Markets and Trade, Money

Cash, Please: You Still Need Plenty of Notes and Coins in Mexico

Although cashless payment options are increasing in Mexico, the use of notes and coins remains essential in your day-to-day transactions here

Mexican notes and coins

Cashless forms of payment for retail purchases have overtaken paper and coins in the USA, Canada, and much of Europe. However, cash in notes and coins remains king in Mexico —even with the recent surge here in adoption of electronic banking services— whether you are buying food, goods, or services.

When you’re visiting Mexico, you’ll discover that use of credit and debit cards is widespread here —payments using smartphones remains quite limited— and although Mexicans are increasingly using plastic cards, consumers continue to make extensive use of cash.

At least half of Mexican households still don’t have a bank account and rely entirely on the country’s cash-based economy for their trades.  Online banking is gradually being taken up, but there still remains a cultural preference for cash, underlined by a Bank of Mexico study revealing that a significant majority of Mexicans with debit cards use them simply to withdraw their wages in cash from ATMs.  Cash thus remains a widely employed, and oftentimes preferred, form of payment in Mexico.

To underline the continuing importance of cash in the local economy, major online brands including Amazon, Apple, Google, and Uber offer cash-payment options to customers in Mexico in addition to payment by card, either by direct payment in cash at a bank (or cash payment to the driver if using Uber), or by means of prepaid cards which can be purchased using cash and spent online.

Whether you’re visiting or staying in Mexico longer-term, you’ll soon discover that in practice there is a constant and continuous need for cash as you go about your days, and you might also find that making change is a continual pastime.

Cash and Cashless Payment Situations in Mexico

Transportation in Mexico: a mix of CASH and CASH-LESS options

Paying for transport calls for mix of cash and electronic payment methods:

Taxi Fares: Some taxi firms in Mexico City will open an account for you and accept payment using a debit or credit card, although with the advent of App-Cab services like Uber and Cabify, fares are billed to your credit or debit card anyway. App Cab companies have recently introduced the option to pay drivers using cash. Independent street taxis in the capital and local cabs operating in smaller towns and villages across the country will only accept cash.

Car Fuel: Not too long ago, gasoline and diesel purchases were a cash-only trade in Mexico; however, with recent modernization and the opening-up of Mexico’s oil and gas markets, most gasoline stations now take card payments. (Non-Mexican bank cards might be problematic, we have mixed reports, but the situation appears to be improving.)  Even with card payment options available, substantial numbers of people still pay with cash to fill the tank in their automobiles.  It’s wise to make sure you have some cash with you on a road trip across Mexico in case the service station you stop to refuel at doesn’t accept cards, or (more likely) their card payment system is off-line. We also strongly recommend that if you use plastic to pay for gasoline in Mexico, use a credit card instead of a debit card and don’t let the card out of your sight as gasoline stations are one of the places where ‘bank card skimmers’ are known to operate.

Tolled Roads: Since January 2019, payment booths on tolled highways across Mexico only accept cash or electronic toll-booth tags in the windscreen; debit and credit cards are no longer accepted.  Drivers who often use tolled roads will buy an electronic “tag” to place in their windshield which can be prepaid using cash, or linked to a credit card.  If you plan to use Mexico City’s “second level” ring-road system (Segundo Piso), you’ll need to purchase a windshield tag and prepay a balance to it, or link the tag to your credit card; cash is not accepted.

Overpass roads in Mexico City: Note that using the second-level overpass roads that are part of Mexico City’s ‘ring road’ system require use of a electronic tag in your windshield: it can be prepaid using cash, but cash is not accepted at any of the overpass access points.

Situations in Mexico where CASH-LESS payments are readily accepted

You can readily use your credit or debit card at:

Modern Shopping Places: All major supermarkets and department stores, shopping mall stores, car dealerships, furniture and electrical goods stores, as well as eating out at most restaurants in bigger towns and cities.

Transport companies: Airlines, bus companies, and local travel agencies accept electronic payment.  If you have a Uber or Cabify account in your home country, you can use those services here in Mexico: your fare will be calculated in Mexican pesos and converted/billed in your local currency and charged to the card you have linked to your Uber or Cabify account.

Independent traders: Some smaller independent traders (and even some market traders) are beginning to accept card payments using smartphone apps which linked to their bank.

Local mobile phone plans: Mobile phone companies in Mexico will allow you to top-up your prepay phone balance using a credit or debit card—online, or directly using your phone. You can also top-up your mobile phone using cash at convenience stores.

Professional services: Many professional service providers —e.g. hospitals, doctors, dentists, lawyers— will accept electronic payment by card, but check in smaller towns where some professionals might only accept cash.  (Some may accept deposits in cash made at their local bank.)

Situations in Mexico where CASH is still required

There are still many instances where you will need cash in Mexico:

Local stores, stalls, and markets: Local independent convenience stores; open-air markets; buying trinkets from ambulant vendors; shoe-shine stalls; street food; confectionery, newspapers or tobacco purveyed by street stalls; buying anything in small shops and stalls in rural towns and villages will require the use of cash.

Independent street cabs: The majority of independent street cabs only accept cash. Some might have an app to take payment but card, but if they do, they will make surcharge to cover the bank fees.

Tipping: Cash is also essential for tipping in Mexico.  You should always tip in cash and only in Mexican pesos—our guide to tipping explains why.  If you visit Mexico on a tour package and spend your entire stay at a resort, then you may not have a call to use much cash (although take note above about tips); but most visitors discover that at least a few occasions arise where the use of physical cash is an absolute necessity.

Vacation Souvenirs: When touring, cash is essential to get around on local transport, and to buy local souvenirs or anything from street traders or stores ‘off the beaten track’.  Some market traders are beginning to accept card payments using a smartphone app but most only accept cash, and those that accept cards prefer cash to avoid the fees the bank charges them to take an electronic payment.  Some small traders make a surcharge (usually 5%) if you pay using a card, to cover their bank fees; alternatively, they may offer a discount if you pay using cash.

Archaeology Sites and Museums: Except for the country’s more popular archaeology sites and museums, payment for entry is only accepted in cash.  INAH, the institute that manages the country’s archaeology centers and museums, has been rolling-out electronic payment options at the larger and most visited centers and museums and in due course all centers are likely to take electronic payment for entry; but for now, be sure to carry some cash with you in case the center you visit doesn’t take payment by debit or credit card.  If you hire a local guide at the center, they will require payment in cash, even if the center accepts payment by credit/debit card.

Home services and trades: Paying your domestic help (e.g. maid, gardener, pool maintenance) is mostly a cash business; some accept bank transfers, most don’t. Some home trades people —for example, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters— will accept cashless payments for larger jobs in the form of a money transfer to a local bank account, but the majority of routine jobs, especially ad-hoc work like fixing a leaking tap, are strictly on cash terms.

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