When preparing for a trip overseas, you have many things to do, from getting passports to finding the perfect accommodations. But how will you pay for everything once you get to your destination? In many cases, you’ll need some local currency on hand for things like taxi rides, tips, and souvenir shopping. However, exchanging U.S. dollars for other currencies can be a bit tricky. Learn where to exchange currency to get the best rate and minimize fees.
How Do You Exchange Currency?
Whether you go to a currency exchange kiosk overseas, process an exchange through your local bank branch, or request the currency online, it works the same way:
- You request a different currency than you have.
- The institution processes the exchange based on its exchange rate and fees.
- You pay the amount due in one currency and receive the amount requested in the other.
But the place you choose to do the exchange could make a big difference in how much cash you end up with. For example, say you have $1,000 and you’re thinking of exchanging it for the equivalent amount in euros at an airport kiosk run by International Currency Exchange (ICE). The ICE exchange rate for U.S. dollars to euros when we were doing our research was 0.73, which would get you about €720 for your $1,000. By comparison, Wells Fargo’s rate was 0.80. Trading in your $1,000 at Wells Fargo in advance of your trip would get you €800, which is €80 (about $94) more than if you were to make the exchange at the airport.
Institutions that offer currency exchange services set their own transfer fees and exchange rates. It’s important to look at both factors to understand the total cost. While these institutions may advertise low or no fees, they often profit from the exchange rates.
Where to Exchange Currency
When it comes time to exchange currency, you have several options—both at home and abroad. You can go to:
- Your local bank or credit union
- Currency exchange kiosks (often in airports)
- Foreign ATMs with a credit or debit card
- Online money transfer services like Xoom and Western Union (use abroad)
Which option is the best? To find out, we compared the exchange rates, fees, and total costs from a variety of institutions. Here’s what we found:
Best Places to Exchange Currency in the U.S.
|Provider||USD to EUR Exchange Rate||1000 USD to EUR Conversion||Fees (USD)||Net Amount (EUR)|
|Bank of America||0.80032||€800.32||$0||€800.32|
|Currency Exchange International (partners with many credit unions)||0.77712||€777.12||$0||€777.12|
|International Currency Exchange (ICE Airport Exchanges)||0.72663||€726.63||$0||€726.63|
In the U.S., you basically have two options. You can buy the foreign currency from your bank or credit union, or you can visit dedicated currency exchanges, which are commonly found in airports or tourist districts.
Banks and credit unions tend not to have fees—at least if you’re changing an established minimum amount—but they make up for it (and then some) by charging you a less favorable exchange rate. You may have the best luck asking at your own bank for the more popular foreign currencies. In other cases, you may have to order the currency from the bank and wait for it to come in or be delivered to you. That process may come with additional delivery fees.
You can also visit currency exchange shops in tourist areas before you leave town, but these tend to have the most unfavorable rates you’ll find.
Exchanging currency before you leave your home country is not necessarily required or beneficial. Actually, you can likely access the foreign currency at a lower cost upon your arrival.
Best Places to Exchange Currency Abroad
|Provider||USD to EUR Exchange Rate||1000 USD to EUR Conversion||Fees (USD)||Fees (EUR)||Net Amount (EUR)|
|Mastercard Debit Cards ($5 ATM fee, no foreign transaction fees)||0.84943||€849.43||$5||€4||€845.43|
|Visa Debit Cards ($5 ATM fee, no foreign transaction fees)||0.84374||€843.74||$5||€4||€839.74|
|Xoom (paid with bank transfer or PayPal)||0.82685||€826.85||$0||€0||€826.85|
|Remitly (paid with debit card)||0.83044||€830.44||$4.99||€4.14||€826.30|
|Mastercard Credit Cards ($5 ATM fee; cash advance fee of $5 or 3%, whichever is greater; no foreign transaction fee)||0.84943||€849.43||$35||€30||€819.43|
|Visa Credit Cards ($5 ATM fee; cash advance fee of $5 or 3%, whichever is greater; no foreign transaction fee)||0.84374||€843.74||$35||€30||€813.74|
|Western Union (paid with debit card)||0.7572||€757.20||$7||€5||€752.20|
|International Currency Exchange (ICE airport exchanges)||0.72663||€726.63||$0||$0||€726.63|
While abroad, one of the best ways to get local currency may be by using a Visa or Mastercard debit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees to withdraw cash at an ATM. You’ll need to check with your financial institution to ensure your card will work in your destination country. And be aware that you may be charged ATM fees by your own bank and by the ATM owner overseas—which can really add up. Also, be sure to tell your bank when you’re traveling, so your card doesn’t get shut down on suspicion of fraudulent activity.
Services like Xoom and Remitly also have competitive rates and offer money pickup locations worldwide. You can create an account and request the transfer online. Then, you pay for the foreign currency using a debit card, credit card, or bank transfer. Xoom also lets you pay with PayPal. Once paid, you can pick up the foreign currency from a local cash pickup location at your destination (you cannot pick it up in the U.S.). It’s important to note the fees can vary depending on the payment method you choose. Remitly charges 3% when you pay with a credit card. Xoom doesn’t charge any fees for paying with your bank account or PayPal, but charges $17.99 for using a debit or credit card.
You may also be able to exchange currency through a bank in your destination country at a competitive rate. However, the exchange rate and fees can vary by the institution and the country you’re visiting. If you want to go this route, research the banks in the area before you go.
Where You Shouldn’t Exchange Currency
If possible, steer clear of airport exchange kiosks, as they generally have the most expensive rates. In the example above, ICE was the most expensive option—the fees reduced the net amount of currency you’d receive by 14%. Additionally, getting a cash advance from a credit card (either through an ATM or at a bank in your destination country) can come with a collection of fees, along with interest costs if you don’t pay off the balance. Depending on where you’re staying, your hotel may offer currency exchange, but that also tends to be an expensive option.
Before using a credit card to get cash in another country, be sure to check the ATM fees charged by the ATM owner and your bank, as well as cash advance fees, foreign transaction fees, and cash advance APR.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t bring a good travel rewards card on your trip (one with no foreign transaction fees). Making purchases with the card in places that accept credit cards is one of the best ways to save yourself the hassle of cash, plus, it’ll get you some of the best exchange rates going.
How to Cut Currency Exchange Costs
There are a few ways to lower the cost of exchanging money when you’re in another country, whether you’re using a card to make a purchase or exchanging currency for cash.
The first, as we’ve mentioned above, is to avoid credit and debit cards that charge foreign transaction fees for processing transactions in another currency. At around 3% per transaction, these fees add up quickly if you’re using your cards to make multiple purchases and/or withdraw funds. So if you’re going to use a credit or debit card abroad, look for one with no foreign transaction fees.
Next, when making purchases using your credit or debit card overseas, don’t accept the transaction in U.S. dollars. If you do, the merchant can process the currency exchange itself and give you a worse rate than if you’d paid in the local currency. This is known as dynamic currency conversion. Instead, accept the transaction in the foreign currency so you can benefit from the competitive exchange rates provided by Visa and Mastercard.
Lastly, don’t be lured by low transfer fees alone. They are only part of the story. Look up the most recent exchange rate from U.S. dollars to the foreign currency you’ll be using. Then, compare the exchange rates offered by providers to calculate your total costs.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is a currency exchange?
A currency exchange is an institution that buys and sells various currency types. You can use it to sell one type of currency and buy another. The buy/sell rates and fees can be set at the discretion of the institution.
How does currency exchange work?
Financial institutions are allowed to buy and sell at rates that allow them to realize gains. As a customer, you can exchange one currency for another with these companies. However, you will need to pay their fee and/or exchange rate on each transaction.
Where will you get the best currency exchange rates?
You will likely get the best currency exchange rates from a U.S.-based bank or by withdrawing money from a foreign ATM with a Visa or Mastercard debit card that doesn’t have foreign transaction or ATM fees. Both the Capital One 360 Checking Account and the HSBC Premier Checking Account offer debit cards without foreign transaction fees.