International Travel with Large Amounts of Cash

International Travelers,

Traveling overseas, especially for those new to international travel or going to new regions or locations, can be a little overwhelming. Safety and security can be especially problematic in new environs for those unfamiliar with the local language and “lay of the land.” The purpose of this Tip Sheet is to give international travelers some useful tips to consider, be aware of, and follow when traveling abroad. While this Tip Sheet is intended particularly for those traveling with large sums of cash, it should be useful for any international traveler.

No Tip Sheet can cover all situations, and some safety precautions might be more useful in some areas of the world than in others. This Tip Sheet in no way replaces proper pre-travel preparation, discussions with friends and colleagues who have travel experience in the area (especially those who have recently returned, as conditions can change dramatically in some locales), and staying abreast of events in your destination. That said, here are some important items to consider:

  • Review State Department travel guidelines before traveling, both for any changes in travel regulations and for official statements on the security situation in the country or region of your travel. Go to https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings.html for the most current, official information. Travel guides (current ones!) are also good sources of information.
  • Book your travel through AggieTravel. In doing so, you’re automatically subscribed to WorldCue, a service that provides security updates to travelers based on their destination. This is a free service through AggieTravel (http://afs.ucdavis.edu/alerts/alerts.html) and is updated constantly.
  • Travelers can also register with the Department of State’s “Smart Traveler Enrollment Program” (https://step.state.gov) and sign up with the local embassy or consulate for security updates; check this out before departing for procedures and availability in the area of your travels.
  • One’s location can have a large impact on how much cash to carry versus the use of ATMs and credit cards. Often, there’s extra cost for using credit cards, but they also minimize your direct risk of loss to thievery. Understanding your own location, one’s international travel experience, knowledge of the local language, the nature of your travels, and the financial infrastructure in the destination all play into the decision of how much to rely on cash versus electronic forms of payment.
  • While harder for some than others, be as inconspicuous as possible and not highlight yourself as a foreigner or, especially, a new foreigner. Dress appropriately to blend in, and be calm and relaxed in posture and movement. Those seeking to take advantage of you will spot someone who stands out as unfamiliar with the terrain.
  • Taxis can be prime source of vulnerability. Know the certified taxis in your area and use them. When possible (especially when arriving at the airport) pay for taxi service at an indoor kiosk so as to avoid flashing a wallet or purse in prime pick-pocket areas outside bustling airports.
  • Do not take taxis or other private transportation to a bank, where the driver will know you are carrying or likely to withdraw cash. If you must take a taxi, try to hire a hotel car or get a taxi through your hotel…especially after you’ve gained their trust and friendship (see below).
  • Find your local contact, if you have one, as quickly as possible. He or she is an invaluable resource on local conditions and places to avoid.
  • Get to know all the employees at your hotel…bell-boys, desk clerks, room attendants, and more. If they know, like, and trust you, they can steer you out of dangerous situations before you even know they exist.
  • If you are taking large sums of cash from a bank, inquire if bank security guards (if they have them) will escort you back to your hotel.
  • Only store large sums of cash in your hotel if your room is provided with a private safe, and only if the safe allows you to set the code. Keyed safes may be unlocked by maintenance staff and public deposit boxes should not be assumed to be secure (except at very high-end hotels).
  • There is some safety in numbers. When possible, travel in a group.
  • For those needing to make large payments to vendors, there is a trade-off between safety and price that comes from pre-paying for services before departing and paying in cash on site. Generally (especially in the developing world) your funds will go farther if you pay in cash on site, but that requires the potential risk of traveling with larger sums of cash. This is a decision each traveler needs to make, based on their experience, language skills, and willingness to accept (or not) additional risk.
  • Consciously avoid establishing patterns of behavior to avoid pick-pockets or worse. If you frequently use ATMs (more on that later), vary your schedule and routes to the ATM to avoid setting a routine. That said if using ATMs, do so at established banks that are in busier areas during daylight and, ideally, can handle transaction inside the bank to minimize your risk of either card fraud or being targeted.
  • Check your accounts online frequently (if you have access to secure online resources) to make sure ATM or credit cards haven’t been compromised.
  • Keep cash and wallets in multiple places. Most pick-pockets are not out to do you harm, so keeping some cash handy…but separate from your wallet and primary cash…can satisfy a thief and minimize your losses.
  • Study the local currency carefully as soon as possible, and then be aware of potential counterfeits when changing money.
  • If you plan to convert US dollars into local currency, make sure that you bring with you bills in excellent condition, with no marks, and no signs of wear and tear. Often banks and currency exchange kiosks will refuse to accept bills that show signs of use.
  • Be aware of political situations at all times. Major political events or economic issues can trigger a run on cash or, locally, exhaust cash supplies at ATMs.
  • Most banks and ATMs limit the amount of cash that may be withdrawn on a daily basis. If you anticipate needing large sums of cash and don’t have access to teller service in a bank, plan to take withdrawals over multiple days.
  • Whenever possible, use ATMs inside a bank or withdraw cash from a teller. Public ATMs may “swallow” cards if wrong PIN is entered, if a transaction is denied, or if the machine malfunctions.
  • Some local vendors may not accept credit or ATM transactions from foreigners, or may apply a surcharge for doing so, independent of routine bank fees.
  • Keep a modest sum of cash on hand to pay for services in the event of an emergency (transportation, supplies, phone calls, paying a local for assistance).

The UC Davis Global Affairs website (globalaffairs.ucdavis.edu) is one of many resources travelers can use when planning a trip. It is under constant review and update, so we recommend you review both early and right before traveling for any updates.

Happy and productive travels!

International Travel with Large Amounts of Cash:  a Global Affairs Tip Sheet (.pdf)