Markets and Trade, Money

No Hay Cambio — the Art of Making Change in Mexico

With more than 19 billion coins and bills in circulation across Mexico, why does it seem that no one ever has any change?

Cash register with notes and coins

According to the Bank of Mexico there are more than 5 billion bank notes and over 14 billion coins in circulation across the country, which works out at about 150 notes and coins for each of the country’s ~126 million inhabitants.  Why then does it seem that no one ever has any change?

The constant pursuit to make change

¿No tiene cambio? —haven’t you got change?— is an expression you will soon get used to hearing whether it’s in offering up a 50-peso note for a 30-peso cab ride, or a 100-peso note for a 20-peso coffee.  And it’s not only at street stalls, outdoor markets, or in taxis.  The “no change” response is as frequent at convenience stores and other local shops, restaurants—and even occasionally at the supermarket checkout.

With a large informal economy, most of the country’s daily transactions are paid for in cash.  But even in the formal economy, cash is the preferred method of payment.  Bankers estimate that of all the transactions conducted with debit cards, nearly 90% are to withdraw cash from ATMs.

Although debit card use is becoming increasingly more common, many people here still prefer using cash, even at gasoline filling stations—which, by the way, are among the best places to get change if you’re stuck with nothing but a 500-peso note (that can be as frustrating as having no cash at all).

You’ll come to find that small change is essential in Mexico: for tipping, for small purchases from local independent traders (even when they have change they will not be pleased if you pay for a 10-peso purchase with a 100-peso banknote), and even to break larger notes for others (friends, family) who may need change at any given moment.

The game of ‘change tug’ between buyers and sellers

With so much currency around, it’s a wonder people can be so reluctant to give change.  Some have change, but don’t want to break a large bill for fear it will leave them without change.  One infuriating twist: people with notes in the cash register will, at times, hand you all your change in coins.

One of the reasons why change is hard to come by with small local stores and local markets early in the day is that these traders often don’t begin with a ‘cash float’—they are relying on their customers to furnish them with their float as their trading day progresses.  Ambulant street traders work in similar fashion.

Random bill combinations at ATMs

ATMs sometimes dispense a range of smaller notes, and sometimes they dispense only large bills.  It can be inconvenient when you withdraw $2,000 pesos and the machine dispenses it all to you in $500-peso bills.

The distribution of banknote values that are dispensed to you will depend on how the machine is programmed, how much you request, and what denominations are available in its bill cartridges at the moment when you make your withdrawal.

Ideal places to make change

You can take large bills to any retail bank and ask for change, and by law you don’t have to be a customer of the bank to request change from them—but this is time consuming as lines tend to be long, especially on paydays, and it just isn’t convenient to do each time you need change.

Other good places to “make change” if you find yourself with a wallet full of large bills include gasoline stations, ticket kiosks at bus terminals (especially during busy weekends), and busy central markets in larger towns and cities.

When you’re traveling on tolled interstate highways, note that the toll booths only accept payment via windshield ‘tag’ devices and cash—and thus toll booth cashiers are good places to make change from those 500-peso bills the ATM dispensed to you.

If you’re staying at a large hotel resort, the front desk will usually break a larger note for you to use as tips; $20 peso bills are a popular choice.  Indeed, the $20 peso bill (and coin) is possibly the most versatile banknote for use in small trades

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  1. Gypsy says

    I’m in Oaxaca now and having real problems. I got 500s from atm but no one will break them. My friend couldn’t purchase water because she had a 100. We want to travel around in the bus, go to parks with entrance fees, get snacks, etc; however al require small change. Definitely putting a strain on our travels. I won’t come back.

  2. Rick says

    I have to laugh reading the above comments. I have the opposite problem…I ordered $1,000 US converted to pesos from my bank for my upcoming trip to Cabo. I requested the largest denominations possible, thinking I would use them for large dinner bills and excursions. They gave me nothing but 50 and 100’s, creating a rather large stack of peso notes! I may set up a stand when I get there to cash larger notes…for a fee!!

  3. Miriam Coletta says

    Good to know. I hate small change, coins break my wallet and tends to be heavy in my small traveling purse, but if that is the price I have to pay to have a nice vacation in Mexico, long live small change.

  4. Charlie says

    I have seen this in other countries also. The last one was Italy, southern Italy.

  5. David Coulter says

    I have an account at Santander. I live in Puerto Escondido. They do not like to give coins in change even to clients. It is easy to get stuck with a long walk home because all you have is a 500 and the taxi will be happy to take it and not give you change. There is a strategy to all of this. If you pay with larger bills later in the day you can get change. It is hard for the locals. They can’t get coins in change from the bank. So, it is rude to hord your change but it is also necessary to hang on to some change so you don’t get stuck.

    • Fiona says

      Envious! LOVED my trip with my daughter to The Point in Puerto Escondido!

  6. Nancy says

    I spent 16 days in Mexico City, Puerto Escondido, Mazunte and Zipolite…not having change was a constant issue and left a bad taste in my mouth. The people of Mexico City were so rude, nearly everyone I dealt with when i didn’t have exact change rolled their eyes in my face and were rude, it continued to the other towns though not quite as bad. My husband doesnt speak Spanish so most of the transactions were left to me and the hostility was palpable, it kinda ruined the trip honestly. I didn’t find this part of Mexico to be especially kind, my other travels in this country have been much more pleasant.

    • David Coulter says

      I have not had people be rude to me but they don’t have change frequently. The banks are resistant to giving the change that is needed. The lines at the banks are incredibly long. I don’t know for sure but the problem either lies with the money supply or with the banks processes. The lical people cannot do anything about the problem.

    • Isaias says

      I’m sorry that was your experience. Unfortunately, in a big capital city like México City or New York or Delhi or Sydney or Prague, people are simply in more of a rush and deal with others constantly. Thus they are more rude the world over. If you give our wonderful country a chance in the smaller and more picturesque areas, doubtless you will be pleasantly surprised! Us Mexicanos rely on tourism in the pueblo mágicos, and you in turn will surely be delighted by the beautiful and quaint sights and customs. Viva Mexico!!

  7. Felipe Zapata says

    My wife and I have an apartment in Mexico City where we visit a couple times a year. While the no-change foolishness is alive and well in Michoacán where we really live, when we are in Mexico City I return with pockets almost hanging to my knees with change. Sometimes I have so much change that I bag it and put it into our suitcases.

    The no-change thing does not exist in Mexico City. Why? God knows.

  8. b. buckman says

    As Mark mentioned taxi drivers are really cagey with the ‘no hay cambio’ gambit. It’s all about a tip. I’ve been in my city long enough to be able to approximate the fare and I make sure to carry the correct bills.

    Like Karen, my neighborhood vendors all trust me to come back and pay if the ‘no hay cambio’ comes into play. Not so sure it would work among merchants that I don’t frequent often as Ian suggested.

    I’ve not had the problem some here have mentioned regarding changing large bills for smaller ones at the banks. Years ago yes, but in the past decade or so it’s gotten much easier. I bank with Santander in case you want to check them out. Also, as most of you seem to know the last, best resort is Pemex.

  9. ian symonds says

    I just say Mas Tarde hoy and walk out, nobody has ever chased me, and when I go back to pay they remember me

  10. Karen says

    I’ve found that with the vendors I frequent, if I don’t have the cambio and they don’t either, they trust me to pay them later, and I do.

  11. Carlos says

    When cashing a check or converting dollars the tellers always give me the lest amount of bills possible. I give back the largest and get smaller bills. I always get lots of twenty and fifty Peso notes. I carry some coins, but they heavy.

  12. J Reed Brundage says

    All very true, although there is still no real explanation as to why “no hay cambio”. Twenty peso notes are very handy, as are gas stations. I regularly go to the bank to change large bills into small ones.

  13. Miriam says

    You are right, Kirby. Tellers will make a big fuss when you try to brake a bill. An excellent tip I can give you all is to go to the nearest gas station! They always have change and will gladly exchange your bills. I hope this helps.

  14. First Last says

    What is annoying is that no one, except mega vendors have change to begin the day with. I have had a 40 pesos purchase and the merchant could not change a 100

    I paid a coffee bill near closing. I must have gotten fifty pesos in 5, 1, and 50 cientavos. I was upset. And my date was upset with me, mentioning it a year later. Of course the staff was getting rid of the change.

    Also, there are no night depositories at banks. At night, there must be 10’s of thousands of pesos in the streets being transported who knows where. And I never hear of any robberies.

  15. William Alexander says

    I agree with b. buckman. I play stupid and tell the merchant, “no tengo cambio” in return. True, I get a dirty look now and then, but 90% of the time the merchant will miraculously make the right change occur to save the sale. Rarely will the merchant tell me to take a hike, or make me take a pocketful of “moneda” (change in coins).

  16. Rick says

    The most useful “piece of money” here is the twenty-peso note. SO MANY things can be paid for with one or two of these, and they’re never refused. They are small & durable, and I try to ask the teller for 25 or 50 of these every time I go to the bank. Yeah, I keep them at home mostly, but grab a handful when I go out. It beats having a pocket full of 10-peso coins!

  17. Mark says

    In reading travel books, I get the impression that the “no change” comment (especially from taxi drivers) is for a purpose. And that purpose is so that you will give them your large bill and let them keep the difference. Foreigners may be poor, but they are not stupid.

    • Trim says

      foreigner? I hope you are referring to yourself when you are in Mexico or any other country…

  18. Kirby says

    As a business person here in Mexico part of the problem is the banks rarely has change either. It takes me 3 or 4 trips to our local bank to get change. I end up taking what ever I can. No $50 or $20? Well how about $2,000 mx in $5 coins?

  19. Miriam says

    Even if you’re on vacation here, you will eventually hear the phrase “no trae cambio?” (don’t you have change?) when presenting a bill to pay… it’s very funny. No one ever knows where all the change goes!
    But, to avoid this, you can go to the bank and ask the teller to break a bill, into smaller denomination ones or coins.

  20. b. buckman says

    Had to laugh at this article, it’s true and we all are subjected to the ‘no hay cambia’ trap. I have lived here so many years that I am no longer embarrassed to make a thing of it. On occassion, in larger markets, I have refused to accept a double handful of coins as change. I have insisted the money keeper be called to give me the change in bills. It causes a stir and some odd glances but, at least, I don’t leave with trouser pockets bulging with a half kilo of ‘monedas’.

    • Henry says

      Odd, the whole subject of this is that there is no change and yet you are trying to avoid drowning in change.

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