Unlike in some other South American countries, U.S. dollars are rarely accepted in Chile. (The exception is larger hotels, where prices are often quoted only in dollars.) Credit cards and traveler's checks are accepted in most resorts and in many shops and restaurants in major cities, though you should always carry some local currency for minor expenses like taxis and tipping. Once you stray from the beaten path, you can often pay only with pesos.
Typically you will pay 700 pesos for a cup of coffee, 1,500 pesos for a glass of beer in a bar, 1,500 pesos for a ham sandwich, and 1,000 pesos for an average museum admission.
Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you're planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don't wait until the last minute.
Automatic teller machines, or cajeros automáticos, dispense only Chilean pesos. They are ubiquitous but, although most have instructions in English, not all are linked to the Plus and Cirrus systems. Look at the stickers on the machine to find the one you need. Most ATMs in Chile have a special screen—accessed after entering your PIN—for foreign-account withdrawals. In this case, you need to select the "extranjeros/foreign clients" option from the menu. ATMs offer excellent exchange rates because they are based on wholesale rates offered only by major 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 or even when changing money in a bank. 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 Chile. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
Banco de Chile is probably the largest national bank; its Web site www.bancochile.cl lists branches and ATMs by location if you click on the "surcursales" (locations) link, then the "cajeros automáticos" link. Banco Santander (www.santander.cl) is another fairly common option.
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 there.
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.
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.
Credit cards are widely accepted in hotels, restaurants, and shops in most cities and tourist destinations. Fewer establishments accept credit cards in rural areas. You may get a slightly better deal if you pay with cash (ask about discounts), and some businesses charge an extra fee for paying with a non-Chilean credit card.
Chile has recently implemented a security system for credit-card transactions called PinPass, which requires you to enter a previously established PIN in a hand-held machine. As a foreigner, you should explain that you haven't activated your PinPass, and the merchants should be able to process the transaction with your signature.
Credit card receipts in Chile have a line for signatures as well as for national ID numbers, or RUTs. You may be asked to put your passport number on this second line; otherwise, you can leave it blank.
The peso is the unit of currency in Chile. Note that Chilean currency may be written as $1,000 or CLP$1,000. Chilean bills are issued in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, and 20,000 pesos, and coins come in units of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 pesos. Note that getting change for larger bills, especially from small shopkeepers and taxi drivers, can be difficult. Make sure to get smaller bills when you exchange currency. Always check exchange rates in your local newspaper for the most current information; at this writing, the exchange rate was approximately 496 pesos to the U.S. dollar. As long as the U.S. dollar hovers around 500 pesos it's easy to figure out how much you're paying for something in Chile: simply multiply what you're being charged by two and remove three zeros (e.g., a 10,000-peso dinner is about US$20).
Common to Santiago and other mid- to large-size cities are casas de cambio, or money-changing stores. Naturally, those at the airport will charge premium rates for convenience's sake. It may be more economical to change a small amount for your transfer to the city, where options are wider and rates more reasonable.
The U.S. State Department warns travelers that Chilean banks, casas de cambio, and businesses may refuse U.S. $100 bills due to past problems with counterfeiting. Chilean banks and police officers have been trained by the U.S. Secret Service to identify counterfeit bills, but some places still won't accept them. If you plan to exchange U.S. currency, bring bills smaller than $50.