The Hitchhiker's Guide to North Korea No. 6: Advantages and disadvantages to different currencies during your travels in the DPRK
Mo Money, Mo Problems. - The Notorious B.I.G
According to the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the North Korea, foreign tourists to the the country should bring along foreign cash to spend on souvenirs, incidentals, and the like. Traveller's cheques and money orders are not accepted, nor is American Express (or any other foreign credit/debit card). Generally the Euro, the US Dollar, and the Chinese Reminbi are the most widely used foreign currencies. Japanese Yen and Russian Roubles are accepted at selected locations, although The Hitchhiker's Guide does not recommend bringing either of these to use. Good luck with Canadian, Australian, Singaporean dollars, or the Pound Sterling.
Don't panic. This handy entry will explain the advantages and disadvantages of the big three.
The US Dollar
The $1 bill is among the most useful denominations to carry on your journey. 'It seems everything costs a dollar', is a common comment you might hear from travelers. The reason for this is largely convenience, so one need no bother with finding or making change. Items which may cost a dollar are: a soda, canned coffee, a glass of beer, or small trinkets. The $5 bill is also very convenient, although it may require the augmentation of a lone $1 to be on par with the €5 note.
If you want some added value, stock up on the elusive $2 bill, obtained mostly from US federal or state government agencies or by special request at the bank. In Korea, the $2 bill is considered lucky. Bring some of these along if you want to wow the people you meet along the way!
The main disadvantage of the USD is that bills are often very worn, torn, and/or all marked up. These bills are unlikely to be accepted by anyone in the country. If you go to the bank in the US and ask for one-hundred $1 bills (they'll probably think you are going to visit the local strip club) approximately 20-30 of these won't be exchangeable for goods or services in Korea.
It's all about the Benjamins - in this case Benjamin Jefferson and Benjamin Washington (that's how it works, right?)
Sometime in the early 2000's, the Euro became the primary form of foreign currency exchange in Korea. For most of its history, the Euro has been valued above the USD, although it has depreciated in recent years. The legacy of greater value means that one sometimes enjoys greater purchasing power in Korea than it would on the global market. The actual advantage is marginal, but if you are into counting cents then the Euro may be for you. Euros also make for quicker and smoother transactions. Compared to the USD, Euro notes are typically in relatively good shape, meaning they are easier to spend.
The most obvious disadvantage of the Euro is that the smallest denomination of notes is €5. While both €1 and €2 coins exist, they are sometimes not accepted. Euro coins are better than having no small denominations at all, but sales attendants will often try their utmost to avoid these and/or dump them on you as change. If you show up in the country with only a 500 note or two and you will be leaving with the same cash....and a list of people you owe money to. We would suggest not taking anything bigger than a 50 EUR note ideally.
The Chinese Renminbi
The closer you are to China, the better it is to carry Renminbi (RMB). Visitors to the border city of Sinuiju, the Rason Special Economic Zone, or North Hamgyong Province should bring ample supplies of RMB along as other currencies are less-readily accepted, especially in remote areas.
Also known as yuan or simply 'bi' (pronounced 'bee'), the fact that the largest denomination of 100 RMB is worth about 15 USD makes it an extremely useful currency. The 1, 5, 10, and 20 RMB notes are especially useful for making smaller purchase and notes in good condition are relatively easy to obtain.
Like the US dollar, there are a lot of torn, ripped, and/or worn out notes in circulation.While these are regularly accepted in China, you may have trouble spending them in the DPRK. Sometimes you will receive a worn note as change but may not be able to spend it until you leave the country. RMB coins can be hard to use too, in the far north these will be accepted more readily than in Pyongyang and the rest of the country.
For most travellers to the DPRK, US Dollars, Euros, and Chinese Renminbi are all of comparable use. Those traveling to areas of Korea close to the Chinese border may prefer carrying RMB and the currency is, of course, useful upon return to China, the main transfer point for most visitors to Korea. Whichever currency you end up carrying to Korea, do get a hold of some small denominations to use on little purchases like bottles of water, souvenirs, and snacks.
Updated 02 August 2018
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the North Korea – Practical tips for travel in Korea.