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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.
We highlight cards with the lowest fees that you can use over the counter and make withdrawals from ATMs on your South American getaway.
Why you’ll need a combination of travel money options
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.
Compare travel credit cards
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.
|Bogotá (Colombia)||Brasília (Brazil)||Lima (Peru)||Santiago (Chile)|
|Hostel dorm bed
$10 per night
|Hostel dorm bed
$20 per night
|Hostel dorm bed
$10 per night
$12 per night
|Arepa con queso on the street
|El Negro Food Truck. El Matanza (hot dog)
|Ceviche pescado in a cheap restaurant
|Empanada on the street
|Bogota graffiti tour
Free (donation based on satisfaction)
|See the city from the top of the television tower
|See the changing of the guards at the Presidential Palace
|Museo Histórico Nacional
Free on Sundays and holidays
*Prices are approximate and are subject to change.
What are the major South American currencies?
- Argentine peso
- Bolivian boliviano
- Brazilian real
- Chilean peso
- Colombian peso
- Peruvian nuevo sol
- Uruguayan peso
- Venezuelan bolivar
Travel card, debit card or credit card?
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.
Travel money options for South America at a glance
|Travel money option||Pros||Considerations|
|Prepaid travel money cards||
This table is a general summary of the travel money products in the market. Features and benefits can vary between cards.
How each travel money option works in South America
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.
Travel prepaid cards
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.
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.
Travel rewards credit cards
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.
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.Back to top
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.
What cards did you take with you?
- Capital One 360 debit card
- Luxury Card Mastercard® Gold Card™
Why did you take these cards with you?
- Luxury Card Mastercard® Gold Card™. Will took his Gold Card because he wanted a dedicated credit card to use in South America. This credit card has 0% foreign currency conversion fees, plus a slew of travel perks. On top of that, Mastercard has a dedicated concierge program that could help him with travel plans and attractions in South America if he needed assistance.
- Capital One 360 debit card. Will says he also took the Capital One debit card because it’s his everyday card. Besides using the card to make withdrawals, he says he hardly used it on the trip.
Did you withdraw from ATMs? What were the ATM fees?
Wil says he was taking out large amounts of local currency and stashing it in a safe where he was staying. There were also a couple of ATMs which gave him the option of withdrawing US Dollars, but these machines were only in places like airports of major banks.
He says the withdrawal fee for USD was $2.20 and then the operator fee, so he says he was getting charged about $5 for each withdrawal — plus the currency conversion fee.
Were there any places where you had trouble using any of your cards?
He says cash is pretty much the only way to pay in remote areas outside of major cities, especially for smaller purchases. He did use his card to pay for food at restaurants (cafeterias are cash only), at supermarkets and at bars and clubs.
What’s your recommendation for travel money to take to South America?
Will says he likes having a dedicated credit card for travel and a debit card as a back up. He recommends having a couple of hundred dollars stashed in a secure spot as you can’t always depend on ATMs.
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.
Why we like: Travelex Money Card
Load GBP, EUR, CAD, AUD, JPY or MXN onto this prepaid travel money card and use it at millions of locations worldwide.
- Not linked to your bank account for safety.
- Convert currency with a 5.50% foreign exchange fee
- Contactless payments
- Reload, withdraw, or replace your card for free.
Using 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.
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.
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.Back to top
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!
Back to top
Travel insurance for South America
From contaminated food and water, to tropical disease, there are many things for tourists to be weary of when traveling to South America. Travel insurance can help to protect you against the unknown.
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