Accessing your money in South America isn’t always simple. Extortionate fees and terrible conversion rates, combined with charge upon charge make getting money out an expensive (yet frustratingly necessary) holiday headache.
That’s where travel banks and Fintech companies come in.
The right travel card for South America will allow you to use the majority of international ATMs, give you access to the real exchange rate and won’t charge you for using your debit card abroad.
Having spent years backpacking across the continent, the South America Backpacker team have learnt a thing or two about choosing the best travel money cards! Heed this advice and pick the right card to make your hard-earned wonga go as far as possible while on the road!
Our number one tip? Get more than one of these accounts, so even if you lose a card or have it stolen, you’re not left high and dry!
- Available to European Economic Area residents.
- Limited fee-free withdrawals.
- Use the interbank exchange rate.
- Only available to UK residents.
- Unlimited fee-free withdrawals
- Use the Mastercard exchange rate.
Related: (links open in a new tab)
- Safety In South America
- Cheapest South American Countries To Visit
- Travel Insurance for South America
Why Use a Travel Money Card for South America?
Picture the scene. The ATM in Cusco has just eaten your bank card. You’re trekking to Machu Picchu tomorrow and have no other way to get the cash you need to pay for the trip. You look to the sky, scream in frustration and ask the big man in the clouds for help – then you remember you’re in South America and beg Pachamama for aid.
Neither the Christian deity nor the South American Mother of Nature offer much assistance, leaving you with no option but to call your bank and try to arrange a new card to be delivered ASAP. Let’s hope the trekking company will understand and you can come to an arrangement with them.
If only you’d picked one of these sweet debit cards for travel, think how much time, money and stress you could’ve saved…
The Best Travel Cards for South America
Available To Users From Many Countries – Revolut offer accounts to people from inside the EEA (European Economic Area), as well as to users from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, the USA, Japan, Brazil and the UK (Revolut are not registered as a bank in the UK). As well as this, Revolut offer ‘lite’ accounts to people from many other countries too! Where you live will determine whether you get a Visa or Mastercard Revolut debit card.
Foreign Withdrawals – Revolut allow you to withdraw £200 worth of local currency, or make five withdrawals, per month fee-free. With paid accounts, the limit is higher, up to £2000 for the Ultra account (which costs £45 per month…). When you’ve reached your withdrawal limit, you’ll pay a 2% fee per withdrawal.
Foreign Spending – You can spend up to £1000 abroad, per month, using your debit card. If you exceed this amount, there’s a fee of 0.5-1% per purchase.
Full Control Within The App – The Revolut app allows you to open an account and gives you full control from your phone. Lock the card if need be, open a foreign currency account, invest in stocks, commodities or crypto and even create single-use digital debit cards to protect your details when making online or contactless purchases!
Revolut Stays – Booking accommodation through the Revolut app allows you to earn 3-10% cashback on stays. Over a long trip, this adds up!
- Free foreign withdrawals
- Uses the interbank exchange rate
- Premium accounts available with additional features
- Limited number of withdrawals - especially with the basic account
- Exchange rate is worse at the weekend
- Limits on the amount of foreign spending you can do fee-free
Spending – Starling allow you to withdraw up to £300 (or make six withdrawals) per day using ATMs. There is no foreign withdrawal fee levied from Starling. There is no additional fee for spending using your debit card while abroad either! Starling offer the Mastercard exchange rate with no markup, so you get the best deal on currency conversions!
Works Across South America – A Starling debit card for travel works with any operational ATM that accepts international Mastercards – which is most of them!
Full Control – Starling offer full control of your account from your phone. You can open saving spaces, block your card, arrange virtual cards and access the 24/7 help without having to get up off the sofa!
Ethical Banking – Starling appear determined to do things differently. They have very clear environmental aims and ethics laid out on their website. If you’re fed up with your high street bank investing your money in firearms, tobacco, alcohol and fossil fuels, Starling could be the choice for you!
Spaces and Virtual Cards – Within the Starling app, you can segment your money by creating spaces. While the money is still technically in your main account, it’s locked away and can’t be spent unless you use a virtual card attached to that space. This is a great way to budget for your trip, keep your accommodation money separate from your beer money or just make sure you have enough to cover your Spotify subscription squirrelled away!
- No fees on foreign withdrawals or spending
- Full control of your account from your phone
- Can easily replace your traditional high-street bank
- Only available to those with a UK address
A Digital Nomad First Bank – Wise is traditionally built to help people get paid and make payments in multiple currencies. A Wise account is an excellent choice if you’re working remotely but for regular travel, it’s not the best option.
Visa or Mastercard – Where you live and where you register your Wise account will determine whether you get a Visa or Mastercard debit card from Wise. Remember, not all users eligible for a Wise account will be able to get a debit card. Check this list to see if you’re eligible.
Fees for Withdrawing Money – Again, this is dependent on where you live and register your Wise account. But most of the time, you’ll be able to withdraw some money in a foreign currency before you need to pay fees.
Fees for Spending Money – You can use a Wise card to make purchases abroad without being charged a fee. However, this is only possible if you have the foreign currency stored in your Wise account. If you do not have the correct currency stored, you will be charged a small conversion fee.
- Account available for residents of almost any country
- Can store multiple currencies and spend them using the debit card
- Low international transfer fees
- Debit card not available to everyone eligible for an account
- Limited withdrawals before charges are applied
- The card doesn’t work in every country
Other Travel Cards for South America
N26 – Only Available for European Travellers
N26 are one of the most successful challenger banks with more than 8 million customers. They offer accounts in a limited number of countries – and due to high demand, they often stop accepting new customers for brief periods. If you’re able to open an account, you’ll need to jump straight on a paid plan to get a debit card. The free account only includes a virtual card
Free foreign withdrawals are only available with the two most expensive accounts, costing €9.90 and €16.90 per month respectively. As well as this, you only get a limited number of withdrawals at home before you need to pay a fee for those too.
Chime – Only Available for American Travellers
Chime comes straight from the land of banking but is a true disrupter. They charge no account fees and have no minimum balance requirements. Their debit card is accepted anywhere that takes Visa. Be aware, there is a $2.50USD charge for withdrawing cash from a non-affiliated ATM. There is a full list of over 60,000 free-to-use ATMs in the app but they’re all in the USA. All foreign withdrawals incur a $2.50USD fee.
Currensea – An Interesting Alternative to ‘Normal’ Travel Cards for South America
If you’re someone desperate to stay with your archaic legacy bank but still don’t want to pay their extortionate foreign fees, Currensea is the answer! Thanks to open banking, a Currensea card connects straight to your bank account and can be used in the same way you use your normal debit card!
Currensea offer £500 of fee-free withdrawals per month on the basic plan but after that charge a 2% fee per withdrawal. For paid plans, there are smaller fees and a larger free withdrawal limit. A Currensea card works with every global currency, allowing you to use your bank account no matter where you are in the world – as long as you can find somewhere to accept Mastercard!
With a basic free account, you’ll pay 0.5% on foreign transactions, including withdrawals. With the elite and premium plans, there is no foreign transaction fee.
Money Tips for South America
Cash is King
Throughout much of South America, cash still rules the roost. While you can often pay by card in supermarkets, hostels, hotels and some tour agencies, it’s super important to carry cash. Usually, you’ll need local currency for smaller shops, street vendors, markets, buses, bars and many restaurants.
The vast majority of transactions you make in South America will be cold hard cash. So, make sure you have a travel card that offers free foreign withdrawals!
Always ‘Pay in Local Currency’
When using your card to withdraw money or pay for anything, you may be asked if you want to pay in your home currency or the local currency. Always choose to pay in local currency. This way, you’ll get your bank’s exchange rate, rather than the heavily inflated exchange rate from the card machine provider.
You may also be asked if you want to pay with or without conversion – always choose without conversion for the same reason!
Ecuador is the only South American country to officially use the US dollar as currency but you’re able to spend dollars in many countries – especially when paying for tours or other expensive items. Dollars are also easy to exchange anywhere on the continent, so it’s always worth having a few hundred hidden away in your bag somewhere. Just make sure the notes are clean and not torn!
Keep Small Notes Handy
While ATMs dish out large denomination notes, you might have a hard time spending these – especially when making small purchases or spending time in rural areas! Try to break big notes in supermarkets or big stores and keep a collection of small denomination notes close by!
South American Travel Card FAQs
What is the best card to take to South America?
Do you need cash for South America?
Yes, you need cash for South America. The majority of transactions take place using cash. You should ensure you always have a stock of local currency with you when travelling in South America!
Can you use Euros in South America?
Throughout most of South America, you cannot use euros. In some places, they may even be hard to exchange! But there is one South American country that uses euros – and that’s because it’s actually part of the EU… French Guiana is an overseas territory of France and therefore they speak French and use the euro!
Can you use dollars in South America?
You can sometimes use US dollars in South America. Ecuador uses dollars as the official currency and many other nations accept payment in dollars for certain things. Very large transactions can sometimes be paid in dollars but most of the time, you’ll need the local currency.
Choosing the Best Travel Card for South America – A Round-Up
Travel cards are essential if you want to save money on transaction fees and have reliable access to your hard-earned cash while travelling in South America. Traditional banks have a habit of blocking your card or catching you out with hefty fees.
The best bank card to use in South America depends on where you’re from. For most of the world, Revolut offer a good service but for UK citizens, Starling is an even better choice. If you live in the USA, a Chime account fits the bill and for Europeans not wanting a Revolut account, N26 is a safe bet.
Do you prefer a travel card we’ve not discussed? Let us know in the comments!