Visa, MasterCard users charged 30% more in Sierra Leone, how the local banks fleece travelers


I keep a bank account in Sierra Leone but I still travel with my foreign bank cards because I don’t always have enough leones in my account to service my expenses. So I naturally thought that I would be able to get cash out of ATMs and use POS Systems for payments when I got to Freetown. I used my foreign debit cards at two hotels in Sierra Leone and the experience was so costly that I shall never ever take my cards to enter Freetown again.

At the two hotels I stayed I paid with my debit card. At the Radisson there was a sign at the reception counter in fine print that said something about there being a difference in Visa and MasterCard charges that would be reflected because of a difference in foreign exchange rates between the operators the cards and the local rate. When I was checking out and presented my card visa card for payment, the receptionist said there will be a small difference between what I was being charged in Leones and what would appear on my bank card. I said sure. There is always a couple of dollars difference when I use my GH bank card in NY so I was used to this.

My bill for two nights came up to $517. I paid and left happy-go-lucky to go check in at the New Brookfields Hotel where we had spent our first couple nights. When we got to the NBH I went to my room and proceeded to check my balance on the Wells Fargo card I had used at Radisson just to see if the payment had posted. It had. However, instead of the $517 that I had been charged at checkout the amount was $174 more.

I was like WTF! Somebody at Radisson has stolen my money oh. Let me call their Oga and report them right away. I call my friend who works there to tell him that their receptionist has stolen my money waiting for him to alert the authorities so we can pounce on her. I was shocked that he wasn’t surprised that this had happened and proceeded to explain the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

So if you use a foreign issued Visa or Mastercard for POS transactions in Sierra Leone the bank in this case United Bank of Africa (UBA) uses a rate other than the actual local leone to dollar exchange rate. In this instance the local exchange rate was about 5700 to 1 USD, UBA is using rate that is about 4000 to 1 USD. They say they do this because of Visa and Mastercard but it makes absolutely no sense because when I use the same cards in Ghana the exchange rate is exactly that which the Central Bank of Ghana has published for that day. The exchange rate published by the Central Bank of Sierra Leone is 5,849 so I for the love of Jesus do not understand where UBA gets its own rate.

I had also used my Mastercard for my earlier stay at NBH, it is a card issued by GTB Ghana. When I checked that balance also I found that I was also charged over $100 more than my actual bill. I asked who their banker was for their POS system and it was the same UBA again.

I checked the online website which is the first website that comes up for online currency conversions and their published exchange rate is 4040 Leones to 1 USD, this is listed as a ‘mid market rate’ meaning its the mid point for those buying and selling. I believe that this is where UBA in Sierra Leone is getting their currency exchange rate that they are using for their Visa/Mastercard POS service. I don’t know where gets its own rate. Apparently it isn’t just UBA powered POS’s that use this rate, a friend called a banker at Access Bank and he basically confirmed that all the banks do this in Sierra Leone.

I’m not a banker and I’m not into the money market but as a consumer there is something terribly wrong about having two rates in the same market. This means that foreigners and anyone coming to Sierra Leone have to pay 30% more for anything they purchase using their bank cards.

My bank card wahala didn’t just end there. On the day that I needed to use an ATM I stomped up and down three ATMs I stopped at were temporarily out of order. I’m not going to say which banks didn’t have operations ATMs so they don’t come after me but you know yourselves. Stop advertising ATM availability if you’re not going to manage to have it operational so one isn’t foolish enough to leave their car under the hot burning sun to go to your establishment. The one I found that was working was giving only a maximum of 300,000 leones a time. If I used that to withdraw the funds needed to pay for my hotel bills I would have to do over 10 withdrawals and be charged a fee for each one. I wondered how I could be so very very foolish to not bring cash to Freetown. E noh go be again.

My friend at one of the hotels told me that they had previously had a client use their Visa card that was charged over $1000 more because of this  exchange rate wahala. What I really want to know is whether the people at the Central Bank are aware of this mess of a situation. Also who is getting this additional money? Is it UBA in Sierra Leone or are the funds going to Visa and Mastercard? I want to know because after using my cards and being charged over $300 more in just “foreign exchange 419” because at this point I’m not sure what else to call it I wanna know who I should call to get my money back. That’s about 6 containers of Similac a la Ghana rate for my baby so a refund would be most appreciated.

What angered me the most was that the hotels said that even if they reversed the charges and I payed in cash the only amount that would be refunded was the original amount that was charged less the foreign exchange difference. So basically no matter what if you pay with your visa or debit card you’re screwed back and front.

Going to Sierra Leone? Until further notice bring your dollars with you in your hands or find a friend willing to give you leones. Don’t be like me.

PS – Who I really blame for this problem? Those bureaucrats at ECOWAS who have been playing about and paying themselves in the name of regional integration. Didn’t the anent that the ECO would be out by now? Twenty years later we still don’t have a unified currency. SMHLAA

For those of you unfamiliar with SMHLAA; that is Shaking My Head Like An African

You’re welcome!


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