Known for its sunny beaches, stunning scenery and the rich biodiversity of its flora and fauna, the Philippines is a popular tourist destination: During 2014 (the most recent data available), this land of 7,000+ islands hosted more than 4.8 million international tourists, according to United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)'s "Tourism Highlights, 2015 Edition" report.
The First Stop
Airport currency-exchange kiosks typically offer a relatively poor deal, but they do offer convenience, especially if you are arriving exhausted after a long trip with no local coin in your pocket. Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) has several currency exchange facilities. Since you're going to take a hit on the rate, do what savvy travelers do and convert only as much cash as you need to get the trip started (taxi ride to the hotel or that first meal). Wait until you can hit a place with better rates to exchange more money.
Later and Better Options
ATMs are considered one of the best ways to get cash while traveling abroad, including the Philippines (see Best Ways to Save on Currency Exchanges). Withdrawals are calculated based on the wholesale exchange rate, so you’ll generally get a better deal than you would at currency exchange dealers (see below). In the larger cities, you’ll be able to find international bank ATMs from such institutions as Citibank and HSBC.
Depending on your home bank, you might be able to skip some of ATM charges (check with your bank before your trip so you know what to expect) and foreign transaction fees (see How Foreign Transaction Fees Work). If you do have to pay a per-transaction fee, it’s better, obviously, to make a few large transactions than a bunch of little ones.
If you prefer in-person transactions, banks and credit unions offer the most reliable service, at reasonably good rates. Some good choices include BDO Unibank (known as Banco de Oro and BDO), Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), Metrobank and Philippine National Bank (PNB).
Currency exchange dealers, aka money changers, are another option, and they are easy to find throughout Manila. Strong competition among the dozens of money changers means you’ll get a better exchange rate than you might at a bank or credit union, but be careful: It's possible to get ripped off by some of these types. Even though many advertise "no commissions," you can still end up with a less-advantageous exchange rate and/or “hidden” fees.
A Few Warnings
One thing to watch out for when exchanging currency in the Philippines is getting fleeced by someone who is very good at counting out the cash so it looks like the correct amount, when in reality, it's short a few bills – and not in your favor. These sleight-of-hand scams are especially common when using small street money exchanges. They may offer a better rate than the banks, but just be sure you count your money in front of them before you walk away.
Be leery of anyone walking up to you on the street offering to change your foreign currency into pesos. It’s not unheard of for an unsuspecting tourist to follow someone into an alley or some other dark corner in search of a great exchange rate – only to be robbed. Use common sense, and remember that those few extra pesos aren’t worth any risk.
Finally, one other scam worth noting: counterfeit bills. Here’s how it works. You give your cash to a money exchanger, who in turn says something like “Let me go check the exchange rate with my boss.” When the person returns, you are told the boss didn’t approve the exchange rate, so you are given back your money. But – and here’s the scam – instead of handing back your actual bills, he or she gives you funny money (which you don't realize until you try to exchange it somewhere else). Moral of the story: Hold on to your cash until the actual exchange; don't let anyone disappear with it.
The Bottom Line
ATMs often have the best rates and can be the best deal as long as you don't have to pay high ATM fees. Money changers are next, but you have to watch out for scams. If that concerns you, go to a bank: While a little less advantageous, the rates are still good. Many travelers find a combination of in-person currency exchange, ATM withdrawals and credit card purchases works best.
No matter where you exchange money, always ask how much local currency you’ll receive before handing over any cash. And once you receive the local cash, remain in place until you’ve had a chance to count it yourself.
Note: Because of continued violence, certain areas in the Philippines should be avoided by travelers. The U.S. Department of State (travel.state.gov) updated a travel warning on Oct. 21, 2015 regarding the Philippines, and in particular the Sulu Archipelago, the island of Mindanao and the southern Sulu Sea area. Other areas in the Philippines are generally considered as safe as other places in Southeast Asia. U.S. citizens traveling to the Philippines are encouraged to research current U.S. Department of State travel alerts and warnings, and enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which provides security updates and makes it easier for the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to contact you and your family in case of an emergency. For more, see How Safe Is Traveling in the Philippines?