Travel Money Guide: South America

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With the Galapagos tempting you offshore, Machu Picchu nestled in the slopes of the Andes and the Amazon rainforest just waiting to be explored, it's easy to forget that South America is made up of 12 different countries with 12 separate currencies.

Our top tip for paying your way through? Make sure to have an emergency supply of cash, especially when travelling to rural locations like the Amazon where some towns have no ATM at all.

Compare travel money options for South America

With so many currencies to contend with, it's important to have a combination of travel money options including credit and debit cards, local currency and US dollars as a backup, which are accepted in multiple South American countries.

Name Product Foreign currency conversion fee Interest-free period Purchase rate Annual fee
Bankwest Zero Platinum Mastercard
0%
Up to 55 days on purchases
14.99% p.a.
$0
Get 0% p.a. on balance transfers for 26 months (with a 2% BT fee), ​an ongoing $0 annual fee and 0% foreign transaction fees.
Coles Rewards Mastercard
0%
Up to 55 days on purchases
19.99% p.a.
$0 annual fee for the first year ($99 p.a. thereafter)
Enjoy 20,000 bonus Flybuys points (worth $100 at Coles), a $0 first-year annual fee and an 18-month balance transfer offer.
Bankwest Breeze Platinum Mastercard
0%
Up to 55 days on purchases
0% p.a. for 15 months, reverts to 9.9% p.a.
$0 annual fee for the first year ($69 p.a. thereafter)
Get 0% interest on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months, a $0 first-year annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.
NAB StraightUp Card
0%
N/A
$0
Save with 0% interest charges and 0% foreign transaction fees. Plus, $0 monthly fees when you don't use the card or carry a balance.
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$
Name Product Card access ATM Withdrawal Fee Monthly Account Fee Internatonal ATM Fee Foreign transaction fee
HSBC Everyday Global Account
Visa
$0
$0
0%
Special offer: $100 cash bonus for new HSBC customers.
Earn 2% cashback on tap and pay purchases (T&C's apply).
Enjoy no minimum ongoing balance or transaction requirements and the flexibility to hold up to 10 currencies. Apple Pay and Google Pay available.

Great Southern Bank Everyday Snap Account
Visa
$0
$4.50
2.95%
Refund of international ATM withdrawal fees and international card transaction fees (conditions apply).
$0 monthly account fee. Unlimited fee-free everyday transactions.
Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay available. Savings Top Up tool automatically transfers to linked savings account.
Citi Global Currency Account
Mastercard
$0
$0
0%
Earn up to 0.75% p.a. interest on your AUD balance.
$0 monthly account fee.
Enjoy one linked debit card to hold up to 10 currencies and receive foreign currencies for free.
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Name Product Available Currencies ATM Withdrawal Fee Initial Load Fee Reload fee
7-Eleven Just Go Pre-Paid Travel Card
AUD,USD,EUR,GBP,NZD
EUR €0, GBP £0, AUD $0, USD $0, NZD $0
$0
$0
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Name Product Minimum Order Amount Maximum Order Amount Delivery/Pickup Method Commission Fee
Foreign Xchange Travel Money
$0
$9,999
In Store,Home Delivery
$0
Order multiple currencies in one transaction and have it delivered directly to your door anywhere in Australia. No delivery fee for orders over $1,000. A $10 flat fee applies to orders less than $1,000.
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Some of the major South American currencies include:

  • Argentine peso
  • Bolivian boliviano
  • Brazilian real
  • Chilean peso
  • Colombian peso
  • Peruvian nuevo sol
  • Uruguayan peso
  • Venezuelan bolivar

What should I take, a travel card, debit card, or credit card?

Visa and Mastercard branded credit cards, debit cards and travel cards enjoy wide acceptance throughout the continent of South America. Merchants which have the facilities to accept card payments will accept both these card scheme brands, American Express is accepted in few places besides high-end businesses. Stick to a Visa or Mastercard product so you can make withdrawals and card payments in a variety of places.

Travel money options for South America at a glance

Travel money optionProsConsiderations
Debit cards for travel
  • No currency conversion and international ATM fees
  • Free global transfers between Australian and American Citibank accounts
  • Citibank Plus Transaction Account, a debit account currently offered on the US market, which waived the additional charge for international ATM withdrawals
Prepaid travel money cards
  • Locked-in exchange rates
  • No currency conversion fee
  • International ATM withdrawal fee waiver on some cards
  • Fees to consider such as local ATM, initial load, reload and inactivity fees
  • Does not support the currencies of South American countries
  • Acceptance is limited
  • Need to pay to convert funds
Credit cards for travel
  • Accepted everywhere
  • Contactless payment terminals are common
  • Features such as complimentary travel insurance and reward points earning
  • International ATM withdrawal fees are waived for Bankwest Platinum cards
  • Overseas ATM fees and currency conversion fees
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.

How each travel money option works in South America

Credit cards

Credit cards provide a line of credit with limited interest free terms which can be used all over the world (American Express and Diners Club Cards in fewer places than Mastercard and Visa). Choose a credit card which doesn't charge for currency conversion to save money on international transaction fees when travelling through South America. Bankwest Platinum cards won't charge for international withdrawals as well as currency conversion. ATM withdrawals using your credit card are not advised if you're concerned with saving money, as you'll be charged high cash advance fees. But you can sometimes load a credit card with a positive balance to cut out cash advance fees and charges when used at an ATM. The card scheme anti-fraud guarantees don't apply when you withdraw from an ATM using a credit card with a positive balance.

Debit cards

A travel friendly transaction account is a better travel money option for a trip to South America. By choosing a debit card which lets you transact in a foreign currency without paying for currency conversion, you can use the account over the counter in South America as you would in Australia for no extra cost. Most debit card providers apply a $5 charge for international ATM withdrawals. As well as no currency conversion fees, the Citibank Plus Transaction Account also waives the additional charge for international ATM withdrawals.

  • Tip: Westpac cardholders (including St.George, BankSA and Bank of Melbourne cardholders) can avoid the international ATM withdrawal fee using ScotiaBank ATMs in Chile and Peru thanks to the Westpac Global Alliance.

Travel prepaid cards

No prepaid travel cards support the currencies of the South American countries, so these products shouldn't be considered for a trip to the continent unless it doesn't charge a currency conversion fee. Although you can load US Dollars onto these travel money products, acceptance is limited and you'll pay to convert funds twice. Travel card providers apply a margin to the exchange rate when you convert funds and then a currency conversion fee applies when you spend in a currency not loaded on the card. While there are products which will waive the currency conversion fee, other fees apply when you withdraw cash or reload the card for example. Consider one of the other forms of travel money compared on this page for a trip to South America.

  • Tip: The South American regions of French Guiana off the coast of Brazil and the Falkland Islands adjacent to Argentina use the euro and pound respectively. A travel card is suited to spend in these overseas departments of France and United Kingdom.

Traveller's cheques

Don't bother taking traveller's cheques to South America. They're difficult to cash and expensive, and no more secure than using a debit card (ATMs in South America are everywhere), credit card or prepaid travel card.

Cash

South America is one destination where you're going to need to have a supply of cash for emergencies. Although you can use your card in more places now more than ever, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to access cash at any given moment, especially outside of major cities. Card payment facilities vary greatly depending on the location. You won't have a problem with card acceptance and ATM withdrawals in the capital cities, especially in countries like Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina for example. However, there are major tourist attractions, like the Amazon, where you're going to need enough cash to last you for the entire leg of your trip.

Using ATMs in South America

Visa and Mastercard should work at all ATMs where you can see a Maestro, Cirrus, Mastercard or Visa logo on the front of the machine.

  • Tip: Anecdotal evidence suggests that ATMs in the Amazon region of Brazil, some parts of Venezuela and Bolivia will not accept foreign debit cards. Ensure you have enough cash to last you the duration of your stay if you're visiting these regions.
  • Tip: Smaller towns in rural areas may not provide ATM facilities. Research your destination for advice from other travellers before you arrive. Always try to use ATMs attached to the side of a bank.
  • Tip: ATMs will give you your money before your card, which can lead to instances of people leaving their card in the machine.

Exchanging cash in South America

ATM withdrawals are by far the most efficient way to get local currency in cash on your holiday. ATMs are located all throughout the continent. If you want to carry cash as an emergency backup, US Dollars are widely accepted and the choice of money if you can't pay in the local currency. While the major exchange offices in shopping centres and in tourist locations will exchange Australian Dollars, but US Dollars are preferred.

Exchange rate history

YearExchange Australian Dollar (AUD) to US Dollar (USD) ($1 AUD=)
20121.02
20131.04
2014.89
2015.82
2016.73
2017.72
2018.78

*Exchange rates are accurate as of 1 January of each year

Some of the major South American currencies include:

  • Argentine peso
  • Bolivian boliviano
  • Brazilian real
  • Chilean peso
  • Colombian peso
  • Peruvian nuevo sol
  • Uruguayan peso
  • Venezuelan bolivar
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How much money do I need to bring to South America?

From country to country and region to region, prices in Brazil are more expensive than Ecuador, Ibague (the 7th largest city in Colombia) is cheaper than Medellin (the 2nd biggest city in Colombia). You'll find prices are varied in South America. Wherever your travel, the continent can be as expensive as you make it. Below you can find some budget prices for different countries in South America.

Bogotá (Colombia)Brasília (Brazil)Lima (Peru)Santiago (Chile)
to-sleepHostel dorm bed$10 per nightHostel dorm bed$20 per nightHostel dorm bed$10 per nightHostel dorm$12 per night
street foodArepa con queso on the street$1.50El Negro Food Truck. El Matanza (hot dog)$4.50Ceviche pescado in a cheap restaurant$2 -$3Empanada on the street$1
cameraBogota graffiti tour Free (donation based on satisfaction)See the city from the top of the television tower FreeSee the changing of the guards at the Presidential PalaceFreeMuseo Histórico NacionalFree on Sundays and holidays

*Prices are approximate and are subject to change.

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Buying currency in Australia

It will be cheaper if you wait to exchange your money when you arrive. Rates on offer in Australia for South American currencies are worse than what you get get from local banks and money changers. If you do want to get money changed in Australia, it's a good idea to get US Dollars if you can't purchase specific South American currencies. Colombian Pesos, Bolivian Bolivianos and Venezuelan Bolívars may be hard to get in Australia. Consider these institutions if you want to purchase foreign cash:

BankCurrencies
Brazil RealsChilean PesosUS DollarsColombian PesosArgentine Pesos
American ExpressYes Yes Yes No No
ANZYes Yes Yes Yes No
Australia PostNo No Yes No No
Commonwealth BankYes Yes Yes No Yes
NABYes Yes Yes No Yes
TravelexYes Yes Yes Yes No
WestpacNo No Yes No No
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How much money do I need to bring to South America?

From country to country and region to region, prices in Brazil are more expensive than Ecuador, Ibague (the 7th largest city in Colombia) is cheaper than Medellin (the 2nd biggest city in Colombia). You'll find prices are varied in South America. Wherever your travel, the continent can be as expensive as you make it. Below you can find some budget prices for different countries in South America.

Bogotá (Colombia)Brasília (Brazil)Lima (Peru)Santiago (Chile)
to-sleepHostel dorm bed$10 per nightHostel dorm bed$20 per nightHostel dorm bed$10 per nightHostel dorm$12 per night
street foodArepa con queso on the street$1.50El Negro Food Truck. El Matanza (hot dog)$4.50Ceviche pescado in a cheap restaurant$2 -$3Empanada on the street$1
cameraBogota graffiti tour Free (donation based on satisfaction)See the city from the top of the television tower FreeSee the changing of the guards at the Presidential PalaceFreeMuseo Histórico NacionalFree on Sundays and holidays

*Prices are approximate and are subject to change.

A quick guide to the Brazilian Real

Did you know?

The Brazilian word for the national currency, 'real' means both real and royal and all Brazilian coins feature the Southern Cross!
south-america-banknotes

Why you'll need a combination of travel money options

It's important to take a combination of travel money options wherever you go in the world, but this is especially true for a trip to South America. As we've seen with Will and his trouble with card acceptance in Cuba (not technically South America but his anecdote is still relevant), it's important to have a combination of cards and cash to use a backup. Have US Dollars on hand to use in emergencies and a travel card or debit card and credit card combination to use when necessary.

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20 Responses

    Default Gravatar
    PaulineSeptember 6, 2015

    Like many others , I am quite confused.
    I have a CBA travel card with GBP still on it, and was going to convert it to USD. Now I am wondering if there is any point , if my USD s have to be converted to the local currency , would I lose less money by leaving the GBP on it ? I would be taking some cash out in the local currency, and also using the card as a credit/debit card .
    I also need to load more money onto the card, and for the same reason above, would it be better to just load AUD ?
    I am travelling mostly to Peru, Ecuador ,Argentina ,and Brazil on an organised trip, so will just have to pay for food and souvenirs. I will be taking some small denominations in USD .
    Thank you

      Avatarfinder Customer Care
      SallySeptember 7, 2015Staff

      Hi Pauline,

      Thank you for your questions.

      As a financial comparison service, we’re unable to recommend any specific product, service or strategy to our users as the best option will always depend on the user and their individual financial needs.

      As there aren’t many prepaid travel money options for Australians travelling in South America, you would find that when you load any funds on the card (whether it be AUD, GBP or USD or any other supported currency) and make a transaction in a local currency, that you would incur a currency conversion fee.

      However, as we mention on our South America Travel Money Guide, US currency is widely accepted in South America. As such, you may find that loading your card with USD could result in the least amount of currency conversion or foreign transaction fees.

      You may wish to consider the fees, rates and exchange rates involved to determine which option poses the most value for you.

      I hope this has helped answer your question.

      Thanks,

      Sally

    Default Gravatar
    ShahneJune 9, 2015

    I have an ANZ Platinum Visa but am curious about being able to withdraw cash for spending money. Am I best to have a travel card for my spending money and just use the Platinum Visa for my big items??

      Avatarfinder Customer Care
      SallyJune 9, 2015Staff

      Hi Shahne,

      Thank you for your question.

      Travel cards can be used to make direct EFTPOS payments or for ATM withdrawals. An advantage of the travel card is that, unlike a credit card, you are using your own funds that you have loaded onto the card and can manage your budget while spending overseas. Some travel cards can support several currencies and offer the benefit of no currency conversion fees. However, the features available to you will largely depend on which travel card you use.

      To compare your travel card options, please view our Travel Money Card Finder.

      I hope this has answered your question.

      Thanks,
      Sally

    Default Gravatar
    TonyJanuary 23, 2015

    Hi! We were wondering if Aussie dollars are accepted in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Eucador?

    Exchanged for local currency in these countries

    Cheers

      Avatarfinder Customer Care
      ShirleyJanuary 27, 2015Staff

      Hi Tony,

      Thanks for your question.

      In South America you can generally pay with the USD everywhere. You can choose to change your AUD into USD, or if the local exchanges let you, you can directly exchange your AUD into the local currency.

      Cheers,
      Shirley

    Default Gravatar
    JohanNovember 26, 2014

    I am in Colonia Uragauy site seeing ,,I can’t use my citibank Visa card in any of the ATMs because they won’t accept the data chip on the card this is also the case with all my other Australian cards ,,same issue in Montevideo,,please advise

      Avatarfinder Customer Care
      ShirleyNovember 26, 2014Staff

      Hi Johan,

      Thanks for your question.

      Unfortunately it could be an acceptance issue with the card. If you have other travel money options like cash, it’s advisable to use that instead.

      It might be best to get in touch with Citibank as well to see if they have offer any replacement options.

      Cheers,
      Shirley

    Default Gravatar
    AmandaNovember 11, 2014

    Hi there,

    Last week paed for 2 CBA travel money cards.
    This week rang their travel centre and the woman said that mastercard is not accepted in South Ameerica !

    Help so do I also get maybe an NAB Visa or Debit card??

    So confusing, please help esp anyone who has just returned.

    I’m going for 5 weeks to 4 countries.

    Thx Amanda

      Avatarfinder Customer Care
      ElizabethNovember 12, 2014Staff

      Hi Amanda,

      Thanks for your question.

      You can take a look at this page to read about your South America travel money options.

      I hope this will help.

      Thanks,

      Elizabeth

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