for a credit card designed for travel that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees to save money on international purchases when traveling through South America. Skip ATM withdrawals using your credit card because you’ll be charged high cash advance fees.

If you’re a frequent traveler, use a rewards credit card that pays miles for each dollar you spend. This way you can maximize rewards and use those miles towards the purchase of your next flight.

Pros
  • Some credit cards waive overseas ATM fee
  • Protected by PIN & chip
  • Accepted worldwide
  • Features such as complimentary travel insurance and reward points earning
Cons
  • Cash advance fees
  • Higher spending limit that could make budgeting difficult

Using a debit card

A travel friendly debit card that waives international ATM fees or foreign transaction fees is a smart travel money option for a trip to South America. Look for a debit card provider that is part of the Global ATM Alliance because you’ll be able to avoid currency conversion fees — Barclay Bank and Bank of America are members.

If you’re planning on using a debit card that doesn’t waive ATM fees, take out the maximum amount of money so you don’t have to make as money withdrawals.

Pros
  • Security with chip and PIN
  • Direct access to money
  • Save on overseas ATM fee when you withdraw
  • $0 account keeping fees if you deposit the minimum requirement
  • Unlimited free withdrawals at selected banks
Cons
  • Currency conversion and international ATM fees

Using a prepaid travel card

No prepaid travel cards support the currencies of the South American countries, so these products shouldn’t be considered for a trip to the continent. Although you can load US Dollars onto these travel money products, acceptance is limited and you’ll pay to convert funds twice.

  • Tip: The South American regions of French Guiana off the coast of Brazil and the Falkland Islands adjacent to Argentina use the euro and pound, so you could use a travel card to spend in either destination with no problem.
Pros
  • Protected by PIN & chip
  • Multiple supported currencies
  • Emergency card replacement and backup cards
  • Accepted worldwide
  • Ideal for managing your travel budget
Cons
  • Most prepaid travel money cards won’t let you load any South American currency
  • May charge currency conversion fees, ATM withdrawal fees and local ATM operator fee

Paying with cash in South America

South America is one destination where you’re going to need to have cash in case of an emergencies. Although you can use your card in more places now more than ever, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to access cash at any given moment — especially outside of major cities.

Where debit and credit cards are accepted can vary greatly depending on the location. You won’t have a problem with a card in the capital cities, especially in countries like Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina for example. However, there are major tourist attractions, like the Amazon, where you’re going to need enough cash to last you for the entire leg of your trip.

Pros
  • Greater payment flexibility
  • Convenience
Cons
  • Difficult to manage expenses
  • Higher risk of theft

Using traveler’s checks

Don’t bother taking traveler’s checks to South America. They’re difficult to cash and can be expensive. Also, it is no more secure than using a debit card (ATMs in South America are everywhere), credit card or prepaid travel card.

Pros
  • Acceptance
  • Security
Cons
  • Can be costly with initial purchase charges
  • Not all merchants accept travelers checks

Compare travel credit cards

Name Product Welcome offer Rewards Annual fee Filter values
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
100,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. That's $1,250 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
5x points on Lyft, 2x points on travel and dining and 1x points on all other purchases
$95

Up to $1,250 signup bonus

Earn a massive signup bonus of 100,000 points with this popular travel card. That's worth up to $1,250!
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 6 months
4x at restaurants including delivery and Uber Eats; 4x at US supermarkets on up to $25,000 annually (then 1x points), 3x points on directly-booked flights and 1x points on all other purchases
$250

Rose Gold is Back

Earn up to 4x points on select purchases, a bevy of travel perks, and a welcome offer worth up to $600 based on our valuation with this upper-mid tier travel card. Terms apply, see rates & fees
The Platinum Card® from American Express
100,000 points after spending $6,000 in your first 6 months, plus 10x points at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the US on up to $25,000 in combined purchases in the same timeframe
10x points at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the US on up to $25,000 combined in the first 6 months, 5x points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel, 5x points on directly-booked flights on up to $500,000 annually, then 1x points after that and on other purchases
$695

New Platinum Exclusive Offer

One of the most valuable premium travel cards, featuring two welcome offers worth up to $7,000 based on Finder's valuation, multiple travel credits and unrivaled lounge access. Terms apply, see rates & fees
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Exchanging cash in South America

ATM withdrawals are by far the most efficient way to get local currency in cash on your holiday. ATMs are located all throughout the continent. If you want to carry cash as an emergency backup, US Dollars are widely accepted if you can’t pay in the local currency.

Live Rate

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Buying currency for South America

It’ll be cheaper if you wait to exchange your money when you arrive compared to converting currency with banks in the US. However, you could always consider using an online money transfer service to send money to your destination and pick it up when you arrive. This option makes getting foreign currency extremely convenient for travelers.

A quick guide to the Brazilian Real

Did you know?

The Brazilian word for the national currency, “real” means both real and royal and all Brazilian coins feature the Southern Cross!

5 Brazilian real10 Brazilian real20 Brazilian real
50 Brazilian real100 Brazilian real

What are the major South American currencies?

  • Argentine peso
  • Bolivian boliviano
  • Brazilian real
  • Chilean peso
  • Colombian peso
  • Peruvian nuevo sol
  • Uruguayan peso
  • Venezuelan bolivar

The main banks in South America are:

  • Banco Do Brasil, Brazil
  • Itaú Unibanco Holding, Brazil
  • Caixa Economica Federal, Brazil
  • Banco Bradesco, Brazil
  • Banco Santander Brasil, Brazil
  • BBVA Bancomer, Mexico
  • Banco Santander Mexico, Mexico
  • Citibanamex, Mexico
  • Banorte, Mexico
  • Banco del Estado de Chile

ATMS in South America

Visa and Mastercard should work at all ATMs where you can see a Maestro, Cirrus, Mastercard or Visa logo on the front of the machine. Always try to use ATMs attached to the side of a bank.

  • Tip: ATMs in the Amazon region of Brazil, some parts of Venezuela and Bolivia may not accept foreign debit cards. Make sure you have enough cash to last you the duration of your stay if you’re visiting these regions.

Cash pickup services in South America

Min. Transfer Amount Transfer Speed Online Transfer Fee Rate Amount Received Description CTA Details
$1 Within an hour USD 3.99 5.091 BRL 5,071 WorldRemit sends money to 110+ countries for bank-to-bank deposits, cash pick-ups or mobile top-ups. Go to site Show details
$10 Within an hour USD 1.99 5.014 BRL 5,004 Special offers like free transfers and better exchange rates available for new customers.
Remitly has quick, affordable transfers around the world, with both express and economy options.
Go to site Show details
$1 3 - 5 days USD 20.00 4.988 BRL 4,889 Western Union sends money online to friends and family in 200+ countries around the world. 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.

How much money do I need to bring to South America?

It depends on what country you travel to in South American. Prices in Brazil are more expensive than Ecuador, and Ibague (the 7th largest city in Colombia) is cheaper than Medellin (the 2nd biggest city in Colombia).

Wherever your travel, the continent can be as expensive or cheap as you make it. Below you can find some budget prices for different countries in South America. All prices are in US dollars.

Bogotá (Colombia)Brasília (Brazil)Lima (Peru)Santiago (Chile)
AccommodationHostel dorm bed
$10 per night
Hostel dorm bed
$20 per night
Hostel dorm bed
$10 per night
Hostel dorm
$12 per night
MealsArepa con queso on the street
$1.50
El Negro Food Truck. El Matanza (hot dog)
$4.50
Ceviche pescado in a cheap restaurant
$2 -$3
Empanada on the street
$1
ActivitiesBogota graffiti tour
Free (donation based on satisfaction)
See the city from the top of the television tower
Free
See the changing of the guards at the Presidential Palace
Free
Museo Histórico Nacional
Free on Sundays and holidays

Prices are approximate and are subject to change.

Case study: Will's experience

Will profile photo
Will

Case study: Interview with Will about travel money for South America

Will spent almost four months climbing volcanoes, diving and bussing around Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Brazil. He started his trip in Central America visiting Mexico and Cuba.

Do you have any travel money tips for South America?

  • ATM withdrawals. He says be careful when withdrawing at ATMs. Although nothing happened to Will, he’d heard many stories of other travelers being held up when withdrawing cash. And check your account balance regularly, cards get skimmed quite frequently.
  • Cash. Will says make sure you have cash to use in emergencies.

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Our latest travel deals to South America

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Up to 20% off tours worldwide

Discounted tours in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Africa and South America.
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