Shopping safely abroad using debit cards


VisaMost of us have friends and relatives who lost money and valuables either on their way to and back from South Africa. Despite our well stocked shops, there are still some economic reasons for embarking on this perilous journey to shop in towns like Musina and Johannesburg especially if you are looking to purchase some IT related equipment.

One my friends, for a trip down south, went to buy forex at Road Port but had to abort the journey after he had been sold thousands of Rands in fake notes. As usual the suspect had disappeared and the police, who are always half hearted at the best of times, simply informed him that he had himself to blame since the money exchange deal was illegal anyway. Another friend was followed and mugged whilst in South Africa and had to walk to a friend’s apartment to beg for bus fare back home.

Then there is the issue of exchange rates themselves: like everywhere else, street vendors’ exchange rates are affected by supply and demand but since theirs is a small market it is much more sensitive to changes in demand. As of this writing the exchange rate when buying Rands is $1:R9.09 which is much more expensive than the current official rate of $1/R9.862, especially when large amounts are involved.


Since it is often the case, that the street rate is higher, I am surprised that people do not opt to buy their foreign currency on the official market. I suspect that it has something to with convenience and today I will outline two convenient methods that will prevent you from being a robbery, fraud or scam target when you do decide to go shop in South Africa.

1. The FBC Prepaid Mastercard

The FBC Mastercard can be obtained from any FBC branch and instantly loaded with the amount that you intend to use whilst shopping. Obviously you need to leave a travel and emergency fund on your person as well as the bus fare. You could either use this card at ATMs to withdraw as much as you need when you get to your destination. The good news is your withdrawal is in Rands which you get at the official exchange rate. Try however to make as few withdrawals as possible to avoid incurring hefty exchange and ATM charges. This can be easily done by grouping your purchases and making the requisite withdrawals. You can use the Mastercard ATM locator here so that you use the ATM that is nearest to the place that you want to make your purchase and avoid carrying cash for any prolonged period of time.

Most reputable stores accept Mastercard so whenever possible use the card itself to make a purchase rather than making a withdrawal. An added benefit of using the card to make a direct purchase is that usually the transaction charges are lower when compared to a cash withdrawal. As a bonus the FBC Mastercard can be used to make online payments although currently you cannot link the card to PayPal.


Just walk into any FBC branch with a copy of your ID or Passport. The minimum initial deposit is $50 of which $10 is deducted as card fees and about $2.00 as card loading fees.

2. The Travelex Visa Cash Passport from MBCA

Whatever has been said about the FBC Mastercard is true also about the Cash Passport except that it is powered by Visa and cannot be used for online transactions. Visa, have significantly more ATMs however. You can use this page to find the nearest ATM.


Visit any MBCA branch with a photocopy of the back page of your Passport and a minimum deposit of $100. This is a prepaid card so it can be loaded instantly.

Whatever choice you make, make sure to keep your card number and/or username, PIN and/or password secret; and never use  Visa/ Mastercard cards that are linked to your account. You do not want to lose your rent money and Multichoice subscription money you left in your account as well in case some scammer gets hold of your card number details.

Be safe.

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