Money Matters in Madagascar: Mastering MVola, Orange Money, ATMs, and Credit Card Payments

Discover the ultimate guide to managing money in Madagascar, covering mobile wallets, ATMs, and credit card payments. Learn tips and tricks for optimizing your spending during your travels.

Money Matters in Madagascar: Mastering MVola, Orange Money, ATMs, and Credit Card Payments

Whether you're a solo traveler or traveling as a group, managing money in Madagascar can be a daunting task. In this comprehensive guide, we'll cover how to use mobile wallets like MVola and Orange Money, as well as ATMs and credit card payments. By the end of this article, you'll have a better understanding of the financial landscape in Madagascar and how to optimize your spending for safety and convenience.

First, we'll provide a step-by-step guide to setting up mobile wallets and topping up your balance with Visa or Mastercard. We'll also share some tips and tricks for making the most of your mobile wallet usage.

Next, we'll dive into using ATMs in Madagascar, offering expert tips on safe and efficient cash withdrawals. We'll also discuss credit card usage in the country, outlining where and when you can use your card.

Finally, we'll compare the different money management options and help you choose the right payment method for your needs. By the end of this guide, you'll be able to navigate the financial landscape of Madagascar with confidence, ensuring you have a safe and enjoyable trip.

If you're arriving in Antanavario Ivarto Airport in Tana soon, check out a comprehensive guide covering immigration, exchanging money, ATM withdrawals, mobile wallets, and airport transfers.

Introduction to Money Management in Madagascar: Navigating the Financial Landscape

Imagine traveling in Madagascar for three weeks, budgeting around US$1,000 a week. This is on the higher end of things if you're organizing your own itinerary. In total, you'll spend around US$3,000, or approximately 13 million Ariary. In cash, that's a stack of six hundred and fifty 20,000 Ariary banknotes! If you're a visual thinker, picture carrying 13 stacks of these 1 million Ariary bundles (M&Ms for scale). In total, it’s about the same volume as a red brick.

As a solo onebag traveler with minimal possessions, the idea of being mindful of and carrying around large wads of cash is daunting. Should I leave it in the hotel room safe box? (No, please don't!) What about bringing it along on a 3-day camping adventure? How can I keep it dry? Do I need to keep it on me at all times? And is there a money belt big enough for 13 packs of M&Ms?

Before landing in Madagascar, I grappled with these questions. I wished someone had written about the magic of mobile payments. It would’ve made things easier and safer.

In this article, I provide a comprehensive guide to using mobile wallets such as MVola and Orange Money, ATMs, and credit cards in Madagascar. I also compare all three options and outline the best strategy for managing your money in Madagascar. Rest assured, you won't have to carry 13 packs of M&Ms worth of cash with you!

This is a really long article. If you’re interested in the Cliff Notes version, use this link to get to see how I optimize for the right payment method.

Mobile Wallets in Madagascar: A Comprehensive Guide to MVola and Orange Money

The Perks of Using Mobile Wallets in Madagascar

Launched in 2009 by mobile network operator Telma, MVola was the first mobile money service in Madagascar. A year later, Orange Money entered the scene, followed by Airtel Money in 2015. In this guide, we'll explore MVola and Orange Money, Madagascar's two leading mobile wallets.

As a tourist, using mobile wallets in Madagascar offers convenience, security, and accessibility to manage money and make payments during your travels.

  • Convenience: With mobile wallets, you can pay for anything, anywhere there's cellphone reception, without the need to carry large sums of cash.
  • Security: Your mobile wallet is protected by a PIN, making it safer than carrying cash that could be lost or stolen.
  • Accessibility: Mobile wallets are available right on your phone, eliminating the need to find an ATM or money changer for local currency.

During my four-week stay in Madagascar, mobile wallets covered about half of my total expenses. Credit cards took care of a quarter (mainly for big-ticket items like fancy meals and hotels), while cash—exchanged at the airport and withdrawn from ATMs along the way—made up the remaining expenses.

How to Set Up Your Mobile Wallet: A Step-by-Step Guide

Download MVola App, Register and Verify your MVola account

The steps outlined here apply to setting up MVola, but are also relevant for Orange Money.

  1. Download the apps: Before landing at the airport, get MVola (iPhone, Android) and Orange Money (iPhone, Android) on your device.
  2. Register for MVola: Insert your Telma SIM card, open the app, select "Register", and follow the prompts to enter your phone number and create a password.
  3. Verify your account: Input the SMS verification code you receive on your Telma number to verify your account.

Set up a new PIN

After registering for MVola, secure your account by setting up a new PIN. Follow these steps:

  1. Open the MVola app and log in using your phone number and password.
  2. Tap the "Settings" button (gear icon) on the home screen.
  3. Access the security options by tapping "Security" in the Settings menu.
  4. Select "Change PIN" to set a new PIN for your wallet.
  5. Enter your current PIN (either the default Telma PIN, “0000” or the last four digits of your phone number) and then enter and confirm your new PIN.
  6. A confirmation text message will confirm your successful PIN change.
Safely store your PIN and don’t forget it! Entering your PIN incorrectly more than three times will result in a temporary wallet block. I’m unsure of the unlocking process or the language spoken by Telma/MVola customer service agents.

Easy Methods to Top-Up your MVola or Orange Money Wallet Using Visa or Mastercard

MVola Orange Money
Credit card accepted Visa, Mastercard Mastercard
Link to load money
Fee charged 2.5% 2.5%*
Max load amount 10,000,000 AR 5,000,000 Ar
Load time Instant Instant
*Fee increased from 1.0% on May 1, 2023.

Loading money is similar for both wallets. Orange Money only accepts Mastercard, while MVola requires account registration before card use. Curious about the most economical way to obtain local currency? I provide a detailed analysis at the end of this post.

Mastering Mobile Payments with MVola and Orange Money: Tips and Tricks

Cross-platform compatibility

MVola is more common. 9 out of 10 people I met used it. Orange Money is also an option, but it charges a higher fee to send money to MVola wallets. Check the mobile wallet fees section for more information.

Paying for goods and services

Using the mobile app is more convenient for making payments, as it eliminates the need for using USSD codes. If you were born before 1992, you know what I mean! However, a data connection is necessary for the app, which fortunately works well even in areas with only 3G internet speeds. Both apps in french. As an English-speaker who doesn’t know the difference between gauche and ganache, I asked my driver and guide for help. Once I understood the process, it was simple! Here’s what both apps look like:

To make payments, ask if the recipient accepts MVola. In most cases, the answer will be yes. Open your MVola or Orange Money app, tap the transfer money button, and enter the recipient's phone number. They can write down their 10-digit number or enter it directly on your device. Sometimes, the recipient may ask you to cover their withdrawal fees or "Frais" in French (usually under 1%), which I typically agree to.

If you're transferring funds across platforms (e.g., Orange Money to MVola), you may face a higher transfer fee. For more details, refer to the ~mobile wallet fee structure below~. Once your transfer is complete, the recipient will receive a confirmation text message. Congratulations on completing your first mobile wallet payment if you've followed this guide!

For nostalgia's sake, I tried transferring funds the old school way using USSD codes. While not necessary with the app, many people still use basic phones without smartphone capabilities. I wanted to understand their process.

Transferring funds using USSD Codes

USSD codes are symbols and numbers dialed into your phone to navigate menus via text. For MVola, enter #111# on your phone keypad and hit dial for the main menu. Then:

  • Press 1 for MVola,
  • 2 to transfer funds (transferer argent),
  • Enter the recipient's 10-digit phone number (numero de tel),
  • Input the amount in Ariary,
  • Provide a transfer description,
  • Decide whether to cover the recipient's withdrawal fee (prise en charge des frais de retrait du destinataire),
  • Review the total transfer amount, recipient name, phone number, transaction description, and transfer fee (frais de transfert), then enter your secret code or PIN ~created earlier~ to initiate the transfer.
  • A confirmation text message will arrive once the transfer is complete, usually within seconds.

The process is similar for Orange Money. The main menu code is #144#, with slightly different options but a similar overall flow.

Using ATMs in Madagascar: A Practical Guide for Travelers

Safe and Efficient Cash Withdrawals: Expert Tips

Choose ATMs wisely. Location matters. Choose ATMs in a well-lit, public area, preferably in busy areas. Most ATMs in Madagascar have security guards, and some are located in a small room that can only fit two people. I prefer going to such locations as it minimizes the possibility of someone snatching my cash.

Be aware of your surroundings. Avoid distractions like using your phone at the ATM. Bringing someone along when withdrawing cash, especially at night in Tana, is always a good idea. And don’t forget to cover your PIN.

Locating an ATM. The three most popular banks with the largest ATM networks are: Societe Generale, BNI Madagascar, and Bank of Africa Madagascar. I’ve included links to the ATM locations for each bank.

ATM Fees. Most ATMs charge between 8,000 - 10,000 Ar. per withdrawal. Your bank may also charge you a foreign exchange fee and ATM withdrawal fee. These fees can add up quickly. Pro tip: If you’re in the US, Schwab offers a fee-free debit card that reimburses you for foreign ATM withdrawal fees incurred. They also don’t markup the foreign exchange rate and don’t charge a fee for withdrawing local currency from a foreign ATM.

Maximum withdrawal amounts. You can usually withdraw up to a maximum of 40 bank notes at once i.e., 800,000 Ar. (US$180). However, you can make several withdrawals in succession, but you’ll have to pay the ATM fee for each withdrawal.

You might see conflicting information from other websites stating that you can only withdraw 400,000 Ar. at once. That’s likely because their post has not been updated — Madagascar released a new 20,000 Ariary denomination in 2017. The number of banknotes withdrawable still remains at 40, so you’re capped at withdrawing 800,000 Ar.

On a lighter note, remember to remove your hat and sunglasses while using the ATM. If not, you’d find yourself being approached by security officers. I was a bit surprised, but realized it’s a common security protocol that’s enforced all over Madagascar.

Side note: For those used to seeing decimals rather than commas, Madagascan ATMs use commas. So 10,000,00 Ar. really means 10,000 Ar., not 1 million Ar. When I first used these ATMs, I was shocked when I received a single 10,000 Ar. note, thinking I had withdrawn 1 million Ar.! Only later did I realize they used commas. Thankfully, I am reimbursed for ATM withdrawal fees; otherwise, that would’ve been an expensive lesson!

Credit Card Usage in Madagascar: A Traveler's Survival Guide

In Madagascar, it's best to assume that credit cards are about as welcome as a tropical cyclone. Establishments that do accept credit cards are typically located in Tana or are upscale restaurants or hotels beyond the city limits. Most mid to high-end places outside of Tana still rarely accept credit cards. And for the few who do, they usually only take Mastercard or Visa. American Express? Nope.

Allow me to share a story about a precarious situation involving insufficient cash and a remote hotel-camping combo in Madagascar. En route from Tana to Isalo National Park, I stumbled upon the Tsarasoa Lodge, a quaint establishment on the outskirts of Andringitra National Park. Inspired by wanderlust, I committed to a 4-day camping trip with a price tag of 1 million Ariary. The catch? I had a mere 500,000 Ariary in my wallet (i.e. a half-pack of M&Ms). The nearest ATM was a bumpy two-hour 4x4 journey away in Amalavao.

As luck would have it, I had previously set up and loaded my Orange Money account while in Tana. It wasn't a premonition for this specific trip, but more of me experimenting with Madagascar's mobile payment scene. My tour guide, a firm believer in mobile wallet segregation, insisted there was no way to transfer funds from my Orange Money wallet to his MVola wallet. While he might be correct if we were transferring funds using USSD codes, I managed to bridge the digital divide by sending him the funds through the Orange Money app after topping it up remotely using my Mastercard.

So, should you find yourself cash-strapped in an establishment that treats credit cards like mythical creatures, fret not! Mobile wallets can be your financial savior, as long as you have an internet connection to top up your wallet using a credit card.

Comparing Money Management Options in Madagascar: Mobile Wallets, ATMs, and Credit Cards

Mobile Money in Madagascar: A Quick Overview of Mvola and Orange Money Fees

Let’s break down the basics of MVola and Orange Money’s fee structure without getting too tangled in the details. Both MVola and Orange money offer a range of services, such as cash deposits, money transfers, withdrawals, bill payments, and phone credit top-ups. Fees vary depending on the transaction amount and whether you’re making cross-network fund transfers. Below, I focus on the top four fees you’re likely to encounter. For those wanting to dig deeper, here are links to MVola and Orange Money’s pricing charts.

Topping up funds: Generally speaking, topping up your mobile wallet with cash is free. However, both mobile wallet providers will charge a 2.5% fee if you fund your wallet using a credit card (both accept Mastercard, and MVola also accepts Visa).

Transferring funds: When it comes to transferring money, both operators charge a fee to send money within the MVola network or Orange Money network. Fees are tiered by transaction amount. They both charge higher fees if you’re sending funds outside of their respective networks i.e. a cross-network transfer (e.g. MVola to Orange Money and vice versa).

Withdrawing cash: Withdrawal fees for both MVola and Orange Money are based on the amount being withdrawn. The larger the amount, the larger the fees. Be aware that you might have difficulty withdrawing large sums of cash at rural cash points, as they may not have enough cash on hand.

Topping up phone credits: Neither wallet providers charge a fee for topping up phone credits. In fact, some offer bonuses to incentivize user adoption of mobile wallets.

ATM Fees

There are three types of fees to keep in mind:

  • ATM fee: This is the fee assessed by the local bank who owns the ATM.
  • Foreign ATM withdrawal fee: Some banks from your home country will charge a fee when you withdraw currency from an ATM overseas.
  • Foreign exchange fee: This depends on whether you choose to be charged in Ariary (usually cheaper) or let the local bank do the currency exchange and charge your card in your home-country currency (dollars, euros, etc). Additionally, even if you request to be charged in Ariary, your home country’s bank might charge a foreign exchange fee. Most ATMs I visited charged me in Ariary and didn’t provide the option of currency conversion, which I would have declined anyway.

This can be very confusing. My advice is to: (1) try to find a bank at home that doesn’t charge foreign ATM withdrawal fees or foreign exchange fees, and (2) if that’s not possible, then do some mental math and decide whether it’s cheaper to load cash using a credit or debit card to your mobile wallet with a 2.5% fee or pay for the ATM fees.

Credit Card Fees

Some credit cards charge a foreign exchange fee of up to 3% when you’re paying in Ariary. I avoid that fee by using a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign exchange fee. If you’re from the United States, most travel cards such as the Amex Platinum or Chase Sapphire Reserve or Preferred, don’t charge fees. If you want to bring just a debit card, the Schwab debit card doesn’t charge any ATM fees whatsoever, nor does it charge foreign exchange fees.

Mobile Wallets, ATMs, and Credit Cards: Choosing the Right Payment Method

If you’ve read all this, you might be wondering — what’s the best payment method? There isn’t a clear winner. Your optimal payment strategy is a mix of all three — cash (exchanged at the money changer and withdrawn from ATMs), credit cards, and mobile wallets.

Ultimately, every payment method incurs some fee. But instead of worrying about minimizing fees — focus on optimizing for convenience and safety. To put it into perspective, the maximum foreign exchange premium you pay will be 5% at most. That is, if you’re spending US$5,000, the maximum fees you can incur are US$250 — a price worth paying to avoid carrying huge wads of cash!

This is how I choose which payment method to use:

  1. I’ll always change a small amount (US$500) at the money changer at the airport.
  2. If an establishment accepts Visa or Mastercard, I'll use my credit card, because my bank doesn't charge foreign exchange fees, and I can accrue credit card points.
  3. For bills is less than 100,000 Ar. (US$23), I’ll use cash, as it’s the most straightforward way to pay. I maintain a cash balance of around 1 million Ariary at all times and withdraw from ATMs around the country once my balance runs low.
  4. For bills over 100,000 Ar. (US$23), I’ll use a mobile wallet to avoid carrying around too much cash. I prefer to use MVola over Orange Money, because it is more widely held and I minimize having to pay higher cross-network transfer fees. Since there’s’ a 2.5% fixed fee for loading my mobile wallet, I’m not concerned about maintaining a large cash balance, as I don’t want to be stuck with a lot of Ariary when I leave the country.

If you’re concerned about fees, here’s a handy summary.

Fees / Analysis Mobile Wallet Credit Card ATM Money Changer
Get money 0% using cash. 2.5% via credit/debit card N/A 0~5% depending on fees assessed by home bank Foreign exchange markup between 1~4%
Spend/send money ~1.5% in-network. Up to 3.5% if sent across networks (e.g. Telma -> Orange) 0~3% depending on forex fees assessed by home bank Free Free
Pros Convenient, assessible, safe. Convenient, can accrue credit card points. ATMs conveniently located in major cities. Most straightforward method.
Cons Need cell service. Cross-network payments expensive. Fees can add up. Not widely accepted, especially outside Tana. Amex not accepted. Small withdrawal limit (800K Ar.), but can do multiple withdrawals. Fees add up, unless using fee-free card. Bulky and potentially unsafe to carry around large sums of money.

Conclusion and Essential Money Management Tips for a Smooth Madagascar Experience

In conclusion, managing your money while traveling in Madagascar requires a balance of cash, credit cards, and mobile wallets. Each payment method comes with its own fees and limitations, but by optimizing for convenience and safety, you can minimize the overall cost of your transactions and make the most of your adventure in this mesmerizing island nation. By following these essential money management tips, you’ll be well-prepared for a smooth experience:

  1. Diversify payment methods: Always carry a small amount of cash, preferably obtained from a money changer at the airport, for day-to-day expenses. Use credit cards at establishments that accept them, and rely on mobile wallets like MVola and Orange Money for larger transactions.
  2. Choose fee-friendly cards: Opt for credit and debit cards that don't charge foreign transaction or ATM withdrawal fees. Cards like the Amex Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, and Schwab debit card are great options for travelers from the United States.
  3. Be vigilant at ATMs: Select ATMs in well-lit, public areas with security guards present. Be aware of your surroundings, avoid distractions, and cover your PIN when entering it. Locate ATMs from popular banks like Societe Generale, BNI Madagascar, and Bank of Africa for convenient cash withdrawals.
  4. Embrace mobile wallets: Set up and load mobile wallets like MVola and Orange Money to facilitate secure transactions, especially in remote locations. Familiarize yourself with their fee structures and network limitations to optimize your usage.
  5. Stay aware of local customs: Remember that credit cards are not widely accepted outside of Tana, and Amex is rarely accepted at all. Adapt to local currency conventions, such as the use of commas instead of decimals, to avoid confusion.

Questions? Let me know in the comments below!