Best ways to spend travel money in Sri Lanka: 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 Sri Lanka.

Be free to explore Sri Lanka’s breathtaking landscapes and rich history by organising your travel money before getting on the plane. You’re not strapped for options when it comes to accessing your funds overseas, but the right one for you will depend on a number of factors. Use this guide to learn how you can take your money with you on your next holiday in Sri Lanka.

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Using credit cards

A credit card is another option to consider when travelling in Sri Lanka. Like all travel money options, it has its benefits and drawbacks. Consider some of the following factors associated with using your credit card overseas:

  • Currency conversion fees. Most UK credit cards will charge a currency conversion fee of around 3% if you use your card to make purchases in a foreign currency. To reduce your expenses, look for a credit card designed for overseas use that doesn’t charge these fees.
  • ATM withdrawals. Credit cards aren’t designed for cash withdrawals, so you’ll probably accrue a high cash advance fee if you use your card for ATM withdrawals in the UK or overseas. As you’re most likely to use cash in Sri Lanka, you may want to consider carrying a debit or prepaid card for cash withdrawals and leave your credit card for large or emergency purchases.
  • Acceptance. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted in Sri Lanka, so you should have no problem using this type of card while you’re travelling.
  • Rewards. Some credit cards are linked to a rewards or frequent flyer program, which could be a smart way to earn points on your holiday purchases. Some cards even offer bonus points for overseas transactions.
  • Insurance. Credit cards designed for overseas use often come with complimentary travel insurance for you and the family members travelling with you. You may be required to pay for a percentage of your travel costs with the card to qualify, so make sure to read over the insurance policy.

Using prepaid travel cards in Sri Lanka

You can load pounds on to a prepaid travel card, which can be transferred to multiple supported currencies. Here are some of the benefits and drawbacks you should consider:

  • Supported currencies. A small number of UK prepaid cards support LKR, so you’ll hopefully be able to avoid currency conversion or foreign transaction fees if you use a compatible travel money card in Sri Lanka.
  • ATM withdrawals. Travel cards charge different ATM fees depending on the currency you’re withdrawing. You can check the review page or product disclosure statement (PDS) relevant to your card to see how much ATM visits will cost you.
  • Locked-in exchange rates. Prepaid travel cards lock in your exchange rate at the time of loading the funds, so your money is protected against negative exchange rate fluctuations while you’re travelling.
  • Access to your own funds. Unlike a line of credit, a prepaid card carries preloaded funds from your savings account. This can help curb overspending and give you a more realistic understanding of your travel budget when you’re overseas.

Using travel money debit cards

Debit cards can be a good way to access your savings overseas, but there are some drawbacks you need to be aware of. Consider some of the benefits and restrictions below:

  • ATM alliances. Some UK debit cards belong to ATM alliances, so you can withdraw funds from specific ATMs overseas without incurring a withdrawal fee. Unlike a credit card, you can also enjoy withdrawing cash without the burden of a cash advance fee.
  • Currency conversion. Unless your card is designed for overseas use, you’ll be charged a currency conversion fee if you use your card to make purchases in a foreign currency.
  • Use your cash. Like a prepaid card, a debit card only has access to your savings. This can help you keep your travel budget in check and prevent you from overspending.

Taking cash in Sri Lanka

It’s prohibited to bring more than a small amount of LKR into and out of Sri Lanka. At some point, you will need to get money changed or make an ATM withdrawal.

What’s the alternative?

Digital banking apps are definitely worth considering. You can use them to manage your travel money anywhere in the world, and many don’t charge any transaction or withdrawal fees.

What currency can I use in Sri Lanka?

The official and only currency of Sri Lanka is the rupee (LKR). The Sri Lankan government has tight control over the national currency and there are strict limits on the amount of rupees you can bring in and out of the country (up to LKR 20,000). You’ll need to change pounds to LKR or withdraw rupees from an ATM when you arrive.

How many rupees should you bring on your trip?

ColomboBudgetMid-rangeExpensive
Simple guesthouse
£8–£21 per night
Double room in a nice place
£25–£65 per night
5-star hotel
£70 and above – per night
to-eat

Fish curry and mixed rice

£0.70–£2

Meals at hotel/restaurant
£7–£13
Meals at top-end places
£15 and above
carBus fares
£2 per day
Hire bikes, ride trains and use a car and driver some days
£14 per day
Daily use of car and driver
£35 for a day

Exchange rate history (GBP to LKR)

YearAverage annual exchange British pound (GBP) to Sri Lankan rupee (LKR)
2018216.6495
2019228.1896
2020237.9855
2021272.9212
2022396.9006
2023408.2701
2024392.1028

*2024 price is an average up until 25 April.Back to top

Should it be a travel card, a credit card, or a debit card?

Are you travelling to Sri Lanka and looking to find the best way to take your travel money? Let’s compare prepaid travel cards, credit cards and debit cards to help you determine which option is right for you.

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.

A quick summary of your travel money options in Sri Lanka

Travel money optionProsCons
Debit cards for travel
  • Avoid currency conversion fees on foreign transactions
  • Emergency cash facilities
  • Ideal for managing your travel budget
  • Currency conversion and international ATM fees
  • Can’t be used over the counter
  • No emergency cash
  • No backup cards
Prepaid travel money cards
  • Protected by PIN & chip
  • Pre-load and secure your exchange rate in multiple foreign currencies
  • Accepted worldwide
  • Emergency card replacement and backup cards
  • Ideal for managing your travel budget
  • Local ATM fee
  • Reloading time
  • No fee – Assuming cardholder is spending on a currency loaded onto the card
Credit cards for travel
  • Protected by PIN & chip
  • Access to funds up to your credit limit
  • Accepted worldwide
  • No currency conversion/ transaction fees on some credit cards
  • Benefits including rewards points on spending, 0% purchases, frequent flyer perks
  • Emergency card replacement
  • Can charge high withdrawal and cash advance fees
  • Higher spending limit (depends on your approved credit limit)
Traveller’s cheques
  • Secure and can be easily replaced if lost or stolen
  • Photo I.D. needed to cash cheques
  • Can be costly with initial purchase charges
  • Not all merchants accept traveller’s 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.

Get familiar with the Sri Lankan rupee

The Sri Lankan rupee comes in the following denominations: 1, 2, 5, 10, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000. 10 rupees is the lowest denomination banknote.

sri lankan rupee

Exchanging money

You should wait until you arrive in Sri Lanka to get the bulk of your money changed. Money exchange offices in Sri Lanka can change pounds to rupees. You can bring up to LKR20,000 to Sri Lanka from abroad, which is approximately £75, or you can bring up to the pound equivalent of US$10,000.

LKR is a minor international currency. Exchange offices in the UK charge a higher commission compared to getting your money changed when you arrive in Sri Lanka. Exchange offices at Colombo and Hambantota airports offer rates that compete with what you can get on the street, so don’t be afraid to get your cash changed as soon as you get off the plane. Exchange offices at Colombo airport are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Licensed money changers such as jewellers and designated exchange offices may offer a better rate than banks. The rate may change depending on the denominations you want to change. For example, you may be able to get a better rate exchanging £50 notes compared to multiples of £10.

Hotels and street money changers

If you can, avoid changing money at your hotel. Hotels usually offer a worse rate than banks and dedicated money changers, and a commission may also be applied to the transaction.

Street money changers may offer an attractive rate, but there’s a higher chance of being ripped off. These people are practised at sleight of hand and have been known to short-change tourists. It’s better to be safe than sorry and get your money changed at the airport or at a bank. Spend a few extra pounds to ensure you end up ahead.

  • Tip: Be sure to keep your exchange slip when you get money changed so you can re-exchange cash when you leave the country.

Withdrawing cash from an ATM

The other option to get LKR is to withdraw cash from an ATM when you arrive. Cash withdrawals using your credit card (not recommended) or debit card are subject to the Visa or Mastercard foreign exchange rate. The Visa and Mastercard rate is close to the interbank rate. The downside is the charge for using an international ATM. A local ATM operator fee and international ATM fee will apply.

The banks to use to withdraw cash

Not all banks accept foreign cards. You can make cash withdrawals using your UK card at these popular Sri Lankan banks:

  • Sampath Bank
  • Commercial Bank
  • Hatton
  • National Bank
  • HSBC
  • Standard Chartered Bank

Make sure you check to see whether the ATM takes your card. The Visa and Mastercard logo should be displayed on the front of the machine.

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Bottom line

There is no single best travel money strategy, as the right one will ultimately depend on where you’re travelling, how you’re spending your money and what you can afford. For example, if you’re going to be making a lot of cash withdrawals, consider a debit card with an ATM alliance or a prepaid card with low withdrawal fees over a credit card.

Given Sri Lanka’s relatively strict limits on the amount of physical cash that can be brought into or taken out of the country, it may make sense to wait until you arrive in the country before trying to get your hands on LKR bank notes.

As LKR is a relatively minor international currency, you’re unlikely to find overly competitive exchange rates if using an exchange office in the UK to get LKR cash. UK-based exchanges are also likely to levy higher commission, when compared to getting your money changed as soon as you arrive in Sri Lanka.

Frequently asked questions

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Charlie Barton was a publisher at Finder. He specialised in banking and investments products, including banking apps, current accounts, share-dealing platforms and stocks and shares ISAs. Charlie has a first-class degree from the London School of Economics, and in his spare time enjoys long walks on the beach. See full bio

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4 Responses

    Default Gravatar
    RuneOctober 30, 2018

    Hello,

    How much foreign cash (USD) are you allowed to bring into Sri Lanka? This is for a driver.

      AvatarFinder
      CharisseOctober 30, 2018Finder

      Hi Rune,

      Thanks for reaching out to finder.

      There is no restriction in bringing foreign currencies into Sri Lanka. However, if the total amount exceeds USD 15,000, that sum must be declared to Sri Lanka Customs.

      On the other hand, if you wish to take out of Sri Lanka more than USD 5,000 in currency notes, out of the money you brought in, you will need to declare the total amount of the currency you brought in even if it is less than US$ 15,000.

      I hope this helps.

      Cheers,
      Charisse

    Default Gravatar
    JaniceSeptember 11, 2017

    If I take cash to sri lanka is it a good way of getting a fair deal?

      AvatarFinder
      HaroldSeptember 12, 2017Finder

      Hi Janice,

      Thank you for your inquiry.

      While we cannot recommend what is best for you, we can offer you a general information. As per checking you already in the correct page, what you can do next is to review and compare the offers that will best fit your personal requirements.

      I hope this information has helped.

      Cheers,
      Harold

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