Best ways to spend travel money in the UAE (Dubai): 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 the UAE.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a nation of 7 different Emirates and is more than just a stop-over on the way to Australia or Asia. This ultramodern oasis features the F1, Dubai Gold Cup, Ferrari World, the world’s tallest building, museums and malls.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the shining crowns of the UAE and attract the bulk of tourists and expats. The Emirati dirham is the currency of the region. Mastercard and Visa cards are widely accepted and ATMs are easy to find. You can compare cash, cards, cheques and insurance in this travel money guide for the UAE.

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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.

Using prepaid travel cards

UAE dirhams are supported by all travel cards issued 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 card can be used to make over-the-counter purchases and ATM withdrawals in the Emirates.

  • Tip: Order a travel card online so it has your name printed on the front.

Using credit cards

Visa and Mastercard credit cards can be used without issue at businesses in the UAE. Some hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai require a credit card for deposits, so it might be good to carry one as a backup.

  • Tip: Some users preload these products with their own money to use like a debit card. The cash advance fee applies regardless of whether the card has a positive balance and the Mastercard and Visa no liability guarantees do not apply if you’re the victim of credit card fraud.

Using traveller’s cheques

It is probably better to take a travel-friendly debit or prepaid card for ATM withdrawals. Banks and exchange offices will charge a commission to cash traveller’s cheques and you can get a better rate from the ATM.

Paying with cash in the UAE

You can use your credit card, debit card or travel card in many places throughout the UAE. Smaller businesses such as cafeterias and cafes, some public transportation, street vendors and souks are all cash only. ATMs are widespread in the cities, you will have many chances to withdraw cash if you need it.

How many dirhams do I need to bring to the UAE?

Accommodation, food and holiday activities can be expensive in the UAE. There are less than a handful of hostels, although value 2- and 3-star hotels are widely available in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Because the UAE is filled with many different nationalities, food from all over the world is available for cheap. As well as expensive theme park visits and sightseeing trips, there are also ways for you to explore Abu Dhabi and Dubai for free.

Abu DhabiBudgetMid-rangeExpensive
to-sleepHostel dorm bed
£12 – £20 per night
3-star hotel
£50 – £150 per night
5-star hotel
£200 – £500+ per night
foodChicken biryani at a cheap restaurant
Shawarma platter at mid-priced restaurant
Dine at Hakkasan Abu Dhabi – Signature Peking Duck
cameraVisit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: free
Relax on Corniche Beach: free
Visit the Ferrari World theme park
£60 per adult
Dubai sightseeing trip from Abu Dhabi
£70 per person

*Prices are indicative and subject to change.

Travel card, debit card or credit card?

There are 2 prepaid travel cards suited to spend in Emirati dirhams. You’ll incur currency conversion fees with the rest and American Express acceptance is touch-and-go in the UAE. A debit card can be a cost-effective way to withdraw money and make over-the-counter purchases if you have the right one. Plus, you could consider a travel credit card for the fee waivers and travel perks.

You can use Visa and Mastercard in the tourist and expatriate centres of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. While many smaller businesses and taxis now take cards, you will need cash at some point on your travels. ATMs are widespread and you’ll see some familiar names like Barclays and HSBC.

A quick summary of travel money options for the UAE

Travel money optionProsCons
Debit cards for travel
  • No currency conversion, ATM withdrawals, account keeping fees
  • Widely accepted at UAE merchants and ATMs
  • Only a few travel friendly debit accounts
Prepaid travel money cards
  • Allow you to load and spend in Dirham
  • No currency conversion fees for some cards
  • Let you make over the counter purchases and ATM withdrawals
  • International ATM withdrawal fees, card issue fees, initial load fees, reload fees may apply
Credit cards for travel
  • Features such as complimentary travel insurance and reward points earning
  • Accepted worldwide
  • Security with chip and PIN
  • Contactless payment terminals are common
  • Cash advance fees
  • Higher spending limit
  • May charge international withdrawal fees
Traveller’s cheques
  • Acceptance
  • Security
  • Can be costly with initial purchase charges
  • Not all merchants accept traveller’s cheques
  • 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.

Exchanging cash

If you have British pounds you want to change when you arrive, avoid exchanging cash at your hotel or at the airport. You will get a better rate if you wait until you get into the city. Have a look in shopping centres for exchange offices.

ATM withdrawals

Some of the banks you’ll recognise in the UAE include Citi, HSBC and Barclays Bank. International banks will give you a higher ATM withdrawal limit than local banks. Try to select a withdrawal amount that will give you notes in smaller denominations. These machines have a tendency to dispense large bills, which can be a problem to cash outside your hotel.

You can find ATMs in the international airports, you can make a withdrawal once you go through customs and before you get in a taxi.

Example: Dean in Abu Dhabi

Dean visited Abu Dhabi so he could attend the F1 Grand Prix. He spent about 4 nights in Abu Dhabi and 2 nights in Dubai before flying back home. He was at the Yas Marina circuit to watch the practice and qualifying laps and the race itself. Dean says that at the end of each day, there were performances from major artists such as Florence and the Machine.

Where could you use your cards?

Dean says he could use his cards in most places he visited. He made a withdrawal from an ATM when he landed but he says he used his credit card to pay for the taxi from the airport and for a deposit when he checked into the hotel. When he ventured into the city, he could use his travel debit card all the time except for when he ate in a few of the smaller restaurants – he didn't ask if they took cards but he thinks there's a good chance they do. He adds that a few of the taxis he took were cash only.

What about ATM withdrawals?

Dean only made 2 ATM withdrawals. The first time was in the airport and the second time was when he spotted a Citibank ATM in the Abu Dhabi Mall. He says there was no issue with ATM acceptance or availability. There was always an ATM around the corner.

Do you have any tips?

Dean says there is a service charge of 10% at places like hotels and restaurants included in the bill, but he says it can't hurt to round taxis up to the nearest 5 dirhams either.

* This is a fictional, but realistic, example.

Buying dirhams in the UK

You can get a better rate of exchange if you withdraw cash from an ATM in the UAE using a low-fee travel account. If you want some cash in your pocket when you land, these institutions can sell you dirhams.

Bottom line

The travel money products on this guide work best when they’re used together. Depending on the card, you could take advantage of interest-free days, complimentary insurance and an emergency line of credit with a credit card.

However, as you can’t use credit cards for ATM withdrawals, you’ll need to consider a travel-friendly debit card or prepaid card. Fees aside, spread your travel budget across a couple of different travel money types. This way, a lost or stolen card won’t derail your trip.

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