Money in Myanmar

If you’ve spent time combing the internet for information on managing your money in Myanmar, you likely have found some reports that there are no ATMs that accept foreign cards, the only currency that can be exchanged are US Dollars and that you should bring only brand new, pristine $100 USD bills for exchange.

500 Kyats billBased on our experience, the part about the bills needing to be in near uncirculated condition is correct.  On more than one occasion we had a bill returned to us and asked “Do you have another?”  We had tried to be careful about the appearance of the bills that we took on this trip because we had read similar warnings before hand. To our uneducated pre-trip eye, we considered what we brought to be close to “new “ but they might have been folded one too many times and had a visible crease down the middle or slightly wrinkled or for some other reason the receiver just didn’t like the look.  Fortunately, we weren’t carrying so many of those unacceptable bills that it caused a hardship and as the trip went on, we simply put them aside for use once we left Myanmar.   But the lesson here is: If you plan on exchanging money in Myanmar, bring only brand new bills. 

The ironic thing about this is that a significant percentage of the Myanmar bank notes we saw in circulation were overused limp rags on the verge of disintegration.

You can exchange denominations other than $100 USD.  However, the exchange rate for $100 bills is better than the rate for a $50 bill which is better than it is for $20 bills, etc.

You can exchange currencies other than USD in Myanmar.  We saw rates for Euros as well as Singapore Dollars posted in banks & money changers and we were told that we could have exchanged Thai Baht at the Yangon Airport as well.

While 6-months before our July/August 2013 trip it might have been true that there were no ATM’s accepting foreign credit cards, we managed to withdraw cash from machines in both Inle Lake and Yangon using our US issued Bank of America Debit Card.  Not every machine we tried in those 2 cities (nor the one machine we tried in Mandalay) would work for us but we did find a machine in Scott Market in Yangon and one near the local market in Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) that allowed us to make cash withdrawals.  Both machines that we were able to successfully withdraw currency from were KBZ Bank locations.

In another 6-months, we would expect an even wider network of ATM machines that will work with foreign banks to be available but for now, you still really can’t count on the fact that you’ll be able to find one.

At banks and money changes, we received rates between 970 to 990 Kyat to the dollar in change for $100 bills. The difference in that low to high rate would result in a difference in value of roughly $2 over the $100 exchange.

In reviewing the withdrawal and bank charges on my checking account, I discovered that we didn’t fare as well with the ATM machines.  The bank that owns the ATM charged a fee and on top of that, Bank of America also charged a $5 transaction fee regardless of the size of the withdrawal plus a  service fee of 1% of the value of the withdrawel.

These calculations will change based on the current exchange rate at the time of the withdrawal but adding in all these fees, on our trip we paid $218.50 for withdrawals of 200,000 Kyat, which nets out to an exchange rate of 916 Kyat to the dollar. Compared to an estimated rate of 970 we got for cash exchanges, that works out to roughly a 5.5% premium (or $5.50 over $100) for the convenience of using the ATM machine.

We were happy to find machines that would work for us and it did relieve some worry about not being able to exchange some of less than perfect bills we were carrying but at the current time, would advise that ATM’s in Myanmar be used primarily as a back-up plan and not as the main source of money on a trip there.

Note that a big part of that difference was in the transaction fee so if we had withdrawn 300,000 Kyat, we would have netted a more favorable exchange rate and if we had withdrawn 100,000 Kyat, we would have paid an even higher premium.

On many occasions, we were able to pay with US Dollars and not bother with the exchange rate.  On small transactions, it was typical to get 1000 Kyat to the Dollar so we came out ahead on those.  For larger transactions, like paying for a hotel bill, the vendor would give a lower rate closer to the official exchange rate.

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