Travelling to India? How to get rupees and where to find the best rates

This month, Mike Tinmouth put his UK life on hold and set off on an eight-month round-the-world adventure with his friend, Jamie. First stop for the pair was India, where Mike blogs about getting his hands on some much-needed rupees…

One of our first major challenges was how to get Indian rupees. A fluctuating pound sterling meant we’d held off getting currency as long as possible. But when we did finally visit UK travel money shops, the Post Office or banks, it soon became apparent that while it’s easy to get mainstream currencies like US dollars or Australian dollars, getting rupees is impossible.

Why can’t I get rupees in the UK or USA?

The Indian rupee is a heavily regulated currency and the law states that you can’t take rupees in or out of India. As such, tourists must purchase their rupees on arrival.

To make matters worse, at the end of 2016 the Indian government scrapped the popular R500 and R1,000 notes in a bid to combat fraud. The sudden removal of billions of rupee notes from the economy has led to massive cash shortages across the country and restrictions on how much currency you can withdraw each day from banks, ATMs and moneychangers.

So how do I get rupees when I arrive in India?

There are a couple of options for getting your rupees when you arrive in India.

The first is to use a traditional moneychanger in the airport such as a bureau de change. Both Delhi and Kolkata airports had a couple of agents after customs/passport control – those inside the terminal only sell foreign currency, they don’t sell rupees. With the ATM out of order, this was our only option to get money for a taxi (which cost R1,000 from Kolkata airport to the city centre). Be prepared for paperwork (keep your plane ticket stub) and a terrible exchange rate – we got R60 to the US dollar, whereas the official rate is about R72.

Be warned – when we transferred through Delhi there were no ATMs inside the airport; at Kolkata the first machine was outside in the arrivals lounge and didn’t work. Tourists across India have reported huge queues in recent months, a cap of R10,000 (about £105) on daily withdrawals, and poor rates and high bank charges for using your debit/credit card abroad. Indian ATMs are also a relic of the 1980s and my experience to date is that UK bank cards often don’t work!

The third option is to use an informal moneychanger on the street around your hotel. While this is convenient, there are risks of being conned with out-of-date notes – so be careful. However, they do offer a better rate than the bureaux de change (around R65 to the dollar or R78 to the pound). What they really want is $100 bills and offer a rate up to R68 for larger US denominations – something I wish I’d known beforehand as I’d specifically brought smaller $1 and $5 notes.

The fourth option, and offering by far the best exchange rate, is to use a money transfer service such as Azimo that lets you easily send money to yourself for cash pick-up using your UK debit or credit card. Using the Azimo mobile app, I was able to order £400 worth of rupees at a rate of 83.78 and with just a £1 fee. The cash was available to pick up an hour later from the local branch of Muthoot Finance. Be sure to bring along your transfer number and passport.

Can I use the ATM to withdraw rupees in India?

In short, apparently it works for some people but to date my Halifax and HSBC cards haven’t worked and the India ATMs resemble a 1980s arcade game – so be careful.

How much cash do I need in India?

It’s worth planning how many rupees you need for your travels in India. We’re on day four of our trip and working on around £25/$30 per day for our five-week trip. Bottled water costs as little as R20 = £0.25, a plate of curry around R240 = £3, while a 45-minute taxi from the airport cost R1,000 = £12.50. Unless you’re a seasoned traveller or seriously short on cash, I wouldn’t recommend braving local transport on day one – R1,000 felt steep, but after a long flight and navigating the traffic chaos the spend was worth it.

*This article first appeared on Mike’s travel blog, 30somethinggapyear.com. Read more and follow his progress as he makes his way around the world.