Turkey’s vibrant cities and picturesque winding rivers have long made it a popular tourist destination. Both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires chose Istanbul as their capital - which means there’s plenty to see throughout the country for those who like their holiday with a hint of history. And if that’s not your thing, Istanbul also boasts one of the largest shopping malls in Europe where you can shop, eat and visit an indoor theme park.
Whether you’re planning on haggling for traditional goods in the Souks, or going high-end at the mall, you’re going to need some cash to do it.
This guide will give you an overview of the currency and banking systems in Turkey and help you find out how to get your lira cash - then it’ll be up to you to decide how to spend it.
Currency in Turkey
The official currency of Turkey (and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) is the lira. There’s no plural form of the word. You’ll see this listed as TRY or TL on currency exchange boards.
Other currencies - especially U.S. dollars and euros - are accepted by many traders in Turkey - but the rates won’t be great. You’ll often find goods priced in euros in some tourist areas to entice travellers from the eurozone to part with their cash. Despite the convenience, you’ll normally end up with a better deal if you buy lira and use these during your trip.
Characteristics of the Turkish Lira (TRY)
- Lira Symbols: TRY, TL, ₺
- 1 TRY: Each lira is divided into 100 kuruş.
- TRY coins: The coins you find in circulation are 5, 10, 25 and 50 kuruş, and 1 lira. There are also smaller 1 kuruş coins, but aren’t usually used. If a store doesn’t have enough small coins to give you all your change, you might be offered a few sweets to make up the difference.
- TRY banknotes: Banknotes are issued in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 lira. Both the notes and the coins have images of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on them.
Exchanging currency in Turkey
Avoid exchanging your money in notorious tourist rip-off spots (like airports and hotels)
As long as you avoid the airport, and other high-fee exchange services like hotel front desks, you’ll get a better deal if you buy your lira in Turkey. If you're nervous about turning up with no cash in your pocket, exchange a small amount at home and seek out the best deals after you arrive. Alternatively, you can use an ATM (not an exchange bureau) in the airport to get some quick cash until you reach your destination.
In Istanbul, heading to an exchange office near the Grand Bazaar is a good idea. There, the competition drives a decent deal for travellers.
Understand the mid-market exchange rate & stay up to date on it
When you're deciding where to change your cash, it is important to understand the mid-market rate. This is the only real exchange rate - and tourist rates are derived from this number by whatever formula the exchange service chooses to apply. Even if an exchange service claims ‘zero commission’, their cut will be rolled up in the rate they offer you - a margin less than the mid-market rate.
The mid-market rate moves around all the time due to fluctuations in the global financial market. Find out the live mid-market rate by using a currency converter. You can then compare this to the lira exchange rate you're offered and make sure you’re actually getting a fair deal.
When exchanging cash, only bring clean, undamaged bills
If you're bringing cash with you to change when you arrive, then make sure the banknotes you're carrying are in good condition. Any that are torn or marked are likely to be refused by the exchange service.
Using travelers checks in Turkey
Exchanging Travelers Checks in Turkey is difficult and will come with very high fees. Online traveller forums report people finding fees as high as 9% to exchange Travellers Cheques - to say nothing of the exchange rates offered, which are not always good.
Overall, it’s probably better to rely on a mix of other forms of payment (ATM, cards and cash) to fund your trip.
Using credit cards and debit cards in Turkey
Credit and debit cards are widely used in Turkey. Visa and MasterCard are accepted in most places, with American Express payment available in high-end hotels and restaurants.
If you’re travelling off the beaten track or shopping in market stalls and Souks, then it’s a good idea to have some cash on you. Or, if you get stuck without any, use one of the ATM locators in the next section to find a nearby bank machine and withdraw cash immediately.
Tell your home bank you’ll be abroad
Before you arrive in Turkey, you’ll need to notify your bank that you’re travelling. If not, then the bank’s anti-fraud detection software might kick in and block your account - a sure way to ruin your trip.
While you’re talking to your bank, it’s also worth taking some time to find out if your home bank works with any partner banks near your destination in Turkey. If they do, you might be able to get cheap or free ATM withdrawals from some ATMs while you’re visiting.
Avoid viewing or paying for transactions in your home currency
Using a credit or debit card to pay for your travels is a popular, and often good value choice. However, you do need to avoid something called Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) in order to get the best exchange rates on your purchases.
When a traveller pays for a transaction, DCC allows the tourist to see the cost shown in their home currency. You’ll be asked if you want to pay in your home currency or the local one - lira.
If you choose to pay in your home currency, then the exchange rate that you’re assigned is chosen by the payment provider, not your home bank. This is never as good of a deal, and should be avoided. Always opt to pay in the local currency instead.
ATMs in Turkey
ATMs are very common in Turkey. You’re advised to use the ones attached to banks where possible, rather than those in free-standing booths on the street. These tend to be safer, and less prone to tampering.
To find an ATM near you, you can use one of these locators:
Withdrawing lira from an ATM rather than bringing physical currency to exchange means you’re not carrying large quantities of cash during your travels. It can also be a good deal, as the exchange rate used on the cash withdrawal is usually fair. There will be fees applied by your home bank for a foreign withdrawal (and maybe also by the ATM provider), but despite this, withdrawing cash directly is a good choice for many.
You might be offered DCC (discussed in the previous section) when you make a withdrawal. Again, if you choose to see or pay for the withdraw in your home currency, it’s not a good deal for you. Always select to be charged in local currency, not your home currency, when withdrawing money.
Banks in Turkey
The banking network in Turkey is extensive, covering retail and private banks, and those offering tailored services such as Sharia-compliant banking. The largest of the retail banks (listed below) have subsidiaries and networks that operate far beyond Turkey’s borders. There are also many foreign-owned banks with a presence in Turkey, especially in the larger cities.
Five most common retail banks in Turkey
International banks operating in Turkey
- HSBC Turkey
- Garanti BBVA Bankası A.Ş.
- Citibank Turkey
- Deutsche Bank Turkey
- Société Générale Turkey
- Sberbank (Denizbank in Turkey)
Another great option, for simple access to your money abroad, is to use TransferWise.
If you have a bank account in Turkey, or know someone who does, you can transfer money between accounts using the real mid- market exchange rate. This can give you an even better deal on your currency exchange, as it's a convenient way to get your cash with no hidden fees.