Brazil's unit of currency is the real (R$; plural: reais). One real is 100 centavos (cents). There are notes worth 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 reais, together with coins worth 5, 10, 25, and 50 centavos and 1 real.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you'll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
Nearly all the nation's major banks have ATMs, known in Brazil as caixas eletrônicos, for which you must use a card with a credit-card logo. MasterCard/Cirrus holders can withdraw at Banco Itau, Banco do Brasil, HSBC, and Banco24horas ATMs; Visa holders can use Bradesco ATMs and those at Banco do Brasil. American Express cardholders can make withdrawals at most Bradesco ATMs marked "24 horas." To be on the safe side, carry a variety of cards. For your card to function in some ATMs, you may need to hit a screen command (perhaps, estrangeiro or inglês) if you are a foreign client.
Banks are, with a few exceptions, open weekdays 10 to 4. Avoid using ATM machines alone and at night, and use ATMs in busy, highly visible locations whenever possible.
It's a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you're going abroad and don't travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you're prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you're abroad) if your card is lost, but you're better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank's number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you'll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it's usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there's a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they're in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won't be any surprises when you get the bill. Credit-card fraud does happen in Brazil, so always conceal PIN numbers and keep your receipts.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you'll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don't always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn't an option.
In Brazil's largest cities and leading tourist centers, restaurants, hotels, and shops accept major international credit cards. Off the beaten track, you may have more difficulty using them. Many gas stations in rural Brazil don't take credit cards.
For costly items use your credit card whenever possible—you'll come out ahead, whether the exchange rate at which your purchase is calculated is the one in effect the day the vendor's bank abroad processes the charge or the one prevailing on the day the charge company's service center processes it at home.
Reporting Lost Cards
American Express. 800/528–4800; 336/393–1111; www.americanexpress.com.
Diners Club. 800/234–6377; 514/881–3735; www.dinersclub.com.
MasterCard. 800/627–8372; 636/722–7111; 0800/891–3294; www.mastercard.com.
Visa. 800/847–2911; 410/581–9994; 0800/891–3679; www.visa.com.
Currency and Exchange
At this writing, the real is at about 2.87 to the U.S. dollar and 2.30 to the Canadian dollar.
For the most favorable rates, change money through banks. Although ATM transaction fees may be higher abroad than at home, ATM rates are excellent because they're based on wholesale rates offered only by major banks. You won't do as well at casas de câmbio (exchange houses), in airports or bus stations, in hotels, in restaurants, or in stores. ATMs also allow you to avoid the often long lines at airport exchange booths.
Outside larger cities, changing money in Brazil becomes more of a challenge. When leaving a large city for a smaller town, bring enough cash for your trip.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there's some kind of huge, hidden fee. And as for rates, you're almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.