The "cash register' in Myanmar (Burma)
(c) Dustin Main 2012

 

One of the most common questions I get has to do with how to deal with money as a traveler in Myanmar (Burma).

While in the country, you'll use a mix of US dollars and Myanmar kyat.  Most hotels, domestic airfares train tickets, and entrance fees will be in USD, while everything else (food, souvenirs, buses etc) will be paid in kyat.

Until very recently (Nov 2012) there were no ATM's in Myanmar due to the economic sanctions on the country.  This meant that you would need to bring all of the money you expected to spend into the country, with virtually no way to get funds once you ran out.  And that money needed to be in pristine, unmarked, fold-free American USD (typically $100 bills).

Some of that has changed with the types of currency accepted for exchange and the availability of the first ATMs.  Even so, I highly recommend you bring all the money you plan to use into the country in cash, and use your Visa / Mastercard as a backup.

What Kind of Currency Should You Bring to Myanmar (Burma)

Along with USD, it is easy to exchange both Euros and Singapore dollars at the Yangon (& Mandalay) airport and banks.  If you're exchanging funds in the streets, jewelers, or black market, you're best off to have USD. 

Larger bills ($50 or $100) are exchanged at slightly higher rates than smaller bills (example 04/2013: 880kyat / $1 for $50/$100 bills, 850kyat / $1 for $1/$5/$10/$20 bills).  

Do not bother with travelers checks.  

 
 

How To Get the best USD

Although the Myanmar government has recently told the banks to accept more than just the most pristine of foreign currency, bills that are not perfect may still be rejected, or exchanged at a lower rate.  Treat your bills like gold... crisp, paper-thin gold.

Before You Go

Your local bank at home will likely be able to get you the currency you need before you go, though it is a good idea to call them a couple of weeks in advance to let them know you need pristine bills.  If they don't have what you need on hand, they can put in a special order for exactly how much you need which can take a few days to a couple of weeks to arrive at the bank.

In Thailand

If you happen to be in Asia already, the exchange counters at the airports are the best and least painful options.  Bangkok's main Suvarnabhumi airport is an excellent place to get the best USD.  Bangkok's Don Muang airport, which is the hub Air Asia flies out of, is also a good option.  You may have to try a few exchange places to get all the funds you need, so arrive early.

Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport also has an ATM that dispenses USD that is located past immigration in the departure area.  It's purple, and situated beside an exchange counter.

If you're in Bangkok, try "Super Rich" to exchange, but arrive early or call in advance as they often run out later in the day.  

To make it as painless as possible, ask the teller for "US dollars for Myanmar."  They will immediately know that you need to best bills and flick through their supply to find them for you.  Be sure to check them yourself, noting for folds, blotches and smear marks.

Cash is king in Myanmar (Burma).
(c) Dustin Main 2012

 

Where Should I Exchange Money in Myanmar (Burma)

Novice ceremony in Shan State.  Perhaps the closest thing you can find to a money tree.
(c) Dustin Main 2013

 

Contrary to the most recent lonely planet, the best place to exchange is NOT the black market.  The best places to exchange are at the airport and the banks.  They offer the best rates and the security that you'll get what you should be getting.

Every time I arrive in Yangon there is always a tourist or five at the exchange counters wanting to only exchange $10 just to pay a taxi, then exchange the rest on the black market in the city.  Don't be this person.

Banks are now found throughout the country, and even smaller towns off the main tourist track like Pindaya have a bank you can exchange at.  Note that most banks are closed on weekends and holidays and banks are closed for 1-2 weeks during Thingyan (the water festival every April).

You can also exchange money at your guesthouse or local jewelry shops, though the rate will likely be poorer (30 kyat/dollar less is fair) than what you would get at the bank.

Do not exchange money on the streets.  This is a great way to get scammed, particularly in Yangon where the shady money changers often hang out near Sule Pagoda or the main Bogyoke Market.

When you leave the country, you can exchange your kyat at the airport or banks before you leave.  No worries there.

 
 

ATMs

After years of sanctions began to be lifted in mid/late 2012, modern-ish international banking for travelers began in November with a partnership between CB Bank and Mastercard that allowed withdraws from a handful of special ATMs in the major centers.  A couple of months later, even more banking options for foreigners arrived with partnerships between Visa, a handful of local banks, and more than 100 ATMs in the country making it even easier to withdraw cash.  It's a huge change.

That said, I've heard mixed things about people trying to use their Visa / Mastercard to try and withdraw funds here.  Although the success rate seems to be improving, I've spoken with more than a dozen people who have had difficulties with one or more of their cards being rejected.  Think of the ATM as a backup plan, and certainly not the single source of funds for your travels here.

If you do make a withdraw, the fee is approximately $5.50 USD (5000kyat) (similar to most Thai ATMs) and will dispense the local currency (kyat).  The withdraw limit per transaction is approximately $300 but this may differ from bank to bank.

Now you have a new option to "win" in Myanmar (Burma)
(c) Dustin Main 2013

 
 

Credit Cards

Very few businesses themselves will accept credit cards.  Essentially, only the best of hotels will, though I expect this to change slowly through 2013.

Banks in Myanmar (Burma) have partnerships with Visa and Mastercard (and Chinese "UnionPay") only.  That means no Discover, American Express and no other funky cards.  As always, it's best to call your credit card company in advance to let them know you'll be traveling, so the chance of your card being blocked is reduced.  You can usually find the number on the back of the card.

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in my article "How to Overstay Your Myanmar Visa" or any of my other articles and photo stories on Myanmar / Burma.
 

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