Bolivia Currency and Money Exchange

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BOLIVIAN CURRENCY Bolivia is not a fully “dollarized” country, but since the value of Bolivian money (the Bolivian boliviano) fluctuates up and down depending on the strength of the U.S. Dollar, it has become customary to use dollars and bolivianos interchangeably in upscales hotels, stores and banking institutions.

This means that the U.S. Dollar is accepted almost anywhere the boliviano is, as long as someone has enough money to give you change for the denomination you give them. The Bolivian exchange rate is published daily in the newspapers and this tells you how many bolivianos are in ONE dollar – you have to do the rest of the math.

HOW BOLIVIA CURRENCY AFFECTS BANK SERVICES Bolivian banks offer accounts in Dollars or bolivianos. This is to their advantage because the dollar is a “stronger” currency than the boliviano and it’s value, although it fluctuates some, is more stable than that of the boliviano. As a result, you are free to choose which currency you want your account in. And by the way, because maintaining a bank account in Bolivia is slightly more risky due to the unstable environment for investments, the interest rates paid on accounts are usually higher than in the U.S. and other countries. This does not mean opening a checking or savings account in Bolivia is that risky at this time. What it means is that the banks and credit unions must be more careful about the way they invest (since they use your money to make those investments) as any bank anywhere in the world does. On the other hand, the opposite is also true: the interest charge on loans to you is usually quite a bit higher than elsewhere.

This is also the reason exchange rates vary if you are “buying” dollars or “selling” dollars. If you go to a currency exchange house and wish to convert your dollars to bolivianos, the exchange rate will be slightly lower than if you enter with bolivianos and ask for dollars in exchange. Why? Because your dollars are more valuable than the boliviano.

BOLIVIA CURRENCY EXCHANGE You can, of course, exchange dollars for bolivianos at any Bolivian bank or credit union. However, money exchange houses (called casas de cambio) often have currencies from other countries that banks do not and are useful for exchanging your bolivianos back to your national currency before you head back home. Exchange houses can be found in most airports so you can change your national currency into bolivianos as you arrive. However, if you wait until you are in town, you will also find several exchange houses near the central plaza of each city.

ACCOUNTS In order to open an account as a foreigner you will be required to present several forms of I.D. (birth certificate, passport, etc.) as well as proof of your residency (carnet, and other documents), employment (employment contract and copy of your work permit from the Ministry of Labor), and business documents. You cannot open a bank account in Bolivia unless you are a Bolivian resident or a citizen.

CREDIT UNIONS are called “cooperativas” in Bolivia and function in a similar manner to credit unions in the U.S. and other countries. Bolivian credit unions usually offer only savings accounts, although a few offer checking. They offer smaller loans to their customers, but with fewer requirements, making loans more accessible to the general public. However, their interest rates on loans are higher because of this as they are assuming more risk by requesting fewer guarantees from their borrowers.

Most also offer CD's and other services as well. Banks offer savings and checking accounts, CD's, credit cards and all types of loans. Most have ATM's in a good many locations throughout the city (as well as several branches). Most banks also have drive-thrus. Credit unions don't usually have drive-thrus and did not initially have ATMs so although many now do have ATMs they have fewer. They also usually have fewer branch offices. Also, both banks and credit unions sometimes have very small branch offices inside grocery stores like inside the Hipermaxi, Slan, Hiper Plaza, and Fidalga grocery stores.

NOTE ON ATMs. You can withdraw money at every ATM using a credit card; however, please be aware that you cannot DEPOSIT money at the ATMs. Some Bolivian banks are just recently beginning to offer other self banking services at their ATMs but this is not widespread as of yet. This must be done in person during regular business hours.

NOTE ON CREDIT CARDS. If you have any trouble with your VISA or MASTERCARD, contact a company called LINKSER, found in the Yellow Pages to help you solve the problem. Unfortunately DISCOVER is virtually unknown here in Bolivia as are all other credit cards. Basically, in Bolivia you can only use Visa and MasterCard.

PAYING YOUR BILLS In Bolivia you have to pay your bills for basic services and household utilities (electricity, water, phone, cable TV etc.) directly at the company office. Some, but not all, utility companies do mail or deliver a bill to your home but since checks are not used much by the general population in Bolivia you must pay them in person. This can be inconvenient as you usually have to stand in line to pay, so utility companies have arranged with banks and credit unions to accept payment of your bills and issue you an invoice. Therefore, you can pay your bills at your bank or credit union or one of its branch offices, many of which are conveniently located inside major grocery stores.

MONEY TRANSFER Banks also offer money transfer services from your account to anywhere else in the world, or vice versa. In addition, Western Union, Moneygram and other agencies are present in several locations in Bolivia for direct money transfer. The Banco Nacional de Bolivia has Moneygram offices in many of its branches, and some banks now also have Western Union offices (you will also find Western Union offices in most DHL international courier branches).

MONEY EXCHANGE HOUSES Bolivia's money exchanges houses, called "casas de cambio" are one option, aside from banks and credit unions, for exchanging your foreign currency for Bolivian currency. They are regulated to some extent, although not as much as banks and credit unions, so you need to be careful and ensure you use only well-known money exchange houses. Ask the locals which are the best ones to use, or which have been around the longest. You can also exchange your money at local Bolivian banks and credit unions. However, currency exchange houses in Bolivia often have money from many other countries whereas at banks you are usually limited to Dollars and Euros.

NO TORN BILLS If you have U.S. Dollars or any other foreign currency that are torn even slightly, they will not be accepted anywhere in Bolivia, even though the Bolivian currency is often quite battered. Do accept any torn bills from anyone because no one will accept it from you. Exchange houses may accept them because they are able to give them to foreigners who are returning to their countries where it won't be a problem for them to use the torn bills.

MONEY EXCHANGE IS REGULATED Bolivian exchange houses are regulated by the Autoridad de Supervisión del Sistema Financiero (ASFI) which obligates financial institutions in Bolivia to take actions to ensure against money laundering and other illicit transactions. Therefore, if your transaction is for an amount over $3000 US dollars, or equivalent in your own currency, you will be asked to show identification and sign a sworn statement.

USING TRAVELERS CHECKS It's a little difficult to work with travelers checks in Bolivia, because there are so few places that will actually accept them. Most banks also don't accept them and only a few upscale hotels and restaurants do. So your best bet is a money exchange house.

HOLIDAYS Businesses observe all Bolivian public holidays as well as any “paros” (work stoppages) called for by the city’s civic leaders (in protest to something, the entire city is shut down, schools and businesses are closed and usually all forms of transportation are also prohibited). And remember, church and state are not separate in Bolivia, so some Catholic holidays are national holidays.

DEPARTMENTAL HOLIDAYS: They also observe departmental holidays, such as the date of foundation of each department. According to a new decree, departmental holidays will no longer be celebrated on the exact date of the holiday. They are to be celebrated on the first or last day of the week in which they occur (depending on which day they are closer to) to promote tourism on these holidays.

BANKING HOURS Most Bolivian banks observe the same work-day banking hours as other businesses, although you have to ask at each bank because not all banks observe the same hours. Some open at 9:00 a.m. Monday through Friday and close at 4:00 p.m. Others are open from 7:00 to 7:00 and so forth. Be aware that some also close their drive-thrus down at night for safety reasons, however their ATM’s are available 24 hours a day. Some banks close during the siesta hour (from about 12:30 to 2:30). Most banks do NOT open on Saturdays, although a few open on Saturday mornings only, and usually only the central offices do. The branch offices do not. NO banks open on Sunday.

Businesses in Bolivia also work on Saturdays, usually between 9:00 a.m. and noon. No one opens for business on Sundays, except Bolivian restaurants, supermarkets, and outdoor markets, some tourist attractions, and other entertainment centers (such as parks and movie theaters). We recently took photos of Bolivian money so you can see what some of our coins and bills look like. In Bolivia each bill is a different color. This is helpful in a country where there is still a percentage of the population can't read words or numbers.

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