In 2005, Turkey lost six zeros in its currency, so that each lira after 2005 is worth one million lira before 2005 (or “old lira”). During the transition period between 2005 and 2009, the currency was briefly officially called the new lira (yeni lira). Since 1 January 2009, a new series of banknotes and coins has been introduced and the currency is again simply called lira (officially Turkish lira, Türk Lirası, locally symbolised TL, or more rarely with the new symbol ₺; don’t be confused if you see the currency symbolised YTL or ytl, meaning yeni lira). The ISO 4217 code is TRY, although few people except accountants know it in the country. The lira is divided into 100 kuruş (kr abbreviated). Since 1 January 2010, banknotes and coins issued before 2009 (those with yeni liras and yeni kuruş) are no longer legal tender, but can be exchanged at certain banks until 31 December 2019.
There is a new symbol for the Turkish lira , created by the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey in 2012 after a national competition. However, like most implementations by the current AKP-led government, this symbol has proved controversial and divisive in Turkish society.
The banknotes are in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 TL. The 5, 10, 25 and 50 kuruşes coins are legal tender. There is also a 1 TL coin.
There are legal exchange offices in every city and almost every municipality. Banks also exchange money, but they are not worth the trouble as they are usually overcrowded and do not offer better rates than exchange offices. You can see the rates offered by an office on the (usually electronic) signs located near its door. The euro and the US dollar are the most useful currencies, but sterling (Bank of England notes only, not Scottish or Northern Irish notes), Swiss francs, Japanese yen, Saudi riyal and a number of other currencies are not very difficult to change. It is important to remember that most money changers only accept banknotes, so it can be very difficult to change foreign coins. In some places where there is a valid explanation, rarer currencies can be exchanged, for example Australian dollars in Çanakkale, where the grandchildren of the Anzacs gather every year to commemorate their grandfathers, or in Kaş, which is just opposite the Greek island of Kastelorizo, which in turn has a large diaspora in Australia. Generally speaking, if a place attracts many visitors from one country, it is possible to exchange that country’s currency there.
Tourist-oriented industries in the cities, as well as shops where large amounts of money change hands, such as supermarkets, usually accept foreign currency in most parts of the country (usually limited to the euro and the US dollar), but the rates they accept are usually somewhat lower than those in exchange offices. Ask first if they accept foreign currency.
Credit cards and ATMs
Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted, American Express much less so. All credit card users must enter their PIN code when using their card. Holders of older magnetic cards are exempt, but remember that unlike elsewhere in Europe, vendors have the right to ask you to present a valid photo ID to confirm that you are the owner of the card. ATMs are scattered throughout the cities, concentrated in central areas. It is possible to withdraw Turkish lira (and rarely foreign currency) from these machines using your foreign card. Every major city has at least one ATM.
ATMs ask you to give instructions in English or Turkish (and sometimes in other languages) as soon as you insert a foreign card (or a Turkish card that is not that of the operating bank). When you withdraw money from ATMs, if the ATM in question does not belong to the bank where you already have an account, it takes a certain percentage (usually 1%) of what you withdraw from your account each time. This percentage is higher for early withdrawals with your credit card.
No institution charges an additional commission for the use of a credit card.
In general, tipping is not considered obligatory. However, it is very common to tip 5-10% in restaurants if you are satisfied with the service. In upscale restaurants, a tip of 10-15% is common. It is NOT possible to add the tip to the credit card bill. It is very common for Turks to pay the bill with a credit card and leave the tip in cash or coins. Most waiters will return your money in coins if possible, as Turks do not like to carry coins and usually leave them at the table.
Taxi drivers do not expect a tip, but it is customary to give them change. If you insist on getting exact change, ask para üstü? (pronounced “pah-rah oos-too”, which means “change”). The driver will be reluctant to give it back to you at first, but you will eventually manage.
If you are lucky enough to try a Turkish bath, it is customary to tip 15% of the total amount and divide it among all participants. This is an important point to bear in mind when tipping in Turkey and will ensure that your experience is smooth and enjoyable.
Supermarket cashiers usually round up the total amount to the nearest 5 kuruş when you pay in cash (but the exact amount is deducted when you pay by credit card). This is not a type of involuntary tipping, as the 2-3-4 kuruşes do not go into their pockets. It is simply because they are not sufficiently stocked with 1 kuruş coins, as these are very rare in circulation. So don’t be surprised if the change you get is a few kuruşes less than what the electronic cash register board tells you. It is perfectly normal to pay the exact amount if you have a sufficient number of 1 kuruş coins.
In Turkey, negotiating is a must. You can negotiate anywhere that doesn’t seem too luxurious: shops, hotels, bus company offices, etc. During negotiations, don’t show yourself as impressed and interested, and be patient. As foreigners (especially from the West) are not expected to be good negotiators, sellers are quick to reject any attempt at negotiation (or at least look like it), but be patient and wait, the price will come down! (Remember that even if the negotiation attempt is successful, if you take your credit card out of your wallet instead of cash, the agreed price may go up again, but probably to a lower level than the original).
VAT Refund – You can get a VAT refund (currently 18% or 23% on most items) if you are not a citizen or permanent resident of Turkey. Look for the blue “Tax-Free” sticker on the window or entrance of shops, only there you can get a VAT refund. Don’t forget to take the necessary documents from the shop that will allow you to get the VAT back when you leave Turkey.
Although Turkey has a customs union with the European Union for certain goods, unlike the situation in the EU, there is currently no initiative to abolish duty-free shops at airports.
What to buy?
Besides the classic tourist souvenirs like postcards and trinkets, here are some examples of what you can bring back from Turkey.
- Leather clothing – Turkey is the largest leather producer in the world, so leather clothing is cheaper than elsewhere. Many shops in the Laleli, Beyazıt, Mahmutpaşa neighbourhoods of Istanbul (around the tram line that runs through Sultanahmet Square) specialise in leather.
- Rugs and Kilims – Many regions of Turkey produce handmade kilims and rugs. Although the symbols and figures vary depending on the region where the rug is made, they are generally symbolic expressions based on ancient Anatolian religions and/or Turkish nomadic life that developed around shamanic beliefs over 1000 years ago. Shops specialising in handmade rugs and kilims can be found in all major cities, tourist areas and the Sultanahmet region.
You really can’t go anywhere in Turkey without someone trying to sell you a carpet. People approach you on the street, engage you in a friendly little conversation about where you’re from, how you like Turkey, and ask you: “Would you like to come with me to my uncle’s shop? It’s just around the corner and they have the best authentic kilims”. It can be irritating to be let go, but remember that a big part of these people’s economy comes from tourists’ wallets, so you can’t blame them for trying.
- Silk – dresses and scarves. Although they are available in many parts of the country, silk lovers should travel to Bursa and learn the basics of haggling beforehand.
- Earthenware – Cappadocian handmade pottery (amphorae, old-fashioned plates, flower pots, etc.) is made from local salted clay. The salinity of the clay, thanks to the salt spray produced by the Salt Lake – the second largest lake in Turkey – in the heart of Central Anatolia, makes the local pottery of the highest quality. In some towns in Cappadocia, it is possible to see or even experience the making of these artefacts in designated workshops. The classic Ottoman patterned tiles produced in Kütahya are also famous.
- Turkish coffee and Turkish lokumas – If you like them during your trip to Turkey, don’t forget to take some packets home. They are available everywhere.
- Honey – The pine honey (çam balı) from Marmaris is famous and has a much more distinctive taste and consistency than ordinary flower honey. Although it is not easy to come by, if you can find it, don’t miss the honey from the Macahel Valley, which is made from the flowers of a semi-deciduous temperate forest that is almost completely out of human reach, in the far northeast of the Black Sea region.
- Chestnut dessert – Made from syrup and chestnuts grown in the foothills of Mount Uludağ, chestnut dessert (kestane şekeri) is a famous and delicious product from Bursa. There are many variations, e.g. covered with chocolate. Chestnut-based desserts are also available elsewhere, but they are relatively more expensive and in smaller packages.
- Souvenirs made from scum – Despite its name meaning “sea foam”, which it resembles, scum (lületaşı) is only mined in one place in the world: in the landlocked province of Eskişehir in the extreme northwest of the Central Anatolia region. This rock, which looks like gypsum at first glance, is carved into smoking pipes and cigarette holders. It has a soft, creamy texture and makes an excellent decorative object. Available in selected shops in Eskişehir.
- Castilian soap (olive oil) – Natural, a silky feeling on the skin and a warm Mediterranean atmosphere in your bathroom. Absolutely cheaper than in Northern and Western Europe. The street markets of the Aegean region and the southern Marmara region are full of olive oil soap, almost all handmade. Even some elderly people in the Aegean region make their Castilian soap in the traditional way: during or shortly after the olive harvest, neighbours gather in yards around large wood-fired cauldrons, and then the wash extracted from the wood ash is added to the hot water-olive oil mixture. Don’t forget that supermarkets in the Aegean region usually only sell industrial soaps made from tallow and laced with chemicals. In the towns of the Aegean region, you can find natural soap with olive oil in specialised olive and olive oil shops. Some of these shops even offer organic soaps: made from organic olive oil and sometimes with the addition of organic essential oils.
- Other soaps that are unique to Turkey are: Laurel soaps (defne sabunu), produced mainly in Antakya (Antioch), Isparta soaps, enriched with rose oil and produced in abundance in the Isparta region, and bıttım sabunu, a soap made from the seed oil of a local variety of the pistachio tree, native to the mountains of the south-eastern region. In Edirne, soaps are made in the form of various fruits. They are not used for their lather but make a good assortment, when different “fruits” are placed in a basket on a table, they also fill the air with their sweet fragrance.
- Olive-based products, apart from soap – olive oil-based shampoos, olive oil-based colognes and zeyşe, an abbreviation of the first syllables of zeytin şekeri, a dessert similar to chestnut desserts but made from olives, are other olive-based products to try.
WARNING: Bringing an antique (defined as over 100 years old) out of Turkey is subject to strict restrictions or, in many cases, prohibited. If someone offers to sell you an antique, they are either a liar trying to sell cheap imitations or they are committing a crime in which you are an accomplice if you buy the object.