I was reading through a discussion thread over at Duolingo — one in which several different terms for “purse,” “handbag,” and “wallet” were mentioned. By the end of it, I was confused myself, so I took the time to write an article on it. You can link to that article here:

“Is a “cartera” really a “purse?”

The article is a bit long, but if you do a search (CTRL+F) for "Chile," it should take you to the section most relevant to this question here.

The one major question that still remains for me, though, is the one I’ve posted here. If you read my article, I’ve used the power of deduction to make a good guess about which countries use the word “cartera” to mean “purse,” but it wasn’t an exact science and I’d love to get a more informative answer to include the reason some countries use “cartera” instead of “bolso” to mean “purse.”

¿Dónde se utiliza “cartera” en el sentido de “purse” o “handbag” y por qué es ésa la palabra para “purse” (o handbag) en lugar de “bolso”?

Estaba leyendo un hilo de discusión de Duolingo — uno en el que varios términos diferentes para “purse”, “handbag”, y “wallet” se mencionaron. Al fin de todo, estaba confundida, así que me tomé tiempo para escribir un artículo sobre eso. El vínculo a ese artículo aparece a continuación:

“Is a “cartera” really a “purse?””

Es un poco largo, pero si haces una búsqueda (Ctrl+F) de "Chile", debería tomarte a la sección más relevante a esta pregunta aquí.

La única pregunta de gran importancia que todavía me resta, sin embargo, es la que he publicado aquí. Si lees mi artículo, he usado el poder de deducción a hacer una buena suposición sobre qué países utilizan la palabra “cartera” para significar “purse”, pero no es una ciencia exacta y me encantaría obtener una respuesta más informativa para incluir la razón por la que algunos países utilizan “cartera” en lugar de “bolso” para significar “purse.”

  • 3
    Note by the way that in British English women carry a handbag which may they may use to contain a purse inside it where they keep their money. But we do understand that in the US you call it a purse.
    – mdewey
    Nov 5, 2018 at 11:56
  • The short answer is because a cartera, besides being a wallet in Spanish, is where you keep your money. Just like your purse or handbag.
    – Lambie
    Nov 5, 2018 at 20:05
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because "Why is this the word for such-and-so" is off topic here. However, if that part is taken out, the regionalism aspect would work fine as an on-topic question. Mar 2, 2019 at 3:04
  • 3
    "Why is this the word for such-and-so" is off topic here I'm not that sure about that statement. We have a tag "etimología" for questions about the origin of the words (and how they evolved into their current form). We have preexisting questions like ¿Por qué no decimos “crocodilo”? or ¿Por qué escribimos “móvil” con “v”, si viene del latín “mobĭlis” ... which basically ask "how come that this word evolved in this way instead of some other?", which is "why is A the word for X instead of B?"
    – Diego
    Mar 4, 2019 at 18:34

3 Answers 3


I'm afraid this answer will have multiple acceptable answers, but I can answer for Argentina and give my reasons, and then we'll see if they hold for other countries.

In Argentina, in general, cartera generally means a woman's purse or handbag, with a handle and optionally a shoulder strap. The bulkier this gets, the more likely is it to be called bolso instead. Some will call a clutch bag (without a handle) also cartera, but I believe the English word clutch is in use too.

Men might use a cartera but in that case it's almost always a type of clutch with no handles or straps, like an oversized wallet (billetera). Men carry around a billetera in their pockets, but if they have a cartera, it's probably the thing where they keep their driver's license and other important papers, and they put it in the car's glovebox.

If you search for cartera de hombre in places like MercadoLibre.com.ar you'll find lots of bigger things, some resembling what was traditionally called a portafolios (briefcase), and some bulky handbags with shoulder straps. I've never heard these called carteras myself.

Bolso is used to mean a (generally big) handbag that is employed for some specific use and is durable. Unlike carteras, these need not be fashion accessories. So you have bolso deportivo for "sports bag", bolso de viaje for "traveling bag", etc. The bulky things I described just above would actually be called bolsos by most people I know.

Bolsa is most often reserved for shopping bags, made of plastic or paper. The connotation of the word is strongly utilitarian and suggests cheap, discardable items; fashion and bolsas don't come together. If you take a non-discardable cloth bag to the supermarket, then that's a bolso, not a bolsa.

I have no idea why cartera is preferred over other words here. But the thing that sets carteras apart is that they're supposed to be small, portable, and able to keep important personal items. A popular way to speak of something that is small and convenient and can be carried around all the time is that it's made para la cartera de la dama y el bolsillo del caballero, i.e. "for the lady's purse and the gentleman's pocket". This is a rather old-fashioned expression but it's still valid because women's pants are often made so that pockets are unusable and men are not used to carry around clutches or purses. So that shows to what degree carteras are viewed as equivalent to pockets, at least for some functions. Neither bolso nor bolsa have this connotation; indeed, for the most part the obvious relationship between bolso and bolsillo goes unnoticed. Bolso and bolsa suggest something that is large compared to what it usually contains, and that expands to contain it, and so on; not so cartera, which suggets a small container for small things that don't move around in it (remember I said big carteras cause some vacillation, and people tend to call them bolsos if they become too large).

This is probably too rambling and speculative for a good answer but maybe it can serve as the basis for something more structured.

  • I certainly remember a woman in Chile getting out of the car and saying to me, quedas aqui con mi cartera but I have no idea of finer distinctions.
    – mdewey
    Nov 5, 2018 at 11:58
  • We Chilean have the same use as described by @pablodf76 for Argentinians. Cartera: generally and mainly a woman purse. As an immigrant in Spain, I can also say that Spaniards use cartera, also generally, for wallet. Nov 7, 2018 at 10:58
  • 1
    Sorry, I have forgotten to comment about bolso, which in Chile is mainly understood as a duffel bag of any size; small or big it is a bolso, while the container for notebooks of the students, before the mochila (back-pack) era, was the bolsón, which was a kind of briefcase mainly made of leather with a strip-belt to be hanged on the shoulder crossing the chest and back to one side Nov 7, 2018 at 11:20
  • No, certainly not rambling at all. I found it immensely interesting and valuable ... especially that bit about the non-discardable cloth bags that many are now using instead of plastic bags. I wondered about them, but wasn't sure how to go about efficiently getting a solid answer, so I just kind of let that float backward a bit and actually even thought it possible that maybe some might refer to them as a bolsa, too, but now I know they're actually referred to as bolsos, at least in Argentina. However, I'd imagine this to be true elsewhere as well. Mil gracias por tu respuesta.
    – Lisa Beck
    Nov 10, 2018 at 8:09
  • BTW, for anyone reading this, I awarded the green check mark rather early on this question just because I liked this particular answer so much, but please don't let that stop you from adding one of your own if you've got something to add/contribute. It would be difficult to beat pablodf76's, but I will reassign the green check mark if another answer surpasses it. Even if it doesn't, a unique, relevant answer is always valuable, even if it isn't awarded a green check mark.
    – Lisa Beck
    Nov 10, 2018 at 21:54

Well, first of all, we should have a look at the DRAE:


1. f. Objeto cuadrangular de pequeñas dimensiones hecho de piel u otro material, plegado por su mitad, que puede llevarse en el bolsillo y sirve para contener documentos, tarjetas, billetes de banco, etc.

2. f. Objeto de forma cuadrangular hecho de cuero u otra materia generalmente flexible, con asa para llevarlo y que puede contener documentos, papeles, libros, etc.

3.f. [...]

4. f. Bolso de mujer pequeño y plano que se lleva en la mano, generalmente sin asa.

5. f. [...]

6. f. Empleo de ministro (‖ responsable de uno de los departamentos de la Administración).


9. f. Am. Bolso de las mujeres.

Now, I'll focus on Spain, which is the case I know.

The first thing you'd think of when reading "la cartera" is "wallet." That's the first meaning of the word.

Besides that, it is also used for a handbag (meaning #2), but it is not a fashion element. Rather it is considered working equipment. In fact, there's a really fine line between "cartera" and "maletín." Many people would say "cartera" for "maletín."

Ministers used to carry them. That's why the language has adopted the 6th meaning. Ministers do carry "carteras," and when they "take the cartera," it means they just started their job.

So, as I see it, "cartera" is very different than "bolso," which is "purse." That's a fashion element / an ordinary accessory, nothing to do with carrying formal/working papers.

On the other hand, #9 says that, in America, it is used as a purse, so that might be the answer you're looking for. Although it's true that it seems to also have a more general use, according to #4, but I have never heard it used that way in Spain.

Note: I also remember when my grandparents used to say "cartera" for the school bag. That's because, decades ago, children used to take "maletines" (carteras) to school.


I don't get exactly what you expect from us. But let's try.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary


1 . [UK US] change purse a small container for money, usually used by a woman
2. [US] a handbag

The first meaning in Spain is usually represented by monedero.

According to the D.R.A.E
monedero, ra

  1. m. Bolsa, saquillo u objeto pequeño de otra forma, en cuyo interior se lleva dinero en metálico.

The second meaning, handbag, in Spain is usually represented by bolso.


  1. m. Bolsa de mano por lo común pequeña, hecha de cuero, tela u otra materia, provista de cierre y frecuentemente de asa, que utilizan en particular las mujeres para llevar dinero, documentos, objetos de uso personal, etc.

This definition matches the one offered by the Cambridge Dictionary for handbag


a small bag for money, keys, make-up, etc., carried especially by women

And finally, the main meaning of cartera in Spain is wallet. Let's compare the afore mentioned dictionaries again


  1. f. Objeto cuadrangular de pequeñas dimensiones hecho de piel u otro material, plegado por su mitad, que puede llevarse en el bolsillo y sirve para contener documentos, tarjetas, billetes de banco, etc.


billfold, a small folding case for carrying paper money, credit cards and other flat objects, that can be carried in a pocket and is used especially by men

Spanish women usually carry a bolso [handbag] and inside it, they may have both a monedero [purse] with coins and a wallet [cartera] with documents and notes.

Cartera is not used to identify neither a monedero nor a bolso.

A cartera may be used, as registered in the D.R.A.E, to identify a leather bag to carry documents or books.

  1. f. Objeto de forma cuadrangular hecho de cuero u otra materia generalmente flexible, con asa para llevarlo y que puede contener documentos, papeles, libros, etc.
  • 2
    I wish the downvoter had explained their vote. As far as I can tell, this is a helpful answer, and it's clearly written with nice formatting and solid documentation. Mar 2, 2019 at 3:07
  • @aparente001 Thanks!
    – RubioRic
    Mar 2, 2019 at 3:09

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