Whether you’re going to snorkel among the colourful fish of the reef or visit the symbols of Egypt’s thousand-year-old history, you’ll need to sort your money out before travelling.
Egypt is still a mostly cash-based society. Although credit card payments are becoming increasingly common and will be taken by many hotels and restaurants in Cairo or other tourist locations, you’ll need cash to enjoy the local cuisine or shop for textiles and spices at the souk.
The local currency is the Egyptian pound. In 2016, the government unpegged it from the US dollar, thus freeing the exchange rate and causing the Egyptian pound to lose almost half of its value – however, the rate has been comparatively stable ever since.
Bargaining is common practice in Egypt, so carrying cash will also ensure that you can get the best deals while shopping.
Egypt’s network of ATMs has improved significantly over the years, and you can also find some belonging to the Western banks that operate in Egypt, such as HSBC and Credit Agricole.
However, while you won’t have any difficulties in finding an ATM in Cairo or Alexandria, things may become trickier if you’re heading for a more rural area, or (unsurprisingly) if you’re planning an excursion into the desert. As a general rule, don’t wait until you run out of cash to get some.
ATMs will often charge their own fee for cash withdrawals, although it can depend on the bank they belong to. They’ll also ask you if you want them to handle the currency conversion – it’s usually cheaper to refuse and let your bank at home do it, especially if you’re using a debit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.
Cash in Egypt
Goods and services come comparatively cheap in Egypt for British travellers, so it would be a shame not to indulge in some local shopping. For that, you’ll definitely need cash. Be prepared to bargain the price for a while, sometimes even over a cup of mint tea – if you’re in a hurry, you’ll probably end up paying a bit more.
Some tours or services will display prices in Western currencies, usually US dollars or euros. However, they are not accepted everywhere, and you’ll probably get a better rate if you simply change your currency into the local one beforehand.
Since the currency’s value crashed in 2016, coins smaller than LE1 have become less and less common. LE5, LE10, LE20, LE50, LE100 and LE200 notes are all commonly used. It’s best to always keep some change ready as tipping is also expected pretty much everywhere.
Is it safe to use my card in Egypt?
You should follow some basic rules to ensure the safety of your card, particularly when withdrawing money from an ATM:
Keep it physically safe. Pickpockets operate in some areas of the cities, and tourists are a pretty obvious target. You should avoid leaving your stuff unattended or keeping your phone or wallet in the pocket of a backpack or of a bag that can easily be reached.
Choose your ATM carefully. ATMs inside banks are safer than those on the street.
Don’t keep your card and PIN in the same place. That’s a golden rule for anywhere in the world, not just in Egypt. There’s no point in making a thief’s life that easy.
Watch out for “skimmers”. Some ATMs may have been tampered with to get your card and PIN. If the card slot is not as smooth as it should be, or if the keyboard sticks out from the machine more than it should, it’s safer to try another ATM. Always shield your PIN when you type it in, both from occasional bystanders and from potentially hidden cameras.
Credit card fees in Egypt
When weighing the pros and cons of cash and card payments in Egypt, you should take into account the range of fees that credit cards can incur:
Foreign transaction fees. Check how much your credit card charges for non-sterling transactions before leaving for Egypt. In most cases, it’ll be a percentage of the transaction – somewhere between 1% and 3%. If that’s the case, it’s worth seeing if you can get a debit or credit card that comes with fee-free transactions abroad.
Currency conversion fees. You may be asked if you want the transaction to be carried out in pounds or in the local currency. You should pick the local currency and let your bank handle the conversion, especially if you’ve chosen a card with favourable currency conversion conditions, in order to avoid fees and bad exchange rates.
Cash advance fees. You should avoid withdrawing cash with a credit card, especially when travelling. Fees may pile up quickly in the form of cash advance fees (most bank charge a fee for using your credit card to get cash), interest (interest-free billing cycles usually don’t apply to cash advances, so the amount you withdraw will probably start accruing interest from day one) and foreign transaction fees if your card charges them.
Merchant fees. Some merchants who take credit cards will charge an extra fee for it in the form of a percentage of the purchase added to the transaction. If you can, you should ask if there’s a surcharge for card payments before choosing your payment method.
Here’s a fairly typical section from a credit card’s terms and conditions showing non-sterling usage fees that are pretty standard.
Additionally, you can get an idea of costs by using these online currency conversion tools from Mastercard and Visa.
What is a cash advance fee?
A cash advance fee is calculated (and charged) when you withdraw cash from your credit card. It’s usually the greater of a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction, for example, “2.5% of the transaction, minimum £3.00”.
Compare cards with fee-free currency conversion in Egypt
Table: sorted by representative APR, promoted deals first
There’s no point in exchanging your money before leaving – you’ll usually be offered a better rate once you land, especially if you avoid doing it at hotels and airports. However, there are a few things that it’s better to sort out well in advance:
Go with Visa or Mastercard. Some high-end hotels and restaurants in Egypt will take Amex, but you’ll hardly be able to use it anywhere else – a Mastercard or a Visa will make a much more practical option.
Keep your bank posted. Your bank might consider a transaction in Egypt as suspicious and decide to block it. It’s best to give them a call in advance to warn them of your travel plans in order to avoid potentially embarrassing situations.
Keep the emergency number handy. Even if you’re usually the careful type, losing your card or having it stolen isn’t uncommon while travelling away from home. Be ready to block your card as soon as possible if it happens.
Don’t travel without cash. Changing pounds into the local currency isn’t complicated, so it’s worth having them on you when you leave. Once you land, cash will be necessary if you’re heading to more remote areas or if you’re a big fan of local food and shopping.
The top banks operating in Egypt are National Bank of Egypt, Banque Misr, Qatar National Bank, Banque du Caire, Credit Agricole, HSBC and AlexBank (a subsidiary of Italian banking group Intesa Sanpaolo).
Valentina Cipriani is a writer at Finder UK. She writes news, features and guides about banking and credit cards, helping people to improve their financial lives. She holds an MA in International Journalism and loves taking complicated topics apart and giving them back to the readers in a clear and easy fashion.
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