The unwillingness of the Uzbek government to recognize the high inflation of the Uzbek sum makes that no higher-denominated notes are printed as prices rise. In practice, this means that you need a stack of bills to pay for little things like a meal or a taxi ride.
You cannot keep your money in a wallet (100 dollars got me 450 bills of 1000 sum last time I was there). Instead, you will need to put it in your backpack, handbag or ‘barsetka’ (manbag).
High inflation of the Uzbek sum also keeps up a black market for US dollars in Uzbekistan. This means there are 2 exchange rates: the official one, and the street exchange. The spread is significant: you can track the black market exchange rate via the DollarUz website (only accessible via proxy in Uzbekistan), we also keep up this forum thread.
If you are interested in learning how the system works and get a deeper insight into the ways of modern Uzbekistan, check out this fascinating article.
Bringing in money
I suggest to bring all the money you plan to spend with you in US dollars. There are ATM’s, but they don’t always work (see below), and they operate at the official exchange rate, giving you up to 60% less value than the black market for your dollar.
You can also bring euros, but the black market exchange rate is the same as for dollars (even though euro is worth a bit more) and there are fewer takers. Dollar is king.
When entering Uzbekistan, you have to declare all money you have on you. It doesn’t matter how much you have, there is no need to lie. Keep the copy of the declaration. When you exit, you have to declare all the money you have on you again. You cannot have more money with you when you exit Uzbekistan than when you entered.
You can exchange your money officially and legally at the bank. For better rates, you need to exchange at the black market. You see men standing on the bazaar with bags of money. You can exchange with them but it feels pretty awkward, and due to the giant stack of bills you need to count under pressure, you are bound to get ripped off.
A better way to exchange money is to ask your hotel to do it for you. They have reliable contacts and often have automatic bill counters for easy verification. If the hotel is not forthcoming, ask around if anyone knows a shop where you can go inside and count, without having to worry if police (it is still illegal) or muggers are looking at you. You can always find someone willing to help.
Credit cards and travellers’ cheques
Paying with credit cards is possible in a few high-end hotels and restaurants in Tashkent, where you can also get cash advances on your card. We’re unsure if Mastercard or Visa is more widely accepted, it depends who you talk to. 3% commission is normal. Travellers’ cheques are almost unheard of, but the odd 5-star hotel might be able to cash it for you.
ATM cash withdrawal
ATM’s in Uzbekistan dispense Uzbek som at the official exchange rate, a bum deal. Due to lack of money they sometimes don’t work properly, and outside of Tashkent, there are not that many to begin with. So even though you will likely be able to take money out of an ATM, it is safest not to rely on them.
There is the possibility to withdraw dollars in the ATMs of luxury hotels. For instance in Tashkent in the Grand Mir hotel, Uzbekistan hotel, Radisson and probably more (tips welcome). You can also withdraw dollars in the banks (especially outside of Tashkent) but it takes more time/paperwork and commission.
So there is always a way to get more money if you need it, but it’s good not to be dependent. All cash machines in town might be out of money, your card could be refused, or you may have to wait in line for hours. All of the above happen regularly.
If you are wondering how much money you should take with you to Uzbekistan, check out the travel budget page.