The basic unit of currency is the New Israel Shekel (NIS). At press time, both the value of the U.S. dollar and the value of the shekel were extremely volatile, and this situation may continue for some time. We estimate the shekel-dollar exchange rate to be approximately NIS 4 to $1 (50p), or NIS 1 to 25¢ (13p); all prices in this guide were calculated at that exchange rate.
The shekel is divided into 100 agorot, and the smallest denomination you will encounter is a copper-colored 5-agorot coin, but these are hardly in circulation anymore. There are 10-agorot copper-colored coins, and larger, copper 50-agorot (half-shekel) coins, all useful for bus fare. The 1-shekel coin is a tiny silver buttonlike object that is extremely easy to lose. Hang onto a few 1-shekel coins: Pay phones in restaurants and hotels often only take 1-shekel coins instead of the cheaper per-call telephone cards. There are also 2-, 5- and 10-shekel coins, as well as 20-, 50-, and 100-shekel notes. Note: The new, small 10-shekel coins are not popular, as they are easily lost and counterfeit 10-shekel coins abound. How can you tell a phony 10-shekel coin? If the rims are smooth or only irregularly grooved, it's bad. Israelis are adept at passing bad 10-shekel coins at busy places and slipping away before being noticed -- a useful skill for travelers to develop. Otherwise, you're out approximately $2.50 (£1.25).
Exchange counters at Ben-Gurion Airport generally offer poor rates of exchange. ATMs give standard rates. After such a long flight, you might prefer to avoid possible lines at the airport by exchanging at least some money -- just enough to cover airport incidentals and transportation to your hotel -- before you leave home (though don't expect the exchange rate to be ideal). You can exchange money at your local American Express or Thomas Cook office or at your bank. American Express also dispenses traveler's checks and foreign currency via www.americanexpress.com or tel. 800/807-6233, but they'll charge a $15 (£7.50) order fee and additional shipping costs.
Bad Notes -- Black-market street dealers sometimes try to pass off pre-1985 old shekel notes in denominations of 500 and 1,000. These notes have no value and are not in circulation, although their design is exactly like current notes of lower denominations. Be certain that all currency notes you accept are clearly marked "New Sheqels" in English.
The Shekel, the Dollar & the Pound -- At this writing NIS 1 is estimated to equal approximately 25¢/13p, or NIS 4 to $1; NIS 8 to £1. Although the dollar is currently low, it is expected to rebound against the shekel if and when the U.S. economy improves. As currency rates fluctuate, the value of a shekel may not be the same when you travel to Israel. For up-to-the minute currency exchange rates, go to www.oanda.com.
International ATM debit cards will only work at Israeli ATMs specifically marked to accept them. These machines usually have decals for PLUS, Cirrus, Visa, MasterCard, or international flags on them. In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, these ATMs are easy to find in heavily touristed areas, but in other cities they are few and far between, so stock up on shekels while you can. You can use your credit card to receive cash advances at ATMs. Keep in mind that credit card companies protect themselves from theft by limiting maximum withdrawals outside their home country, so call your credit card company before you leave home. And keep in mind that you'll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time.
Many five- or six-digit PINs will work at Israeli ATMs that accept foreign ATM cards, but some longer PINs do not. Check with your bank as to whether your card will function in Israel. The easiest and best way to get cash away from home is from an ATM (automated teller machine). The Cirrus (tel. 800/424-7787; www.mastercard.com) and PLUS (tel. 800/843-7587; www.visa.com) networks span the globe; look at the back of your bank card to see which network you're on, then call or check online for ATM locations at your destination. Be sure you know your personal identification number (PIN) and daily withdrawal limit before you depart. Note: Remember that many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank's ATM, and that fee can be higher for international transactions ($5/£2.50 or more) than for domestic ones (where they're rarely more than $2/£1). In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own fee (Israeli banks presently charge a nominal fee of NIS 3 (75¢/40p) for each withdrawal). To compare banks' ATM fees within the U.S., use www.bankrate.com. For international withdrawal fees, ask your bank. Note: At press time Visa was planning to impose a 3% commission on all foreign withdrawals made with Visa/ATM debit cards. At press time the fee on withdrawals using a MasterCard debit card is 1%.
Keeping Flush -- Don't wait until you're down to your last shekel if you're using ATMs to keep yourself funded. International ATM connections sometimes go down, and Israeli banks have a way of having sudden 1-day wildcat strikes. Remember that ATMs will not be restocked during Shabbat, and there's usually a run on ATMs on Friday, so stock up before the Israeli weekend or holidays.
Have more than one ATM card with you -- recently one of the largest banks in America placed a sudden block on all its ATM transactions in Israel and a dozen other countries because of high ATM fraud levels -- and their customers in Israel were left stranded. Check with your bank to see if any of the countries you plan to visit are under an ATM block, and inform your bank security service of your travel plans so that ATM card charges overseas will not be refused as suspicious.
Small Change -- When you change money, ask for some small bills or loose change. Petty cash will come in handy for tipping and public transportation and taxis (Israeli taxi drivers never seem to have change when a foreigner tries to pay). Consider keeping the change separate from your larger bills so that it's readily accessible and you'll be less of a target for theft.
Traveler's checks are accepted at fewer and fewer shops, hotels, and restaurants in Israel -- credit cards are becoming the more popular payment option. If you carry traveler's checks, be prepared to cash them mainly in banks or with money-changers, and not at the greatest exchange rate. Still, traveler's checks offer extra protection against theft or loss. You can buy traveler's checks at most banks. They are offered in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and sometimes $1,000. Generally, you'll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%.
The most popular traveler's checks are offered by American Express (tel. 800/807-6233, or 800/221-7282 for cardholders -- this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts Amex gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee); Visa (tel. 800/732-1322; AAA members can obtain Visa checks for a $9.95 fee for checks up to $1,500 at most AAA offices or by calling tel. 866/339-3378); and MasterCard (tel. 800/223-9920).
American Express, Thomas Cook, Visa, and MasterCard offer foreign currency traveler's checks, which are useful if you're traveling to one country, or to the euro zone; they're accepted at locations where dollar checks may not be.
If you carry traveler's checks, keep a record of their serial numbers separate from your checks in the event that they are stolen or lost. You'll get a refund faster if you know the numbers.
Credit cards are another safe way to carry money. They also provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and they generally offer relatively good exchange rates. You can withdraw cash advances using your credit cards at banks or ATMs, provided you know your PIN. Keep in mind that you'll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time. Also, note that many banks now assess a 1% to 3% "transaction fee" on all charges you incur abroad (whether you're using the local currency or your native currency).
Note: Visa currently offers a "Support Israel" HAS Advantage card that gives you points toward travel to Israel for each dollar you spend. For information, go to www.hasadvantage.com. That said, a MasterCard world card (not the gold or platinum card) automatically covers collision damage waiver fees and offers better insurance coverage on car rentals in Israel than does a gold or platinum Visa card.
The most commonly accepted credit cards in Israel are Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. Diners Club is somewhat less universally accepted.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.