Best ways to spend travel money in South America: 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 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 look at the cards which have the lowest fees to use over the counter and to withdraw cash from on your South American getaway.

Low cost travel money options for South America

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Debit cards

A travel friendly transaction account is a better travel money option for a trip to South America. By choosing a debit card which lets you transact in a foreign currency without paying for currency conversion, you can use the account over the counter in South America as you would in the UK for no extra cost. Most debit card providers apply a charge for international ATM withdrawals.

As mentioned above, digital banking apps work as normal bank accounts do. They come with a debit or credit card, often supported by big names like Visa or Mastercard, and topping up your balance simply consists of transferring money into that account.

Credit cards

Credit cards provide a line of credit with limited interest-free terms which can be used all over the world (American Express and Diners Club cards in fewer places than Mastercard and Visa). Choose a credit card which doesn’t charge for currency conversion to save money on international transaction fees when travelling through South America. ATM withdrawals using your credit card are not advised if you’re concerned with saving money, as you’ll be charged high cash advance fees. But you can sometimes load a credit card with a positive balance to cut out cash advance fees and charges when used at an ATM. The card scheme anti-fraud guarantees don’t apply when you withdraw from an ATM using a credit card with a positive balance.

Travel prepaid cards

In a relatively recent development, some prepaid travel money cards now support South American currencies. For example, the Wise International Card allows you to convert, hold and spend Argentine pesos, Chilean pesos, Peruvian soles and Uruguayan pesos, as well as US dollars, which are also accepted in certain places.

  • Tip: French Guiana and the Falkland Islands adjacent to Argentina use the euro and pound, respectively. Most travel cards can be suited to spend in these overseas departments of France and United Kingdom.

Traveller’s cheques

Don’t bother taking traveller’s cheques to South America. They’re difficult to cash and expensive, and 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 a supply of cash for 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. Card payment facilities vary greatly depending on the location. You won’t have a problem with card acceptance and ATM withdrawals 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.

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

From country to country and region to region, prices in Brazil are more expensive than Ecuador, Ibague (the 7th largest city in Colombia) is cheaper than Medellin (the 2nd biggest city in Colombia). You’ll find prices are varied in South America. Wherever you travel, the continent can be as expensive 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-sleepHostel dorm bed
£7 per night
Hostel dorm bed
£13 per night
Hostel dorm bed
£7 per night
Hostel dorm
£12 per night
street foodArepa con queso on the street
£1
El Negro Food Truck: La Matanza (hot dog)
£4
Ceviche de pescado in a cheap restaurant
£1–£3
Empanada on the street
70p
cameraBogotá 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.

Exchange rate history

YearAverage annual exchange British pound (GBP) to US dollar (USD)
20181.3349
20191.2772
20201.2837
20211.3757
20221.2369
20231.2439
20241.2688

*2024 price is average from 1 January to 25 March.
Some of the major South American currencies include:

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

Travel card, debit card, or credit card?

Visa and Mastercard branded credit cards, debit cards and travel cards enjoy wide acceptance throughout the continent of South America. Merchants that have the facilities to accept card payments will accept both these card scheme brands, American Express is accepted in few places besides high-end businesses. Stick to a Visa or Mastercard product so you can make withdrawals and card payments in a variety of places.

Most digital banking apps, which are a great option owing to very low transaction and withdrawal fees, come with either a Visa or Mastercard bank card. They work as normal bank accounts do, so the “topping up” process simply consists of transferring money into the account.

Travel money options for South America at a glance

Travel money optionProsCons
Debit cards for travel
  • Typically don’t charge currency conversion and international ATM fees
  • Local fees and exchange rates still apply
Prepaid travel money cards
  • Locked-in exchange rates
  • No currency conversion fee
  • International ATM withdrawal fee waiver on some cards
  • Fees to consider such as local ATM, initial load, reload and inactivity fees
  • Only a small number of providers support the currencies of South American countries
  • Acceptance is limited
Credit cards for travel
  • Accepted everywhere
  • Contactless payment terminals are common
  • Features such as complimentary travel insurance and reward points earning
  • Beware overseas ATM fees and currency conversion fees
Travellers cheques
  • Acceptance
  • Security
  • Can be costly with initial purchase charges
  • Not all merchants accept travellers cheques
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.

What’s the alternative?

Digital banking apps are certainly worth a look owing to their very low, if not flat, transaction and withdrawal fees, and mobile nature. The big names in this field, Starling, Monzo and Revolut, offer a way to manage your travel spend on the move without having to worry about currency conversion.

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.

  • Tip: Anecdotal evidence suggests that ATMs in the Amazon region of Brazil, some parts of Venezuela and Bolivia will not accept foreign debit cards. Ensure you have enough cash to last you the duration of your stay if you’re visiting these regions.
  • Tip: Smaller towns in rural areas may not provide ATM facilities. Research your destination for advice from other travellers before you arrive. Always try to use ATMs attached to the side of a bank.
  • Tip: ATMs will give you your money before your card, which can lead to instances of people leaving their card in the machine.

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 and the choice of money if you can’t pay in the local currency. While the major exchange offices in shopping centres and in tourist locations will exchange British pounds, but US dollars are preferred.

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

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. As we’ve seen, while using credit, debit and prepaid travel cards in large urban centres should not prove too difficult, many of the continents biggest tourist draws, like the Amazon rainforest and Machu Pichu in the Andes, will require cash to cover the lion’s share of your costs while you’re visiting.

Having US dollars on hand to use in emergencies and a travel card or debit card and credit card combination to use when necessary can serve you well.

Digital banking apps are also a solid option, owing to their international nature and low, if not zero, transaction and withdrawal fees.

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6 Responses

    Default Gravatar
    GraemeApril 23, 2019

    What am I best to do when traveling south america? I have a visa debit card but I do not want to take out large sums of cash at one time. Is it safe to use my debit card to take out cash or am I better with a travel card?

      AvatarFinder
      nikkiangcoApril 24, 2019Finder

      Hi Graeme,

      Thanks for getting in touch with Finder! There are a lot of things to do in South America and that will depend on your likes and hobbies. Best to seek a tourist agent for this as group tours are one way the make the most out of your trip without shelling out too much cash. Using a debit card or travel card depends on where you will be or what you are paying for, you can be guided by our page above and read the part that says “Travel money options for South America at a glance”

      Hope this was helpful. Don’t hesitate to message us back if you have more questions.

      Best,
      Nikki

    Default Gravatar
    BridgetFebruary 3, 2019

    We are on a cruise from South America Argentina. We will then be flying back from Buenos Aires. What monies do we need when we go ashore?

      AvatarFinder
      JoshuaFebruary 11, 2019Finder

      Hi Bridget,

      Thanks for getting in touch with finder. I hope all is well with you. :)

      If you’re going to Argentina, you would need the local currency, which is Argentinian Pesos. You can either buy your Argentinian Pesos while you are still in the UK or you can also simply convert your money when you get to Argentina.

      I hope this helps. Should you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to reach us out again.

      Have a wonderful day!

      Cheers,
      Joshua

    Default Gravatar
    MikeDecember 21, 2018

    Where can I purchase Argentinian Pesos in the UK as they appear “thin on the ground” , also, would they be easier to obtain in Spain ?
    Thank you MH

      AvatarFinder
      JoshuaDecember 23, 2018Finder

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for getting in touch with finder. I hope all is well with you. :)

      I understand the difficulty, Mike. Most money exchange shops would only exchange foreign money to local currency and not the other way around. However, it is still possible to find some bureaux de change in the UK that are now carrying Argentine Pesos, and you can also order them online. Some of your online options are listed on the table above. Of course, it is worth noting that you can take UK pounds with you and then change them into Pesos in Argentina, where you’ll get a better exchange rate.

      I hope this helps. Should you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to reach us out again.

      Have a wonderful day!

      Cheers,
      Joshua

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