The phrase “Cash is King” doesn’t just apply to investment portfolios, it also applies to spending money traveling abroad.
And for many countries, U.S. dollars are the preferred currency.
I have traveled to other countries including the Bahamas, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and Europe. With the exception of Europe, U.S. cash has been welcomed as a currency in these countries, especially for tips.
However, you may find that your U.S. dollars must be in the most crisp, pristine, and well-kept condition to be accepted at foreign vendors, or even exchanged, with local currency exchanges.
Why is this the case? Many foreign countries local currency is unreliable, so therefore they are much more skeptical to accept any dollars that appear to be worn, damaged, or potentially counterfeit.
The best way to understand if this will be an issue is to research where you are going and understand the currency requirements in that country.
Travelers who have visited certain countries have reported their inconvenient experiences with currency quality on websites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. You'll also find that any site that offers a travel-experience forum, like LonelyPlanet, will document travelers experiences with using U.S. Dollars in foreign countries.
Generally, money exchanges and local vendors are the most concerned with the quality of currency. Certain merchants and vendors may be more willing to accept less than pristine U.S. dollars, including banks that may even exchange your damaged bills for pristine bills. However if you try using even slightly perforated dollars that are larger in denominations (like 20's, 50's, and 100's), you'll most likely have an issue no matter where you are trying to use them.
Countries that are known or have been reported to only accept crisp, new and unmarked bills include:
- Parts of Europe like Greece and Italy
Odds are if you are traveling anywhere in South America, East Africa, or Asia, you will probably be presented with a problem if you try to use wrinkled or mutilated U.S. Dollars.
Case Study: Myanmar
Perhaps the most widely known country to only accept crisp U.S. dollars is Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Myanmar is home to 54 million people in Southeast Asia. The country is bordered by India and Bangladesh to the west, Thailand, and Laos to the east, and China to the north.
Visitors flock to Myanmar to see breathtaking pagodas, such as the gold and diamond covered Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
American tourism in Myanmar has risen year-after-year in the last decade, with the Central Statistical Organization reporting the following number of United States visitors by year:
- 2011: 21,680
- 2012: 37, 589
- 2013: 53,653
- 2014: 62, 631
- 2015: 69,015
- 2016: 76,502
Myanmar, once a British Colony, has a decades-long history of internal conflict dating back to 1948, earning the country the label of having the world’s longest-running civil war.
Although some advocates caution the risks of traveling to the embattled country, others feel that boycotting the country hurts local communities that are dependent on tourism and choose to travel to visit Myanmar and its many historic landmarks, despite the unrest.
The reasons for requiring crisp and new dollars may be linked to dysfunctional financial systems and lack of trust in the local currency, which has been devalued previously by the government.
Wealth is stored in the U.S. greenback, and some believe there is value in the look of the currency itself.
If you go to a local money changer in Rangoon, you may find that they are exceptionally particular about the condition of U.S. dollar bills.
Tourists have been baffled at having newly printed bills rejected.
The government has been attempting to end the practice of only accepting new U.S. currency.
In 2012, the Central Bank of Myanmar instructed both private banks and exchange counters to accept dollars in any condition, although different rates could be given based on the quality of dollars.
As of 2016, the Central Bank of Myanmar was encouraging patrons to lodge complaints if they have been turned away by banks for trying to exchange U.S. dollars that are not in mint condition.
Beware of Currency Exchanges
Be very careful about who you trust to do a money exchange – there's a possibility you may be conned out of your money.
In Singapore, for example, the buy and sell rates on U.S. cash can be as much as 5% or 15% at hotels or the airport.
Although U.S. dollars may be accepted for eating and shopping local markets, you may need the official currency of the country for public transportation or taxis.
Know the exchange rates
It’s worth your while to understand exchange rates in countries you will be visiting, and whether it is advantageous to exchange currency when you arrive or do it in your home country.
You research out the exchange rates of the currency you're converting using a site like Travelex, this way you'll know if you're getting the full value of your dollars.
Depending on the country, you may be able to pay for your purchases with your personal credit card, that foreign country’s currency, or U.S. dollar bills.
Upcharge for worn, dirty bills
In certain parts of the world, U.S. dollars must be exchanged for local currency at “money exchangers”, but again, these bills must not show any signs of damage to be accepted.
In other words, if you put it in your wallet and folded up your wallet or mushed the dollars in so they a crease or indentation in them, it will not be accepted. Dollar bills that have the slightest folds, tears, stains, creases, faded color, worn spots or pen marks will be promptly rejected by money exchange vendors.
You might find that in certain scenarios, these dollars will be accepted but for a lower exchange rate. Some corrupt money exchangers may try to bribe you to turn over more money to get less money in return, if your bills are worn or damaged.
If you think a money exchanger is being unfair, or taking advantage of you, take your money elsewhere, try another exchanger, or even a local bank that will trade in your dollars for pristine ones.
Federal Reserve's Policy on Mutilated Money
The United State's Federal Reserve's policy on U.S. money is something you should be aware of before you start travelling abroad.
The United States considers damaged bills, or notes, to be a bill where half or less of the bill is remaining, or the value of the bill is questionable and must be examined by the Department of the Treasury before any exchange is made.
So, in other words, if the bill you have is soiled, dirty, defaced, disintegrated, limp, torn, or worn out but more than half of it is remaining, the U.S. does not consider that bill to be mutilated and it will still be accepted.
Although what the U.S. considers to be "mutilated currency", might be of a higher standard than other countries, you'll still have a good idea of what to expect of countries when you travel.
On another note, Canada's Federal Reserve actually offers a service so you can exchange mutilated money for new, pristine bills. The process is a bit tedious, but if the Reserve deems the note to be in decent enough condition to be exchanged, they will reimburse you for the full value of the mutilated note.
Many banks in your home country will offer a service similar to the one that Canada's Federal Reserve offers, as long as your money is in the condition set by the bank. This is a great opportunity for you to exchange any damaged bills for clean bills, before you travel internationally.
Using Credit Cards Abroad
Credit cards are widely accepted overseas, although acceptance varies by location.
Overall, MasterCard and Visa have the broadest acceptance.
Before you go on a credit card spending spree in any country, find out your credit card holder’s policy on foreign transactions.
Many banks charge a foreign transaction fee of 3% of the purchase price of each transaction. If these fees will be assessed, it may be cheaper to use cash.
Takeaway: Consider using a travel credit card, most of which will waive foreign transaction fees so that you can make card purchases without the extra cost.
In any event, it’s a good idea to keep your credit cards separate from your cash, in the event a wallet is stolen or the unexpected occurs.
Tips For Making Sure Your Dollars Are Accepted
If you know you're traveling abroad and bringing cash with you, here are some tips to try and avoid any issues with the quality of your money:
Use smaller bills
If the quality of your bill is a concern, you're better off using smaller denominations of bills.
A vendor is much more likely to accept a wrinkled or slightly marked $1 bill, as opposed to a damaged $20 bill.
For example, Cuba is a known country to reject money that appears to be worn in any way. A word of advice from people who have traveled there, is to carry around a bunch of $1 bills, even if they are not the most pristine. They are more likely to be accepted and you can use it for tips, small purchases, or transportation.
Note the bill's serial number
Many travelers have noted the importance of jotting down the serial number of your larger denomination U.S. dollars (like 50's and 100's).
Counterfeit money often times is smudged in the area of the serial number, or will have multiple bills with the same serial number. If a vendor refuses to accept your money because the serial number has a mark on it or appears counterfeit, you'll have evidence of the exact serial number of that bill.
Exchange any worn bills before you leave
If you have even a slight feeling that your dollar bill is not the most clean, the most crisp, and in the most perfect condition, you're probably best exchanging it before you leave your home country.
As we previously mentioned, most Federal Reserve's in the country you reside in, will exchange your damaged dollars for fresh dollars at face value. Although you may find money exchange vendors or banks that will exchange your dollars abroad, it's possible you'll have a difficult time in doing so, or they'll knock value off of the bill you're exchanging.
Consider this possible scenario: If you're abroad and want to exchange a wrinkled $20 USD for a pristine one at the bank whose country you're visiting, there's a possibility they may only give you $10 USD because of the damage to the original bill. This is a way for the exchange vendors to save money and then pawn your damaged bills off to other tourists.
If you forget to exchange your damaged money before you leave to go abroad, try exchanging your money at the hotel you're staying at. Chances are, they will not only accept your damaged money, but give you a better rate than any other exchange vendor.
Seriously, keep your bills in a binder
This one might sound crazy, but it's probably your best bet at making sure your money will be accepted. Once you exchange your damaged dollars for crisp, fresh ones in your home country, keep them in a safe, straight, and secure place. An envelope is certainly one option, as long as you can ensure it will not get bent or torn in any of your bags or travel gear.
A binder, or some kind of other folder that is a bit harder, will keep your dollars in the most flawless condition, so they'll be accepted no matter where you travel.
Travel tip: If you can't carry around a bulky binder to secure all of your dollars, make sure you at least keep enough dollars clean and unwrinkled for your departure fee or exit tax -- since airport security can also deny your damaged bills as your leaving. You want to be able to go home eventually, right?
Certain countries charge something called "exit fees" or “departure taxes”. These fees may cover expenses from airport maintenance and improvements to unpaid medical expenses left behind by foreign travelers (claimed by the Thailand Tourism Authority). They are frequently included in the cost of your airline ticket, but on the chance that they're not and you have to pay, make sure to have pristine cash on hand.
Some Common Exit Fees Countries Might Charge
|Country||Exit Fee (USD)|
Keeping Cash for the Unexpected
When traveling abroad, it is smart to be prepared for unexpected situations, from lost wallets, passports, and luggage to broken down rental cars, no cell phone service, or becoming seriously ill or injured and needing hospitalization.
Along with other contingencies like keeping a picture of your passport and credit numbers in a safe location and a list of numbers to call to a missing credit card numbers, it is a good idea to be prepared with clean, unmarked cash.
Although it may be tempting to step off the airplane with a wallet full of local currency in a foreign country, you may pay a hefty price in bad exchange rates.
Your U.S. bank branch or U.S. airport exchange booth may charge a hefty fee. If you wait until you arrive at the country, you can use an ATM and withdraw in their currency.
Travel tip: Plan your spending accordingly so that you only make one or two ATM withdrawals. You’ll pay less in withdrawal fees and or have less money left over.
If you will be sightseeing in dangerous or busy cities, especially those cities where tourists are often targets for mugging or pick-pocketing, keep your valuables secure with hidden pockets or money belts.
The need for crisp and pristine U.S. dollar bills is largely due to how unreliable the country you're visiting's own currency is. Since their currency fluctuates widely and is often illegally duplicated, U.S. dollars are a valuable commodity --- and so the requirement for them to be in perfect condition is a necessity.
Exchanging your money at your home country will solve much of these pristine dollar problems when you travel abroad.
The best you can do is to be as informed and prepared as possible -- ensuring that you're long-sought vacations are not disrupted just because you don't have crisp, clean bills.