HOW TO PAY YOUR WAY IN ZIMBABWE
In late 2018, I went to Zimbabwe for the first time. I got off a plane from Cape Town in Victoria Falls, and after going through immigration, I looked around for an ATM. A security guard stood near it, and as I approached, he said to me in English: "it is empty."
I had a couple of hundred USD, which I brought to pay for my Kaza Visa and emergencies. It proved to be a very lucky forethought on my part, as the currency situation in Zimbabwe has been in constant flux for the past several years. My limited stateside research, which told me that ATM's we're indeed available for use, proved incorrect.
The value and availability of cash has fluctuated so wildly that it is possible you may arrive in the country to an entirely different situation than you, too, could possibly anticipate.
There are, however, a couple of sure-fire ways to ensure that you can pay your way on your travels should they take you through the country.
What's going on with Zimbabwe's currency?
Lets very briefly recap the currency collapse and its on-going effects in Zimbabwe.
The first Zimbabwean Dollar, or ZWD, was introduced when the country gained independence from Britain in 1980. It replaced the Rhodesian Dollar at par and was successfully stable for some time, at points even stronger, officially, than the USD.
Hyperinflation began to take hold in the 1990s, citing a myriad of factors including the notoriously corrupt government's penchant for printing more bills in an attempt to solve their increasing financial insolvency. The Zimbabwean dollar was subject to three separate redenominations, creating the ZWN, ZWR, and the ZWL. Of the latter, the government was printing bills as large as $100,000,000,000,000 (one hundred trillion dollars) which to this day is the largest denomination bill ever printed in the history of the world, and was worth about half of one USD.
The value of the many Zimbabwean Dollars was fluctuating so dramatically and so swiftly that prices for goods could change within hours. In the late 2000s, there were points when inflation was as high as close to 150% a day.
By 2009, Zimbabweans had already been relying heavily on foreign cash, and the Zimbabwean Dollar was abandoned altogether. The USD became the de-facto currency of Zimbabwe, but the liquidity of USD has been slowly declining over time as demand outpaces availability.
But the people of Zimbabwe didn't much care about the economics behind it, and instead were consumed by what the country's financial situation meant for them on the ground.
Entire life-savings were wiped out in days. A voucher system was introduced, and miles-long lines formed for portioned amounts of petrol. The once thriving agricultural industry saw declinations in the output of staple crops close to 50%, which was devastating for a country whose citizens were already struggling to buy food: at times, something as basic as a loaf of bread could cost 10,000,000,000 Zimbabwean dollars or more.
Citizens of Zimbabwe have gone without food, medical care, and education. They have lost homes, farms, businesses, and members of their families to illness, starvation, or murder. They have endured a state-sponsored "campaign of violence" that swept most of their country. What seems to a foreigner to be, albeit complicated, solely a financial matter, it is one inextricably tied to the political, and the social ramifications are impossible to deny when you hear even one story of a single citizen of Zimbabwe.
And one story pales in comparison to the millions of stories of the people who have lived through this excruciating and untenable years-long crisis.
A series of "solutions" have been introduced over the years by the government in Zimbabwe, up to and including the quasi-currency that existed when I arrived in 2018: the Zimbabwean bond note. Created in 2016 and meant to be pinned to USD, they began to inflate effectively by 2017, though the central bank in Harare maintained its position that they remained on-par.
When I deplaned in Victoria Falls in December of 2018, I was able to trade one USD for three bond notes.
The end of 2018 saw the introduction of yet another workaround: the Real-Time Gross Settlement dollar, or RTGS, which was a form of electronic currency. But that, as well as the Zimbabwean bond note, was absorbed into the new Zimbabwean dollar, or new ZWL, when reintroduced in late 2019. The government also declared that foreign currency would no longer be traded privately within the country of Zimbabwe though they have primarily relied on USD for a decade.
And now it's January of 2020, and though there are reports that their dollar is stabilizing, local support of the currency can and likely still will fluctuate.
If you'd like to know more, I'd encourage you to read this exquisitely written article by Tendai Biti, who was the Finance Minister in the Government of National Unity from 2009 to 2013 and is currently the Vice President of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe. It goes into much more detail than I will here, particularly about the aftermath of their most recent election.
Albeit an extremely brief history, this brings us to now, when you might be considering traveling to Zimbabwe and wondering how you will be able to pay for things.
Okay, so how do I pay for things in Zimbabwe?
The simple answer is: with cash or a card, just like anywhere.
The full answer is a bit more complicated. Read on.
Will my card be accepted in Zimbabwe?
Hotels, guest houses, hostels, and various markets and restaurants that cater to tourists will likely all accept card payments. Lots of establishments that are primarily for locals will, too. While Visa and Mastercard dominate, you can also use American Express to a lesser extent.
Okay, so they'll accept my card. But will my card work?
Probably. Though Visa started declining transactions in Zimbabwe in 2016, it didn't affect all customers, and they have, supposedly, since corrected this.
That being said, my Visa didn't work in Zimbabwe as recently as 2018. My bank was never able to tell me precisely why.
How will I know if my card will work in Zimbabwe?
I called my bank before my trip, and they assured me that it would work just fine, so checking with your financial institution may not be the best measure of your card's viability in the country.
The best way to know if your card will work there is to try it. The easiest way to do this is to contact the property you'll be staying at, and arrange with them to run your payment card in advance. If the payment goes through, then it is likely your card will work in the rest of Zimbabwe as well.
Be sure you let your bank know beforehand that you'll be attempting a charge in Zimbabwe so they won't decline the transaction, thinking it fraudulent.
When I pay with a card, how much will things cost?
Many establishments, specifically those engineered toward tourists, will price things on a tier system. An entré on a menu, a beer at a bar, a night in a hotel--these will all be listed with two prices: a ZWL price, and a USD price. Paying with a foreign card will charge you the USD price, which officially has been between half and one-eighth the price in ZWL since it was reintroduced.
At places not catering to tourists (including buying gas), there is one, flat price for all goods, wherein the ZWL is tied to USD one for one. That means that a loaf of bread could cost you USD 16. A bottle of cheap wine? Easily USD 100.
In some cities, you will not find anything, anywhere, priced in tiers at all. You will pay in USD the price listed in ZWL. You will find this to be true even in Harare.
Should I bring cash with me?
If you are coming from a country that requires the issuance of a visa on arrival, you will need foreign currency just to leave the airport. They don't take cards or ZWL for visas on arrival, and the prices vary depending on the type of visa and your nationality.
How much cash should I bring?
Before you leave, I'd recommend doing some simple math. Look up the prices for your accommodation, any tours or guided adventures you'd like to go on, entrance fees to parks and attractions, transportation, etc. Add to that an amount of spending money you're comfortable with, and vóila: that's how much you should bring.
If you want to be really safe, double it. I spent twice as much money as I anticipated in my time in Zimbabwe, and you might too.
Many assume it will be cheaper in Zimbabwe than their home countries, and are surprised how much incidentals like food, coffee, and bug spray can cost.
In general, traveling in Zimbabwe can be expensive. Be prepared.
What currency should I bring?
The Rand, Pula, Kwacha, Rupee, Euro, Yuan, and the Pound Sterling (among many others) have all been used in Zimbabwe over the years to varying degrees. Still, none has ever been as successful as the United States Dollar. With their ever-changing economy, I wouldn't recommend you rely on any other currency, particularly when acquiring your visa and paying entrance fees to national parks.
I'm now in Zimbabwe, my card doesn't work here, and I've run out of cash. How do I get more?
You may think no one would ever put themselves in this situation, but this is precisely what happened to me.
Nearly penniless but in possession of a Kaza Visa, I walked to Zambia from my Guest House in Victoria Falls. It's about a half-hour walk to the Avani Victoria Falls Resort, which has a Barclay's currency exchange with an ATM right outside. I withdrew Kwacha from the ATM and went immediately inside to exchange it into USD. If you were wondering, I asked if there's a limit on how much USD you can get in a given day, fearing I would be approaching it. Their response was USD10,000. I didn't even come close.
If you have some cash left and you don't want to or are unable to walk, you can also take a taxi to the border, cross it, then get another cab on the other side.
And while you're in Zambia? I made a morning of it and stuck around the resort for a while for a beer and a pasta salad. Why not? You don't even have to be a guest there to swim in their pool. If you're so inclined, bring a suit.
Once you have USD, you can exchange it for ZWL through official channels, or you can ask around for a better exchange. If you're walking back to Zimbabwe from Zambia, you'll find money changers all around the border, and you probably won't even have to look for them: they'll find you.
Exchanging money on the black market in this fashion, albeit both prevalent and somewhat condoned, is technically illegal. That being said, I did it in the middle of the street, in broad daylight, within spitting distance of armed members of the military. Do with this information what you will.
I'm not anywhere near the Zambian, or any border. Seriously, how do I get more cash?
There's a chance the banks may have money. You can send money electronically to someone in your home country, and have them wire it to you via Western Union. Though other wire transfer companies exist, this is the one most prevalent in Zimbabwe and the one I'd recommend using.
This method is most likely to work in either Bulawayo or Harare and may ineffective anywhere else in the country.
That being said, it may not work at all, anywhere.
Furthermore, they could fulfill your order one of two ways: it could be dispensed in USD or ZWL depending on the availability of currencies and what the government will tolerate that week. If they distribute it in ZWL, it will be subject to the "official exchange," which may be half, or less, of what your money might garner on the black market. Be wary.
The closest bank is out of money. I've called my bank at home, but my card still won't work. I'm out of cash, and I'm getting hungry. What do I do now?
As a last resort, you can either look or ask around for someone visiting Zimbabwe from your home country who has extra reserves of cash. If they can swing it, you can send them an appropriate sum via bank transfer or any peer-to-peer money transfer service (think PayPal or Venmo), and have them give you the corresponding amount in cash.
Are you fucking serious? You want me to go begging for cash?
I mean. Yeah. I'm telling you, it works.
I once met a Swedish girl in Guatemala City who spent some time in a remote town in the Darien. Having lost her debit card there, she asked around amongst the locals and found out that someone had seen some white people in the next town over. The following day, she made the hour-plus trek to find them and did. After introducing herself, she asked where they were from.
They were from Stockholm.
She was able to get enough cash from them to catch a boat and a bus to Panama City, where she was also able to have a new debit card shipped to her hostel.
Desperate times, desperate measures.
Wait, should I even go to Zimbabwe?
Dealing with currency there, albeit a struggle, is entirely doable. But that may not alleviate qualms you still may have about visiting the country.
You may see visiting Zimbabwe as an implicit acceptance of a notoriously corrupt regime. That may be true.
On the flip side, tourism in Zimbabwe may also bring awareness to their current struggles surrounding their socio-economic crisis.
Honestly? I'm not sure, and I don't know what to tell you. I'm ill-equipped to decide that definitively, and I cannot absolve you morally.
I do know that I was welcomed shockingly warmly in Zimbabwe by everyone from crafts-people to politicians, many of which were remarkably candid with me about the state of their country. Hearing these stories was eye-opening, sobering, sad, inspiring, informative, and restorative. I was extraordinarily fortunate to be the recipient of such gifts.
If you choose to go to Zimbabwe, you definitely can. In short, I would follow these five steps to ensure your trip won't be problematic.
Bring USD with you. While a USD 100 bill will go over just fine at the airport or a resort, keep in mind you may not be able to exchange or use bills of that size elsewhere. Make sure the bulk of your funds are in smaller bills, like $5 and $20. To be completely safe, I would bring enough to cover all of your travels in Zimbabwe.
Don't keep your cash reserves all in one place. When traveling, keep your cash in different places--keep a small amount on you, then distribute the rest between different suitcases or travel packs. This way, if one of them gets lost or stolen, you aren't completely destitute.
Bring multiple debit and credit cards if you can. Try to bring cards that are issued by different banks, and at least one Mastercard/Maestro. Keep in mind: some travel debit cards are not accepted in Zimbabwe.
Pay for things in advance. Your accommodation and many activities can be booked and paid for in advance. That way, you don't have to travel with large sums of cash, lest you get separated from it.
If you get stuck and you don't know what to do, ask someone. Don't feel like you need to sit alone in your room googling your way out of your cash-poor trip to Zimbabwe. Someone at your hotel or even at a local coffee shop has dealt with cash struggles before, and can probably advise you on the easiest way to do so yourself.
If you do decide to travel to Zimbabwe, it only takes a little bit of foresight to ensure you're not left penniless. You've just got to prepare a bit in advance.
But just in case, I wish you good luck. You never know when it could come in handy.