Kenya has the highest GDP per capita in the East and Central Africa region. Although largely known for exporting tea and coffee, Kenya also has a rapidly developing service industry, and is a huge draw for tourists. With vibrant cities, beautiful beaches, heritage sites and wildlife reserves, there are many reasons you might visit Kenya - for business or pleasure. However, no matter why you’re headed to Kenya, you’re going to need some cash to enjoy your stay there.
This guide explains all you need to know about Kenya’s currency and banks, where to get your money, and how to spend it.
Kenya uses the Kenyan shilling as its official currency. You’ll find that you can pay in global currencies, such as USD or GBP, in many tourist areas - but the exchange rates offered are unlikely to be as good as you’d get in a bank.
|Characteristics of the Kenyan shilling (KES)|
|Names and nicknames||Shilling, bob|
|Symbols and abbreviations||KES is used in currency exchange, but you might also see KSh, and K, in shops for example|
|1 KES||One KES is divided into 100 cents.|
|KES coins||You’ll commonly see coins in 1, 5, 10, 20, and 40 shilling denominations. You can also get the smaller 50 cent coins, and 2 shilling coins, but these are less frequently used.|
|KES banknotes||Notes which are commonly used are 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 shillings - you can also get notes in 5, 10 and 20 shilling denomination, but these are so small they’re seldom used|
Kenya is a pretty cash oriented society. Even where cards are accepted, many smaller businesses might have patchy service, meaning that the card terminals don’t always function as well as you might hope. You’re going to need to have cash on you during your trip to Kenya - the only question is how do you get it.
If you’re changing money once you arrive in Kenya, you should only do so through an official money exchange. You might well be approached by black market touts, but they’ll not offer a good rate, and can even exchange your real cash for counterfeits. It’s not worth the risk.
Many larger bank branches can offer foreign currency exchange services, so it’s worth checking your local branch. There are also specialist services such as these:
- UA Exchange has three Kenyan branches and a helpful branch locator to find the most convenient location.
- Sky Forex has 2 branches in Nairobi. They also publish their daily rates online for guidance.
- Some branches of i&M Bank in Kenya offer foreign exchange services.
- There are various different currency exchange services with branches in Kenyan international airports.
Whilst the black market is an obvious risk, it’s worth remembering that even in official money changing offices, you should watch out for hidden fees. You’ll find that some exchanges claim ‘Zero Commission’, or “Fee Free” - but exchanging currency is never truly free. These providers are businesses and will be sure to make a profit somewhere.
Often their cut is hidden and is rolled up into a poor exchange rate. You can only really check that you’re getting a fair deal if you understand the mid market rate. This is the only real exchange rate, which you can compare to the tourist rates on offer before you decide which one to go with.
You can save yourself some money if you do a bit of research to see if exchange rates are better at home, compared to in Kenya. Although rates vary widely across different exchange services in the UK, the US, Australia, and elsewhere in Europe, it’s generally considered that you’ll get a better deal if you change a common currency, such as GBP or USD, once you arrive in Kenya. Sourcing KES elsewhere can be tricky and rates aren't always great.
However, it’s worth comparing your options. You can check the daily rates at a Kenyan exchange office on the UA Exchange or Sky Forex website, to get an idea of what deal you’ll get if you wait until you arrive in Kenya to get your cash.
Although you can change cash at the airport, or at your hotel upon arrival, the rates on offer are unlikely to be very good, because of limited competition. Using these services might be convenient, but it’ll cost you. Switch only a small amount, if you need cash at the airport, and then go into town to find a better deal. Otherwise, find an ATM to withdraw your shillings directly at a reasonable rate.
If you choose to change up cash to KES when you arrive don’t forget to make sure that the currency you’re carrying for exchange is in good condition. Keep some crisp, clean, and recently issued notes for changing, as you might be refused if you try to change up damaged, marked or torn currency.
A better way to get access to your money abroad - with low, transparent fees for a fair deal - is to use TransferWise. If you have a local KES bank account, or know someone who does, you can transfer money between accounts using the real mid market exchange rate. It's a safe, quick and convenient way to get your cash, and there are no hidden fees.
If you live and work abroad, or are a regular traveller, you might also benefit from a Borderless multi-currency account. This allows you to hold cash in several different currencies, including the Kenyan shilling. This can help you save money and make life easier for every kind of international transaction - sending money, receiving money or simply converting between currencies in your account. And from late 2017 you’ll be able to get your hands on a Borderless account card, which can be used internationally for payments and at ATMs.
Generally, travellers cheques don’t offer a great deal for people visiting Kenya. You’ll have a limited choice of places you can change them and the rates and fees applied make them a poor deal. Usually, you’ll have to visit a bank branch - which might well mean waiting in a long line - to access your cash.
For most travellers, wide acceptance of cards, as well as the easy access to ATMs makes it better to use cash and credit/debit cards to pay for your trip.
You won’t necessarily be able to use your card everywhere you go in Kenya. In large cities and tourist areas, credit and debit cards are likely to be accepted. Visa is the most commonly accepted, with Mastercard/Maestro/Cirrus, and Amex also often used in international chains and tourist areas. There can be problems, both with card payment terminals in stores and with ATM connectivity, so it's always a good idea to carry an alternative form of payment.
Whenever you use a credit or debit card while abroad, you might be asked if you want to be charged in your home currency. This might seem like a great idea because you don’t have to figure out the conversion - but it’s not. It’s a result of something called Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC), and can also be seen if you use an ATM.
The snag is that DCC transactions can mean you’re subject to hidden fees. Additional charges are often combined into the usual exchange rate, leaving you with a poor deal overall. Always opt to pay in the local currency instead.
Some banks insist that you tell them, if you’re planning on using your card abroad. This is because anti-fraud technology used by many banks will block use of cards if they suspect there’s something suspicious going on. This is intended to protect you as an account holder, but can be a major pain, because a sudden spike in spending overseas can leave you unable to access your own cash. Luckily, in most cases it’s really easy to inform your bank of your plans with a simple online form or by calling into a branch.
It’s worth checking that there are ATMs in your network, close to where you’re staying in Kenya. Although there's a good bank network, not all ATMs are available to all card types. Visa cardholders will find the most ATMs open to them, but MasterCard and Amex are less well represented. Check out the locators below to make sure there's an ATM somewhere convenient for your stay.
As described for credit and debit cards above, DCC means you might be asked if you want to be charged in your home currency for the withdrawal, when you’re using an ATM. And as with cards, you should always select to be charged in local currency, or risk being ripped off by a foreign bank’s exchange rate.
The banking sector is well developed in Kenya and you’ll see a good range of local and global banking brands. International brands such as Barclays and Standard Chartered have a good presence in Kenya and if you have an account at home with these banks, you might get discounts on fees and services through their network in Kenya. Even if you don’t hold a Barclays or Standard Chartered account, it’s well worth checking if your home bank has a partnership with another local banking brand in Kenya. If they do, you might get reduced or fee free cash withdrawals if you use their ATMs.
- Equity Bank Kenya
- Standard Chartered Kenya
- Barclays Kenya
- Co-operative Bank of Kenya
If you’re travelling to Kenya it’s a good idea to know your options before you leave home. You might decide that changing your cash once you’re there is your best option, if you’re going to be in one of the cities or tourist areas with easy access to a foreign exchange service. Otherwise, having money sent to a local bank account using a service like TransferWise can cut fees and mean you can take out what you need, when you need it, from an ATM. Then all you need to do is relax and enjoy your trip.
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