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Bulgaria is a fantastic country to visit, with beautiful natural scenery, great weather for 6-8 months of the year with a long summer season, great food and low cost of living.
However, like a lot of countries, if you’re visiting there and using your normal bank card from back home, you’re likely to get stung with very high ATM and transaction fees, especially if you use those blue and yellow branded ATMs on the street (these charge seriously extortionate fees – DON’T use them unless there’s no alternative and you’re desperate). While using a proper Bulgarian bank ATM is better, you’ll still get charged withdrawal and conversion fees from your bank as well as them to get cash out.
What alternatives are there that allow you to circumvent the normal banks with their rip off fees, and spend and withdraw cash there more cheaply?
In this post, we’re going to cover by far the best option to spend on card and withdraw cash for foreigners (UK/USA/Canada/Australia/NZ tourists or expats) in Bulgaria – The TransferWise/Wise multi-currency card.
It’s free to join in most countries, and here’s a summary of what you get:
- The option to open up Bulgarian leva balances and transfer money in from your domestic accounts
- The ability to spend your Bulgarian leva balance with zero fees using your Wise card
- The ability to draw out £/$/€ 200 worth of leva per month with zero fees (1.75% after that)
- Cheap conversion fees and much lower ATM fees than most banks.
The Wise card is the best option I’ve found for spending as a tourist/expat/nomad in Bulgaria without need to open an official account there and also avoiding the high bank fees.
Let’s run through the main features, how to use, plus the benefits.
Who Can Get a Wise Card?
The great news is that the Wise card now has availability in all major English speaking countries, so residents of the following countries can get a Wise account and card:
- USA (all states except Nevada)
- New Zealand
- See here for a full list of available countries
Click here to sign up for a Wise Borderless card
If you’re specifically looking to spend in different currencies, then you need the “Cross-border/cross currency” Wise card.
Just have a passport or other photo ID, and bank statement to confirm your address, and that’s usually enough in most cases to get signed up and confirmed. You’ll have your Wise multi-currency card sent to you within a few days.
How Does The Wise Card Work?
The Wise card is a multi-currency debit card that allows you to receive, spend, convert and transfer money between your domestic currency and others that you want. You can open and add to balances in other currencies than your home one, and all these balances are attached to the same single Wise card, so you can spend in all these currencies in those countries as though you had a normal bank card in those countries.
And Bulgarian leva is one of the extra balances you can open!
Therefore you can open a lev balance, transfer money from your USD/GBP/EUR balance, and spend on your card (or withdraw cash at ATMs with zero fees up to a point) when in Bulgaria as though you had a bank account and card there.
It’s a great option, and if you manage your account, cash usage and ATM withdrawals while traveling there, you can avoid paying any bank fees at all there, or at least pay a lot less than using your normal bank cards.
How To Open Up a Wise Bulgarian Lev Balance
Opening and adding to a Bulgarian leva balance is easy, once you’ve got your Wise account set up.
Just go to the Home tab on the left hand side:
Then click the Open + sign to add a new currency:
Then select the Account option:
You then get a choice to open a currency account with or without account details.
Bulgarian leva is currently available, but only as a without account details option. This means that spending money is fine, but there are some restrictions on receiving money which we’ll cover later.
Select it and a Bulgaria lev balance will be opened for you immediately. It will appear alongside your other balances (GBP/Dollar/Euro etc). You can transfer/convert money from your other balances for a small fee.
What You Can Do With Your Bulgarian Leva Balance & Wise Card
As soon as you’ve added funds to your leva balance, you’re good to go! You can spend and withdraw that money using your Wise card in Bulgaria, just the same as if you had a Bulgarian bank account and card.
This means you can:
- Spend your Lev balance in Bulgaria online, in shops, restaurants etc, just like a normal bank card, with ZERO fees (just like a domestic Bulgarian bank card)
- Withdraw up to £/$/€ 200 worth of Lev (around 400 Lev at current exchange rates) per month in a maximum of 2 transactions with ZERO fees.
- You can also actually send money to others in Bulgaria from your BGN balance, as long as you have the recipient’s account details. Hit the Send button from your Lev balance and proceed through the steps.
What You Can’t Do With Your Bulgarian Lev Balance & Wise Card
Because there are no local bank account details provided with your Wise Bulgarian Lev account, you can’t receive any money into the balance from others, because there’s no bank account/routing numbers you can give them. So you couldn’t use it to get paid from an employer, supplier etc. You’d need a Bulgarian bank account for that. But you CAN receive money into your other Wise balances that do have local account details (eg. USD/GBP/EUR etc) and convert them straight into your BGN balance if you want.
But receiving is really the only restriction with the Wise currency balances, and other than that it pretty much works like having a normal Bulgarian bank account and card for spending, sending and withdrawing money.
Wise Card ATM Rules & Fees
The ATM withdrawal fee rules on your Wise Bulgarian lev balance are a bit complicated at first, but the bottom line is that there’s a lot more leeway than most traditional banks:
- You can withdraw up to EUR/GBP 200 worth of leva (see conversions below) from an ATM with ZERO fees each calendar month.
- You can make up to 2 ATM withdrawals each month with ZERO fees. If you make more than 2 withdrawals, there’s a fee of EUR/GBP 0.50 per transaction, until you hit the limit below:
- After your 200 GBP/EUR equivalent limit is breached, you’ll pay a 1.75% ATM fee for all withdrawals.
And here’s a concise list of ATM fees you’ll pay for card holders in major English speaking countries:
- UK based cardholders (ATM):
- Currently – Can draw out GBP 200 worth of local currency in maximum of 2 transactions for free each calendar month. After that, 1.75% fee for ATM withdrawals, plus 0.50 fee for any withdrawals over the permitted 2 free ones each month.
- US based cardholders (ATM):
- Currently – Can draw out $100 worth of local currency in maximum of 2 transactions for free each calendar month. After that, 2% fee for ATM withdrawals, plus $1.50 fee for any withdrawals over the permitted 2 free ones each month.
- Australian based cardholders (ATM):
- Currently – Can draw out A$350 worth of local currency in maximum of 2 transactions for free each calendar month. After that, 1.75% fee for ATM withdrawals, plus A$1.50 fee for any withdrawals over the permitted 2 free ones each month.
- Fees for cards issued to residents of other countries vary, but are usually in the same general ballpark (couple of hundred free each month in max 2 ATM transactions., then 1.5-2% fee after that)
In other words, if you’re going to use your Wise card to draw out money, you need to make two big withdrawals each month, but specifically calculated amounts, to stay below your limit and avoid paying fees. You can’t really make loads of smaller withdrawals as it’s not efficient and you’ll end up paying fees.
To help out, here are some current conversions at the time of writing (subject to change as currencies are quite volatile at the moment):
- 1 GBP = 2.20 Leva (so you can withdraw 440 Leva per month for free in 2 transactions)
- 1 USD = 1.97 Leva (so you can withdraw 390 Leva per month for free in 2 transactions)
- 1 EUR = 1.95 Leva (so you can withdraw 390 Leva per month for free in 2 transactions)
- 1 CAD = 1.45 Leva
- 1 AUD = 1.28 Leva
- 1 NZD = 1.13 Leva
- For CAD/AUS/NZ/USA customer, check with customer service, as the zero fee withdrawal limits may be tethered to a 200 euro/GBP amount instead of your home currency, so you get more to play with.
If you have the Wise app, it’ll let you know how much you’ve still got to withdraw for free each month.
Always check the current exchange rate as well, as it could have changed from when this article was published. See here for a good conversion tool, preset to Bulgarian lev (just change your home currency).
After these limits are reached, or you do more than 2 ATM withdrawals a month, there’s a 1.75% fee for all ATM cash withdrawals.
Therefore you can avoid any ATM fees if you’re strategic with how you use the Wise card:
- Pay for everything you can with your card (supermarkets, shops, online, restaurants that allow it, etc). Bulgaria is a cash dominant economy, so lots of smaller places don’t accept card, but you can still use it in a lot of places.
- Just make 2 big ATM withdrawals a month (180-200 leva each, depending on what limit you need to stay under to avoid the fee limit). I’ve just taken out 2 lots of 200 leva (400 total) each month the last two months (converting from GBP balance), without paying any ATM fees. It works! That should get you a long way towards your cash needs as long as you use your card for purchases when you can. At current rates, you can draw out about 380-400 leva per month for free depending on your base currency.
- Don’t make more than 2 ATM withdrawals a month or you’ll get charged the fee regardless of how much you’ve taken out.
- After drawing out GBP/EUR 200 worth of leva (around 400 lev at current rates), then you will pay 1.75% for further withdrawals. That’s 3.50 for every extra EUR/GBP 200 (around 400 lev) you withdraw on top of your fee free limit. Not ideal but much better than most traditional banks.
Wise Card Purchase Rules & Fees
The purchase rules for the Wise card are much simpler:
As long as spending from your Bulgarian Leva balance, and there’s sufficient funds, there are ZERO fees to use the Wise card at any Bulgarian retailer or online.
In other words, spending “in currency” on your Wise card is free – you can just use it like resident Bulgarians use their own debit cards – zero fees, tap and go! And it’ll take the money out of your Lev balance.
But you need to always make sure you’ve got your Leva Balance topped up so there’s enough in there. Here are some more nuanced scenarios when you’re spending “out of currency” on the Wise card:
- If you have some Leva in your balance, but not enough to make a transaction, it’ll take what leva there are, and then use the rest from another balance, with the lowest fees
- If you have no Lev balance but use the card in Bulgaria, it’ll take the money out of whichever balance you DO have which has the lowest fees (but you will pay a conversion fee).
Therefore it’s best to spend in Bulgaria with your Lev balance only to avoid fees.
Click here to sign up for a Wise Borderless card