Travel tips

Cash or card? A global travel money guide

The context: Is cash dying out?

‘Cashless society’ has become something of a buzzword. In many major cities throughout the Western world, you can now pay for most things with a tap of your debit card, smartphone or even your watch. As increasingly sophisticated payment technologies, like biometric authentication and microchipping, are developed, this is only going to grow. 

However, discussions about a ‘cashless’ future often don’t take into account the many countries in the world that are still hugely reliant on cash. In reality, 2 billion people (just under a third of the world’s population) do not have a bank account.

The latest G4S Cash Report found that despite the increasing popularity of digital payments, cash continues to be the most widely used payment instrument in the world. In fact, cash circulation actually increased from 2011.

According to the report, only two countries have seen significant reductions in cash payments: South Korea and Sweden.

What does this mean for me?

Cash and card use varies greatly from country to country. While at home you might be able to pay with everything using your debit card, you might be surprised to find that in many other countries, that piece of plastic won’t get you very far. In others, you might struggle to find somewhere that will accept your cash.

To help you make sense of it all, and work out exactly what you need for your holiday, we’ve created a guide outlining the cash and card use in popular destinations around the world:

Sweden   

Currency: Swedish Krona

Dominant payment method: card

After being the first European country to adopt banknotes back in 1661, Sweden is now set to become the world’s first cashless society.

Already, 80% of transactions in the country are made by card, with cash expected to become redundant as soon as 2023. In Sweden, you can get a bank account at the age of seven, so it’s possible that very soon, children will grow up never using cash. Sweden even has plans to introduce its own digital currency (the e-Krona), starting with a pilot scheme later this year, with plans to implement the currency throughout the country in 2021.

Paying for things in Sweden:

Without a means of digital payment, you might struggle in Sweden. Even public transport tickets are bought using cards or mobile apps. It’s a good idea to bring along your debit card or, even better, a prepaid card.

It's a good idea to bring a small amount of Swedish Krone with you on your trip, in case you encounter any problems with your card. However, it may not be accepted in all shops and restaurants.

Japan

Currency: Japanese Yen

Dominant payment method: cash

Despite having created a lot of the technology that enables cashless payments, Japan is quite behind when it comes to actually adopting it.

Despite the government’s ambitions to double contactless payments by 2025, retailers are reluctant to follow suit. 60% of restaurants in Tokyo will only accept cash, and many large supermarkets won’t take card payments. Even some medical clinics will only accept cash when charging for procedures.

Paying for things in Japan: 

You will definitely need some cash with you if you’re visiting Japan, especially outside major cities. Many shops don’t accept credit or debit cards, and cash is often used for surprisingly large transactions. You may also find that foreign debit cards aren’t accepted in some shops, and may also not be accepted in all ATMs.  

China

Currency: Chinese yuan

Dominant payment method: cash and mobile payments

The widespread popularity of mobile payment platforms like AliPay and WeChat has transformed the payment landscape in China from a cash-based society to one in which mobile wallets make up over a third of the country’s total payments.

While digital payments are on the rise, however, there are big differences depending on where you are in the country, with more rural areas still largely reliant on cash.

Paying for things in China:

If you’re visiting a major city in China, you should be able to get by without carrying too much cash. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted, and most pay points have QR codes that enable mobile payments – even taxis and street food stalls. These used to require a Chinese bank account, but as of last year, WeChat now works with foreign credit cards.

That said, it’s always good to carry some cash with you, particularly if you’re exploring outside the cities. While mobile payments are widely used even in smaller cities, as a general rule, the further away you get from tourist centres, the more you’ll find yourself needing cash.

24-hour ATMs, operated by the Bank of China and the ICBC are widely available throughout the country, and should accept international cards and have dual-language ability. However, ATM availability is also more limited outside of major cities.

New Zealand

Currency: New zealand dollar

Dominant payment method: card

New Zealand was ranked second after Sweden in the countries least dependent on cash in the G4S Cash Report. It has one of the lowest ratios of cash circulation vs. GDP in the world, and one of the highest numbers of card transactions per capita. Cash is still widely used, but is gradually being overtaken by digital payments.

Paying for things in New Zealand:

Credit card is widely accepted in shops and hotels across the country. Debit cards will be less likely to be accepted than credit cards, particularly in more rural communities. ATMs are also widely available in cities and towns.

If you’re travelling to a city in NZ, you shouldn’t need much cash, but it’s a good idea to have a small amount with you for small purchases like at markets, ice cream stands or roadside fruit stalls. If you’re exploring New Zealand’s natural landscapes outside of the cities, you should definitely take a bit more cash with you.

To help you work out how much you'll need for your trip, see our New Zealand spending guide

Greece

Currency: Euro

Dominant payment method: cash

With an 88% share in point-of-sale transactions, cash is definitely king in Greece. The government is pushing for an increase in digital payments, and cards are much more widely accepted than they used to be. However, cash is still very much the dominant payment method.

Paying for things in Greece:

While cash payments are much more common in Greece, you should be able to pay with your credit card in most shops and hotels in major cities and towns. However, you might struggle in smaller shops and markets, and will definitely need cash in more remote locations.

ATMs are easy to come by throughout the country, even on the smaller Greek islands. You should be able to find them in supermarkets, airports, metro stations and main streets. However, these can have daily withdrawal limits, and may run out of cash on smaller islands. It’s always good to have some emergency cash with you if you’re travelling somewhere remote, or carry a back-up card. It’s also worth noting that banks have very limited opening hours in Greece. They’re often only open in the morning during the week, and tend to be closed on weekends.

Denmark

Currency: Danish krone

Dominant payment method: card

Denmark isn’t far behind Sweden in its adoption of digital payments, with the government pushing for a cashless society by 2030. However, cash use is still fairly prevalent in Denmark compared to its neighbour, and could be a preferable option for tourists hoping to avoid the surcharges imposed on foreign cards.

Paying for things in Denmark:

Credit and debit cards are widely accepted throughout Denmark, along with mobile payments. In fact, a growing number of businesses will now only take card, including street food stalls like Copenhagen’s Reffen Market.

It’s worth noting that a surcharge may be imposed on foreign cards on Denmark, but this should be advertised if it is the case. For this reason, it’s a good idea to carry some cash with you. You might also encounter situations where you need cash, like if buying something in the alternative community of Christiana in Copenhagen, or if venturing into smaller towns outside of the main cities. 

For more information, check out our Copenhagen travel money guide

Spain

Currency: Euro

Dominant payment method: cash

Electronic payments are growing in Spain. They were among the first countries to introduce person-to-person mobile payments, and are seeing a steady increase in digital transactions. However, the country is still hugely dependent on cash, with cash payments making up 87% of point-of-sale transactions. 

Paying for things in Spain

You are very likely to need cash in Spain, particularly when travelling outside of Barcelona or Madrid. ATMs (or cajeros automáticos) are widely available across Spain, but often charge a fee for withdrawals. To avoid this, always opt for bank-affiliated ATMs where possible, and take out one large amount rather than doing lots of small withdrawals.

In the big Spanish cities, and particularly in Barcelona, you should be able to pay with your card in most large shops and restaurants.

Turkey

Currency: Turkish lira

Dominant payment method: cash

Although the number of card transactions is on the increase in Turkey (with a 38% rise in the last five years), card use per person is still well below the global average and cash is the preferred method of payment for most purchases.

Paying for things in Turkey

If you’re travelling to Turkey, you will definitely need cash. While credit cards are widely accepted in hotels, restaurants, bars and shops, cash is preferred almost everywhere, and you may even be offered a discount for paying in cash. Cash is also necessary for smaller payments, like taxis, public transports, and buying things in Souks (markets). ATMs are very common throughout Turkey, but its best to use ATMs attached to banks where possible.

USA

Currency: US dollars

Dominant payment method: various (cash and card)

A 2018 report found that cash is used for about a third of purchases in the US, although with the recent introduction of contactless card payments and the increasing popularity of providers like Revolut and Monzo (who have just launched in the US), this is on the decrease.

Paying for things in the US

The US is a large and diverse country, and payment methods vary hugely depending on where you are. In big cities like New York and LA you can pay for most things with your card or phone, but may need cash in smaller towns. Since the US has a strong tipping culture, it’s also a good idea to carry some bills on your for hotel and bar tips, although in most restaurants you can add a tip to your card payment.

France

Currency: Euro

Dominant payment method: cash

France is still a largely cash-based society, with 68% of transactions being made in old fashioned cash. However, digital payments are on the rise.

Paying for things in France

Although cash is the dominant payment method in France, cards are accepted in most bars, shops, museums and hotels throughout the country. As with most countries, you’ll find it easier to pay with card in cities than you will in more rural areas, so if you’re travelling to somewhere more remote it’s a good idea to bring some cash with you. And even in Paris, you might need some cash for small purchases.

ATMs are easy to come by throughout the country and don’t usually charge for withdrawals. Ask a local for a ‘banque électronique. If you’re travelling somewhere very remote you may struggle to find an ATM, so it’s always good to have some Euros on you before you go.

Spending abroad with card: top tips

  • Avoid using your debit card: while many countries now accept foreign debit and credit cards, you'll often be charged a transaction and/or conversion fee for using it. To avoid hidden fees but still have the convenience of paying with card, load your money onto a prepaid travel money card
  • ATMs abroad may charge you to withdraw cash. It's always better to take out one large amount in one go rather than making lots of small transactions.
  • When given the option, always choose to pay in local currency.

The world's most cash-friendly travel destinations:

The world's most card-friendly travel destinations: 

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