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Money Matters

Banking and money issues in Bulgaria are completely different to those back home. Bulgaria is a country where credit and credit cards are still novel and exchange rates can vary from one institution to another like the wind. A popular scam is the pleasant well-spoken English speaking Bulgarian who offers you a phenomenal exchange rate on the street corner.

There are numerous tales of this happening and ending in tears. One expat exchanged GBP 500 with one such shark only to receive a bundle of outdated Russian rubles. Other expats think that if they use one of the many exchange bureaus offering good rates they will avoid such fiddles, but this is not always the case.

Whilst many bureaus look like banks, greedy mafia dons operate them and the girls behind the counter have been well trained in sleight of hand often counting out your money but short changing you by withholding some of your transaction. However, don’t let this put you off, every bank in Bulgaria operates honestly and exchanging money in a reputable hotel is also a safe bet.

If you are visiting Bulgaria particularly to buy land or a house you need to gen-up on setting up a Bulgarian bank account. Jonathan White author of “Buying a Property in Bulgaria” gives some valuable advice on tackling this issue.

Cash Society

After passing through the customs area at on of Bulgaria’s international airports you may be greatly tempted to exchange some currency. Be warned though; exchange rates are allegedly more expensive than can be found elsewhere and it would be better to exchange just enough for your taxi fare and to go to one of the banks in the city instead.

Now let’s take a closer look in your wallet … you’ve probably got a credit card or two sitting in there – and you’re thinking to yourself, no problem, who needs cash? Credit cards are currently still not as widely accepted in Bulgaria as in other parts of Europe and whilst most of the larger hotels will accept your card, they may also add a surcharge of anything up to 4 per cent. That said, you should be able to use your credit card in some of the more established restaurants and shops – but do be prepared to carry some cash.

Bank Account

If you are seriously intending to buy property in Bulgaria, it’s a good idea to open a bank account early on in your visit. This can save you some valuable time, particularly when you have lots of legal matters to attend to during the purchase. I have found the quality of service offered by banks in Bulgaria varies quite a lot, as do their fee structures. I would recommend that you look for a bank that can offer you full Internet banking (preferably with no monthly costs) and low fees (or no fees) for the receipt of foreign currency by electronic transfer. Additionally, look for a current account that preferably pays interest and does not charge monthly costs for holding the account or fees for withdrawing your own money! You should also look for banks offering low (or no) initial deposits for opening the account and a bank, which has English speaking tellers or representatives.

Bank Charges

Having lived and worked in Malaysia for several years, there were constant jokes about neighbouring Singapore. The most memorable one being how Malaysians would say that ‘Singapore is a fine place to live’. They were, of course, referring to Singapore’s strict regime of imposing fines on almost anything, anywhere at anytime. When it comes to banks in Bulgaria, I am reminded of this practice. Banks in Bulgaria do operate quite differently from many in Western Europe. One of the hardest things to come to terms with is that they seem to charge you for practically anything you want to do, and seem to miss the point that you are leaving your money with them (which they subsequently invest or loan to others). This is not uncommon in Eastern Europe. I have seen similar practices in Estonia, where they also charge you a monthly fee for having a bank account, and have similar fee structures. Believe it or not, many will also charge you for withdrawing money from your bank account. This can be based on either a percentage (e.g. 0.01%) or based on a fixed cost per withdrawal (e.g. 1 euro per withdrawal). And yes, this even applies to withdrawing the money in cash from the branch itself! You shouldn’t expect the bank to explain all these terms and conditions to you. I was once charged over 150 euros for just withdrawing my own money in cash from a bank in Bulgaria. The receipt from the transaction did not show this charge and it was only later whilst reviewing a statement
that it was found. Be careful.

Transferring Money

To make matters worse, when you transfer money from your country to Bulgaria, some banks often charge you for the receipt of that money in your Bulgarian bank account. Now, whilst the majority of us are used to flat fees for bank transfers, in Bulgaria some of the banks charge you a percentage of the amount you are receiving. That is, they do not charge you a fixed fee. So, if you are transferring quite a large sum for the final payment on your property, some banks may quite happily take a percentage of that from you. I bet you didn’t factor that into your purchase costs?

I also bet that the agent you used didn’t tell you about the potential bank charges either! This will change, in time, especially after those of you reading this have told them! You will find it very difficult to find a bank that meets all the criteria above, but I can tell you that it’s possible to find banks that meet a good majority of them. It is worth shopping around for the best bank to suit your needs.

To avoid being charged for withdrawing cash when you plan to pay a deposit or final payment, set up a bank transfer to the seller instead, which will save you money. Bank transfers tend to have low, fixed fees.

Extract from Jonathan White’s “Buying a Property in Bulgaria” published by How To Books Ltd. Jonathan White. Jonathan first travelled to Bulgaria in 2003 – one of many subsequent trips.
It was not long before he fell in love with the country and acquired a real estate portfolio and a passion to share his experiences with others.