Ethiopia uses the birr as its official currency. Originally this was the Ethiopian word for the currency which was otherwise known as the dollar. However nowadays the currency is always referred to as the birr for simplicity.

What coins and notes are available for this currency?

This currency is a decimal one and the subunit is known as the santim. There are five santim coins and one birr coin (which is the one birr coin!). The santim coins are denominated as 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 santim coins.

As for the banknotes, well there are five of these. They are worth 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 birr.

From past to present – the history of the Ethiopian birr

We have to travel back more than a century to 1893 to find the first use of the birr in Ethiopia. A coin was issued at this point that was called the talari. The alternative name for this was the birr. This actually translates into ‘silver’ so what began as a nickname for the currency was eventually adopted as the actual name for it instead. This happened in 1903.

The Second World War saw some changes in the currency that was used there. For example the Italians invaded the country and brought their lira with them. After this the country was liberated by the Brits, who brought other currencies. Eventually the East African shilling became legal to use in the country.

When the Second World War was over the birr came back and was used once again. Unusually though the information given on the notes revealed it should have been known as the Ethiopian dollar! Fortunately an end to the confusion came in 1976 and we went back to the birr once again. Since then the name and the currency have stuck firmly – probably to the relief of many.

How to get hold of the Ethiopian birr

Getting hold of cash in Ethiopia is easier now than it has been in the past. Many people will know the country has been through some dreadful famines and all manner of other disasters and tough situations too. As such it is not the easiest country to visit when it comes to getting hold of any money.

The best places to use cash machines (and indeed to find any in the first place) are Addis Ababa and in other major cities. Don’t be sure of getting exchange facilities or cash machines in any other locations, because you just cannot be sure this will be easy enough to do.

You can withdraw cash from cash machines or change up foreign notes for birr. The best notes to change are the American dollars, euros or British pounds. You shouldn’t have any problems with any of these. It does pay to think ahead and to make sure you have enough cash for any trips out to less populated areas.

You should also bear in mind that the easiest way to pay for things anywhere is by cash. While in some other countries you can use credit cards and debit cards to make payments, the chances of this occurring in Ethiopia are far less likely. Big cities are easier to use your cards in, but even then you should not expect it.

How to find out the latest exchange rate between your home currency and the Ethiopian birr

You can do this just as you would do it with any other currency – find a currency converter that provides up-to-date information and use that. The conversion rate you get will be slightly different to what you’d get when exchanging your currency for the birr of course. Wherever you go you will be charged for making the exchange, whether this is with a fee or percentage rate or by changing the exchange rate to account for the conversion and to tip it in their favour.

There is an embassy for the country in London but you don’t need to hop on a train to find out more about it. In fact there is a website for the embassy so you can visit that a lot faster. The official name is the Embassy of The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the website is at It includes a good page on tourism if you are interested, not to mention contact numbers for visa information.

Travelling safely with the Ethiopian birr

If you like the idea of going somewhere completely different to see how life is lived there, it is imperative that you find out all you can about Ethiopia before you go. The travel advice given by the UK government will change depending on what the situation is in the country at any time; however for the most part it is safe to go to Ethiopia. There are some regions that are definitely out of bounds though, and these are mostly in the north-eastern part of the country and a large swathe of the eastern and south-eastern corner too. Check the latest information on the government website before you plan or take any trip there. Furthermore the border areas virtually right round the entire country are a no-go zone (as advised) for tourists. There is also a small area of the western side of the country that juts into South Sudan on a map that is not advisable to go to.

Well with all that, you might wonder what else you should do to stay safe in the country. You should make sure your passport stays in your hotel safe but do make sure you carry a copy with you wherever you go. Having the British Embassy information with you is a good idea too, just in case you get into any trouble of any kind.

Minor crime is very common in Ethiopia and it occurs particularly commonly in crowds. You should be alert to all kinds of petty crime such as pickpocketing and similar things. Bag snatching is another opportunistic crime that can occur if you don’t keep your eyes on your belongings.

The best way to stay as safe as possible is to take as little as possible out with you. Excessive amounts of money aren’t a good idea; if you have to take a fair bit of cash you should make sure you keep it in separate places on your person. This will minimise the amount you lose if you do get pickpocketed. Some people decide to wear money belts and this can be a good idea to keep valuables in.

Really the more you can do to keep things tucked away out of sight and the temptation of others, the safer you can be.

Where to spend your birr in Ethiopia – and what to spend them on

If you want to visit Ethiopia you will need to travel to the Horn of Africa. It is a landlocked country that shares borders with six other countries. Going from the north round in a clockwise direction, these are Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan and Sudan.

Addis Ababa is the capital of the country and it has its fair share of monuments and attractions to see. For example skyscrapers may not be the first thing you associate with Ethiopia but they are present in the capital. You can also go to the Ethiopian Natural History Museum and the Ethiopian National Library if you want to find out more about the country and its history.

The country also has its fair share of natural sights that are worth visiting. Take the Blue Nile Falls for instance. As you might expect from the name, these falls are on the Blue Nile River. The waterfalls are quite something to see and many tourists who visit the country make sure to add them to their itinerary while they are there.

Another popular spot is the Simien Mountains National Park. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and it is located to the north of the country. The views alone are worth the trip to see it, but there are some great walks to be had here too.


If your only image of Ethiopia comes from the news you will find it refreshing and heartening to know there is a lot more to this country than first meets the eye. From the 21st century built-up city of Addis Ababa to the gently rolling hills and peaks of the national park mentioned above, there is plenty to appreciate here and plenty to explore.

A trip to Ethiopia is not the first thing that will spring into the minds of many. However there is a lot to appreciate and explore when you go there. You will learn much about the history of Ethiopia as well as the present, and it is definitely an experience worth having. Wherever you decide to stay and wherever you go while you are in the country, you won’t come back disappointed. It provides a holiday that is quite unlike any other in its mix of superb attractions.

Ethiopia Birr – ETB

2 thoughts on “Ethiopia Birr – ETB

  • February 24, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Wow I had never heard of the birr before now. It’s a weird name for a currency but then perhaps that is just because I’m not used to it. After all it is split into a hundred pieces much like many other currencies are.

    Having read this report I certainly wouldn’t consider going to Ethiopia anytime soon. It sounds like the most unsafe country you could ever want to visit. It’s not exactly a holiday destination anyway but I pity anyone who would want to visit for the purpose of business or anything else. I think I will steer well clear.

  • August 8, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    This information is out of date now. I recently travelled to Hawassa, 300 km south of addis and there were several ATMs accepting foreign cards. There are ATMs in the airport that will give BIRR also.

    Also, Ethiopia is by no means unsafe for travellers in general. It is a massive country so to say that unrest in one district makes the whole country unsafe is unjust.
    Hawassa is beautiful, based on a huge fresh water lake, with hippos to watch and the most amazing wildlife and birds in particular. Do not be put off, there is lots here for tourists.


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