Uruguay Basics: Money – Use Debit Cards to pay less. Still worth it in 2018

Best way to save money on what you spend in Uruguay, whether visiting or living here, resident or tourist? Use your debit cards for anything and everything you can. Not cash, and except in two cases, not credit cards. That’s the TL;DR basics indeed. The rest of this article is, to be honest, not all that “basic” but that’s the concept – Debit Card plastic payments give you a lot of savings in Uruguay, and no, not just the “tourist rebate” you might read about elsewhere (and further in to this very article too!)

2018 Update: Still good this year too, though the tax rebate on everyday purchases has dropped back to the permanent 2% from last year’s temporary bonus.

The 4% instant rebate on all debit cards, foreign or domestic, is was back for 2017! Up from “only” 2% 2016 and 3% 2015. Back for the first half of 2017 to the original late-2014 bonus.

We’re going to explain it. As well as suggest some particularly good debit cards to have if you live here. But the discount works with any debit cards. This isn’t our long-awaited full “Money Basics” article, nor our longer-awaited “Law of Financial Inclusion” article. It’s a “Pull that Debit Visa out of your wallet and start spending on it” article. (But of course including some of our normal “attitude”!) Because that’s the cheapest way to make your money go further here in Uruguay. What’s that you say?  Isn’t that just for tourists? And only for a few specific things?

No. Not at all. That’s a different law. And that link, which is to our friend Karen Higgs the Guru’guay’s website, explains it nicely (plus, one less article we have to write, jajaja!) That tourism-promoting law normally gets renewed every year, but sometimes not. And that law is only for non-Uruguay-issued cards. Yes, if you use a foreign-to-Uruguay card, debit or credit, at a restaurant or car rental, you should get all of Uruguay’s 22% Value Added Tax (IVA) instantly rebated, right at the time of purchase. Or at worst, credited back in a few days to your card. Even if you live here, even if a permanent resident like us, or a citizen like some of our expat/immigrant friends, if you still have a non-Uruguay account, use that foreign card when you go out to eat. You’ll normally get back all your tax. (Well, except at the yummy but kinda-touristic-ripoff joints at the Mercado del Puerto.) If a citizen, you probably shouldn’t try that at a Uruguay hotel because you’re supposed to offer that you’re a citizen and have them add the tax.

But for nearly all other purchases, there was a 2% lowering of the total IVA on debit cards only, since the Law of Financial Inclusion happened in August 2014. For the first year, there was a bonus 2% on both debit and credit – do the arithmetic, that made it 4% on debit and 2% on credit. The next year, that bonus dropped to 1% (so 3% debit, 1% credit). In August 2016, the bonus disappeared entirely, supposedly forever. Thus, 2% permanent IVA rebate for all Debit cards, but nada por crédito.

Well, as of 2017, the Debit card rebate jumped back up to 4%. A very pleasant surprise. It’s good up to a limit high enough for most furniture or major appliances (like our spiffy new lavasecarropa single-unit washer-dryer, where you bet we used a debit card to save!) But still nothing for credit. So if you have a valid-in-Uruguay Debit Card, such as a Visa Debit, Debit MasterCard, or pre-paid Debit Card with Visa or MC, or possibly also Amex (if and only if it processes as “debit” here), then that is the smart way to pay. Again, do the math: even if your card has a 1% foreign-transaction fee, you’re getting a 4%-of-taxable-amount reduction.

Unless you are a non-believer in “electronic money” (in which case you really picked the wrong country in coming to Uruguay!), paying for nearly everything in your daily and special purchases budget by a DEBIT card, is the sensible and cheapest way to go. Whether that card is from the USA, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, or right here in Uruguay, as long as it is a debit card, and of a type that actually processes as “debit” here in Uruguay (a problem finally fixed on Debit MasterCard a few months ago), it will get the 4% IVA rebate. And very likely instantly, only authorizing and charging the after-reduction amount back to your issuing bank or other financial institution.

On all debit cards, doesn’t matter which one, doesn’t matter where it was issued, in Uruguay or foreign. As long as your card-issuer lets your card work in Uruguay, and it is a debit card, it gets the rebate.

Debit Visa issued by United Nations Federal Credit UnionCould be the UNFCU credit union Visa Debit, very similar to the one in our wallets, which rebates up to $10 US of ATM surcharges and part of its 1% foreign fees, while paying 1.5% APY checking interest. Also have reasonable-fee international wires ($30 USD) which you can set up entirely online. And will send your cards straight to your Uruguay address.

Could be the Fidelity Investments Cash Management Account no-minimum, ATM-fee-refunding Visa Debit, also in our wallets. No separate brokerage account required. And lowest-fee wires, at only $10 USD, but for international destinations you need to file a form in advance, at a Fidelity office in the USA, in person. Or provide a “Signature Guarantee”, a thing that is 100% impossible to get from outside the USA (no, not even from the US Embassy’s US Citizen Consular Services. They can do US notary public stamps. They can’t do Medallion Signature Guarantees, and US brokerages no longer accept US Consular letters as a subsitute.) But if you set up the standing instructions at your local Fidelity branch while in the USA, you can wire from it by a phone call. Or course, you can just spend on it in Uruguay, or get rebates of your ATM fees for withdrawals. Which is 99% of how we use it.

Or the Schwab Bank, ATM-rebate-refunding and zero-foreign-fee card, with a free, but zero-balance and never-have-to-us, brokerage account attached. both no-minimum to open. The linked brokerage account will do low-fee international wires, and you can transfer funds from the bank side instantly to brokerage, then wire them to Uruguay for $25 USD. Without having to call anybody and do “twenty questions” to verify your identity. Yes, we have this too. Guess where those cards are?

Or the BECU (formerly and formally Boeing Employees Credit Union) Debit MasterCard, linked to accounts paying 4% interest on up to $1000 US deposits (500 savings, 500 checking), with a reasonable 1% foreign fee and traveler-supportive policies. They’ll send international wires, do long-duration travel notices, allow a larger-than-normal daily card withdrawal limit on request, and are generally good people. (If you live, work, worship, in Washington State, or have a family member who does, join BECU right now while you can! So glad we did a few years ago, the year we lived there. Once you qualify, you can always remain a member even if you no longer would qualify.)

Or, of course, it could be a Uruguayan-bank Debit Card, like the BROU Maestro. Europeans are probably familiar with the Maestro card brand; “Americans” are probably all “what the heck is that weird thing that kinda looks like the MasterCard logo but it has too many numbers on the card?”

Maestro is MasterCard’s original debit card brand, and is electronic-realtime debit only. (Most people don’t realize that a Visa or MasterCard Debit card actually has a secret “line of credit” for authorizations offline, like if the business line is down, or on an international flight. Maestro doesn’t work like that, it checks your balance right this second.) The BROU Maestro Debit Card  works against your “caja de ahorros” (savings with no interest) that is everyone’s transactional account here (checking/current accounts are rare for “regular people” here.)

Or that Uruguayan card could be the ScotiaBank Uruguay Visa Debit, which earns gift points for purchases at Uruguay’s big hypermarket Tienda Inglesa, and likewise works against your no-interest, but at ScotiaBank, no-fee (for the caja de ahorros, pesos only) account. Yep, guess where we have those too? Stuffed in that wallet. (Note to Bad Guys: No, not all of them at the same time in the same wallet.) As of mid-2017, ScotiaBank has reverted back to their original policy of only allowing us immigrants/expats to get an account, if they have completed the process and have a “residente legal” cédula. It’s no longer available to those who are “residente en trámite” with a provisional cédula, nor to people who are “no residente”.

Another “always use debit cards rather than cash” benefit, if you have non-Uruguayan cards? For peso-based purchases, you will get the always-better international bulk interbank rate of Visa International, MasterCard International, or if you can find somebody to accept any kind of Amex card and it’s a prepaid one, of American Express. That rate is, except maybe on one or two rare days, always better, to ridiculously better, than the regular government-owned retail bank, BROU, has as its standard “compra” (buy pesos with dollars) rate. Even almost always better even than BROU’s preferential “E-BROU” rate which we BROU customers get for certain online-only or at-special-machines transactions. Uruguay doesn’t have any “official government exchange rate”, not really for practical purposes (there is one for statistical use), but the rate from BROU for regular customers is the closest thing to it. That BROU rate is usually better than the other 8 or so competing, private-sector banks’ rates. Yet your foreign card will almost always get you a better rate than BROU’s (and thus the semi-official) rate. And that’s before this debit card discount.

This better-rate benefit also applies to cash withdrawals in pesos uruguayos from accounts back “home” in US dollars, not just to purchases. At least if you do the withdrawal the “right way”, which I’ve commented about extensively elsewhere and at other times on this site, and at our Uruguay Expat Life community forum at Google. Go search! But of course, there’s no extra tax discount for ATM withdrawals of cash, because there’s no tax on that in the first place! And if your “back home” is not a US dollar account, there’s a double-conversion happening somewhere in the system, from your currency into dollars, even if you never see it, and then from dollars into pesos. This “better exchange rate directly on the card” might not be true if you are starting in EUR, GBP, NZD, or CAD, and especially not if something less common like Hungarian forint or Czech koruna. But if your card processes as a true debit card, even if held in Thai Baht, it should get the 4% IVA rebate.

By the way, if you are an expat/immigrant or even just a long-term visitor here, and you don’t have at least two of these specific cards we just showed you, you’re doing it wrong! That’s our official opinion, jaja! Well, it’s me, Mark’s. In fact, my opinion is to have at least two of the non-Uruguay cards and both of the Uruguay cards. Having up to 4 of the non-Uruguay cards makes total sense to me, as backup for those days when something doesn’t work, and because each brings at least one unique benefit to the mix. I believe that my co-publisher and spouse Lisa, would prefer it a little simpler. Yet she loves all the benefits, bonuses, interest, rebates, and free toasters (seriously!) from having this overall mix.

Whatever you decide, it’s likely that you should reconsider the old “What’s in your wallet?” question when you move here. There are some very specific reasons why we have each of those, which to some extent I explained briefly above. Which is sufficient for this “basics” article. Cards that rebate at least some of the other-bank ATM surcharges, even the high fees of  Uruguay ATMs. Cards with either low or no foreign transaction fees, so that you come out nicely ahead with the IVA discount. Cards linked to accounts that pay unusually high interest for checking and savings back in the USA.

Cards from issuers that don’t throw fits about you being in Uruguay, and in the case of the UNFCU card, will use your Uruguay address as your real account address. They provide their own HQ address as your in-USA online billing address, but send the cards right here, with no “Well, we have a US residential family address and US mailing address, but most of the time we are in Uruguay” fuzziness. (Which is basically true, but it’s still nice to say, “Yeah, we’re in Uruguay, send a replacement card” and get it express 3 days later.) Anybody who is a US citizen can get a UNFCU account by joining at a one-time low-cost, one of two sponsoring charitable organizations that provide the “field of membership” required for UNFCU credit union requirements.

I’ve already mentioned the BECU restrictions. There’s no way most people can join directly. But if you were pushing it, you could schedule a layover at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, go to the chapel and pray, and thus legitimately “worship in Washington State”. If we’re talking literally here. Plus get some really good chowder at Ivar’s Clams.

If you’re not a USAian, then you won’t likely have access to those good estadosunidense debit cards (though if you work for the UN, the original reason UNFCU exists, you can get the UNFCU card without being a US person.) So look for the good, low-or-no-fee, ATM-surcharge-refunding savings, cheque or current accounts, from your home country’s banks and banking-alternative institutions. If such fee-friendly cards are available, get set up ahead of time with one or two.

And of course, the debit discounts work with cards from major Uruguay banks. Including those we have: one from the bank that “everybody uses” and “every business expects you can use”, and the other from the bank it’s easiest for people who’ve started the residency process to get even if they’re “Americans”, and has some good perks. (If you go to a Tienda Inglesa store to open it, not to the bank itself. One does not simply walk into Scotiabank and ask for an account as a non-resident. That way $50,000 USD minimums and 50 USD/month fees lie, while not getting Tienda Inglesa Puntos. Seriously people, stop doing it that way!)

No, this is not any kind of affiliate marketing – we have no affiliate relationship or marketing deal or any kind of benefit received from suggesting any of those accounts – and you’ll note that we didn’t link to the issuing institutions, to make that point very clear to both you and to Google & Bing. One tiny, muy poquito disclosure: we, Lisa Marie Mercer & Mark Mercer, the owner/publishers of The Uruguay Expat Life & Uruguay For Me site network (what this post is a part of), do from time to time own a very tiny amount of stock in Canada’s Bank of Nova Scotia, most commonly known as ScotiaBank, owner of ScotiaBank Uruguay. Either directly, or through an ETF or mutual fund, or both. So yes, if several thousand of you rush to open Scotia T-I Puntos cards and then go on massive spending binges, next quarter’s dividends may be about 0.0034 fractional Canadian pennies higher. And that number, like most financial analysis, came right out of the air, or perhaps a stinkier place!

Card logos and images are the copyright and in some cases registered trademarks and service marks of their owners and licensors, and we are using them here under Fair Usage rights in the context of reviews. And considering I just recommended each of them, I think they won’t mind. If you are wondering why none of them are from any kind of US-based traditional bank, and even the ones from brokerages are not from any kind of “Money Center giant bailout bank”, stop wondering. We don’t use those, the world nearly blew up financially bad enough! Canada did a better job keeping their banks from destroying the world, so that’s why we’re ok with Scotiabank. Even though I’m as a customer I’m pissed at their new fees on their other accounts! (And as a tiny shareholder, think it’s a dumb move. But “dumb” isn’t “evil”, just stupid.)

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Mark Mercer

Site co-owner Mark Mercer. AKA Marcos Cristoforo Mercer, AKA the Fuzzy Wanderer. Expat from USA living in Uruguay as of mid-2012, after "test-driving" it for a few months in 2011 and early 2012. Married to Lisamaria, AKA well-known travel and fitness writer Lisa Marie Mercer. Follow Mark on Twitter @mcmxs and his many other sites, which you can find at http://about.me/MarkMercer. I write and engage about many of my other interests, on Google+ at https://google.com/+MarkMercer