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Money Matters: Cash, Currency Exchange and Credit Cards

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The local unit of currency is Birr. Notes are printed in denominations of birr 200, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1; and 100, 50, 5, 10, 5 and 1 cent coins are minted. The birr has long been one of the strongest currencies in Africa, though in recent years it has devalued significantly. Use the currency converter below to get the latest exchange rate.

Currency Converter
Source: Exchange Rates UK

Foreign Currency Exchange

The quickest way to exchange money in Addis is at a foreign-exchange bureau at Bole airport, and at banks. Some high class hotels also provide currency exchange service but the conversion rate may not be as good as banks.  The Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) branch at Bole Airport is open every day of the week and there are now three ATMs in the terminal. The Dashen and Wegagen banks have ATMs throughout Addis and in several other cities around the country. Always carry enough cash since finding working ATM machines is not reliable.

It is worth noting that many smaller towns have no bank, or a bank not equipped to deal with foreign-exchange transactions, or one that can handle cash but not travelers checks. Common sense dictates that you try to plan ahead to avoid getting into a situation where you need to change money in a small town. Try to limit any transactions to the following towns - Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Gondar, Axum,  Adigrat,  Mekele,  Dessie, Adama, Awasa,  Arba Minch, Jimma, Dire Dawa and Harar. Note that Lalibela has only one bank, and no reliable foreign exchange facilities are available between Awassa and Moyale, or in Konso and South Omo region.

The only other places where money can sometimes be exchanged officially are at top-end hotels hotels. These facilities are open only to hotel residents and rates are rather not good compared with those of the banks. Should you get stuck in Lalibela and the bank is closed, the Roha Hotel offers a fair rate and will deal with non-residents.

Since the devaluation of the birr in October 1992, the difference between the black market and official rates has been negligible - about 5% at best - but the black market can be useful in Addis Ababa when you need to change money outside of banking hours. It’s strongly recommended not to exchange currency in a black market – there is high risk of theft and robbery, and is also illegal. If you have emergency situation, avoid changing money on the street by all means. Instead speak to somebody at your hotel, or at a restaurant or souvenir shop, to set up a deal in a controlled safe environment. Travelers’ checks are not accepted on the black market, nor are any currencies other than US dollars.

ATMs, Credit Cards, Debit Cards and Travelers’ Check

The Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE), Dashen and Wegagen banks have ATMs throughout Addis and in several other cities around the country – the Dashen Bank alone has 48 ATMs in Addis (including one at Bole Airport and the Hilton Hotel) as well as regional centres such as Bahir Dar, Gondar, Mekele, Dire Dawa, Hawassa and Harar - making a credit or debit card an excellent option for obtaining money while in Ethiopia. Visa and growingly MasterCard are accepted, though Visa is more reliable. Most credit cards charge interest on cash advances. It is sometimes possible to get around this by paying extra money to your credit card company in advance so that you have a positive balance. As a general safety rule, it is advisable to use credit cards instead of debit cards on international travel since the latter carry risks in case of fraud or unauthorized use (credit cards issuers protect you from unathorized charge but you may not get the same level of protection from debit cards).

Do note that withdrawals of money from ATMs is limited to 5,000 birr per transaction (equivalent to ~US $250) per day. If an ATM is out of order, provided you are there during banking hours, you can usually get a cash advance on your card inside the branch, but it is not nearly as convenient and fees may be involved.

Credit cards have also become much more accepted as payment in recent years, but they are still of limited use in Ethiopia. The major cards will be accepted to settle hotel room and restaurant bills at the high end Addis Ababa Hotels. Visa, and growingly MasterCard, is accepted at most of the other top hotels in the capital and around the country, but a surcharge is often added.

Travelers’ checks remain a viable option, especially since they can be refunded if they are lost or stolen. Bring your receipts though, as most banks ask to see them; these of course should be carried separately from your checks. Most major currgncies are accepted in Ethiopian banks, but unless you have a strong reason for not doing so, it is probably a good idea to carry US dollar travelers’ checks. More obscure currencies may cause confusion at banks outside Addis Ababa or if you try to pay for government hotels or other services in hard currency.

It is advisable to carry a portion of your money in hard currency banknotes, which are easier to exchange outside of the capital. If you are thinking of using the black market, it is essential to have US dollars cash; high denomination bills are preferable, but US $100 notes issued before the year 2002 not accepted. Banks can also be unwilling to accept older US dollar banknotes because of the number of forgeries in circulation. There seems to be less of an issue with smaller banknotes, so unless you can locate spanking new US $100 bills, then denominations of US $50 are probably the best overall compromise.

No matter how much you intend to spend in Ethiopia, bring enough money you likely need with you, in order to avoid the cost and complications of having money sent to you. If you are in a pinch, Western Union and several other services offer money transfers. In Ethiopia, as in most other countries, you will have to accept your money in local currency and then exchange it back to hard currency on departure. Keep receipts of all your exchange transactions in order to be able to convert your remaining money in birr to hard currency during your departure.

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