Again, yes and no. Bishkek is primarily a cash-based society, and many shops and stores don’t have credit card machines. Those that do usually only take Visa (No MasterCard, UnionPay, or anything else) Places where you can reliably use a credit or debit card include:
- Most shops inside a mall (Vefa Center, Bishkek Park, Beta 2)
- Most large chain grocery stores (Beta Stores, Plus Market, Narodnie)
- Most chain clothing stores (Mango, Mavi Jeans, Kotton, MixX, Colin’s, etc…)
- Most cafes, western restaurants, bars and clubs (rule of thumb – if they have free wifi for customers, or their own instagram or twitter account, then they probably also take credit cards)
- Airline offices and travel agencies
And that’s it. Everywhere else you go – bring cash (preferably in denominations of 200 som or less). Also, keep in mind that some credit or debit cards won’t reliably work in shops that take credit cards. Our (Kyrgyz) Demir Bank Debit card, for example, does not work in Plus Market (but it does work at Narodnie and Beta Stores…)
Which brings us to the next question – where can one withdraw money in Bishkek?
Pretty much everywhere, as long as you have a Visa. Demir bank has reliable service and good exchange rates, but most banks are probably OK and have English option on the ATMs (“Bankomat” in Russian). Most Demir locations allow you to withdraw som or USD and convert from USD or Euro to Som. There is, however, about $330 (or $340?) limit on how much in USD you can withdraw at one time. This seems to vary a bit by bank/ATM through – so just plan ahead. Keep in mind that ATMs also seem to frequently run out of USD at the beginning of the month. If you want dollars, try to withdraw before people get their monthly paychecks, or just go to the bank (but don’t forget your passport).
If you have UnionPay, then you can take out money at Halyk Bank, PCK Bank, Росинбанк, and Commercial Bank of Kyryzstan/Коммерческий банк КЫРГЫЗСТАН (which I’ve found to be the most reliable; a list of ATM locations here).
If you have Master Card….uh… supposedly the Kazkommert Bank/KazKom is the only bank that takes MasterCard. Look here for a list of locations, but I can’t promise all of them will work. Your better bet is getting a Visa before you travel.
If you have cash and just want to exchange money, there are a number of exchange offices along Sovietskaya between Chuy and Gorkovo, and on Manas between Chuy and Moscovskaya, as well as an office in Beta 1 on Chuy and in Vefa Center. It’s much easier to change from USD, though a number of places will also take Euro, Kazakh Tenge and Russian Rubles. Good luck if you have anything else. Also, the exchange rates for other currencies will be terrible.
And on a random note, according to the Commercial Bank of Kyrgyzstan website, citizens of Japan can enter Kyrgyzstan visa-free for…forever? or, as states, “for an unlimited term”. Hmm…