Exchanging currency can be a complex and potentially costly business when traveling abroad. You’ll need to know how to get the best deals for your dollars. (Spoiler alert: you won’t find them at an airport kiosk.) Here’s where to look instead.
Where to exchange currency before your trip
If you haven’t packed your bags, you may have the time to shop around for the best currency exchange rates. Here are the spots where you can exchange currency, from least to most expensive.
Your bank or credit union. Many banks, including the large institutions listed below, offer currency exchange to their customers. You may be able to order currency at a branch location or by phone or online for pickup at a branch. Sometimes this service carries a fee.
Find a location near you to get started:
Order cash through a currency converter. A number of websites sell foreign currency and deliver it to your home. Exchange rates here are less favorable, and the delivery charges will further eat into your funds.
Airport kiosks or stores. Convenient, yes — you can’t miss them. A good deal? Hardly ever. These should be a last resort for emergencies. Exchange rates are poor, and fees are numerous and high.
Where to get foreign currency abroad
Once you’ve reached your destination, finding a good deal may be more difficult. If you need fast cash, you’ll get the worst deals at the airport upon arrival, at your hotel and other stores if you’re visiting a popular tourist location. Your bank’s ATM network is the best option.
Banking with an institution that has international branches and ATMs means you may be able to withdraw cash with low fees (1% to 3%) or perhaps no fees.
Some banks and credit unions have international branches and ATMs, or they partner with institutions in different countries. If you bank at one of these institutions, you may be able to withdraw cash with low fees (1% to 3%) or perhaps no fees. Use your institution’s app to find an ATM near you. Make fewer trips to the ATM and withdraw larger amounts if your bank charges ATM fees. Out-of-network ATMs may be an option, but in addition to a possible foreign transaction fee, you could end up paying surcharges to your bank and the ATM owner.
Currency exchange after your trip
You’re likely to get the best deal at your bank, but it may not buy back all types of currency. Before leaving, find out whether your bank will buy your foreign money back after you return. If not, you can exchange your money at a currency exchange store or kiosk in the airport abroad or in the U.S., but you likely won’t get the best rate.
Try your bank or credit union first. The next best option is a currency exchange store. A kiosk in the airport abroad or in the U.S. likely won’t provide the best rates.
If you can’t sell your foreign currency, you may be able to donate it at the airport or in flight. Twelve airlines participate in UNICEF’s Change for Good program, which takes donations in foreign currency to help improve the lives of children worldwide. If you’re already back home, you can mail your unused foreign currency to the program’s office.
Save more with plastic
Figure out whether your destination is plastic-friendly. If it is, you can avoid many of these extra travel fees with a no foreign transaction fee credit card or debit card.
Consider applying for one of these credit cards or debit cards before you leave so that you can use it instead of cash wherever possible. Avoid using the credit card at ATMs or you’ll be hit with fees and interest right away for taking a cash advance.
If your destination deals more in cash, consider ordering some foreign currency before leaving. With a little bit of planning you can skip some fees and headaches.
Updated Feb. 9, 2017.