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

Baht, riels, dollars and kip: A travel money guide to take the confusion out of taking and spending your money on a Southeast Asian adventure.

While US dollars are widely accepted in Southeast Asia, each country in the region has its own currency. Card payments are common in the capital cities, especially in Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, but you will need cash if you’re going off the beaten track. We give you the lowdown on how to take and use money in Southeast Asia, a region of tropical beaches and delicious food at affordable prices.

Low-cost travel money options for Southeast Asia

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How each travel money option works in given country

Using travel money cards

A travel card allows you to hold a number of different foreign currencies at the same time. Spend in the currency of your destination and you can avoid the fee for currency conversion. Thai baht and Singapore dollars are supported currencies on a number of products, but Brunei dollars, Cambodian riels, Indonesian rupiah, East Timor dollars, Laos kip, Malaysian ringgits, Philippine pesos and Myanmar kyats are not supported currencies.

If you’re travelling to the aforementioned countries, a travel card with no currency conversion fee is suited. However, travel cards are fee-heavy products, so you’re going to pay for international transactions one way or another. For example, cards which don’t charge for currency conversion might charge for international ATM use. You’ll also have to pay fees when you purchase, load or reload the card.

  • Tip: If you purchase a travel card at a branch, there’s a chance it won’t have your name embossed on the front. This may cause issues with acceptance in Southeast Asia.

Using debit cards

You can use any Mastercard or Visa debit card, though you should be weary of using it abroad as there may be fees attached. Barclays will charge a 2.99% non-sterling transaction fee, Lloyd’s will charge a 2.99% non-sterling fee on cash withdrawals and purchases, and NatWest/RBS will charge a fee of 2.75%. Regardless, a debit card can be a good back-up option.

  • Tip: Visa and Mastercard too provide a money-back guarantee if you’re the victim of card fraud overseas.

Using credit cards

Some credit cards don’t charge for currency conversion and international ATM withdrawals. It’s generally not a good idea to use your credit card to withdraw cash from an ATM – cash advance interest and the cash advance fees apply when these products are used for this purpose. These fees can be avoided by preloading these products with your own money. Note that a local ATM operator fee may still apply and some providers will charge a cash advance fee regardless. Using a credit card with a positive balance also voids the anti-fraud guarantees from Mastercard and Visa.

  • Tip: Some credit cards provide complimentary international travel insurance when you charge the cost of your return overseas travel ticket to the account.
  • Tip: Make sure you tell your bank about your travel plans if you don’t travel frequently, otherwise it may block your card if it sees a “suspicious” overseas transaction.

Using traveller’s cheques

An almost obsolete form of travel money, traveller’s cheques can be cashed in more places in Thailand and Cambodia compared to other parts of the world. In Thailand, traveller’s cheques may be cheaper to cash at a bank than when withdrawing baht from an ATM. A number of Thai banks will cash cheques for a fee. If you’re travelling to the Philippines, anecdotal evidence suggests cheques are very hard to cash anywhere.

Taking cash with you

Although each country in the region uses different currencies, US dollars can be used throughout Southeast Asia. In some places (Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos especially) you’ll see prices quoted in US dollars, and some businesses such as hotels may prefer payment in US dollars. If you do take US dollars to Southeast Asia, make sure you have an eye on the exchange rates so you know how much you should be paying. In the rural areas of Southeast Asia, debit, credit and travel cards will not be accepted. Make sure you have enough cash to cover your planned expenses (and then some).

Using an ATM

Cities in Southeast Asia are well serviced by ATMs. You won’t have a problem using Visa and Mastercard products. Be prepared to pay an ATM operator fee, the vast majority of ATMs in Southeast Asia charge a fee when you make a withdrawal.

  • Tip: Pick an odd number when you withdraw cash from an ATM. This will give you smaller bills which are easier to use.
Exchange cash

It’s best to get the currency of the destination you’re visiting. Pounds can be easily changed to the local currency in tourist centres and international airports throughout the region. In Cambodia and Myanmar, and to a lesser extent Laos, where US dollars are the currency of the street, you’ll get the local currency in change when you pay with US dollars.

  • Tip: If you have the opportunity to withdraw US dollars from an ATM, get some extra cash to use throughout the region as you travel to different countries.
  • Tip: Thai baht is accepted in areas of Laos.

How much do I need to bring to Southeast Asia?

Southeast Asia is a budget holiday destination compared to many other parts of the world. You’ll find that developed economies such as Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and especially Singapore are more expensive than emerging destinations such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. You will be able to spend as much money as you can afford in Southeast Asia, you can get an idea about budget prices in the table below.

Bangkok (Thailand)SingaporeVientiane (Laos)Hanoi (Vietnam)
sleep

Hostel dorm bed

£7–£15 per night

Hostel dorm bed

£10–$20 per night

Hostel dorm bed

£5–£10 per night

Hostel dorm bed

£4–£10 per night

street food

Khao gang (curried rice/street food)

£1–£2

Chicken and fish dumpling noodles (street stall)

£5

Lao sausage/Sai oua (street food)

£2

Budget meals at a cafeteria

£1

Marketing shopping on Koh Sahn Road

£0.30–£5

Visit the Singapore Botanic Gardens Trip

Free

Visit the Lao People’s Army Museum

£0.50 admission fee

Sightseeing at Hoan Kiem Lake and Turtle tower

Free

*Prices are approximate and are subject to change.

Which travel card, debit card or credit card?

Visa and Mastercard credit cards, debit cards and travel cards have wide acceptance in Southeast Asia. Take a look at our digital banking accounts that are good for travel. If you have an American Express, you’ll need to take a Visa or Mastercard card too. In the cities, you’ll find ATMs are easy to find, but in smaller towns and off the beaten track there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to get cash from an ATM (ATMs can be scarce and frequently run out of cash). Card acceptance in these areas is also sketchy at best, so make sure you have enough cash to cover you for the times you’re venturing outside of urban centres.

Travel money options for Southeast Asia at a glance

Travel money optionProsConsiderations
Debit cards for travel
  • Visa and Mastercard provides money back guarantee if victim of card fraud overseas
  • Protected by PIN & chip
  • Debit cards will not incur an interest rate as it uses your own money from your transaction account
  • International ATM withdrawal fees may apply
  • Most of the debit cards will charge an additional currency conversion fees
  • Not a credit product. No emergency funds available though a cash advance facility.
Prepaid travel money cards
  • Holds multiple foreign currencies at the same time
  • Currency conversion fees can be avoided if you spend in the currency of your destination
  • Ability to lock in the exchange rate for the funds that you ‘load’ on to the card before you go
  • Secured by PIN & chip technology
  • Emergency card replacement and backup cards
  • Easily reloadable via a secure online platform
  • Cards which don’t charge for currency conversion might charge for international ATM use
  • Travel cards are fee-heavy products — card issue fees, initial load fees and reload fees may apply
  • Travel cards without names embossed on the front may cause issues with acceptance in Southeast Asia
Credit cards for travel
  • Protected by PIN & chip
  • Accepted worldwide
  • Some credit cards offer complimentary travel insurance
  • Interest-free days when you pay your account in full
  • Emergency card replacement
  • Withdrawing cash can be considered a “cash advance” and can charge you fees and high interests
  • Card scheme anti-fraud guarantees don’t apply in a credit card with a positive balance
  • Higher spending limit (depends on your approved credit limit)
  • Attracts an annual fee
Traveller’s cheques
  • Can be cashed in Thailand and Cambodia
  • Have the added security of needing ID to be cashed
  • Availability to cash at banks
  • Secure and can be easily replaced if lost or stolen
  • Card schemes such as Mastercard give you a money back guarantee if you’re a victim of card fraud
  • You can’t cash any cheques in the Philippines
  • Expect to be charged a commission when cashing your cheques
  • Currency exchange rate varies over time
Cash
  • US dollars can be used throughout Southeast Asia
  • Greater payment flexibility
  • Convenience
  • Exchange rates are to look out for
  • 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.

Buying currency in the UK

If getting the best rate is your main concern, it’s better to wait to exchange your pounds until you arrive at your destination — you’ll get more for your money exchanging at a bank or exchange office in Southeast Asia. Laos kip (LAK) and Myanmar kyat (MMK) are difficult to find in the UK.

Why you’ll need a combination of travel money options

Make sure you’ve spread your travel budget across a couple of cards. For example a travel card, debit card or credit card and US dollars in cash. This will give you more options if you’re travelling between countries. Conditions can change between countries and ATM availability is not guaranteed outside Southeast Asian cities.

If you have any questions about travel money for Southeast Asia, get in touch with us using the form at the bottom of the page.

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6 Responses

    Default Gravatar
    NicolaNovember 6, 2018

    We are travelling to south east Asia- Vietnam, Thailand, cambodia, Malaysia and are wondering if a travel card is the best way to store and spend money in these places. Thanks

      AvatarFinder
      JoshuaNovember 19, 2018Finder

      Hi Nicola,

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

      The best way to store and spend money in Southeast Asia would depend on your needs, preference, and budget. Thankfully, you can use the table above to get a quick overview of the pros and cons of each option that you have. Please check the table under the subheading, “Travel money options for Southeast Asia at a glance.” Once you read that, you should have a better understanding to make the right decision.

      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
    KiraSeptember 18, 2017

    Hi I’m travelling to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, what is the best travel money card I should get and where should I get it from?

      AvatarFinder
      HaroldSeptember 19, 2017Finder

      Hi Kira,

      Thank you for your inquiry.

      As per checking you are in the correct page. Please our comparison table provided above for your list of options.

      I hope this information has helped.

      Cheers,
      Harold

    Default Gravatar
    GeorgeJuly 25, 2017

    Hi

    Me and my partner are going travelling around South East Asia and in October for around 1 year and currently in the process of looking for a suitable pre paid card / new bank account that would be relevant for us.

    Ideally we would to load a lump sum onto a card and budget within accordingly, we would look for low / free withdrawal fees.

    What would you advise as the best method of taking cash / card for our trip?

      AvatarFinder
      MayJuly 25, 2017Finder

      Hi George,

      Thank you for reaching out. As we are a comparison and general information service, we’re unable to recommend or suggest a specific travel card for you as the best option would ultimately depend on your travel plans, spending habits and financial situation.

      Nevertheless, you may compare your travel prepaid card options above. Once you’ve chosen a travel card, you may click on the ‘Go to site’ button and apply for the card on the issuer’s main website. Please note though that in Southeast Asia, credit cards, debit cards and prepaid travel cards with Visa or MasterCard logos are widely accepted there.

      Cheers,
      May

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