What you should know about taking out money in Brazil

Every time I travel I have some type of money crisis, which makes me either the best or the worst person to give advice on this. I’ve been through it all. The first time I left the country, I listened to some random guy on a message board who told me to show up to London with no cash. I landed in Heathrow with no phone and promptly had all my cards declined. No matter how many times I call my banks, no matter how long I have been in a country, I know my cards will get abruptly shut off for “suspicious activity.” So over time I’ve learned to plan for the worst.

While traveling is not an option right now, I am counting down the days until I can safely return to Brazil. For a few years in my 20s, I spent half the year in the United States and half the year in Rio de Janeiro. There were a few things I learned along the way that I wish I had known before, especially when it came to money. And through my time staying at hostels and working with international volunteers, I’ve heard a LOT of people share their money woes.

Ipanema

The currency in Brazil is called the real, pronounced similar to “hey-al” (with your mouth closing and forming a w sound at the end). The plural form is reais, pronounced “hey-ice.” Before you go, make sure you download the XE currency exchange app and stay up-to-date on the exchange rate.

1. Inform your banks before you travel

And then assume they will decline you at some point anyway. Keep your bank’s phone numbers in a safe place, and ensure that you have a way to call them. This means enabling international calls on your phone or putting money on your Skype account to make calls with wifi.

If possible, bring two debit cards so you will have a second option for withdrawing cash. I love TDBank but they decline me mercilessly when I am abroad no matter how many times I inform them I have left. My Charles Schwab card is my go-to debit card for traveling abroad because it has no foreign transaction fees and they refund you any ATM fees you may be charged. They have also been a bit more reliable.

Make sure to arrive with emergency cash. Don’t spend it all and get lulled into a false sense of complacency–keep it locked away in case your cards ever get lost or temporarily shut off.

2. Plan when you will take out money

Withdrawing money can be tricky at times, so don’t wait until you’re flat broke to do so.

Many ATMs do not permit people to take out money after 10pm. Take out what you need during the day. 

View from Vidigal at night

The cash machines also may run out of money over the weekend. By Sunday afternoon, I would typically see “error” messages in several of the places I went. Make sure that on Thursday or Friday you take out all the money you will need for the weekend. On Fridays and Mondays the banks often have long lines, so be mindful of that as well.

3. Plan where you will take out money

Not all ATMs will accept international bank cards. Cash machines inside larger banks are sometimes the only option for withdrawing money. Some of the banks I used included Bradesco and Banco do Brasil.

I only recommend withdrawing money from ATMs INSIDE a bank. Banks provide a better level of security and have a smaller chance of resulting in fraud.

It’s possible that not every ATM will work for you. Sometimes a certain ATM will not allow you to make withdrawals that day. Before getting alarmed, try different ATMs at the same bank and try going to different banks.

Be mindful of your surroundings when making purchases. When withdrawing money, swiftly put the money away.

4. Plan when traveling to a smaller town

If you are visiting a small town or an island, expect that it may be difficult or impossible to find an ATM that will accept your card. For instance, if traveling to Ilha Grande for the weekend, take all the money you will need beforehand. You also may find it difficult to find a restaurant or shop that will accept credit cards.

Ilha Grande

If traveling, split up your money. In one location, keep larger bills. I bought a pouch for my ID, cards, and my emergency cash, and I kept it in my bra under my armpit. In another location, keep your smaller bills. 

5. Take steps to avoid credit card fraud

Brazil has one of the highest rates of credit card fraud in the world. Take extra steps to secure your accounts, like creating a daily withdrawal limit and setting up alerts.

If staying in a hostel or a hotel, ask the workers where they would recommend you withdraw money to avoid card cloning scams. One ATM near my hostel was well known for causing problems, and the workers would steer guests away from it.

Again, bring more than one debit card with you in case one is stolen or compromised. Whenever possible, keep them separate or locked safely away. Check your bank balance every day.

For day-to-day transactions, use cash. 

6. Plan which cards you will use

Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted credit cards. Many places did not accept American Express.

7. Carry small change

There are some places or vendors that will not be able to break large bills. For instance, when taking the bus, it is helpful to have exact change or small change.

8. Breathe

Ultimately, Brazil is a place that requires some planning and you will need to be more vigilant. Each time I traveled there, I had to be flexible because things wouldn’t always go the way I expected. Maybe I would wait 30 minutes to withdraw money only to realize the ATMs were empty; maybe my card would get declined even if I had JUST called the bank to fix it. Take a moment to breathe–don’t unleash your frustration on the bank employee or the unsuspecting representative on the other end of your phone. 

Once you have solved the problem, drink a caipirinha and relax: you’re in Brazil!

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