Cambodian Currency – Should I Use Dollars or Riel? 💸

Cambodian Currency - Dollars and Riel

Cambodian currency consistently confuses first-time visitors to the country. Why do most ATMs in Cambodia, where the official currency is the Riel, only give out US dollars to travellers using foreign bank cards?

The answer is simple: Cambodia uses both the US dollar and Cambodian riel interchangeably. 🤯

It can be confusing at first, but trust me, it gets easier to wrap your head around after the first couple of days. By understanding the basics of Cambodia’s currency, you can spend without worry as you travel around the country! 

Dollars vs Riel – Which Currency Should I Use in Cambodia? 💵

As a general rule, US dollars are used for big spending in Cambodia. Think accommodation, meals in mid to high-end restaurants, shopping in big-name stores, etc. Riel is used for small spending, such as street food or meals in local restaurants, buying from local shops, paying for taxis or tuk-tuks, etc. It’s worth keeping a stash of both on you. Be aware that if you make a purchase using US dollars, you could be given your change in riel. 

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Riel vs US Dollars – Currency in Cambodia Explained! $ vs ៛

The first time I used a cashpoint in Cambodia, I had a minor meltdown when the machine gave me US dollars. It was late at night. The currency exchange was closed for the day. I was already past check-in time for the hostel I’d booked and I had no idea how I was going to pay for anything. I decided to lean on what I knew about people in Southeast Asia: they’re a friendly bunch. Hopefully, the hostel would let me check in late, stay the night and pay in the morning when I’d sorted out my money troubles. To my surprise, when I got to the hostel, I was told that they accepted US dollars… The receptionist took my crisp $100 bill and in return, gave me a bed for the night, as well as a massive handful of old, beaten-up notes I’d never seen before – which totalled more than 360,000 riel. It was safe to say, I had no idea what was going on. 
The fact you’re reading this article means you either:
1. Already had a similar experience and are currently freaking out about it. 
2. Are much better prepared than me and are just doing your research before arriving in a new country – well done, this is definitely the wisest way to travel! 👏

Tim Ashdown – Writer at South East Asia Backpacker

Where to Get Riel and Dollars in Cambodia 🏧

Most ATMs in Cambodia only dispense US dollars when you use a foreign bank card. On top of that, they’ll usually only dispense denominations of $50 or $100 bills. You’ll struggle to spend these unless it’s on big purchases like super expensive meals, large grocery shops or accommodation. Most small shops, street vendors or cheap accommodation options won’t have enough change to break a $50, let alone a $100 bill, leaving you struggling to use them. (And that’s without even considering their condition – we’ll get to that later…)

The exception to this rule is ABA Bank. ABA gives the cardholder the option to withdraw in dollars or riel. I always try to find an ABA ATM because it means I can get a healthy stash of Riel (often dispensed in the 50,000 denomination note) and not have to worry about breaking large dollar bills. 

The Downside of ATMs in Cambodia 

Most ATMs in Cambodia charge a $4-5USD fee per transaction 💰. There’s nothing you can do about this except pay it. It’s charged by the ATM itself and is separate from any additional fees your bank may levy against you. 

Canadia Bank

Some travellers report that Canadia Bank ATMs don’t charge fees but on my most recent trip to Cambodia, I was charged $4USD per withdrawal.  

👉 Read More: Avoiding ATM Fees While Travelling | Best Travel Cards 

When to Use Dollars in Cambodia 💸

The best time to use dollars in Cambodia is when making large purchases like paying for accommodation, booking tours or buying a big meal for a couple of people in an upmarket restaurant 🍜. However, these aren’t the only times you can use dollars. USD are accepted everywhere, the only stipulation is that the vendor has enough change to break bigger notes. 

You’re likely to get Cambodian riel as change even when paying with US dollars. This is normal practice and nothing to be worried about. Although, it’s worth learning what different riel look like, so you’re not ripped off when getting change. 

Visa on Arrival 📄

You can apply for your visa on arrival (VOA) at your entry port in Cambodia. This includes any international airport (including the new Angkor International Airport in Siem Reap) or land border that accepts international passport holders. Your Cambodian VOA must be paid for in USD – no other currency will be accepted, not even Cambodian riel. 

👉 Read more about Cambodian entry requirements

Make Sure US Dollar Notes Are Perfect 💵

You need to look after dollars in Cambodia. Those with rips, tears, heavy creasing or marks will not be accepted. Even the smallest blemish can mean you’re unable to use the note and will leave you trying to palm it off to someone not checking properly – night markets or poorly lit restaurants are good places to try to spend notes that aren’t perfect! 

US Dollar notes
Dollars must be in perfect condition!

While you may feel uncomfortable trying to get rid of dodgy notes, I’d encourage you to relax. In my experience, the condition of the note is far more likely to be checked if you’re a foreigner – I’ve seen plenty of locals pay for things with dollar notes in bad condition!

People don’t accept imperfect dollars is because the banks themselves don’t accept them. The cash isn’t minted in Cambodia, so there’s a finite supply. Damaged notes cannot be replaced, however, plenty of them are still in circulation and are used for smaller day-to-day purchases. 

On that note (see what I did there?! 🤦‍♂️), it’s always worth checking your change if you’re given USD. If the notes are marked or damaged, you’re well within your rights to refuse them – although expect a mildly sulky response if you do. 

“If you pay in USD for something, ALWAYS check the quality of the notes you get back. The guy at the ‘VOA’ desk at the airport in Siem Reap, Cambodia, asked if we’d mind swapping 5 x $20 notes for a $100 as he needed change. The kindness in me thought ‘Yeah of course, no problem’ so I went ahead and did it. I then went to use said $100 note to purchase a bus ticket outside the airport and they wouldn’t accept it as it had a big crease in the note down the middle which had a small strip of tape on to strengthen in. The ladies at the ticket office informed me that it was unlikely we’d be able to use this note in SE Asia anywhere  I suspect the guy at the visa desk knew exactly what he was doing.. lesson learnt!”

Gemma Ann – South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

Good to Know! 🪙

$2 notes are not accepted in Cambodia. Nor are US coins. In fact, there are no coins that are accepted in Cambodia, only notes. Cambodia is a coinless economy. 

When to Use Riel in Cambodia 

You can use Riel at any time in Cambodia, no matter the size of the purchase. However, it’s easier to use them for small transactions, rather than counting out hundreds of thousands/millions to pay for accommodation or tours! 

I like to use riel when buying from local shops, markets, small restaurants and street food vendors. If I have plenty of riel, I will also use them to pay for accommodation but you don’t really want to be counting out a huge wedge of notes in front of too many people – if for no other reason than it looks a bit try-hard… 

Anything Goes With Riel

Riel and Dollars in Cambodia
Riel are always useable, no matter how worn!

Unlike US dollars, riel will be accepted in any state. It doesn’t matter whether the notes are brand new, twenty years old, have been through the washing machine or even a street dog 🐶, you’ll be able to spend them!

USD to Riel Exchange Rate 

As with all exchange rates, the USD to Cambodian riel rate officially fluctuates. But in practice, most street vendors, small shops and restaurants go by 4,000 riel to $1USD.  

In larger shops, supermarkets, upscale eateries and major tourist attractions, like Angkor Wat,  the conversion rate may be different and you’ll see the rate displayed. It can be anywhere from 4,000-4,500 riel to $1USD! In these instances, pay with dollars and save your Riel for smaller transactions. 

If you want to know the exact exchange rate, a currency converter like XE (one of our favourite backpacking apps) is your best bet for up-to-date information! 

What Banknotes Are Available for Riel in Cambodia?

In Cambodia, the following banknotes are in circulation:

  • 50
  • 100
  • 500
  • 1,000
  • 2,000
  • 5,000
  • 10,000
  • 20,000
  • 30,000
  • 50,000
  • 100,000
Riel and Dollars Cambodian Currency
There are a lot of notes to try and remember!

However, you’re unlikely to come across either the 50, 30,000 or 100,000 riel notes. 

Irritatingly, the notes look different depending on when they were minted. The colours are generally the same, although often different shades, but the pictures and layout of the notes change a lot. This is just a quirk of the currency you need to get used to. I’ve never received a riel note too old to use. 

De-dollarisation in Cambodia 🚫💵

In theory, Cambodia is trying to reduce its reliance on US dollars. Small notes are slowly being phased out of use in Phnom Penh, although locals still seem happy to accept them for now. You can no longer get anything smaller than a $50 bill from an ATM but in practice, you may only be able to withdraw $100 bills anyway. 

US dollars in Cambodia
Smaller denomination dollars might not be useable for much longer!

This is an attempt to get more people to use riel instead of USD but there’s still a long way to go before riel becomes the dominant currency in the country. 

Other Currencies in Cambodia ฿ ₫ $ ៛

As well as universally using riel and US dollars, some areas close to the Thai and Vietnamese borders also accept Thai Baht and Vietnamese Dong respectively. This means, there’s a very real chance you could spend four currencies in a single country – there aren’t many places in the world you can do that! 

Vietnamese Dong
Near the Vietnamese border, you can often spend Dong too!

Cambodian Money FAQs

Why does Cambodia use USD?

Cambodia has been using the US dollar since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge. International aid flooded into the country after Pol Pot’s regime finally gave up on their civil war. This international aid came in the form of over a billion US dollars.
The Khmer Rouge destroyed the Cambodian banking system and removed all money from the country – not just the physical notes but the concept of money as a way to trade value without trading goods. 

Even after being reinstated, public confidence in the Cambodian riel is much lower than in US dollars, so people choose to keep their savings in dollars. Until this public confidence changes, the US dollar will remain the most powerful currency in Cambodia.

Can you take Riel out of Cambodia?

While nothing is stopping you from taking Riel out of Cambodia, you won’t be able to exchange it for your home or any other foreign currency when you leave. Cambodian riel can only be used in Cambodia. You can’t buy or sell them outside of Cambodia. Sure take some home as a little memento of your trip but don’t rely on changing it back to your own currency! 

What is the currency of Cambodia?

The local currency in Cambodia is the Cambodian riel. However, the US dollar is also universally accepted across the country. In some areas, you can spend Thai Baht and Vietnamese Dong too! 

Tim Ashdown | Gear Specialist

After a life-changing motorcycle accident, Tim decided life was too short to stay cooped up in his home county of Norfolk, UK. Since then, he has travelled Southeast Asia, walked the Camino de Santiago and backpacked South America. His first book, From Paralysis to Santiago, chronicles his struggle to recover from the motorcycle accident and will be released later this year.

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