Bulgaria’s enviable position on the Balkan peninsula has made it an attractive place for settlers since the dawn of time.The country has long been a meeting point for different cultures, meaning modern day visitors find a broad range of historical sites, fascinating cultural variations, and - of course - picturesque countryside, mountains and beaches.
Whether you’re heading to the capital Sofia, the Black Sea, to ski, hike, or discover the untouched highlands, you’re going to need some cash to make the most of it. This guide explains all you need to know about Bulgaria’s currency and banks, where to get your cash, and how to spend it.
The official currency in Bulgaria is the lev. The lev exchange rate is pegged to that of the euro, at roughly two leva to one euro. You might see prices quoted in euro in some tourist areas, but elsewhere you’ll find that other currencies aren't widely accepted. If you're offered the opportunity to pay in a non European currency, the rates applied are highly likely to be painful.
|Characteristics of the lev (BGN)|
|Names and nicknames||Lev, plural leva, short form in Cyrillic, as seen in shops: лв|
|Symbols and abbreviations||BGN, лв|
|1 BGN||One lev is divided into 100 stotinki (in Cyrillic: стотинки)|
|BGN coins||Coins are available in denominations of 1 and 2 leva, and 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 stotinki.|
|BGN banknotes||Notes which are commonly used are 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 leva denominations.|
You should only change your cash in Bulgaria through an official money exchange. You might be offered money exchange by a street vendor, but as the infrastructure in cities and towns is good, you'll have no issue finding a bank or exchange office, especially in tourist areas.
- Crown Change have exchange offices throughout the city of Sofia, as well as branches in other popular cities and towns.
- Tavex exchange has several branches and you can review their rates online before committing
- There are also many smaller exchange offices in the centres of larger cities - Vitosha Boulevard in the case of Sofia
You’ll not struggle to find somewhere to change your money, but watch out for misleading (and sometimes downright illegal) practises. For example, offices might prominently display a ‘buy’ rate, but hide the ‘sell’ rate, giving the impression that you’ll get more for your exchange.
You should also watch out for hidden fees. Even when exchanges claim ‘Zero Commission’, or “Fee Free” - they'll be sure to make a profit somewhere. Often the profit is rolled up into a poor exchange rate. It’s helpful to understand the mid market rate. This is the only real exchange rate, and should be used to compare the tourist rates on offer.
It’s a good idea to do a bit of research to see if exchange rates are better at home, compared to in Bulgaria, before you travel. As the lev is pegged to the euro, the cost of the currency will rise and fall as the euro does. However, rates vary widely across different exchange services in the UK, the US, Australia, and elsewhere in Europe, and whether there's a better deal on offer will depend on where you are in the world.
You can check the daily rates at an Bulgarian exchange office on the Tavex website, to get an idea of what deal you’ll get if you wait until you arrive in Bulgaria to get your cash.
It’s pretty common for taxis to refuse card payment, so you might find you need currency upon arrival. In this case you can change cash at the airport - but the rates on offer are unlikely to be the best in town. Exchange services here, just like at your hotel, know they have a captive market. Their service is convenient, but it’ll cost you. If you must use these providers, it’s usually best to switch only a small amount, and then go into town to find a better deal elsewhere. Otherwise, find an ATM to withdraw the cash you need.
Make sure that the cash you plan to exchange is in good condition. You’re unlikely to be able to change damaged, marked or torn currency, so it’s worth keeping some crisp, clean notes for changing.
A great way to get simple access to your money abroad - with transparent fees for a fair deal - is to use TransferWise. If you have a Bulgarian bank account, or know someone who does, you can transfer money between accounts using the real mid-market exchange rate. It's a quick and convenient way to get your money, with no hidden fees.
If you’re a regular traveller, you might also benefit from a borderless multi-currency account, which allows you to hold cash in several different currencies. And if you need to switch between currencies, you only pay a small flat charge. Select consumers can get their hands on the TransferWise debit card or join the waiting list - the card can be used internationally for payments and withdrawals at ATMs.
Travellers Cheques aren't accepted directly by hotels, shops or restaurants in Bulgaria. You should be able to exchange cheques in major currencies at larger bank branches, but the rates and fees applied often make them a poor deal.
For most people, Travellers Cheques aren't worth buying. In Bulgaria the easy access to ATMs makes it easier to rely on cash and credit/debit cards to pay for your trip.
Credit and debit cards are widely used in Bulgarian towns and cities, in larger shops, hotels and restaurants. However, smaller restaurants and stores, even in the capital, won't be able to process card transactions. Check before you commit to a purchase.
Where cards are accepted you’ll find that Visa and Mastercard/Maestro/Cirrus, are most commonly accepted, with Amex taken primarily in tourist areas. Because Amex is the least widely used provider, it's always a good idea to carry an alternative form of payment if this is your main card.
Many people in Bulgaria prefer cash payment, so in general, it’s a good idea to keep a small about of local cash with you. If nothing else, this can be used for smaller purchases, tipping, and in the event you find yourself somewhere where cards aren't accepted.
Whenever you’re paying for things while abroad using a credit or debit card, you could be asked if you want to be charged in your home currency. A waiter or member of hotel reception staff might make this offer, for example. This is called Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC), and can also be seen on ATMs - but more on that later.
DCC means that you can see the cost of the transaction expressed in your home currency at the point of payment. However, even if that sounds convenient, it's a bad idea. DCC transactions leave you exposed to hidden fees. Usually the base rate used won't be favourable and additional charges could be hidden beneath the headline number. Always opt to pay in the local currency instead.
Some banks’ anti-fraud technology will block use of cards if they suspect suspicious activity. Therefore, if you’re planning on using your card abroad, it’s a good idea to check if you need to let your bank know in advance.
It’s pretty inconvenient to find your account has been blocked or limited while you’re away - and in most cases it’s really easy to inform your bank of your travel plans with a simple online form or by calling into a branch.
In Bulgarian towns or cities you won't struggle to find an ATM. However if you’re headed off the beaten track, then bear in mind that most villages won't be covered by the banking network. Check out the locators below to make sure you can find a convenient ATM during your stay.
As described with credit and debit cards earler, DCC also means you might be asked by an ATM, if you want to be charged in your home currency for the withdrawal. Always select to be charged in local currency, or you'll be handed the foreign bank’s exchange rate, which will never be as good as that your home bank can offer.
In Bulgaria you’ll find a good range of banking brands, most of which are regional banks which operate throughout the Balkan peninsula and beyond. It’s well worth checking if your home bank operates in Bulgaria, or has a partnership with another local banking brand. If they do, you might find you benefit from reduced or fee free cash withdrawals or other services.
- Unicredit Bulbank
- United Bulgarian Bank
- Raiffeisen Bank
- Piraeus Bank
Banking in Bulgaria is fairly well developed. You’ll find a good range of banks and ATMs, and cards of all types are widely accepted in larger areas where tourists are more likely to go. However, getting a good deal on your currency exchange might be trickier so it’s worth checking out your options before you go.
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