The monetary unit is the Uruguayan Peso ($U). Since 1974, there has been complete freedom in terms of exchange controls, and thus contracts may be drawn up in any currency. No restrictions are imposed on the introduction of capital or the repatriation of capital or profits.
The most commonly used foreign currencies are the U.S. Dollar, the Argentine Peso and the Brazilian Real. The peso is subdivided into 100 centesimos. Coins in circulation are 1, 2, 5, and 10 pesos. Bills come in 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, and 2000 denominations. The currency symbol is $U and the currency code is UYU.While most monthly bills can be paid online, many people still opt to pay their bills at an Abitab (abitab.com.uy) or Redpagos (redpagos.com.uy).
Currently (06/15), one United States dollar is approximately equivalent to 26 pesos, one British pound approximately 37 pesos, and one-euro approximately 27.5 pesos. However, during these turbulent times, there is a lot of volatility in currency exchange rates. Currency can be changed at banks or Cambios, such as Gales (gales.com.uy) or Cambio Nelson (cambionelson.com). Exchange rates do vary between the banks and Cambios, and can be viewed at many Web sites, such as Gales’ Web site. The Cambios usually have better rates than the banks. The worst place to exchange money is at the airport. The exchange rate that is in use there is listed at ihatetaxis.com. If you need to exchange at the airport, the best first option is to use the ATM.
Uruguay is primarily a cash economy although for large transactions bank checks (letra de cambios) are used. Some products (such as consumer electronics and high ticket items that include real estate) are priced in dollars. It is always best to have the preferred currency available, otherwise you will incur a frictional cost (the buy/sell spread) when exchanging currency. Thus, for example, if you are using your credit card to pay for a purchase in US$, make sure they charge your card in the currency of the transaction.
The Unidad Reajustable (UR)
The UR is an indexed unit of account or a money analogue that is used to express purchasing power. Indexed units of account are not true money in that they are not used as a medium of exchange. It is used to price items for sale or to specify amounts to be repaid in the future. Thus, the indexed units of account facilitate payments that are tied to the index number, without being a means of payment. The first successful indexed unit of account, the Unidad de Fomento (UF) has been used in Chile since 1967, and has been copied in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Uruguay.
The UR was established by Law No. 13,728 in 1968 and was based on changes in the Average Wage Index (IMS – Indice Medio de Salarios). The index accounts for wages garnered in both the public and private sectors and is published by the National Statistics Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas – ine.gub.uy). The INE publishes on the first day of each month the value of the UR for the entire month.
All fees payable to the government or municipalities (Intendencias) for services rendered in Uruguay are calculated in UR. This applies to taxes, approval of building plans, inspections permits and licenses, and numerous other services that are provided such as applications for residency. It is also used to index government pension payments.
The UR is reset monthly and has been constantly rising in value. The current value (in pesos) can be found on the BHU (Banco Hipotecario del Uruguay – bhu.gub.uy) Web site. Previous month’s values of the UR can be viewed at impo.com.uy/bancodatos/ur.htm.
The Unidad Indexada (UI)
The UI is inflation linked and is commonly used to establish interest rates for loans such as mortgages, for government issued UI peso bonds and T-bills, and to update property taxes. This unit is similar to Chile’s UF, which is adjusted according to the Consumer Price Index (IPC – Precios al Consumo), and replaced certain uses of the UR, which is adjusted according to a wage index. This index is also calculated and published by the INE. The UAR (Unidad de Ahorro Reajustable) is used to index savings such as rental deposits. Both the UI and UAR values are listed on the BHU Web site.
Credit cards are widely accepted in major cities and popular tourist destinations that include Montevideo, Punta del Este and Colonia del Sacramento. Smaller establishments or merchants outside of main cities may not accept credit cards. When you buy something in Uruguay by using an International Debit or Credit Card at a tourist related place such as restaurants, hotels, car rental agencies, and shopping malls you are exempted from VAT (IVA – Impuesto al Valor Agregado). The IVA has a 22% rate that is refunded to your card for some purchases that are related to tourism. This exemption is currently scheduled to be valid through July 2015.
ATMs (cajero automaticos) are widely available in cities as well as some smaller towns. Many machines work on international banking networks, such as Cirrus and Plus and accept foreign issued cards like Visa, MasterCard, or Maestro. Debit cards can be used for money withdrawal or credit cards for cash advances. Western Union and Money Gram have many locations, and are often co-located with the Abitabs and Redpagos offices.
The major ATM networks in Uruguay are RedBrou, which is owned by Banco Republica (brou.com.uy), and BanRed SA (banred.com.uy) that involves a consortium of 15 banks. You may have to swipe your credit or debit card to get in the ATM booth, which are usually well lit with air conditioning. If the ATM is inside the bank there are guards. Most machines dispense both Uruguayan pesos and US dollars.
There are usually daily and transaction limits on the amount that can be withdrawn, and of course, the ubiquitous ATM and bank service charges for international cards. During holidays when tourist traffic is high and weekends the ATMs can run out of cash. Traveler’s checks are accepted by some banks and some exchange offices. Checks should be in US dollars as checks in other currencies are difficult to redeem.
In general, when you withdraw cash from a foreign ATM, there are four types of fees you have to be aware of. Fees vary by bank, and could include any combination of the following:
- Flat Fee from Your Bank: This is a fixed fee that your bank charges for using ATMs outside of its network. These fees usually vary between $2 and $5 and veer toward the higher end for foreign withdrawals.
- Flat Fee from the Foreign Bank: Not only do you usually have to pay a fixed fee to your bank, but you also have to pay a fixed fee to the foreign bank which owns the ATM you are using. This again is usually in the range of $2 and $5.
- International Transaction Fee: Instead of a fixed fee (or in addition, if you are unlucky), your home bank may charge a percentage fee for foreign withdrawals. These are in the neighborhood of 1-3%.
- Currency Exchange Fee: The ATM interbank network—like Plus (operated by Visa) or Cirrus (operated by MasterCard)—will also take a 1% cut.
A cost effective way to withdraw cash from international ATMs is with a Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account (schwab.com – select “Bank”). Schwab doesn’t charge any ATM fees and reimburses for all the other fees charged by other parties. There is no minimum to open or maintain an account, and there are no monthly fees.
The financial system has excellent liquidity and solvency ratios, low default levels and no history of forced conversion or freezing of deposits. The currency exchange market is free and has no limits on foreign currency trading, and investments can be made in any currency. Uruguay’s financial center is Montevideo, the national capital. Departments (local government jurisdictions) play only minor roles as the headquarters for some of the important state owned banks. The Central Bank of Uruguay (BCU – bcu.gub.uy) is, in theory, an administrative and financially autonomous entity. In
their effort to maintain economic growth and employment objectives the central bank seeks to sustain currency stability through inflation policies. One of Uruguay’s main risks is its high inflation, which has exceeded the central bank’s target range of 4-6%.Inflation has stubbornly hovered around 8-9%, and Uruguay still ranks among the 10 countries in the world with the highest inflation rates, and ranks 3rd among Latin American countries, following Venezuela (56%) and Argentina (11%).
Increases in reference interest rates are used as an instrument by the Monetary Policy Committee for short-term inter-bank loans to theoretically stabilize the economy. They also issue tax-free peso bonds that have over 14% annual interest rates. These rates attract more foreign capital, which, in theory, strengthens the peso, and inhibit inflation. However, this is not stemming the larger outflow of pesos that are purchasing the stronger US dollar.
While a strong peso is good for balance of payments for imports; weaker pesos improves Uruguay’s ability to compete in the important global commodity market. A decline in the all-important productivity of the labor force that is further exacerbated by demands for wage hikes, high taxes, increases in government borrowing to support their socialist policies, and a weaker peso accounts for the recent experience in high price inflation.
The Bank Deposit Guarantee Fund created under Law 17.613 in 2002 covers each natural or legal person for all deposits in foreign currency held in the institution, up to the equivalent of 5,000 US$ and for all deposits in the national currency (pesos) held in the institution, up to the equivalent of 250,000 Indexed Units.
Uruguay has a long established tradition of bank secrecy and banking has traditionally been one of the strongest service export sectors in the country. Uruguay was once dubbed “the Switzerland of America”, however, information that was previously subject to bank privacy rules is now made available to other governments due to pressures from other countries, the IMF, banking institutions, and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) rule that is being enforced by the United States (for those who have U.S. indicia).
Most of the banks are foreign-owned; exceptions are the government owned Banco de la Republica Oriental del Uruguay (BROU) and Banco Hipotecario (BHU). Typically banks are open from 1:00pm to 5:00pm, Monday to Friday. Accounts can usually be opened with Uruguayan pesos or US dollars with the following documentation (verify specific requirements with your selected bank).
- ID (passport)
- Proof of Address (e.g. utility bill or lease agreement)
- Bank reference letter (some banks also want a local reference)
- Proof of income source (if applying for residency, you can use the proof used for the residency application)
- Recent income tax return (for some banks)
The cities that offer the broadest selection of banking options are Montevideo, Punta del Este, and Colonia. A list of all banks and their branch locations is available at ahorrar.com.uy/bancos/bancos-uruguay-sucursales-telefono-direccion/. The banks that operate in Uruguay are:
- Banco Bandes (Venezuelan) – bandes.com.uy
- BHU | Banco Hipotecario del Uruguay (state owned mortgage bank) –bhu.com.uy
- Banco Patagonia Uruguay SAIFE (Argentine) – bancopatagoniaife.com.uy
- Banque Heritage (Swiss) – heritage.com.uy
- BBVA (Spanish) – bbva.com.uy
- * BROU | Banco de la Republica Oriental del Uruguay (state owned) – brou.com.uy
- HSBC (British) – hsbc.com.uy
- * Itaú (Brazilian) – itau.com.uy
- Santander (Spanish) – santander.com.uy
- * Scotia Bank (Canadien) – scotiabank.com.uy
* These banks open accounts for non-residents of any nationality – this includes U.S. citizens:
- BROU | Banco de la Republica Oriental del Uruguay: This is the largest bank in Uruguay and is government owned. The account can be opened with US$ 200 and is immediately operational. If your monthly average balance is at least US$ 1000 for dollar accounts or 20,000 $U for peso accounts there are no administrative costs.
- Itaú: You can open a savings account with US$ 750 and a current account with US$ 2,500. There are administrative costs associated with the account (about 20 US$ per month plus another 20 US$ for a debit/ATM card). It usually takes the bank several weeks to process the paperwork and make the account operational.
Swift codes are listed at theswiftcodes.com/uruguay/.