Cambodia: the colour of money
Updated: Aug 11
Cambodia operates under a dual currency system, and while cash is still king there are also emergent electronic payment platforms offering secure convenience
As in any location visitors are well advised to understanding the norms of financial behavior in Cambodia, as well as the exchange rates, pricing, and steps protect personal wealth and items of value. Although displays of wealth are not necessarily viewed as ostentatious in Cambodia, considering the (perceived or real) wealth gap between many Cambodians versus visiting foreigners, there is no harm in being discreet with money and items of value, particularly in locations or situations that may attract petty crime, which can include tourist attractions and nightlife areas.
1. Cash and currency in Cambodia
Cambodia uses two currencies as legal tender: the Cambodian riel and U.S. dollars. US dollars are now only used in larger denominations from $10 upwards, whereas the riel is used for all transactions and change under US$20 will usually be given in riel notes (there are no coins in circulation in Cambodia. Some sources may infer bundles of US$1 bills are the way to go in Cambodia; however, since a 2021 initiative the principal currency in use is the riel and US$1 and US$5 notes are no longer recirculated (although they remain legal tender for the time-being).
One of the challenges that most visitors face is how to manage US$100 bills, which are often issued by ATMs in Cambodia to foreign accountholders but accepted only by some vendors such as malls and high-end restaurants, because other vendors either do not carry enough change or alternatively do not wish to risk handling damaged bills or forged bank notes.
Holding securely the right amount and denomination of cash while in Cambodia can be painful at times, but the challenges can be managed with a little forward-planning, for example timing visits to the supermarket to buy groceries or toiletries to get change for impractical US$100 bills and identifying ATMs that issue cash in higher denomination 50,000-riel notes, which are equivalent to c.US$12.50.
Check and protect your paper bank notes
If a US dollar bank note is marked or torn - even innocuously - it is highly likely to be returned. This is especially true for US$50 and US$100 bills which are rigorously inspected for damage and authenticity. Damaged (authentic) notes where the blemishes are not too substantial can usually be exchanged by a money changer but expect to pay a 5 - 10% fee for the privilege.
It is recommended to follow the local lead and check notes carefully to mitigate the risk of forgery or accepting damaged notes that can then only be exchanged for a fee.
Riel notes on the other hand are more forgiving if they are not severely damaged but be aware that Cambodia bank notes carry the face of the king and that it is therefore important to treat currency respectfully and to avoid defacing the image of the monarch.
Cambodian riel: exchange rates and understanding prices
In places frequented by tourists and expats prices are usually given either in US dollars or both US dollars and riel, and even at market stalls sellers will often quote prices in US dollars to foreign visitors.
However, because using Cambodian riel is fast becoming the norm it makes even more sense to understand the value of Cambodia riel versus other currencies. Helpfully, the exchange rate of the riel to the dollar is usually maintained at a standard range the US dollar of around 4,100 riels, which is commonly rounded down to 4,000 riels to 1 US dollar. On this basis a 20,000 riel note equates to 5 US dollars, which can be used as a reference point for working out what things cost in local currency:
Cambodia riel denominations
US dollar equivalent (broadly @ 4,000 = 1)
Denominations of 500 and 1,000 riel are handy for tips or donations, and 100-riel notes can be included in any larger tip as you may not want these (2.5 cent) notes clogging up your money holder although giving a donative of a few 100-riel notes in isolation may solicit an ungracious reaction.
2. ATMs in Cambodia
Withdrawing cash from an ATM
ABA, Canadia, Maybank, CIMB, Shinhan and several other banks issue cash to foreign cardholders from ATMs with on-screen instructions in English language. It is worth checking what denominations and currency can be issued by which brand of ATM from a particular foreign account and the ATM charges across different bank's ATMs.
The US$100 bill paradox
Frustratingly, many ATMS will issue a US$100 bill for any US dollar amount withdrawn over US$100 (e.g. a withdrawal of US$250 will be issued as 2x US$100 notes and 1 x US$50 note). However, US$100 notes are impractical for most everyday uses; for example: a tuk-tuk driver is not going to be able to change a US$100 bill. In addition, any slight mark or crease on the bank note is likely to see it rejected and handed backunhonoured.
Helpfully, Shinhan bank allows you to select the denomination of bank notes at its ATMs (so you can receive twenties instead of hundreds), although Shinhan ATMs are less common than some others, particularly outside of central Phnom Penh.
Foreign accountholders are charged US$4-6 for each withdrawal from an ATM in Cambodia (yes really: six dollars to withdraw cash!). Consequently, foreigners may feel influenced to withdraw larger amounts to reduce ATM fees, but this option should be tempered by the relative risk of carrying around excess cash in case of loss or even theft.
Managing ATM fees and US dollar charge cards
Bringing U.S. dollar cash into Cambodia (less than the US$10,000 customs limit!) is likely to be cheaper than withdrawing it from an ATM, but again this needs to offset this against the risk of carrying and safekeeping excess cash.
Pre-ordering a US dollar charge card holding only a specific balance transferred from an international bank account can be useful, particularly if for those whose home currency is not US dollars as this enables the user to lock in a market foreign exchange rate. In addition, ‘main’ card(s) can be secured safely and if the charge card is lost the impact is limited.
Some 'FX' cards even offer the partial refund of ATM fees, which is worth checking out given the high ATM fees endemic in Cambodia.
3. Bank accounts and banking apps for expats
Opening a bank account in Cambodia is a good option for longer term expat residents because there are zero ATM fees, although this is only an option for retirees and working residents with a long-term visa and employment permit.
Unlike some countries operating a unified payment system across retail banks, in Cambodia each bank seems to have its own payment platform requiring both the customer and the vendor to have an account, which means that it is important to consider the popularity and distribution of the related payment tools when selecting a bank in Cambodia.
ABA has quickly become one of the most popular banks in Cambodia with both expats and locals due ease of accessibility - both physically through the many branches and online, and the popularity of ABA ensures robust coverage of its payment tools.
Preeminent amongst the useful tools offered by ABA through its mobile app is its payment platform, which is widely accepted, simple to use (usually by scanning QID), and enables the user to make and receive payments and transfers in both riel and US dollars.
Other banks in Cambodia
Acleda, Canadia other Cambodia based banks operate competing account services to foreigners and include online and application-based banking functionality. Several overseas headquartered banks including Shinsei (Japan) and Maybank (Malaysia) also operate in Cambodia, although app-based banking options may be limited or less widely accessible.
Debit and credit cards
Debit and credit cards are typically accepted in supermarkets, mini markets, malls and hotels and restaurants from the mid-range upwards. Visa is the most widely accepted brand closely followed by Mastercard and then others. Foreign visitors are often required to sign two copies of as receipt even where a pin code has been used to authorise a transaction and may also be required to show ID (passport) in stores when buying higher-value items of c.US$1,000 such as smartphones and laptops.
At the time of writing in June 2022 Apple pay does not operate in Cambodia.
4. Perceptions of 'wealthy' foreigners in Cambodia
There a distinct wealth gap in Cambodia, which visitors to Phnom will quickly identify referencing the divergence of expensive cars versus modest transportation coexisting around the city. However, although there clearly are wealthy Cambodian's and a growing middle class, there remains a common perception that foreign visitors have access to reserves of cash, irrespective of the quality or value of clothing and accessories. This can manifest in certain situations, which can often be managed or avoided when understood.
When shopping: foreign 'high-rollers'
When browsing for goods there may be an expectation that visitors will want to spend lavishly - for example on an expensive (US$10+) punnet of strawberries or grapes from a market stall - when this is not necessarily the case. Behaving conservatively and providing a clear indication on what is wanted when engaging with a vendor can help prevent any innocent confusion, and as always it is important to respond cheerfully with a smile if a misunderstanding does occur to maintain 'face' on all sides.
Value at risk: petty crime
Violent crime is rare in Cambodia; however, opportunistic, petty crime is less uncommon, and foreigners are advised to adopt safe practices with money-holders and valuables, considering the common perception that 'all' foreigners are wealthy (and many are from a relative perspective) and can 'afford' to replace a purloined item.
If a 'situation' does occur, personal safety is paramount, and taking personal steps to pursue a lost item is at best a secondary consideration, if worth considering at all.
5. Looking after cash in Cambodia
A few 'common-sense' suggestions on how to manage cash risk can be found below. The list is not exhaustive, and it is understood that adopting safe behaviours aimed towards personal security and taking steps to conceal and secure cash and bank cards, passwords and other items and data of value can always be prioritised.
Managing cash in Cambodia
Do: Familarise yourself with the USD : riel 1 : 4,000 ratio
Do: Find ways to equip your self with denominations of US$ 10 and local currency wherever possible, for example by bringing US cash when travel or withdrawing riel
Do: buy essentials such as food and toiletries in higher end supermarkets and mini markets (e.g. Lucky / Smile) to change high value USD bills if necessary.
Do: consider using a US dollar denominated charge card, to manage risks of high foreign exchange costs and keep your 'main' cards in a secure location
Do: be discreet with your money - displays of wealth are not necessarily viewed as ostentatious in Cambodia, but that is not an incentive to become a target for petty crime
Do not: carry more cash than you are comfortable with, or feel pressured to store cash in an unsecure location. ATM fees are high, but not as costly as a lost stack of bank notes.
Do not: withdraw large amounts of US dollars in round numbers of US$100, unless you know you are going somewhere that these will be accepted - withdrawing US$[X]90 helps
Do not: assume that you can pay by debit card or credit card everywhere you go - higher end hotels and restaurants generally will accept cards as do most supermarkets. Visa is the most widely accepted brand in Cambodia