Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!


The standard advice for travellers in the developing world is to carry most of their money in travellers' cheques. Uzbekistan, however, is an exception as they are almost impossible to change outside the largest banks in Tashkent, and even there you'll get an unfavourable rate.

You will need to carry most of your money in cash. US dollars are the easiest to exchange and transport, though someone can usually be found to exchange euros, roubles or, at a push, sterling. Divide your money between multiple locations about your person and carry a dummy wallet with just a few dollars and some old supermarket loyalty cards as a decoy for pickpockets and anyone attempting to extract a bribe.

Uzbekistan has very few ATMs, and almost none outside of Tashkent, probably due to the logistical challenge of restocking them after every other transaction. Those ATMs that do exist are often in the lobbies of larger hotels and dispense either dollars or som. Some banks have a relationship with Visa, others with MasterCard. You'll need to look at the logo on the machine to see if your particular card will work.

If you run out of cash in a smaller town, banks will often advance you cash on a Visa or MasterCard, or you can receive Western Union, MoneyGram and other money transfers.

Uzbekistan has two exchange rates: the official, government-controlled rate used by banks and businesses who have to report their currency exchange transactions; and the much better street (or black market) rate used by everyone else.

The Uzbek sum, worth 100 tiyin, is available in notes of 100, 200, 500, 1000 and 5000, proudly bedecked with Uzbek heroes and architecture, and trading at around 2090 sum to the $1 US dollar in 2013. Elsewhere you find the Kazakh tenge, Kyrgyz som and Turkmen manat and Tajik somani.

Banks are now more or less everywhere in Uzbekistan and, providing they have sufficient cash behind the counter, all of them will change dollars, euros and roubles at the official rate. You will need to show your passport and sometimes the customs declaration confirming you brought the currency into the country in the first place. The cashier will stamp the declaration and list the amount of money changed. If you need to change less common currencies (including the Swiss Franc, CHF), you will need to take them to a branch of the National Bank of Uzbekistan.

While the US dollar is Uzbekistan's alternative currency, be circumspect in public as it is not legal tender. Bring it in cash, preferably in crisp and new bills and in a mixture of $100 bills (large bills get the highest rates) and small change (useful for paying for souvenirs and small items at B&Bs). Cash can be swapped for sum at hotel exchange counters and some banks. It's important to remember that you must declare your travellers cheques on your customs form on arrival; otherwise you won't be able to change the cheques at a bank. Credit cards enjoy growing acceptance and are ideal for emergencies, though the lion's share of the country's usable ATMs are in Tashkent. The National Bank of Uzbekistan supplies dollars for credit cards and traveller's cheques at most of its branches around the country. Local costs remain low by Western standards, other than at tourist-price hotels. With the largest sum bill retailing at less than US$2 you can expect to receive a brick-sized wad of money when changing more than US$100. You'll need a carrier bag of cash to afford a flight ticket out of the country, even though the government introduced new 5000 sum banknote into the circulation as of 01.07.2013.

Most currency exchange in Uzbekistan is done by unofficial money changers. This is generally ignored by the authorities, and the rate is as much as 30% better than you will find in the banks. You are not required to show any paperwork, which comes particularly in handy if you have left your passport with an embassy or at the hotel. In touristy areas the money changers will often find you, but if not you should ask taxi drivers, hotel staff or stalls in the bazaar. Agree the rate before handing over your cash, and have a quick tot up of the bundles of som you receive in return. You're unlikely to have the time or inclination to count every note, but you'll swiftly become adept at calculating how many inches of som there are to US$100.

A black or free market exists throughout the country for US dollars and, to a lesser extent, euros. Guesthouse owners, shopkeepers and bazaar moneychangers all exchange money at rates 30 per cent higher than the bank, currently around 2700-2800 sum to the dollar compared to a bank rate of 2000-2100 sum. Change money this way and you'll therefore save around one third on the price of larger hotels, air and train tickets and most other expenses, since these establishments convert their US$ dollar prices into sum using the official bank rate. If you change your money in banks or hotel exchange booths, pay by credit card or use ATMs you'll get official exchange receipts but you will be changing at the lower official bank rate. Most B&Bs and taxi drivers convert dollar rates at the free market rate so you won't save any money by paying sum there. For most purchases you are officially required to pay in sum but cash US dollars are accepted at B&Bs and some souvenir shops.

Changing money on the free market is technically illegal so if you do decide to change, restrict your conversions to guesthouses or shop owners rather than the ever-shifting bazaar. Uzbek police are generally not interested in moneychangers but there's always the chance that the person you're changing with is in cahoots for a shakedown.