Money in Sri Lanka: Banks, ATMs, cards & currency exchange

08.05.17
5 minute read

Whether you’re after an outdoor adventure or total relaxation, a trip to Sri Lanka is a great choice. Located just off the southeastern tip of India, it’s a melting pot of culture, diverse wildlife and incredible cuisine that’s guaranteed to leave you surprised and delighted at every turn.

Of course, you’re going to need Sri Lankan money - Rupees - in order to enjoy your trip to the fullest. If you know how to go about it, this is quite easy to do.

Read on for some handy tips and tricks on where to get Sri Lankan money and how to spend it.

Currency in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR or Rs) is a floating currency, which means the exchange rate is determined by market forces. However, the Sri Lankan authorities sometimes intervene in order to keep the exchange rate from fluctuating too much.

One Rupee (Rs1) is made up of 100 cents. There are a total of six coins and eight banknotes currently in circulation. The coins are: 25 cents, 50 cents, Rs1, Rs2, Rs5 and Rs10. The notes are: Rs10, Rs20, Rs50, Rs100, Rs500, Rs1000, Rs2000 and Rs5000.

Outside of hotels and big shops, change can be hard to come by in Sri Lanka. Make sure you have enough notes in lower denominations (Rs20 to Rs500), especially if you plan to shop at markets or in rural areas.

Exchanging currency in Sri Lanka

You should avoid buying Sri Lankan Rupees ahead of time. The Sri Lankan Rupee isn't considered a major currency, so you’re unlikely to get a good rate if exchanged outside of Sri Lanka.

In any case, you can only take up to Rs5000 into the country. You’ll also need to change your money back before you leave, as you cannot legally take more than Rs5000 out of Sri Lanka.

Airport currency exchange kiosks and many hotels offer currency exchange services. However, the rates on offer are usually unfavourable, and you may also be charged high fees. You’re better off using a currency exchange service or making an ATM withdrawal (more on this later).

Unlicensed money changers are a common sight on the streets of major cities. While these often seem to offer much better exchange rates than banks or exchange bureaus, they’re best avoided. Many of them will scam you by using sleight of hand to give you less money than you’re due.

Some currency exchange services say they charge no fees or commissions. This is probably untrue. If a company says it doesn’t charge any fees, it usually makes its profit by building it into an unfavourable exchange rate.

Always compare the exchange rate you’re offered to the mid-market rate. This is the only real exchange rate, and the fairest deal you could possibly get. Finding out the current mid-market rate is easy - just use this convenient currency converter.

Banks and exchange bureaus accept most major currencies, as long as the notes are crisp and clean. If your bills are torn or damaged, they may be refused.

Using travellers’ cheques in Sri Lanka

Travellers’ cheques rarely have attractive rates, and cashing them in Sri Lanka can be a challenge. Many banks have rather short opening hours - usually Mondays to Fridays from 9:00am to 1:00pm - and most don’t accept them.

For these reasons, travellers’ cheques are best avoided. You’re often much better off exchanging cash or using an ATM.

Using credit and debit cards in Sri Lanka

Credit and debit cards are widely accepted in Sri Lanka, even in smaller towns. Visa and MasterCard are the most commonly accepted cards. AmEx is also accepted, but to a lesser extent. That said, it’s still a good idea to carry some cash with you just in case.

Some businesses may try to apply a surcharge if you pay by card. This is illegal.

You may also come across establishments that display their prices in US Dollars, especially in more touristy areas. While this is convenient, you should always make sure the transaction is performed in the local currency.

In Sri Lanka, it’s illegal to perform a card transaction in a foreign currency. In addition, if you choose to be charged in your home currency, the exchange rate will be determined using Dynamic Currency Conversion, not the mid-market rate. This almost always results in an unfavourable exchange rate.

Remember to let your bank know the dates when you’ll be abroad. If you don’t, it might think your Sri Lankan transactions are fraudulent, which may result in your card being frozen for security reasons.

ATMs in Sri Lanka

ATMs are common in Sri Lanka, and most of them work with Visa (Plus), MasterCard (Cirrus and Maestro) and even AmEx. You can find the closest ATM by using these handy online ATM locators:

ATMs often offer much better rates than exchange bureaus, as long as you choose to be charged in the local currency. Withdrawals in Sri Lankan Rupees are calculated using the mid-market rate. If you choose to be charged in your home currency, however, the ATM will use Dynamic Currency Conversion to make up an exchange rate for you, which always results in an unfavourable deal.

Fees and Limits

While using ATMs is the easiest and most convenient way to get the best exchange rate possible, you do need to watch out for fees.

ATM operators in Sri Lanka charge a fee for every transaction. This is usually between Rs200 and Rs300. Your home bank probably charges fees too. You can usually expect to be charged an ATM access fee and a foreign exchange transaction fee.

Sri Lankan ATMs also have per transaction limits. The limit is usually between Rs40,000 and Rs60,000, depending on the bank. Some newer ATMs may allow you to withdraw up to Rs80,000 in one go. However, do keep in mind that your bank back home may also have per transaction and daily withdrawal limits.

Banks in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s banking system is modern and easily accessible. There are more than 25 banks operating in the country. These include well-known international banks such as HSBC and Standard Chartered. It’s worth checking with your bank whether it has a partnership with a bank in Sri Lanka. If it does, you might be able to use the partner bank’s ATMs free of charge or at a reduced cost.

The largest bank in Sri Lanka is the Commercial Bank of Ceylon. It has about 250 branches and 625 ATMs across the country, as well as operations in Bangladesh. Another large bank is ICICI Bank, an Indian multinational with operations in nineteen countries, including Dubai, Qatar and the US.

Here’s a list of the six largest local banks in Sri Lanka:

Bank Website
Bank of Ceylon http://web.boc.lk
Commercial Bank of Ceylon http://www.combank.net
Hatton National Bank http://www.hnb.net
People’s Bank http://www.peoplesbank.lk
National Savings Bank http://www.nsb.lk
Sampath Bank http://www.sampath.lk

International banks with operations in Sri Lanka include:

Bank Website
HSBC http://www.hsbc.lk
Habib Bank http://www.hbl.com
ICICI Bank http://www.icicibank.lk
Standard Chartered https://www.sc.com/lk/

Before your trip, check with your home bank whether they've a partnership with a bank in Sri Lanka. If they do, you might be able to withdraw from the partner’s ATMs free of charge or at a reduced cost.

If you or a friend have a bank account in Sri Lanka, TransferWise can make access to your money even simpler. Use it to transfer money into the account at the mid-market rate, and make as many ATM withdrawals as you like with your Sri Lankan bank card.

No foreign transaction fees. No hidden charges. No nasty surprises.

TransferWise is the smart, new way to send money abroad.

Find out more