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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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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.

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)
to-sleep Hostel dorm bed
$10 per night
Hostel dorm bed
$20 per night
Hostel dorm bed
$10 per night
Hostel dorm
$12 per night
street food Arepa 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
camera Bogota 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.

What are the major South American currencies?

  • Argentine peso
  • Bolivian boliviano
  • Brazilian real
  • Chilean peso
  • Colombian peso
  • Peruvian nuevo sol
  • Uruguayan peso
  • Venezuelan bolivar
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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
Debit cards
  • 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
  • Currency conversion and international ATM fees
Prepaid travel money cards
  • Protected by PIN & chip
  • Multiple supported currencies
  • Emergency card replacement and backup cards
  • Accepted worldwide
  • Ideal for managing your travel budget
  • 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
Credit cards
  • Some credit cards waive overseas ATM fee
  • Protected by PIN & chip
  • Accepted worldwide
  • Features such as complimentary travel insurance and reward points earning
  • Cash advance fees
  • Higher spending limit that could make budgeting difficult
Travelers checks
  • Acceptance
  • Security
  • Can be costly with initial purchase charges
  • Not all merchants accept travelers checks
Cash
  • Greater payment flexibility
  • Convenience
  • Difficult to manage expenses
  • Higher risk of theft

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

Debit cards

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.

Credit cards

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

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.

Cash

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.

Compare travel credit cards

Name Product Welcome offer Rewards Annual fee Filter values
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
3x points on directly-booked flights; 4x at restaurants; 4x at US supermarkets on up to $25,000 annually (then 1x points)
$250
Earn up to 4x points on select purchases, a bevy of travel perks, and a welcome offer worth up to $600 with this upper-mid tier travel card. Rates & fees
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, a value of up to $750 through Chase Ultimate Rewards
5x points on Lyft, 2x points on travel and dining and 1x points on all other purchases
$95
Earn a signup bonus worth $750 with this popular travel card. Combine with other Chase Ultimate Rewards cards for even greater value.
The Platinum Card® from American Express
100,000 points after spending $5,000 in your first 6 months, plus 10x points at US gas stations and US supermarkets on up to $15,000 in combined purchases in the same timeframe
10x points at US gas stations and US supermarkets on up to $15,000 combined in the first 6 months, 15x points on directly-booked flights or on flights and hotels on Amex Travel. 1x points on all other purchases. Starting January 1, 2021, your 15x points on flights will be capped on up to $500,000 annually (then 1x points).
$550
One of the most valuable premium travel cards, featuring two welcome offers worth up to $4,500, multiple travel credits and unrivaled lounge access. Rates & fees
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
10x points on Lyft rides, 3x points on dining and travel after earning your $300 travel credit and 1x points on all other purchases
$550
Get a generous $300 in annual travel credits, 3x points on travel and dining, and a 50% bonus on point redemptions with Chase's premier card.
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card
100,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months, plus earn 25,000 after the first anniversary of card membership (offer expires 1/13/2021)
6x points at Marriott Bonvoy hotels, 3x at US restaurants and on flights booked directly with airlines and 2x for all other purchases
$450
Earn 100,000 bonus points when you spend $5,000 or more within your first 3 months, plus earn 25,000 after the first anniversary of card membership (offer expires 1/13/2021). Rates & fees
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Compare up to 4 providers

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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.

What cards did you take with you?

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.
Our pick for a prepaid travel card
Travelex Money Card

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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.

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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!

south-america-banknotes

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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 5.317 BRL 5,296 Use promo code 3FREE to send your first 3 transfers with no fee. Send to 110+ countries for bank-to-bank deposit, cash pickup or mobile top-up. Go to site Show details
$10 Within an hour USD 1.99 5.237 BRL 5,227 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
$1 3 - 5 days USD 20.00 5.21 BRL 5,106 The biggest name in money transfers can get your funds to friends, family, or businesses in almost every corner of the globe. Show details

Compare up to 4 providers

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