Argentina has quite a unique economic system and functioning that can be confusing to most foreigners traveling to the country. We’ll explain the main terms you need to know and how to get the best exchange rates for international currency to work your way around Argentina’s economic instability.
Written by Carla Chinski, Content Marketing Manager at Vamos Academy
How Exchange Rates in Argentina Work
Why do exchange rates differ so widely for U$D and Euros in Argentina? What types of dollar rates are there in the Argentine market and what are the best options when traveling? Well, it all started in the late nineties to early 2000s. With one of the worst economic crises in Argentina’s recent history (which got even worse when the 2008 US housing crisis had a global impact), came economic policies aimed at restricting citizens’ access to US dollars.
The main issues one should worry about as a traveler are: when to change currencies when arriving in Argentina, what’s the best way to do it, when to do it and where. The market is so fragmented, in fact, and so unreliable, that there are many exchange houses (in Spanish, casas de cambio) that sell and buy dollars at wildly different rates. Why is this so?
It’s not just economic crises that have impacted the U$D market: other economic factors that are long-standing in Argentina (almost independently of changing governments and representatives) also affect the country’s relationship to foreign currency. There is, for instance, the cepo cambiario, which was implemented in 2011 by Cristina Ferández de Kirchner’s government to gain more control over the increasingly tough-to-navigate exchange market. The macroeconomic sector (meaning how much money the country is making or losing on the whole stemming from different economic activities) has suffered great losses since the 30s–yes, the thirties.
The term cepo refers to an official policy (i.e. imprelemented by the government as mandatory) to control the dollar’s exchange rate. Controlling an exchange rate implies having complete authority over who gets to buy dollars and who gets to sell them. For instance, in 2020 President Alberto Fernández decided to restrict buying capacity for U$D to just 200 a month. In 2021, the government put their foot down even harder, making it impossible to buy airline tickets in Argentina using installments.
Also read: How to Exchange Dollars
This has lead to Argentine buyers-sellers and Argentine companies of all sizes to try and work their way around these restrictions. Precisely, paying for items in installments is one of them; some Argentines are almost forced to pay for household appliances, for instance, in 18-month-long fixed cuotas, which allows them to in some way beat the country’s ever-growing inflation.
And so, Argentina has been–or become, rather–one of the most stagnant countries in the Latin-American region when it comes to managing the foreign exchange system and to economic growth in general. This is also true because there tends to be a negative, “anti-imperialist” view of the United States specifically; that is, broadly speaking, one of the reasons there now exists a parallel/unofficial U$D market in the country. Argentines are well-aware that U$D is a widely more stable currency than pesos, which is why they’re (also unofficially) used for savings by the middle/upper-middle class.
Lastly, the informal U$D market’s popularity (en negro, meaning undeclared money exchanges) and widely-spread usage for savings led to what’s called a brecha cambiaria: a more and more significant distance between the dólar oficial (the official value of the U$D, which is just a formality at this point) and the dólar blue is in place. And the diversification of Argentina’s economic activities to avoid this stagnation–switching constantly between economic models that focus on either importing or exporting–has had as a consequence the subdivision of U$D exchange rates into dólar turista, dólar carne, dólar soja, MEP, among many others.
Differences Between Dólar Blue, Dólar Turista and MEP
- DÓLAR MEP: Also called the “dolar bolsa” (after “stock exchange”), the MEP applies to the local market. With Dólar MEP you’ll be able to buy bonds and sell dollars and Argentine pesos according to stock exchange value. It’s “an operation that is carried out in the stock market that consists of buying a bond in pesos, and then selling its version in dollars to get US currency. In other words, they are bonds or investment instruments that are listed in pesos and in dollars, allowing people to move from one currency to another through their purchase and sale.”
- DÓLAR BLUE: As we’ve explained above, the dólar blue is the exchange value related to the illegal or “black” market for U$D and/or Euros. Because the dólar blue is–supposedly–less subject to fluctuations in the market, the use of the “blue” has expanded well beyond other exchange types, thus making the “blue” more popular, firstly, and secondly, making it much more expensive than the Dólar oficial.
- DÓLAR TURISTA: The dólar turista is aimed mostly at Argentine travelers looking to spend U$D outside their country of origin. There’s a 35% increase in relation to the dólar oficial (which, remember, is much lower in value than the dólar blue) for credit, debit card and cash transactions.
Tips for Exchanging Money in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Best Places to Exchange Dollars or Euros
The informally named arbolitos (trees) or “cuevas” buy and sell dollars to the value that’s indicated by the dólar blue’s exchange rate (see above.) Most arbolitos–in fact, nearly all of them–are located in Florida, in the Microcentro area where most offices and banks can be found.
What goes on in the “cueva” stays in the cueva. There is a spoken, explicit agreement between buyer and seller. That agreement is not on paper, but it is operative nonetheless, so you can’t change the price you’re going to sell your cash dollars to once you get to the arbolito. There are risks involved, so it’s best to ask a local, spanish school or tourist guide for trustworthy sites. It’s best to seek for a cueva’s delivery system, which you should ask the seller about, so that the transaction can take place safely, whether in a nearby gas station or at a hotel lobby.
Be safe at all times when carrying money back and forth. Because of Argentina’s economic instability, US dollars in the country are highly valued; to prevent theft in any way, shape or form, it’s best to wear a money belt under clothing. The money belt itself should be hidden from view and covered up with clothing. Keep in mind that exchanging dollars at a “cueva” is an illegal transaction, and so you won’t be getting a ticket to validate it–you won’t get in trouble for going to a cueva.
How to Spot Fake Pesos
Counterfeiters are quite talented, but the residents are very good at spotting them. That’s the reason why tourists can be targeted, and taxi drivers are notorious for having counterfeits. It’s rare to be given a fake bill of lower denominations like ARS50 or ARS100 these days, though it’s not unheard of (a great alternative to regular taxis in Argentina is Uber). All banknotes have several security measures in place, like watermark and a metallic thread incorporated into the paper in $1000, $500, $200, $100 and $50 banknotes.
Surprisingly, Argentina has three different types of $100 notes in circulation. Sometimes, scammers will try to give you fake, older $100 notes, commonly called “General Roca billete”. You should have enough to go by with just the watermark and the metallic thread. In any case, we’ve left more information below on how to spot fake Argentine pesos:
What to Avoid, What to Do
Unlike most countries, where bringing lots of hard cash is not recommended or necessary, in Argentina’s case it’s a good idea to take a decent amount of cash with you. Specifically, US dollars and Euros, USD 100 or € 100 bills. Ensure the notes are in good condition and avoid folding the bills as certain banks and exchanges will not accept notes with marks or significant creases. U$D and € currency are easily exchanged throughout the city. Avoid bringing other types of currency, since they are harder to get exchanged and often at bad rates (perhaps with the exception of the British Pound, but there are no guarantees).
Lastly, “small-faced” US dollars in Argentina are less valued than “wide-faced” ones, and some “cuevas” might even refuse to do the transaction if you bring those types of bills with you. This rejection does not have a very straightforward explanation.
As the title here states, always bring cash because of the dólar blue’s higher value, and avoid using a credit card. It’s an obvious statement, but do not exchange your pesos before coming to Argentina, because you’ll barely get your money’s worth. Along these lines, avoid exchanging more dollars for Argentine pesos then you plan on spending on your trip; if you have left over Argentine currency, it’ll be worth next-to-nothing and be stuck with pesos for the long haul.
After you get off at the airport in Argentina, do not exchange your dollars for pesos, as airports have the worst rates compared even to legal and official casas de cambio. When seeing other tourists exchanging at Ezeiza airport, it’s tempting to follow suit, but you’ll be able to find a “cueva” as soon as you arrive.
TIP: After choosing where to exchange, if you’ve decided to use a Bank, remember that you will be asked for your passport. In this case, they need your original passport and no other document will work (that is sanctioned by law). At most of the banks in Argentina, in order to see the teller, you will first need to get a number from a special terminal machine. Unfortunately, they are in Spanish but basically, you need to select the Caja (teller) and then “No Cliente” (not a client). After that, the machine will give you a receipt with a number in order to be called.
Banks, ATMs, Cards and Other Transactions in Argentina
Using Credit Cards
Cards can be used in Argentina. However, they’re not accepted everywhere. Overall, Visa is the most widely accepted. MasterCard and American Express are less common, and so it’s advisable to make sure you have a Visa card when traveling. All cards are accepted when visiting high-end restaurants or stores. In addition, if you are staying in Argentina for a while and think you might need to withdraw a significant amount of money–which would be expensive from an ATM–you can choose to use a money collection service such as Xoom and Transferwise. With these services, your money is normally available to collect within 30 minutes from locations around the city and should offer 0% commission with the fee built in to exchange rate. A good way to check what the current market rate is compared to these services is through XE.com. Here, you can see the difference between the market rates and what the company is offering.
Using the ATMs in Argentina
If you wish to withdraw local currency here, it is possible to do so at most ATMs throughout the city. However, there are current restrictions on the amount you can withdraw per transaction and limiting cards to three withdrawals per day. In addition, there are fees for withdrawing from all ATM machines. Although some banks could reimburse them, for most banks the cardholder will have to pay the fee (check with the bank before travelling). There are two types of banks in Argentina; Banelco, a red B sign, and Link, a green Link sign. All local banks have the Link sign and are cheaper to withdraw cash than the Banelco banks.
When using an ATM machine, do not use it to extract small amounts of money, as there is a $10 minimum commission for these types of bank operations, and you’ll get the dólar oficial value anyway. It’s also very advieable to ask for a friend or trusted contact in Argentina to exchange dollars to pesos for you, as it’s likely they’ll need the dollars in cash and will appreciate getting it for savings.
Though there are a lot of ATMs around the city, at times they can run out of money, especially around long weekends and holidays. ATMs also have a limit as to how much you can withdraw, and that will depend on your debit/credit card, your bank and the country you are from. It can go from as low as ARS 1000 to as much as ARS 4000. Definitely talk to your bank and make sure your withdrawal limit in Argentina suits your needs.
Using Credit Cards in Argentina
Photo ID is often required along with the credit card itself. The official valid ID for foreigners is the passport. Keep in mind that most of Argentina’s gateways or credit card machines are still using magnetic swipes and wireless card machines are still not very common. Don’t be alarmed if you use your Visa, Master Card, Amex, or whatever credit or debit card you have to be taken over to the restaurant’s office or counter. This is so because, normally, the register with the machine is right next to the counter.
How to Make Money Transactions Using PayPal and Western Union
It’s not convenient to make a transaction (specifically, to send money outside of Argentina using US dollars), because you’ll unavoidably be charged a significant commission. PayPal presents the most difficulties, as it has been banned in the country to avoid “fugas”–in Argentina, dollars are always lacking, which is part of why the country has been consistently emptying out its economic reserves to pay off debt and finance public spending.
In developed countries like the United States, almost all transactions go through sites and apps like Venmo, CashApp and PayPal. But in Argentina, everyone pays in cash and upfront (except when spending large amounts of money; we’d say that cash is good for spending up to about a 5,000 pesos figure, or even a bit more, as of 2021.) PayPal currently charges a 4.5% for transactions from pesos into dollars, or dollars into pesos. That is, these rates apply when currency exchange is involved. If not, there are no commissions in place.
Now: Western Union works a bit smoother, though commissions in Argentina go up to about 10%. Western Union converts your money automatically from dollars into pesos to pay for a service in Argentina, for instance, or to get money from outside the country (i.e. the US or any part of Europe). According to the Argentine WU website: “You can receive your money transfer in cash at an agency or ask your sender to transfer the money directly to your bank account in Argentina. The sender must enter your bank account details (bank name, CBU number and CUIL) at the time of sending the money.
Keep in mind that during public holidays in Argentina ATM’s might run out of money