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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.

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. As such, bringing a combination of cards and cash is essential.

Here are the types of payment options available and other financial tips for navigating South America.

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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. The Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card is a good choice, but there are plenty of other options on the market as well (Terms apply, see rates & fees).

If you’re a frequent traveler, use a travel 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 and 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, like one from Betterment Checking, 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 South American currencies, 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
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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.

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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. And if possible, bring a card from a bank that doesn’t charge international ATM fees, like Betterment Checking.

  • 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.

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: 's experience

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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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Written by

Jeremy Cabral

Jeremy is finder's Global Head of Publishing & Editorial. Jeremy has been with finder since the very beginning and is part of the founding team working closely with Fred and Frank to build finder.com into the comparison network it is today. See full profile

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