Whether you’re an expat or a frequent traveling touring southeast Asia, access to money is a concern you need to address. Money doesn’t just fall from the palm trees, so you need to plan how you will access your funds resting safely back home in your US or Euro account. There are some important things to consider, especially in Thailand where banking is very restrictive and, well, odd.
The fees are high, very high, for buying products outside the U.S. Your American bank will charge you a hefty fee, from 1.5% to 4%, in addition to a transaction fee ($1.47 at my bank). That means a $4.97 fee on a $100 purchase. On top of that, you have no control on the foreign exchange rate they give you… and it’s usually bad.
I’ve tried all the major US banks, with some extraordinary charges. Bank of America was about the highest fee, and PNC was the best fee and the most friendly. Still, the charges are too high to be using your cards for every little purchase. Take out cash! Cash is king in Asia, which leads us to ATM’s.
Not nearly as offensive as the credit card fees, you can access your home bank account with an ATM card. The fee is generally $4 to 5 from your bank in the US for each transaction, so take out large sums. Don’t pull out $100 each time. Take out the max. 25,000 Baht is the max per day at Bangkok Bank (about $850), and 20,000 ($680) at most other machines. Be aware that in Thailand, you will also be charge 150 baht ($5) from the Thai bank, as well. That makes your ATM fee $10 total, so maximize your withdrawals. This fee is only in Thailand. In Malaysia, ATM’s are free.
If you’re staying for many months and you’d like a bank account, forget it. This option is only available if you have a work permit or a retirement visa. You can have millions of dollars back home, but you cannot open a bank account in Thailand or Malaysia without a work permit. However, if you make a tiny salary teaching English… come on in! This makes no sense, but it’s the way it’s been for hundreds of years. If you are getting a retirement visa, you can have a limited back account and a debit ATM card. In Thailand, some branches of Kasikorn bank will allow you to have a limited account if you’re renting a condo. Be aware that Thai banks work independently, even if they are part of a chain. You can go to 5 different branches of the same bank and get 5 different answers to your questions.
Despite the extraordinarily modern features of Bangkok, you’ll find the banking system and immigration forms are from 1967, and they love the paperwork! Malaysia is much more modern, and Malay banking (and immigration) are easier.
I prefer cash, ATM cards , and prepaid Visa cards. Your best deals will be paid in cash, anyway. It’s much easier to manage your money and budget with cash. I’ve never had a theft problem in Thailand or Malaysia; these are very safe countries. Just keep your cash hidden, and use your head.
You’ll get the best exchange rate at an ATM. If you do need to exchange cash, use an exchange window. These are everywhere in Kuala Lumpur, and they display the rates offered up front. Only a few are scatted around Bangkok’s Silom and Siam areas. Avoid banks if possible, and never exchange money at the airport. Airport rates are the worst.
Songkran New Year
During Songkran, the Thai New Year which is 4 days in April, water is splashed on everyone. People play in the streets and splash water over everything. As a tourist, you are not immune You will get wet! So plan to leave your camera and wallet back in the hotel. Wrap your cash and ATM cards in a plastic bag and stuff it deep into your front pocket.
Taking the Train from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore
10 Do’s and Don’ts While Traveling in Thailand
10 Things to Do Before You Travel Abroad