Article from the series: Frequently Asked Questions about Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo
Which currencies can I use in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo?
In the Gorilla Highlands region, each country has its own banknotes and coins. The Ugandan Shilling (USh/UGX) is the authorised tender utilised in Uganda, Rwandans pay with the Rwandan Franc (Frw/RWF) and the Congolese Franc (FC) is the official currency of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
US dollars are widely accepted in all countries. In fact, in Congo they act as a parallel currency and you will shop and dine with small USD notes in your pocket. The same dollars would not be that useful in Rwanda and Uganda where small notes result in worse rates and where anything showing wear-and-tear is rejected. You need crisp notes for these two countries, printed in 2006 (when Americans added some security features) or later. Dollars are not common as a payment solution outside of upmarket establishments, so prepare to get used to local banknotes.
How can I exchange money?
It’s recommended to exchange a small amount at the airport for the first days of your stay. You are then likely to change money at significantly better rates in the capital city at forex bureaus, banks and even Indian supermarkets (doesn’t work in Rwanda). Forex bureaus provide substantially better rates than banks, as well as a faster service, but are less common outside of big towns.
In case you want to exchange euros, it’s better to do that in the capital because you are only likely to get a really good rate at some very specific places. For euros in Kampala try the King Fahd Plaza business building and in Kigali the Shahansah Forex, both relatively centrally located.
Exchange rates (fluctuations in 2020-2021)
USD 1 = UGX 3,515-3,700
USD 1 = RWF 968-1,037
USD 1 = FC 1,962-2,002
EUR 1 = UGX 3,989-4,565
EUR 1 = RWF 1,128-1,225
EUR 1 = FC 2,250-2,442
Are credit and debit cards accepted?
Most tourist accommodations, restaurants and shops accept Visa and Mastercard. Keep in mind that utilising them can come with additional fees (at least 3.5 percent). You can also use them to make cash withdrawals at most ATMs.
How available are ATMs?
ATMs can be found across the region. Even in small towns, you can use your Visa or Mastercard to withdraw local currencies. Sometimes you may need to try multiple machines as they can run out of money. It is preferable to withdraw bigger amounts of money at once as you will save money on the additional fee you’ll have to pay for each withdrawal. How much you can get out of an ATM per day will depend on the limits established by your home bank.
When you arrive in a different nation, it is usually kind of useful to be able to pay for things. Therefore I went to my Belgian hometown bank to get the local currency because I’m a well-organised guy who loves to be prepared. On their website they bragged that they could exchange money in 29 different currencies. Well, the Ugandan Shilling wasn’t one of them …
That’s why I carried some euros with me and swapped them for shillings at the airport after bargaining a good exchange rate. I had become a millionaire for the first (and most likely final) time in my life.
The biggest Ugandan banknote — UGX 50,000 — equals less than 15 dollars, and in Rwanda the highest denomination — RWF 5,000 — is worth less than 5 dollars! Which means that you will walk around with a thick stack of cash no matter what. You can always, as young Marcus did, pack your cash into a money belt (don’t wear it over your clothes please, that would not be very safe or fashionable). Or maybe you can put it in a black plastic bag in your hands that no thief will find promising? Alternatively, perhaps you could divide and conceal your funds among your personal possessions?
As we recommended last week, you can as well buy a local SIM card and deposit your money on your mobile … It doesn’t even need to be a smart phone!
My first million was gone after a costly stay at a posh hostel, so I decided to go to the nearest ATM. That’s when I discovered a potential issue with relying on your credit card. I followed the instructions on the screen and waited for my UGX 2,000,000 (USD 560) to appear. But then it gave me an error message and said that such a sum was not available … I checked my banking app and discovered that the funds had vanished from my account! For a brief period, my heart stopped pounding. Fortunately, the money was placed back 10 minutes later.
My friend Louke who works in Kabale (remember my introductions in the article about cultural shock?) was recently presented with yet another credit card problem. Being a good customer, she wanted to pay when she left the hotel where she had spent several nights. However, when the receptionist stated the amount, she became suspicious because it was larger than expected. When she asked for the bill, it didn’t match what the receptionist had told her. After a long discussion and an intervention by the manager, she could finally insert her Visa. The next problem arose when her card was rejected due to a malfunctional system. Finally, the situation was handled by a helpful manager and a lot of patience.
But you know what, if you become a millionaire easy enough you will never cherish it!
photos by Matyas Boyen and Miha Logar