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 look at the cards which have the lowest fees to use over the counter and to withdraw from ATMs on your South American getaway.

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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 your 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-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. La Matanza (hot dog)
$4.50
Ceviche de 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.

Exchange rate history

Year Average annual exchange British Pound (GBP) to US Dollar (USD)
2012 1.584877
2013 1.564768
2014 1.647701
2015 1.528504
2016 1.355673
2017 1.268637

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
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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 which 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.

Travel money options for South America at a glance

Travel money option Pros Considerations
Debit cards for travel
  • No 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
  • Does not support the currencies of South American countries
  • Acceptance is limited
  • Need to pay to convert funds
Credit cards for travel
  • Accepted everywhere
  • Contactless payment terminals are common
  • Features such as complimentary travel insurance and reward points earning
  • 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.

How each travel money option works in South America

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.

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.

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 unless it doesn’t charge a currency conversion fee. Although you can load US Dollars onto these travel money products, acceptance is limited and you’ll pay to convert funds twice. Travel card providers apply a margin to the exchange rate when you convert funds and then a currency conversion fee applies when you spend in a currency not loaded on the card. While there are products which will waive the currency conversion fee, other fees apply when you withdraw cash or reload the card for example. Consider one of the other forms of travel money compared on this page for a trip to South America.

  • 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 respectively. A travel card is 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.

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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.

  • 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.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!
south-america-banknotes
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6 Responses

  1. 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 Customer Care
      nikkiangcoApril 24, 2019Staff

      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

  2. 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 Customer Care
      JoshuaFebruary 11, 2019Staff

      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

  3. 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 Customer Care
      JoshuaDecember 23, 2018Staff

      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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