Best ways to spend travel money in Ecuador: Debit and prepaid cards

Learn more about the best card to use, if you should use a UK debit card, and other ways to take spending money to Ecuador.

At the turn of the millennium, Ecuador’s official currency switched over from the Sucre to the United States dollar, the most accessible currency in the world. Here, we look at some of the best credit, travel and debit cards to use on a holiday to Ecuador and South America.

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Using prepaid travel cards

Ecuador uses the US dollar, a currency supported by all travel cards available in the UK. These cards allow you to avoid currency conversion fees and lock in a competitive exchange rate before your trip. Many also come with an additional, emergency card in case the first one is lost or stolen. A travel money card can be used to make over-the-counter purchases and ATM withdrawals in Ecuador.

If you’re heading to the coastal towns of Ecuador, you will need to make ATM withdrawals so you can get cash in US dollars. Look for a travel card that doesn’t charge a fee for international ATM withdrawals. Note that the Ecuadorian bank or ATM operator may still charge a fee when you withdraw cash.

Also keep in mind that it can be tricky to find travel cards that can hold the currencies of other popular destinations in South America such as Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Argentina. If Ecuador is just one stop on a bigger trip, you may want to consider one of the other types of travel money products as well.

Using debit cards

A debit card can be used to make over-the-counter purchases and cash withdrawals from ATMs. Like credit cards and travel cards, debit card transactions are protected against fraud and unauthorised transactions.

Debit cards are accepted by relatively few merchants in Ecuador. The price of ATM withdrawals should be a significant factor in your comparison if you’re looking to apply for a travel-friendly current account.

Using credit cards

You can use a credit card to pay for flights and online bookings before or during your trip. Major retailers and restaurants in Ecuador also take cards. Credit cards should not be used for ATM withdrawals in Ecuador, or anywhere else for that matter. Cash withdrawals on credit cards are treated as cash advances, and these attract fees and charges that can quickly eat into your available credit limit.

You can preload a credit card with your own money, something travellers do to avoid the cash advance interest rate (although cash advance fees may still apply). But, it’s worth understanding that some credit card features, such as fraud protection, may be void in this instance.

Using traveller’s cheques

According to the American Express website, there are currently no locations in Ecuador where you can get your traveller’s cheques cashed. You can easily get United States dollars by making ATM withdrawals when you arrive in the country.

Using cash

Cash is the main payment method used in Ecuador, which means you will need to have US notes and coins on hand to pay for things at most places. If you want to limit the amount of cash you have on hand (i.e. for security), make sure you have one or more cards that you can use to withdraw cash from ATMs throughout your trip.

How many US dollars do I need to take to Ecuador?

Less expensive than neighbouring countries Brazil or Colombia, Ecuador is a South American holiday you can do on a budget. Although, there are plenty of 5-star options too, especially in Quito. For a quick reference, a beer costs around £1.50, and you could probably get away with £15-£35 spending money a day, on a budget.

QuitoBudgetMidTop
sleepHostel
£5 – £15 per night
2-star hotel
£25 – £35 per night
5-star hotel
£115 – £200 per night
foodEmpanadas
(stuffed pastry)
£2 – £3
Ceviche
(seafood dish)
£4 – £8
5-star restaurant
£14 – £30 a dish
cameraWalk around the old town
free
Visit the balcony of the
Basilica del Voto Nacional
£2
Guided tour of Otavalo
Marketplace with lunch
£45

*Prices are approximate and subject to change

Should you take a travel card, debit card or credit card?

Although Visa and Mastercard travel, debit and credit cards are accepted in larger cities such as Guayaquil, Quito, Esmeraldas and Manta, a lot of other places don’t have card payment options. As a general rule, always plan to have cash as your first method of payment. Also note that American Express cards are accepted in some places like major hotels and retailers, but using a Visa or Mastercard is a far safer bet.

Travel money options for Ecuador at a glance

Travel money optionProsConsiderations
Prepaid travel money cards
  • US dollar is supported by all UK travel cards
  • Locked-in exchange rates
  • No currency conversion fee on some cards
  • International ATM withdrawal fee waiver on some cards
  • Emergency card replacement
  • Fees to consider such as local ATM, initial load, reload and inactivity fees
Debit cards for travel
  • No currency conversion, international ATM, account keeping fees
  • Unlimited free withdrawal at selected banks
  • Fraud protection
  • There can be fees attached to using a debit card – check the small print
  • Limited acceptance in Ecuador
Credit cards for travel
  • Accepted worldwide
  • Contactless payment
  • Features such as interest-free period and complimentary travel insurance
  • Overseas ATM fees and currency conversion fees
  • Withdrawing cash can be considered a “cash advance” and can charge you fees and high interest
Traveller’s cheques
  • Security
  • Virtually impossible to cash in Ecuador
Cash
  • Greater payment flexibility
  • Convenience
  • More 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.

Example: Peter surfing the Ecuadorian coast

surfer_dude_Shutterstock

Peter recently backpacked across South America. He visited Colombia and travelled to the south of the continent. He started his trip in Esmeraldas, continued south to Guayaquil, Montanita and finally Quito before travelling to Peru. Peter spent 1 month in Ecuador in total.

Where could you use your cards?

Peter says he didn’t expect to be able to use his debit and credit cards much in Ecuador. Excluding flights and 1 meal at a nice restaurant, every transaction on his trip was made in cash.

Hotels he stayed at (especially in places such as Esmeraldas, Atacames and Montanita) were also cash only. Meals and drinks and travel between towns and cities all had to be paid for using cash too. Peter says he didn’t spend much time in the urban centres of Quito and Guayaquil, but he expects more businesses are set up to accept card payments in these places.

What about ATM withdrawals?

Peter says he regularly made ATM withdrawals in Ecuador as everything was cash only. He says he withdrew US$300 at a time from whichever ATM machine he could find. The most common ATMs he saw were operated by the Bank of Guayaquil. He used his St.George Visa debit card at these ATMs and both St.George and the ATM operator charged fees. He paid an international ATM withdrawal fee of US$5 and a local ATM withdrawal fee of US$1.50 every time.

Do you have any travel money tips?

  • Plan ahead. The Internet in Ecuador is temperamental and Peter says it’s hard to find a reliable connection (particularly on the coast). He recommends making sure you transfer money to your transaction account in advance so you can withdraw money when you need to.
  • Everything is negotiable. Peter says not to be afraid to ask for a better price if you feel you’re being overcharged. Locals have been known to take advantage of travellers with a lack of knowledge from time to time.

* This is a fictional, but realistic, example.

Buying currency in the UK

Ecuador uses the United States dollar. You can easily exchange British pounds to United States dollars before you leave the country. There are no restrictions to the amount of US dollars you can bring with you to Ecuador. There is, however, a limit on the amount of dollars you can take out the country of $1,200, anything above this you will have to declare and pay a 5% tax on. These financial institutions can sell you United States dollars in the United Kingdom.

There are many ATMs in Ecuadorian cities and key tourist destinations. If you’re concerned about getting a good rate when you exchange currencies, you may want to consider a card that offers free international ATM withdrawals. ATM withdrawals are subject to the Visa and Mastercard international exchange rate, which is often better than what you can get exchanging money in other ways.

Exchanging cash

South American countries use a range of different currencies. If you’re travelling throughout the continent, exchanging money in Ecuador can be an issue outside the major cities. A bank is your best option. If you’re travelling from Peru, Colombia or Brazil and you have sols, pesos or reals, you can exchange the money to US dollars at some restaurants and hotels. You may not pay a commission on the transaction, but the rate will be much worse than what you can get with a bank. Note that it is not very easy to exchange Great British pounds for US dollars in Ecuador.

A guide to deciphering American banknotes, The Greenback

Have you ever found yourself in a country with a wad of foreign cash? It can be all too easy to give a 50 instead of a 5. Don’t get ripped off. Familiarise yourself with American banknotes before you leave.

us-banknotes

Did you know?

In addition to the standard $1 – $100 banknotes, America also has notes to cover larger denominations.
  • Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th US president had a $1,000 note named after him.
  • James Madison, the 4th US President had a $5,000 note named after him.
  • Salmon P Chase, the 6th US Chief Justice had a $10,000 note named after him.
  • Woodrow Wilson, the 28th US President had a $100,000 note named after him.

Exchange rate history

It’s easy to see how much your Great British pounds will get you, as Ecuador uses the American dollar. If you are concerned about fluctuating exchange rates while you are away, you can lock in an exchange rate by using a travel money card. You can do the same with traveller’s cheques, but it is almost impossible to find a place to exchange them for cash in Ecuador.

YearAverage annual exchange British pound (GBP) to US dollar (USD)
20161.3550
20171.2890
20181.13356
20191.2771
20201.2832
20211.3759

*Exchange rates are accurate as of 18 February 2022. Source: UK Office for National Statistics.

Bottom line

A combination of cards and cash is the best way to approach any overseas trip. You’ll need cash for most transactions in Ecuador, especially if you’re travelling down the coast. Credit cards are great for big ticket purchases and offer interest-free days if you pay the balance in full, while a debit card or travel card is ideal for ATM withdrawals.

Whichever combination of products you take with you to Ecuador, be sure to spread your budget across a few different cards and always have some cash for emergencies.

Ecuador’s switch to the US dollar in 2000 has made organising travel money easier for British people. But if Ecuador is just 1 stop on a South American holiday, think about how you’re going to spend money in other currencies during the rest of your trip. If you have a question about travel money for Ecuador, feel free to get in touch with us by using the form at the bottom of the page.

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