Ukraine: Money and Currency Exchange
Last update: Mar. 08, 2010 (updated for 2010)
Ukraine's currency — the Hryvnia
Above is a sample of Ukraine's currency, the "Hryvnia" (abbreviation: UAH, commonly pronounced "grivna" — from Russian). Bills come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 hryvnias (higher values may exist but are impractical as cash money), and coins exist in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 kopecks, as well as 1 hryvnia, where 100 kopecks = 1 Hryvnia. Bills show historical figures on the front and famous buildings on the back. In late 2004 new bills were emitted, causing a bit of confusion among both natives and foreigners.
After over five years of relative stability, Ukraine's currency lost much of its value in the financial and economic crisis of 2008-2010, like many other currencies worldwide. The current exchange rate (early 2010) hovers around 8 Hryvnias to 1 US dollar or 11 Hryvnias to 1 Euro (use an up-to-date currency converter from www.oanda.com).
Dollars and Euros are commonly seen and used around Ukraine, especially in the "shadow economy." However, stores only accept Ukrainian hryvnias. Until the recent financial crisis, dollars were commonly used for savings stashed around the house, for large purchases, and sometimes even to pay rent, while Hryvnias were kept around for day-to-day expenses. The commercial term for US dollars OR their equivalent in the national currency in both Ukraine and Russia is the so-called "conditional unit" (Rus. "условная единица" or "у.е."; Ukr. "умовна одиниця" or "у.о."). In the wake of the crisis, which brought large fluctuations in the exchange rate, more and more Ukrainians have switched to using Hryvnias exclusively, and the practice of giving prices in dollars has become somewhat less common.
Ukrainians tend to be justifiably mistrustful of the banking system ever since the Soviet banking system collapsed in the early 90s and everyone lost their life savings. Many people still prefer to stash dollars in hiding places in their apartment rather than deposit them in a bank, even when the interest rate for savings deposits is over 10%. Those with more money tend to prefer to hold assets such as real estate rather than cash reserves.
Exchanging money in Ukraine
Because of the amount of US dollars and Euros in circulation in Ukraine, exchange booths can be found all over any busy section of town. Rates are generally as good or better than in banks, and the service is quicker. Take note of the different exchange rates offered; beware of things like a faded "0" slipped between digits on exchange rate signs in touristy areas. No documents are necessary to exchange money at exchange booths, but passports are required in many banks, where the procedure can take a bit longer. Count the money at the window in plain sight of the money changer before walking away. More central areas tend to have better exchange rates unless their main clients are tourists. If you enter Ukraine through Kyiv's Boryspil airport, bring some smaller dollar or Euro bills if you will need to pay for a taxi; the exchange point in the airport has poor exchange rates.
No joke — counterfeit Hryvnias are a problem in Ukraine. This is why cashiers will often hold bills up to a light or pass them under a scanner. They will sometimes do the same with US Dollars. However, the counterfeit Hryvnia bills I have seen were easily distinguishable by their thin paper instead of the thicker, more rigid real bills. They had been given to an unsuspecting foreigner by a street vendor. I have only heard of one such case so far. Still, be aware of this potential hazard.
Bring only crisp, whole, unmarked bills to Ukraine, as others may be refused or exchanged at a discount rate (typically minus 10%) at certain banks in town. Travelers checks are less practical than cash and ATMs since they are cashed with a greater commission and only certain banks cash them. These banks may have limited hours for cashing travelers checks. ATM cards are highly practical since there are now ATM machines in every town that work around the clock and you can get local cash immediately. Credit cards are accepted in expensive restaurants, hotels, and boutiques, and increasingly in large cash&carry stores. We have heard stories of credit card fraud in Ukraine. Be discreet with your cash. Foreigners often attract undesired attention to their money by clumsily leafing through wads of cash in search of the right bill. Notice how discreet Ukrainians are with their cash and act likewise