South American SIM Cards

How to Buy a SIM Card in South America

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Staying connected is not only convenient, but can also make travel safer. Wi-Fi is not always available so having a local SIM card or ‘chip’ is your best option. What most people don’t know is that buying a local SIM card in each country is usually much easier and cheaper than using an international service from your home country. 

This article is based on my experience using local SIM cards in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

Why Buy a SIM Card in South America?

Safety

Uber, Bogotá, Colombia
Uber, Bogotá, Colombia

So why should you buy a SIM card in South America? Why not just use wi-fi?

There are many reasons and the first is safety. If you’re out on the street or trying to get home from somewhere late at night and you have no signal, you’re left at the mercy of taxis. Depending on the country, this can be risky. Whereas if you have mobile connectivity, you can call an Uber which is much safer.

You will also get lost a lot when you are travelling, which is part of the fun of course! However, having access to google maps is really helpful. But I can just use ‘Maps.Me’ right? Yes you can, but being connected means that you have real time public transport information and you can google things on the go that you might want to find out about.

Having directions and being able to search new information when you need it reduces the amount of time that you are lost out on the street, and this keeps you safer.

Making Plans & Meeting People

Have you organised to meet someone at a specific place at a specific time? Arrived on time and no sign of your tour guide, your friend or your date… struggling to find a local place with wi-fi to check if they’re on the way or if you’re in the right place… only receive a message saying “sorry, que pena contigo, can’t make it” an hour later when you get back to your wi-fi zone… welcome to South America without a SIM card!

South America is like the ‘Anti-Europe’ in terms of reliability… last minute cancellations are common. For example in Colombia, it is part of their culture to be as polite as possible. A Colombian friend of mine told me that there’s a social cost to saying “no” and explained that it was an immature part of their culture.

This means that people almost always agree to plans, without even without even thinking about it and this can sometimes lead to them cancelling at the last minute! For someone from another culture this can be very hard to understand and can be really frustrating. 

In Brazil, I was waiting around on the beach to meet someone for about 45 minutes. After they arrived, they explained that arranging to meet at 8pm, doesn’t actually mean 8pm. It means sometime after. I can understand this as a cultural quirke if there’s some sort of rule where you add on say, 30 minutes, or 1 hour.

However, with no set rules, sometimes it’s just a complete guessing game. For someone from a culture with decent timekeeping, it makes no sense at all and can even feel disrespectful. But this is all part of trying to understand different cultures and is sometimes simplified into a simple phrase like ‘culture shock’, so try not to take these things personally.

It might seem like I’m rambling on but I’m just trying to save you a lot of time and frustration! Having a local SIM card won’t change culture but it will make it a bit easier and help you to deal with the last minute changes that are so common in South America.

Where to Buy a SIM Card in South America

You’ve just arrived in a new country and you don’t know anything. The easiest way to buy a SIM card is just to ask! In South America, a SIM card is called a ‘chip’ and in Brazil, it’s pronounced as ‘chipi’. Talk to the staff at your hotel or hostel and they should be able to point you in the right direction.

The biggest cell network service providers in South America are Claro and Movistar. I mostly used Claro although in Brazil I used TIM and in Bolivia I used Viva (after my Entel SIM didn’t seem to work!).

In some countries you can buy a SIM card on the street from official cell network vendors. In other countries you can buy a SIM card in a shop or a pharmacy whereas sometimes you need to go to a network provider’s official store. Below is a table showing where to buy a SIM card in each country in South America.

CountryWhere to Buy a SIM Card
BrazilCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / Pharmacy
ParaguayCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk
UruguayCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk
ArgentinaCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk / Pharmacy
ChileCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Street Kiosk Supermarket / Pharmacy
BoliviaCell Network Provider Store
PeruCell Network Provider Store
EcuadorCell Network Provider Store
ColombiaCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk / Pharmacy

How Much Does a SIM Card Cost in South America

SIM Cards in South America cost between €1-5 ($1-5) to buy. The cost to top up a SIM Card with data is about €10 ($11) per month. For someone coming from Europe or the USA, this is good value for the convenience that it gives you. The table below shows the cost of buying a SIM card in countries across South America.

CountryCost of a SIM Card
Brazil10 BRL (€2 / $2.50)
Paraguay10,000 PYG (€1 / $1.50)
Uruguay50 UYU (€1 / $1.50)
Argentina130 ARS (€2 / $2.50)
Chile2,000 CLP (€2 / $2.50)
Bolivia10 CLP (€1.50 / $1.50)
Peru5 PEN (€1.50 / $1.50)
Ecuador5 USD (€4.50)
Colombia5,000 COP (€1.50 / $1.50)

How to Activate a SIM Card in South America

IMEI Registration, Cell Phone, Colombia
IMEI Registration, Cell Phone, Colombia

Sometimes you buy a SIM card in a shop and all you have to do is top up and go. However, in a few countries you need to provide an identity or passport number. Activation might need to be done in store, by text message or by phone. In Chile, you might need to provide a RUT (Chilean Identity Number)… I asked the owner of my hostel for help registering and he just entered his RUT number. In Colombia, your phone’s IMEI number needs to be registered although your network provider should do this for you automatically.

In Brazil, you might be asked for a CPF (Brazilian Identity Number) but as a tourist you won’t have this so you need to provide your passport number (I have read that only TIM and Claro can be set up without a CPF). I did this over the phone although I have no idea how I found an English speaking customer service agent on the TIM helpline… I guess that if you just keep speaking in poor quality Portuguese or in English, they’ll find the English speaking guy who deals with foreigners!

If you don’t speak any Portuguese, it’s probably easier to buy a SIM in an official network provider store and get it registered there at the same time. It’s always easier to get things done in person rather than by phone because you can point at things!

How to Top Up a Pre-Paid SIM Card in South America

MMI Message, Top Up, Cell Phone, Colombia
MMI Message, Top Up, Cell Phone, Colombia

Generally, you purchase an amount in any store and then you activate this top up amount by typing an MMI code into your phone. An MMI code is when you dial a series of symbols and numbers (for example, *611) and then receive options on screen. All SIM Cards that I used in South America were topped up by using MMI code. So just remember that even if you’ve paid for the top up, you might still need to activate a ‘plan’.

With pay as you go top ups, you might have a choice of several different plans, some with talk time and data together and some only with talk time or solely data, depending on what you need. In most cases, the big network providers provide free WhatsApp messaging (not including data for images and video) which is really great value. I always bought data only plans and just used WhatsApp to call people.

So if you are in a country for a month or less and you have free WhatsApp with your plan, you might only need to top up once! Generally, I only used data for things like Google Maps, Tripadvisor and Uber when I was out and about and these apps don’t use up too much data. So unless you’re streaming audio or video, you probably won’t need to top up too often.

How to Insert a South American SIM Card in your Cellphone

SIM Card Adapter Kit
SIM Card Adapter Kit

SIM cards come in different sizes; SIM, MicroSIM and NanoSIM. Don’t worry though, because an adapter can be used if your SIM card slot is too big. For example if you have a Micro SIM slot but the cell provider has given you a Nano SIM, you can use an adapter which is a Micro SIM shaped card with a slot to insert your Nano SIM. The photo above shows a SIM Card Adapter Kit which can be useful although SIM cards usually come in Nano size with a Micro adapter included.

All you need is a small object like a paperclip to open your SIM card slot and somewhere to store your other SIM card. You can buy SIM card kits and storage cases online and these are handy for keeping organised. You can also buy a dual SIM phone to have both your home SIM card and your local SIM card at once.

Although I had a dual SIM phone, I always left my home SIM card packed safely away in my bag because I didn’t want to lose it if my phone was lost or got stolen. If you use WhatsApp, you probably don’t need your home SIM card to keep in touch with friends and family at home. You can use your original WhatsApp number from home with your new SIM card.

The only times that I needed my home SIM card was when I had to receive a code for two factor authentication where my home phone number was registered as the contact number for my account. So for example, if you need to reset an online password for your home bank account, you might have difficulties if you don’t have your home SIM card available. These situations are rare, but very important, so that’s why I keep my home SIM in a safe place rather than in my phone at all times.

Unlock your Cellphone Before you Leave

Before you leave for your South American trip, make sure that you have an unlocked cellphone. If it’s not unlocked, it might be difficult to unlock it abroad and it might void your phone manufacturer’s warranty depending on the terms and conditions.

Summiting Bolivia’s 6,088 Meter Mountain: Guide to Climbing Huayna Potosí

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Huayna Potosí is a mountain just outside La Paz, Bolivia. With a summit at 6,088 meters, it is probably the highest place on Earth that my feet will ever touch ground. It’s not the most technical or difficult mountain to climb in terms of the terrain but the altitude is what makes this climb a challenge. I had already spent several months travelling in Chile and Bolivia at reasonably high altitude and although I was more aclimbatised than most, I still found this climb difficult! 

This article is based on my experience climbing Huayna Potosí in the month of July. This isn’t a step by step guide… the fun, frustration and surprise of finding your own way is what makes an adventure and I wouldn’t want to ruin the best part of travel for you. All of the photography and videography in this article is either my own or was shared with me by my climbing partner Andras – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

What is Huayna Potosí?

Me with Huayna Potosí Mountain in the Background, La Paz, Bolivia
Me with Huayna Potosí Mountain in the Background, La Paz, Bolivia

Huayna Potosí is a mountain in the Bolivian Andes. The name is of the Aymara language and translates to English as ‘The Thunderous Youth’.

It has an elevation of 6,088 m above sea level and a prominence of 1,128 m. Categorised as a ‘Basic Snow/Ice Climb’, it’s not the most technical or difficult mountain to climb but the climb takes place at a very high altitude. To put this in context, the summit of Huayna Potosí is 724 m above the level of Everest Base Camp in Tibet (5,364 m).

So it’s not not one of the tallest or most difficult mountains to climb in the world, but it’s definitely high and can be a tough battle with altitude. You don’t need to be a climbing expert or incredibly athletic, but a reasonable level of fitness is needed and It makes for a great challenge for a casual climber.

The Best Tour Operator for Climbing Huayna Potosí

Tour Guide, Descending to Rock Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Tour Guide, Descending to Rock Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

I’ve read that this mountain can be climbed without a tour operator but for most people, the only way to climb it is with a tour operator. A guide is essential because in a lot of parts there isn’t any signage or visible trail due to the snow. Also, I’ve walked by the deep crevasses with parts covered by snow so I know that a wrong step could result in a fatal fall!

There are various tour operators and some have better reviews than others. However, whether your experience is a good one or not, will most likely depend on who your guide is. If you have a good guide, it will be a great experience, whereas if you have a bad guide, it could be a disaster!

I climbed Huayna Potosí with High Camp Lodge. I wasn’t totally happy with the quality of some of the equipment and the rushed boot fitting process on the morning of the first day. However, our guide, Eucebio, was really great which was the most important thing.

So try to do some research using TripAdvisor and even better, listen to word of mouth recommendations from other travellers that you’ve met. However, like most tour operators around South America, tour guides seem to work independently across several tour operators and even promised guides are subject to last minute change… so it’s sometimes just down to luck.

How Much Does It Cost to Climb Huayna Potosí?

It should cost about 1,000 BOB (€131 / $145) for a guided 3 day / 2 night tour. There is also a 2 day / 1 night tour which should be cheaper but the 3 day tour is recommended so that you have one day at Base Camp to acclimatise and get some practice done with the equipment. This will include most things including the essential equipment, meals, transport and accommodation.

Some tour operators include more than others, and some will offer extra items to rent. You might also want to tip your guide at the end. Either way, you will probably need to rent or buy some other things to bring with you which I’ve listed below in the next section.

What You Need to Pack for Climbing Huayna Potosí

Myself & my Climbing Partner Andras on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Myself & my Climbing Partner Andras on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

The essential gear and equipment is provided by the tour operator but you will also have to rent or buy some other items if you don’t already have them.

ItemProvided by Tour Operator?
CramponsYes
HarnessYes
Ice AxeYes
Snow BootsYes
Windproof JacketYes
Windproof PantsYes
Fleece JacketYes
Fleece PantsYes
GaitersYes
HelmetYes
GlovesYes
BalaclavaYes
Sleeping Bag (-5°C)Not Included but can be Rented at Extra Cost or Negotiated to be Included in the Price
Head Lamp (3 u. Batteries AAA)Not Included but can be Rented at Extra Cost or Negotiated to be Included in the Price
Backpack (50 Litres Minimum)Not Included but can be Rented at Extra Cost or Negotiated to be Included in the Price
LeggingsNo – Bring It Yourself
Additional Fleece JacketNo – Bring It Yourself
Socks (3 Pairs, 1 Thick)No – Bring It Yourself
Snack for Summit AttemptNo – Bring It Yourself
Cash (20 BOB for Mountain Entrance & Tip for the Guide)No – Bring It Yourself
SunglassesNo – Bring It Yourself
SunblockNo – Bring It Yourself
Water (2 Litres)No – Bring It Yourself
Personal MedicationNo – Bring It Yourself
Glove LinerNo – Bring It Yourself
Beanie / Wool HatNo – Bring It Yourself
Toilet PaperNo – Bring It Yourself
Hiking ShoesNo – Bring It Yourself
Wind Proof / Down JacketNo – Bring It Yourself
Thermal Underwear (Top & Bottom)No – Bring It Yourself
Small Backpack (for Summit Attempt)No – Bring It Yourself

How to Get to Huayna Potosí

Where is Huayna Potosí?

Huayna Potosí is located in the Cordillera Real mountain range in the La Paz region of Bolivia. It is 40km and about 1 hours drive from the city of La Paz.

Getting to Huayna Potosí

Your tour operator should provide transport from La Paz to Base Camp at Zongo Pass, most likely by minibus.

Tour Schedule for Climbing Huayna Potosí

Mining Complex & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Mining Complex & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

Each guide takes a pair of climbers so if you’re alone, you’ll probably be matched up with someone. Just be aware that because you’re sharing a guide, if yourself or your partner can’t make it to the top, due to altitude sickness or any other reason, both of you will have to go down together. Just imagine how disappointing it would be to pay for the tour and go to all of the effort of climbing halfway to the top only to have to turn back because of another person on your tour. I met my partner, Andras, at the tour operator office the day before our ascent.

Although we had just met, I was happy to be his partner because as a Swiss man, he most likely had excellent mountaineering skills! Although I’m not sure if he was fully confident in my climbing ability! To avoid any risk in the event that one of us couldn’t make it, we had talked about getting a second guide for a slight increase in the price. However on the day, we only got one… so the stakes were high. Any quitting would be letting down your partner!

Day 1: Training at Base Camp

  • Altitude Gain: 1,060 m from La Paz (3,640 m) to Base Camp (4,700 m) by Bus
  • Duration: 1-2 Hours (Bus from La Paz) & 2-3 Hours (Training)

On the morning of the first day, you meet at the tour operator’s office where they take you to another location to fit boots before leaving La Paz for the mountain. The minibus will take you to Base Camp at Zongo Pass, at 4,700 meters above sea level, where you will meet your guide and maybe also some other groups who are climbing the mountain. Lunch will be served and then you’ll go to try out the boots with crampons to practice walking and climbing techniques on a little glacier.

Apart from trying to climb an ice wall with ice axes, which was really hard, there wasn’t much else challenging on this day but it was good to get acclimatised and get used to the equipment. The training day is optional and you won’t do this if you choose a 2 day / 1 night trip but I’d definitely recommend doing it unless you’re experienced with this type of mountain and altitude. The more time that you spend at high altitude in the lead up to the ascent, the better.

Day 2: Ascent to Rock Camp

  • Altitude Gain: 430 m from Base Camp (4,700 m) to Rock Camp (5,130 m)
  • Activity: Climbing (on rock, snow and ice)
  • Duration: 2-3 Hours

After breakfast on the morning of the second day, the ascent from Base Camp to High Camp (Rock Camp) begins. This is only about 2-3 hours but I thought that it was quite difficult, and maybe even the most painful part of the whole climb, just because of the incredibly heavy backpack full of climbing equipment. I’d consider myself a ‘seasoned backpacker’ but maybe it’s because I’m used to travelling light! Anyway, it’s tough but it’s only for a few hours. At about halfway, there’s a little building where you have to pay a park entrance fee and switch from hiking shoes to climbing boots and crampons.

Base Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Base Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

At 5,130 meters above sea level, you’ll arrive at Rock Camp where you’ll have dinner. You can drink some coca tea to help with the high altitude and get ready for the next day’s climb to the summit. Our guide told us to get to sleep at 6 pm because we’d be waking up at 12 am (midnight) to prepare for our early start at 1 am… this is early I know! However, to get to the summit for sunrise between 5:30-6 am, it’s standard for all tours to leave at this time.

Day 3: Climbing the Summit

  • Altitude Gain: 958 m from Rock Camp (5,130 m) to Summit (6,088 m)
  • Activity: Climbing (on rock, snow and ice)
  • Duration: 5-6 Hours (Rock Camp to Summit), 1-2 Hours (Summit to Base Camp), 1-2 Hours (Bus to La Paz)

After waking up at midnight, I didn’t really remember sleeping at all. I think that I got 1 hour of sleep at most. A mix of excitement and the altitude having strange effects on the body made it hard to sleep. Anyway, we were here to climb a mountain, so we went out into the cold snowy wind and pitch black darkness of the Andes to begin our climb to the top.

It was a long, hard slog and a test of endurance to take each little step for hours on end. My headlamp was shining on our guide ahead and just watching his slow steps, along with the surrounding darkness, helped me to focus on the task of timing my breathing and steps. I remember thinking “I want him to tell us that we’re taking a break…” but I didn’t want to ask for it. We took a few breaks on the way but we kept a good pace.

The worst parts were a few sections where you walk up along the top of a steep ridge. I remember one part in particular where I was finding it hard to find the strength, or at least I lacked technique, to properly dig the crampons’ spikes into the steep slope of ice and compressed snow.

Finding it hard to keep my footing was making me think that I might not make it to the top and I even heard the guide mention to another guide that he was worried about me. I just had to focus on my getting my technique with the crampons right. Looking back on it now, I had already gotten past the most difficult part, although it didn’t know that at the time. At least the darkness made it a bit easier because being able to see over a meter’s distance might have made the death defying drops a bit scarier!

Andras & I at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Andras & I at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Me at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Me at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

As we got higher on the mountain, the sun began to rise which I think helped to lift our spirits and keep us going. There were some very steep drops along the ridges on the lead up to the summit but I didn’t feel unsafe at that stage and I felt more in control. Finally, we made it to the summit which was a huge relief! We were under complete cloud cover at that stage and although I was a little bit disappointed that we couldn’t see any views of the lights of the El Alto neighbourhood of La Paz… I was just grateful that we made it to the top!

We stayed at the top but only for about 15 minutes because there wasn’t much to see with the cloud. So we started our descent.

Sure enough, on the way down, just below the summit at about 6,000 meters the higher clouds at our altitude began to clear.

Me at Sunrise on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Me at Sunrise on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

So we had an amazing view above a sheet of clouds that stretched across the horizon. It was really a great surprise after thinking that we wouldn’t get any view at all!

Walking down large wide slopes and along crevasses, we got down the mountain to Rock Camp very fast. There we took off some layers and changed our boots and crampons for hiking shoes. From there, it didn’t take much longer to get all the way down to Base Camp, probably because I paid one of the other guides who was cleaning up Rock Camp to take my big backpack down for me… lazy I know but the best decision I ever made!

Accommodation: Where to Stay at Huayna Potosí

There’s no choosing with accommodation if you take a tour. It’ll all depend on the tour operator that you go with. For the first night you’ll stay at Base Camp (only one building for all tours as far as I know). The accommodation is basic with no heating but there’s electricity to charge phones and cameras.

On the second night you’ll stay at one of the high camps. There are several camps and some are slightly further up than others. Which one you’ll stay at will depend on the tour operator you choose. 

The bathrooms at both Base Camp and Rock Camp are in outhouses so you have to go outside to get to them… not so nice if you need to go to the bathroom late at night!

Seasons: When to Climb Huayna Potosí

The Sun Rising at Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
The Sun Rising at Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

The best time of the year to climb Huayna Potosí is in peak climbing season from May to September when the weather is predictable and there’s little chance of rain which can make conditions dangerous.

Things to Watch Out For when Climbing Huayna Potosí

Miner's Graveyard & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Miner's Graveyard & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

Remember that Altitude Sickness can kill. The first record of people that tried to summit Huayna Potosí was back in 1877 where a group of 6 Germans all died, probably from altitude sickness or low temperatures. So just be aware of this and make sure to turn back and get to lower altitude if you are feeling any serious effects.

Altitude medication prescribed by your doctor can help to mitigate the risk but it has to be taken in advance of the climb. Medication won’t remedy Altitude Sickness if it has already started, it will only prevent it from happening if taken in advance. I’m not a doctor so don’t rely on this article and always get medical advice from a doctor before you go on your trip!

Anyway, if you’re climbing Huayna Potosí… even if it’s tough, try to enjoy it!

Itaú Bank, São Paulo, Brazil

How to Use an ATM in South America: A Guide to Fees & How to Avoid Them

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As you can see from the table in this article showing ATM withdrawal limits and fees, the cost of using ATMs in South America can really rack up, especially if you are travelling long-term. To avoid ATM fees, educate yourself on how to manage your banking, use more than one bank or prepaid debit card product so that you have the widest range of options possible and use the information in this article to learn how to use these cards to your advantage and save money.

This article is based on my visit to 9 countries across South America over a period of nearly 2 years. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

ATM Cash Withdrawal Limits & Fees in South America

Firstly, let’s look at why overseas ATM withdrawal fees are something that you should know about. Below is a list of average ATM withdrawal fees for each country in South America. These are ordered from the most expensive to the least expensive based on a cash spending of €30 per day (€210 per week). For example, in the case of Argentina, spending of €210 per week with a withdrawal limit of €63 means that you would have to make 4 withdrawals per week. This would result in 4 ATM withdrawal fees of €6 equating to a cost of €24 per week, or €96 per month, just to withdraw cash. I have rounded these figures and exchange rates are constantly changing so this is only a snapshot of one point in time but it should be useful as a general guide and provide a good basis for you to do your own research.

Country / CurrencyATM Cash Withdrawal FeeATM Cash Withdrawal LimitFee as a % of the Maximum WithdrawalWeekly ATM Fees Based on Spending of €30 per Day (€210)Monthly ATM Fees Based on Spending of €30 per Day (€210)
Argentina
(Peso: ARS)
400 ARS
€6 / $7
4,000 AR
€63 / $70
10%1,200 ARS
€24 / $28
4,800 ARS
€96 / $112
Uruguay
(Peso: UYU)
173 UYU
€4 / $5
4,000 UYU
€98 / $107
4.3%519 UYU
€12 / $15
2,076 UYU
€48 / $60
Peru
(Sol: PEN)
20 PEN
€5 / $6
700 PEN
€189 / $207
2.85%40 PEN
€10 / $12
160 PEN
€40 / $48
Suriname
(Dollar: SRD)
38.50 SRD
€4.50 / $5.50
1,000 SRD
€122 / $134
3.85%77 SRD
€9 / $11
308 SRD
€36 / $44
Chile
(Peso: CLP)
5,000 CLP
€6 / $7
200,000 CLP
€250 / $280
2.5%5,000 CLP
€6 / $7
20,000 CLP
€24 / $28
Guyana
(Dollar: GYD)
1,000 GYD
€4.50 / $5
75,000 GYD
€327 / $360
1.33%1,000 GYD
€4.50 / $5
4,000 GYD
€18 / $20
Brazil
(Real – BRL)
16 BRL
€3.5 / $4
1,000 BRL
€225 / $246
1.6%16 BRL
€3.5 / $4
64 BRL
€14 / $16
Colombia
(Peso: COP)
14,500 COP
€3.5 / $4
1,200,000 COP
€319 / $350
1.2%14,500 COP
€3.5 / $4
58,000 COP
€14 / $16
Paraguay
(Guarani: PYG)
25,000 PYG
€3.50 / $4
1,500,000 PYG
€214 / $235
1.7%25,000 PYG
€3.50 / $4
100,000 PYG
€14 / $16
Ecuador
(Dollar: USD)
4 USD
€3.5
500 USD
€455
0.8%4 USD
€3.5
16 USD
€14
Bolivia (Boliviano: BOB)12 BOB
€1.50 / $1.75
2,000 BOB
€263 / $289
0.6%12 BOB
€1.50 / $1.75
48 BOB
€6 / $7
Venezuela
(Bolivar: VEF)
French Guiana (Euro: EUR)Part of France / EU / EurozonePart of France / EU / EurozonePart of France / EU / EurozonePart of France / EU / EurozonePart of France / EU / Eurozone

How the Banks Take Advantage of You

The combination of extremely low cash withdrawal limits and very high withdrawal fees means that you have to make more withdrawals and this results in a higher number of already expensive transaction fees. For example, in Argentina, with a very low transaction limit of €63, if you spent €30 per day in cash, you would need to pay €24 per week to sustain this. Some other countries like Chile also have similar ATM withdrawal fees but with a higher withdrawal limit that lets you take out a larger amount of cash in one transaction and with a lower number of withdrawals, this brings down the cost significantly. You can pay by card to avoid using cash as much as possible and minimise the costs but with a lot of vendors accepting only VISA or mastercard, or not accepting any payments by card, you may be left with no option but to pay in cash. The system in Argentina is the most frustrating of all of the countries in the world that I have visited and for budget travellers, it isn’t something that encourages tourists to spend more time in the country.

How to Avoid Fees

So, by now it should be clear that ATM cash withdrawal fees can cost you a lot of money if you are not careful. Thankfully, there are several ways to significantly reduce the cost of withdrawing cash from overseas ATMs and this article will help you to become more informed and chose the best banking options for your own situation. First, keep reading to understand the fees involved when using ATMs overseas. The last section will give you some guidance on choosing a bank or currency card product.

Understanding Overseas ATM Cash Withdrawal Fees

Itaú Bank, São Paulo, Brazil
Itaú Bank, São Paulo, Brazil

Avoid Double Fees

Most people might not realise it, but every time you use an ATM overseas both the ATM’s bank and your home bank will charge you a fee. Let’s look at each of these separately.

Fees Charged by the Overseas Bank

The overseas bank (the ATM that you are using) will probably charge you a set fee or charge you a fee based on the percentage value of the transaction, with set fees being more common. I found that set fees for ATM withdrawals in South America usually amounted to around €4-5 per cash withdrawal, no matter what amount you withdraw. This can really add up over time if you make 1 or 2 withdrawals per week. This is especially expensive in countries like Argentina that limit each transaction to about €63, so in this case there’s no avoiding ATM fees by taking out less frequent but larger withdrawal amounts. The overseas bank will always tell you that it is charging a fee and ask you if you want to continue to proceed with the transaction, so if you want to cancel and try another bank, you have the option to shop around.

Fees Charged by Your Home Bank

Your home bank will most likely charge you a fee based on the percentage value of the transaction. The simplest way to avoid this is to use a bank account or currency card service which allows you to make unlimited overseas ATM withdrawals without any fees. You will most likely have to pay for this privilege but considering the ATM fees that you would avoid, it might well be worth paying for this premium feature.

Understanding Overseas ATM Cash Withdrawal Exchange Rates

Banco de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
Banco de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil

Exchange Rates Used by Your Home Bank

Most of the big banks in the country you are visiting will charge you in the local currency. So if you are in Brazil, you will be charged the amount of Brazilian Reals that you chose to withdraw (plus any ATM fee that the Brazilian bank charges) and your home bank will use a standard exchange rate (mid-market rate) as displayed on XE.com or google). This is where banks aimed at travellers such as N26 will guarantee you the best rates, although there shouldn’t be too much difference compared to the rates of traditional banks.

Exchange Rates Used by a Foreign Bank or Non-Bank ATM

However sometimes, especially with non-bank ATMs, you will be offered an option to withdraw an amount in your home currency (Euro, Dollars etc.) which the foreign bank will convert for you, at their own rate. This is called dynamic currency conversion (DCC). They will be fully upfront and display their conversion rate to you but in most cases this is not a good option as they can charge very high rates and if you are not informed, you will go with this and pay a much higher rate than needed.

How I Avoid ATM Withdrawal Fees in South America

Even The Beach Bar Accepts Cards
Even The Beach Bar Accepts Cards

The Cards that I Travel with

I travel with the following cards:

– Traditional Bank – VISA – Debit Card

– Traditional Bank – Mastercard – Credit Card

– Modern Bank (N26) – Mastercard – Debit Card

– Prepaid Card Service (Revolut) – Mastercard – Prepaid Debit Card 

– Prepaid Card Service (Revolut) – Mastercard – Prepaid Debit Card (Spare)

The Waterfall Card Method

My method, let’s coin it the ‘Waterfall Card Method’, is quite simply about keeping your money in different places to let you have the most safety but always allow you to be flexible and have a card with you at the same time. Here are the steps to the Waterfall Card Method with a budget of €12,000 for 1 year of travel (€1,000 per month):

Level 1: At the beginning, all of your money (€12,000) is sitting safely in a traditional bank account (Traditional Bank VISA Debit Card). You have this card with you on your trip but it always stays in a safe place like a locker. This is because as it’s a traditional bank card, the overseas rates and fees are not great and you won’t use it at ATMs or for POS (Point of Sale) transactions. Also, if you lose this card it will probably be a nightmare to get another one shipped out to whatever remote place you might be in.

Level 2: For the first month, do an online transfer of your money for that month (€1,000) to your ‘Modern Bank’ account (N26 Mastercard Debit Card). This is the card that you will use for taking money out of the ATM because this bank card will give you the best foreign exchange rate and won’t charge you ATM withdrawal fees. You still won’t carry this card around all the time though because it might also be an issue to get a quick replacement and it might have up to €1,000 on it. That could be a lot of free almuerzos for a cheeky mugger!

Level 3: So you’ve used your second card to get cash but you only need to do this once every week or so. For everyday transactions, you only need to carry one card and that’s your Non-Bank Prepaid Debit Card. Daily or as often as you like, from your mobile app, transfer €50-100 from your Modern Bank to your Revolut account. And if you do happen to get mugged or lose your Prepaid Debit Card, don’t worry. You can disable the lost card from the mobile app. Also, before you leave on your trip, you can request a second card for under €10 and have 2 cards for the same account, which means that you always have a back up. Also, as you will use this day to day, you can track all of your expenses in the app and easily manage your budget!

So I travelled with 5 cards: 3 for separate bank accounts and 2 linked to the same Revolut account. It might sound a bit crazy to travel with so many cards but this will give you the most options to avoid ATM transaction fees as much as possible. Also, in Argentina, a lot of vendors like restaurants only accepted either VISA or Mastercard, and rarely accepted both, so on these occasions I carried both VISA and Mastercard cards to cover myself. It also really makes travel less stressful knowing that you have 4 back ups!

How I Avoided ATM Cash Withdrawal Fees in Most Countries in South America

Below is a table showing the banks in each country that didn’t charge me a fee for using my N26 card to withdraw cash from ATMs.

CountryBank
ArgentinaNone
BoliviaBanco Mercantil Santa Cruz
BrazilItaú
ChileNone
ColombiaBanco Pichincha
EcuadorBanco Pichincha
French GuianaPart of France / EU / Eurozone
GuyanaSorry, I haven’t visited this country yet!
ParaguaySorry, I only used an ATM once and forgot which bank it was!
PeruBCP (Banco de Crédito del Perú)
SurinameSorry, I haven’t visited this country yet!
UruguayNone
VenezuelaSorry, I haven’t visited this country yet!

    What to Look for in a Bank Account for Travel

    Even The Cell Phone Accessories Guy Accepts Cards
    Even The Cell Phone Accessories Guy Accepts Cards

    The Competition: Which Bank or Prepaid Debit Card is Best for Travel

    There are limited banking options in a small country like Ireland but in Europe and large countries like the USA, there are a larger range of options that are available. So it really depends where you are coming from and what options you have in your home country’s market. In this article, I haven’t focused on specific banks in any market because there are just too many moving variables as bank account products and rates change regularly. This article has used examples from the Irish/European market and although these might not apply to you, the methodology should be the same all around the world so you can apply the same principles when deciding what bank account options are best for you and your travels.

    A Bank, Not a Financial Services Provider

    There are lots of financial services and tools out there such as currency cards and transfer services – remember that these are not necessarily banks. For security reasons (as outlined in this article), a registered bank that has a banking licence is generally a much better option than a financial services provider or currency card service. Revolut is one example of a non-bank card that I have used and although it worked very well for me most of the time, I did have issues with incorrect information being displayed in my app. I spotted one transaction where the amount was completely incorrect. I raised the problem with Revolut’s support and they fixed the issue although there were several other incorrect transactions that they corrected that I didn’t even spot. For me and probably for most people, banking is not a service where you want to see any mistakes! This is worrying and I have lost a lot of trust in the service so as a general rule I would never put huge sums of money onto these types of cards. However, these types of services still have their uses for the savvy traveller and it’s always good to have an extra option, especially if it’s a free service that’s not costing you anything.

    A Modern, Mobile Bank

    There are traditional banks and modern banks. In Ireland, the traditional banks such as Bank of Ireland and AIB do have mobile friendly Apps but still lack the functionality, services and value that a modern bank provides. N26 is a modern bank and brands itself as a ‘Mobile Bank’. It’s ‘N26 You’ (previously ‘N26 Black’) service has a monthly fee but allows for free unlimited overseas ATM withdrawals. I paid for this service and found it to be great value on my travels.