Most experienced travelers recommend exchanging U.S. dollars for foreign currency in bulk before you travel outside the country. To get the best foreign exchange rates without paying large fees, try your bank or credit union first, know which places to avoid making currency exchanges and be aware of some solid alternatives to keep your options open.
Below, we’ve broken down where to exchange foreign currency at the best rates while avoiding large fees.
In this article, we’ll cover:
Where to exchange currency in the US
The best, most cost-effective places to exchange and convert currency in the U.S. are:
Banks and credit unions
Before you leave on your international trip, check with your bank or credit union for their currency exchange services and rates. Generally, banks will offer their checking or savings account customers currency exchange online, by phone or in person at cheaper rates than other sources.
Conveniently, some banks, like Wells Fargo and Bank of America, provide online orders that are deducted from your checking or savings account. In some cases, a bank will exchange currency fee-free, while others may charge you a fee if you order less than a certain amount of cash (often less than $1,000). Currency can be shipped to your home address, office or nearest branch (sometimes for a fee, depending on the size of the order).
The fees associated with currency exchange — and turnaround for receiving your new currency — can vary among institutions. Among five banks that ValuePenguin reviewed, the typical time to receive your money at home or at the branch was one to seven business days. For some banks, orders completed before a certain time can be eligible for next-day delivery. Be sure to shop around and request your new currency with plenty of time to spare before your trip.
Pro traveler tip: It’s always a good idea to let your bank know you’re traveling for fraud protection purposes.
Currency exchange websites
Currency exchange websites, such as Currency Exchange International (CXI) and US First Exchange, are centralized online platforms that tend to offer competitive exchange rates, serving as a convenient option for securely purchasing foreign currency. Order through the exchange site and the cash will be delivered directly to you.
Keep in mind, though, that when it comes to ordering cash online, some currencies may not be available to exchange and some countries may have monetary policies and convertibility restrictions. And even though online exchange rates can be a bit higher than your bank’s (and bring delivery charges), this is still a more favorable option than some we list in sections below.
Do some research to find the right online currency exchange website with:
- The best exchange rates
- Lower fees
- Cash delivery and/or pickup options
- A wide array of countries and currencies for exchange
- Exchange rate tools
- Any other additional services and support
Where to exchange currency abroad
Just in case your bulk cash stash still isn’t enough, you may need an exchange option for when you arrive at your destination. So where should you get your foreign dollars while abroad?
An ATM (preferably in your network)
The best way to exchange currency abroad while avoiding fees is through your bank’s ATM network. Before travel, check to see if your bank has an ATM network — or even bank affiliates — at your destination so you have a better chance of avoiding unnecessary fees. During your travels, be on the lookout for ATMs with your bank’s logo.
Pro traveler tip: Find your bank’s ATMs at the airport as soon as you land. This is different from airport kiosks — you want to avoid those, but we will cover more on that later.
When using foreign ATMs out of your network, it’s wise to keep the number of withdrawals low by taking out larger amounts of cash at a time. This reduces the number of fees you could pay, such as foreign transaction fees (for converting U.S. dollars into a foreign currency) or international ATM fees (for using a foreign ATM).
Some banks offer accounts that are tailored to international travel. Schwab Bank’s High Yield Investor Savings Account, for example, includes a debit card with no foreign transaction fees and unlimited reimbursements for using non-Schwab ATMs worldwide. (These benefits are as of May 2022 — always be sure to read the fine print of any account before signing up to understand what it offers.)
Where not to exchange currency abroad
There are other options for exchanging currency while abroad — some very convenient, though a little deceiving.
Airport kiosks, hotels or transportation hubs
Your last resort for converting currency should be exchange counters at airports or kiosks near hotels or in train stations. While they may be convenient to access, these approaches are solely meant to make a profit (and not for you). You will see high ATM fees and not-so-favorable conversion rates.
Currency exchange stores
Another place for bad exchange rates: currency exchange stores in touristy locations. When you arrive at your destination, you may find exchange shops at various markets or popular outdoor areas. These stores are strategically placed where tourists will find them, but you can find much better rates elsewhere.
While ATMs are fast and convenient, make sure to avoid withdrawing cash from an independent or private ATM operator. These are not affiliated with banks and on top of being much more expensive, they can be higher-risk for security issues. Always go with a bank-affiliated ATM and even better, one in your bank’s network.
Alternatives to exchanging currency
You can avoid the hassle of converting currency by using credit cards, debit cards or special travel prepaid cards, which may also be safer to carry than a wallet full of cash. Additionally, traveler’s checks offer security measures if they are lost or stolen.
Credit cards and debit cards
With a debit card, you have instant access to your cash, which helps you stay on budget. And by using a credit card, you get access to more funds and more security in general, since they aren’t linked to your checking or savings account. However, note that using either option can result in fees.
Both payment methods tend to be more convenient than carrying a pocket full of cash, so it couldn’t hurt to use a combination of the two. Some banks — like Bank of America, Chase Bank and US Bank — even offer cards with no foreign transaction fees, meaning there’s no extra cost to using your card abroad. There is still a risk of losing your card during your travels, but that’s why some seasoned travelers get credit card travel insurance.
Prepaid travel cards
With prepaid travel cards, you add a chosen amount of money to your card before leaving home. While these cards are helpful for staying on a budget and as easily replaceable as a traveler’s check, you may experience more fees (e.g., inactivity fees or ATM withdrawal fees) than credit or debit cards. It tends to be easier to find credit cards with no foreign transaction fees.
Keep in mind that prepaid cards typically have daily reload and withdrawal limits, and cardholders may run into pre-authorized cost increases at certain service merchants, such as restaurants, car rental agencies and hotels. If anyone chooses to use a prepaid travel card, it’s usually for the fraud protection benefits and travel budgeting. Otherwise, you won’t see the same fee-free benefits you can get with a debit or credit card.
Traveler’s checks are paper checks of a prepaid fixed amount that work like cash. They’re easily replaced or refunded if you know the unique serial numbers of the checks, and you won’t experience a withdrawal fee or expiration date. However, this method is fairly outdated, and there aren’t many issuers today — mainly largescale banks. You’ll also pay an exchange fee when purchasing a traveler’s check.
Frequently asked questions
How do I exchange currency?
To exchange foreign currency, start by going to your bank or credit union. Ask about their exchange rates, how many currencies they convert, if they offer any rewards and if they have any fee-free debit or credit cards. They’re likely to offer the best exchange rates and, even in some cases, offer the exchange fee-free. Arrange for the pickup or delivery of the cash before leaving on your international trip.
How do I know I’m getting a good exchange rate?
Exchange rates are always changing. To know if you’re getting the best exchange rate possible, you will have to compare rates. Look up the current foreign exchange rates online — at XE.com or directly at the Federal Reserve — to determine how much the U.S. dollar is worth at your destination, and ask your bank for their specific currency exchange rates. Compare these rates with other banks, credit unions or online bureaus, and determine which institutions will give you more bang for your buck overseas.
Do banks do currency exchange?
Yes. Many banks and credit unions exchange currency for their customers. It may cost a small fee, but it will likely be the best exchange rate you can get.
What can you do with old foreign currency?
In many cases, banks and credit unions will convert any leftover foreign paper currency back to U.S. dollars for their customers when you return home. You may see a less favorable rate than you paid for the currency initially, but at least it’s not going unused.
How can I avoid transaction fees?
Read the fine print on your debit or credit cards and choose ones that are fee-free. Make sure your bank has a large foreign ATM footprint and will reimburse any foreign ATM fees you may accrue. Lastly, even when given the option to pay in U.S. dollars, always pay in the local currency. You will get the best rate and avoid extra fees this way.