Just a generation back, it was easy. There was no internet or online banking. In fact, there were also very few international ATM machines, either. All of which sounds far more bothersome than it is today. And that’s quite true. But it was still a much easier process – simply because there was hardly any choice. Today, however, it’s just the opposite. There are cards of different types, each of them having different costs and conditions. There’s ‘instant’ online money transfers, all working in different ways. And there are still even travellers’ cheques – remember them? Although few people still use them in today’s fast-access climate.
Yes, 20 years ago, there were basically just two options. One was travellers’ cheques. And the other one was buying the local currency before you went. But today there are many more attractive alternatives. And whichever you go for personally, we’re all after the same thing: ease of access, security, and the cheapest way to ensure this.
Of course there are other things to consider, too. If you’re heading off for a holiday somewhere in say Europe, then all the systems of banking and cash-access are much more reliable and tightly knit (and thus predictable!) than over here. It’s worth mentioning that the Thai banking system, although on the surface appearing quite ‘normal’, works in quite
a different way to what you might expect. And every bank’s interpretation of ‘online banking’ is different, too, ranging in some cases from simply an online balance check, yet with other banks having local and international transfer and monitoring systems that are first class. I mention this because if you think you might end up being a regular visitor to Thailand then it’s very much to your advantage to open a basic Thai savings account for future use.
The simplest way by far to access your cash in Thailand is by using an international ATM card linked to your bank account back home – Visa and MasterCard are universal over here. Only a few months ago, even small convenience stores like 7-11 began advertising credit card facilities on purchases of at least 600 baht.
It should be noted that Thailand is a high-risk area as far as overseas banks are concerned. If you plan on using a card to access cash via an ATM over here, then you must notify your bank beforehand, then telephone later to check your request is on record. Better safe than sorry!
But this is where the ‘cost of cash’ raises its ugly and mostly-hidden head. Firstly there’s the Thai bank’s charge for accessing an overseas account via their ATM – 200 baht a time. And, bearing in mind that cards used in this way have a daily limit (often around 12,000 baht or so), that 200 baht fee can soon become quite significant. And then nearly every
card issued to consumers has a basic fee when used overseas, together with a hidden charge that you don’t see until you get your statement, not to mention poor exchange rates.
And then the choice of what type of card to use. Cross your credit card off the list straight away; it begins attracting interest from the day cash is withdrawn on it. Thus for a long time debit cards were the way to go. But today the advantage of a prepaid card has proved its worth. Once you’ve loaded up the card with money online, you can use it just like a debit card in shops, bars, restaurants or any venue that accepts the card. You can also withdraw cash from an ATM. You can’t spend what isn’t on the card, so there’s no chance of going over-limit, and you can top up the card online or by text while you’re away.
Fees and conditions vary with prepaid cards, affecting how economical they end up being. But take care you don’t get one of the bad prepaid cards that characteristically charge you every time you load the card, spend on it, and withdraw cash. Not to mention that the worst prepaid cards will also charge you an inactivity fee if you leave money on them at the end of your break, and even a fee to close the card down to get your leftover cash back. Spend some time and do your research – you’ll end up unhappy if you don’t!
And so back to the usefulness of having a Thai bank account. It’s far easier than you’d expect; all you need is your passport and about 500 baht. The actual account is free to open, but you’ll need to make a small deposit, and then the bank will want to increase their commission by selling you an ATM cash-card card, too. A tip here is to go for a mid-range debit card that has Visa verification: this can be used both online and for purchases outside of Thailand.
And then simply use one of the low-cost money transfer agents (Transferwise, Halo, Moneycorp) to send funds from one of your home bank accounts direct to your Thai account. Unlike a wire transfer (which can take up to 14 days to show up over here) this will be in your account in no more than a couple of days. There’s no fee from the Thai end, the cost of sending is typically 1.5%, plus the exchange rate is much better than any other method. And you can also do it online if you need more funds. Good luck!
Rob De Wet