Using a credit card in Mexico
Use our guide to get the best out of your plastic, and your cash, on holiday in Mexico.
If you’re travelling to Mexico, you may be wondering about whether you can use your credit card while you’re out there. Happily, you can – in a lot of places! Credit cards are accepted at most restaurants and large hotels, but you may be rejected at smaller venues and shops, so carrying cash is a good back-up.
When in big tourist cities like Cancun or Cabo San Lucas, you can get away with carrying US dollars, but it’s a good idea to carry pesos just in case, and certainly if you’re visiting smaller towns.
Visa and Mastercard credit cards are widely accepted and you might be able to use your American Express card in some places, too.
Compare cards with fee-free currency conversion in Mexico
Cash machines in Mexico
ATMs are common in Mexico, since the country attracts many tourists. It is safer to use ATMs owned by large banks: Citibanamex, Banco Santander (part-owned by Bank of America), Banorte, and HSBC. Otherwise, smaller vendors may charge you a large fee for your transaction. Most ATMs in Mexico only accept 4-digit PINs for debit and credit cards, so speak to your bank before travelling if you don’t have one.
Make sure you plan ahead, as in the worst-case scenario, you’ll be charged an ATM fee, an international fee, and a currency exchange fee.
Cash in Mexico
You’ll need to pay for most small purchases of less than £20 in cash. Keep around £150 in cash to pay newspaper vendors, cafes, restaurants, bars and small souvenir shops. Don’t be surprised if you’re looked at strangely when you ask to pay by card at a local bar when your bill’s under £20. You may also come by shopkeepers who aren’t particularly comfortable using the card machines they have.
Chip and PIN
With chip and PIN cards becoming the norm around the world, Mexico has adopted this, as chip cards are the standard. With a chip and PIN card, you insert your card and enter a PIN (personal identification number) to complete your transaction. With a chip and signature card, you complete your transaction with a signature.
Overall, it’s a good idea to get either a chip-and-PIN, or chip-and-signature card before travelling.
Is it safe to use my card in Mexico?
By exercising some caution when using your credit card in Mexico, you’ll have a relatively trouble-free experience.
- Keep your PIN safe. Use one hand to enter the PIN and the other to shield it from prying eyes and hidden cameras.
- Select ATMs with care. Try and stick to ATMs in banks and avoid using ones in the street.
- Watch out for “skimmers”. When installed in an ATM, a card skimmer works by stealing information from credit and debit cards. If you feel the card slot is not as smooth as it should be or if there’s a problem with the keypad, cancel your transaction and look for another ATM.
Keeping your credit card (physically) safe
Remain alert to street crime, especially where two or more people work in distracting victims before decamping with their valuables. Instances of theft at airports are not uncommon, so stay vigilant while arriving and departing. Additionally keep your cash and cards in a safe place, and always keep your bag with you at all times.
Potential credit card fees
Credit card fees can leave a noticeable dent in your pocket when you’re travelling overseas, so know what you’re up against well in advance and choose a card with no or low fees.
Foreign transaction fees
British credit card issuers typically charge a fee equivalent to 1% to 3% of your transaction, so carefully review your card’s small print to avoid statement surprises. Some cards designed for travel come with no foreign transaction fees, so this could be a good time to switch.
Currency conversion fees
If a retailer offers to bill your credit card in sterling, dynamic currency conversion comes into play. While this might sound like a good deal, you’ll actually end up getting a worse exchange rate, and you might also end up paying currency conversion fees. Whenever you’re presented with an option, choose to pay in local currency.
Cash advance fees
Using your credit card to withdraw money from an ATM may not make sense unless it’s a bona fide emergency. Each time you withdraw funds from an ATM, you’re likely to pay a cash advance fee. Your APR for cash advances is typically higher than your purchase APR, and you’ll typically get no grace period on interest — instead, you start paying interest immediately. Again, some cards designed for overseas spending will waive the cash advance fee.
The table below serves as an example of how much extra you may pay to use your credit card for in Mexico.
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”.
How to prepare before travelling to Mexico
- Go with Visa or Mastercard. Carry at least two cards on your trip to Mexico, preferably connected with Visa or Mastercard. If you just take an American Express card, you won’t get to use it in many places.
- Think no foreign transaction fees. When there are cards that come with no foreign transaction fees, using ones that charge 2% or 3% of each overseas transaction does not make sense. Some of these cards don’t charge an annual fee, either.
- Keep your bank posted. Banks, in their efforts to thwart fraudulent transactions, block credit cards if they detect suspicious activity such as unexpected overseas transactions. To make sure this does not happen to your card, let your bank know about your travel plans before you leave the UK.
- Keep the emergency number handy. Know which numbers you’ll need to call if you end up losing your card or if you need an emergency replacement.
- Know where you’ll get cash from. Consider using your debit card to withdraw cash from ATMs. If you need to exchange money, stick to banks or official money-exchange offices because possessing counterfeit money in Mexico is a serious crime. Try to avoid exchanging money at airports and popular tourist destinations because of typically poor exchange rates.
Ask yourself these simple questions before you leave so your spending in Mexico does not hit any roadblocks.
- Which cards will I take? Visa and Mastercard are the favourites. If you’re planning a trip, check out cards which give you complimentary airport lounge access. If you’re planning well in advance, consider earning air miles for your trip with a frequent flyer credit card.
- Have I let my bank know? If you don’t inform your bank about your travel plans, you may end up with a temporarily suspended card.
- What fees do I need to pay? If your existing cards come with foreign transaction fees, look for one that does not. Paying in sterling outside of the UK might come with currency conversion fees.
- How will I get cash? Using your debit card at an ATM is the simplest way to access your own money. You can carry cash and traveler’s cheques with you. Exchanging sterling for pesos is easy and you’ll get several options.
When you’re in Mexico, you don’t have to worry about where and when you can use your credit card. Just keep some cash handy to pay for small purchases.
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