While there are several ways to exchange currency, some carry much steeper fees than others.
If you are traveling abroad, it is important to plan ahead. Do not wait until the last minute and try to exchange your money at that point.
Can you exchange currency at a bank? Yes, most banks offer some sort of currency exchange. However, many do not actually have all foreign currencies on hand and it could take up to 2 weeks to receive funds in the currency you need. Besides banks, there are websites that offer the service and even deliver to your home. Airport kiosks and some stores also offer currency exchange, but tend to charge a large fee.
What is the best way to exchange currency and avoiding big fees? It all depends on when and where you exchange.
Exchanging Before the Trip
If you haven’t waited until the last minute, there should still be time to search for the best exchange rates. It is important to exchange at least some of your money before leaving to avoid arriving in a foreign country without any usable cash for immediate things such as food or a taxi. Exchanging some of your money after arriving in the foreign country can often times get you a higher exchange rate.
Banks and credit unions typically offer the lowest fee exchanges for their customers. Because many branches do not keep all foreign money on hand, it is important to give them enough time to obtain the foreign currency. It will likely take at least a few days, but can take up to 2 weeks to get your money.
It is also important to check with your bank about possible hidden fees for using a credit, debit, or ATM card in foreign countries. No one likes to see unexpected fees on a bank statement.
There are also online currency converters that will do the job, but they do tend to charge a slightly higher fee than most banks and credit unions and they will also charge a delivery fee. Depending on the company, if you order a large amount of cash, you may be able to haggle over the delivery fee to get it reduced or removed.
Airport kiosks are set up in most international airports for travelers who did not plan ahead. These should be a last resort because they charge much higher fees than the alternatives.
Some people choose to wait until they are in the foreign country to exchange the bulk of their cash. Doing it that way often times provides a more favorable exchange rate, which means more spending money.
Depending on where you are traveling, it may be necessary to use cash for most things. Foreign businesses in some areas will only accept cash as payment.
The arrival airport is likely to have kiosks for exchange cash, but it will have high fees just like the airport kiosks in the U.S.
Some hotels and stores will offer exchanges, especially in popular tourist areas, but these will also often come with high fees.
The best option is to find a bank or ATM. Some banks will only provide the service for their customers, but they should at least be able to direct you somewhere that can help. You will normally be able to withdraw local currency with only small fees at an ATM with your ATM card or a credit/debit card. Google can guide you to a bank or ATM in your area. If Google fails, then taxi drivers are sure to know where to take you.
Exchanging After the Trip
To avoid extra fees, have a good estimate of what you will spend on your trip so you do not exchange too much money. What you do not use will need to be re-exchanged when you arrive home.
Banks will offer the best rates, but not all banks will buy back the currency. Check with your bank before leaving so you know what to expect when arriving home.
Airport kiosks are also available, but still carry the high fees associated with money exchange in an airport.
Another option is to donate the unused foreign currency to UNICEF’s Change For Good program. This can be done through some airlines or it can be mailed. UNICEF uses the money to save and improve the lives of millions of children around the world.