One of the most exasperating things a traveling person can deal with is having plenty of money to spend, but not being able to get to it. Or use it.
That’s not just a scenario for old movies where people used traveler’s checks and got an advance at the American Express office. It’s a reality in many countries today, including my new adopted home of Mexico. Sure, you can change dollars here just fine—as long as you only need to change $300 a day. And as long as you only need to cash $1,500 over the course of a month.
It’s a restriction put into place to curtail money laundering and nefarious trade from the drug cartels, never mind the collateral damage to the 20 million tourists who visit each year. And oddly enough, if you’re a drug dealer savvy enough to deal in euros or pounds sterling instead, no limits!
At least there’s a pretty easy way around it in Mexico though. Actually two ways: use a debit card instead of bringing cash and use a credit card when making major purchases like a hotel room or week-long car rental. Sure, there are still restrictions on ATMs from normal banking limits, but you can take out as much as you want in a month.
In Argentina, the situation is almost the opposite. In fact if you go to Argentina without huge wads of first world currency in your pocket you’re pretty screwed. That’s because the official rate is only about 2/3 of what you get in the black market these days—a sure sign that the economy is in big trouble there. On top of that, you can generally only get 1,000 pesos at a time from most ATM machines, which even at the official rate is less than $200.
Follow the link above and you’ll find ways around it, but many of them involve paying another fee each time. If you’re there for any length of time, you’ll need a credit card for big purchases.
In Burma/Myanmar, you had better come with entirely crisp and new U.S. dollars and you might want to encase them in the kind of folders baseball card collectors use in transit. As this Planet Money story on NPR pointed out, even the tiniest flaw or mark on a bill will make it worth less than face value.
Keep in mind too that many currencies have a built-in fee for foreigners (like the Cuban convertible pesos in Cuba) and many are practically worthless outside their home country. While the Thai baht is practically a hard currency in Cambodia or Laos, the Cambodian money is so useless you hardly even see it outside of local markets. Tuk-tuk drivers don’t want it and even the grocery stores post prices in U.S. dollars.
And if you ever want to see a backpacker come close to tears, ask them what it was like dealing with getting change and using torn banknotes in India…
My advice? Read a guidebook well before leaving. Those paper things are still really useful and thorough resources, with real research involved. Then as soon as you arrive in a place that’s not part of the G-8, ask another traveler if there’s anything you should know about money and ATMs. Then sit back and listen for a while.