In amongst all these posts, I will be writing about issues specifically relating to expats or soon-to-be expats. I’ve written these in the hopes that someone else moving to Sri Lanka will encounter fewer problems than I did, you can find these under the Expat tag. So far financial matters are what have plagued me most, but for different reasons to the average traveller. I’m never short of money, but I accessing it can be quite a pain here. This post is specifically about money regulations and quirks.
So much of this information has been collated from my experiance in living here for the past 6 months. There is very little official information available online about how the finance system works. When you’re at the bank, each teller or accountant you talk to will give you different advice.
There are quite a number of “cash only” stores around Colombo, while this is not uncommon in other parts of the world there are a number of things to be aware of. Many small stores don’t carry a lot of change – especially in the mornings – and will try to short change you because they simply do not have the correct change. I find that tuk-tuk drivers will also do the same if you give them a large note (anything above Rs.500). Try to avoid this by using large notes at supermarkets, so to receive more usable money.
Accessing cash can be difficult, as ATMs are often located with a bank branch. Very few places offer a “cash out” or “cash back” service, and even if they do, they can only realistically give you small amounts of money. Over the past few months, I have gotten into a habit of visiting an ATM every two or three weeks to take out a lump sum. Of course most of this amount I leave at home until I need to top up my wallet for daily use. This means the ATM spits out large bills (Rs.1000 and Rs.5000) which can be difficult to spend, so I then buy groceries to get back change at a Keells or Cargills.
ATMs are generally located within glass enclosures so there is little risk in having someone look over your shoulder, but be aware of additional cameras or tampered-with card reader, these aren’t uncommon in tourist areas.
Visa vs. Mastercard vs. Maestrocard vs. Amex
Most Sri Lankan issued cards are either Visa or MasterCard, and the ATMs generally only take these. If you have a Maestrocard debit card, try using it in credit at both ATMs and in stores (it will still come out of your debit account). Amex are incredibly rare and it would pay (pun intended) to bring a back-up if you’re determined to use one.
If you’re thinking of living out the rest of your days on the island, then, by all means, get all of your salary sent to a Sri Lankan bank account. But if you’re still unsure or expect to move on eventually the trick is to have your salary split. Most companies will happily do this for an expat. Figure out a monthly/weekly/fortnightly budget, add some extra for nights out and have that amount paid into a local account. Have the rest of your money sent directly from your employer to your account overseas or into a Non-Resident Foreign Currency (NRFC) account.
You may think this seems a little too complicated, but there is a good reason for it. By law, you cannot convert Sri Lankan Rupees to another currency, however, you are free to convert other currencies into Sri Lankan Rupees. If you have a return ticket to Sri Lanka, you may take USD$5000. If you are leaving permanently there is a tax on removing money from the country, although the amount of the tax varies from case to case. The Central Bank website has some tedious further reading on this topic. Obviously this is a fairly simplistic synopsis of the financial system, but hopefully, you’ll have now been convinced to have some of your pay in another currency.
This is another reason to open an NRFC account, you can’t buy things online with your local money. Your bank card linked with a local account simply isn’t recognised by online payment systems. But fear not, your NRFC can also have cards linked, just get in touch with your bank.
If you want some more official advice (and I don’t blame you!) below are some documents from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka: