Where to Exchange Currency Without Paying High Fees

Almost every overseas traveler needs to exchange currency at some point during a trip. If you don’t know the tricks, it can be extremely expensive. Trading currency at the hotel or even a currency kiosk in an airport or elsewhere in the country can be costly due to poor exchange rates and high fees. For that reason, travelers should look to convert their currency before embarking on a trip or know where to go to save on changing money while abroad.

Key Takeaways

  • Because of high currency exchange fees, travelers should consider converting their currency before traveling.
  • Banks, credit unions, online bureaus, and currency converters provide convenient and often inexpensive currency exchange services.
  • Once on foreign soil, the best means to convert currency is to use a foreign automated teller machine (ATM) or identify whether your bank has ATMs or banking affiliates nearby.
  • Many credit and debit card issuers allow users to purchase items overseas using their cards without foreign transaction fees.

Exchanging Currency at Home and Overseas

Start by finding out what a fair exchange rate is for the country or countries you'll be visiting. Check key currency exchange websites first. The following are some of the best and least expensive places to convert currency:

  • Local banks and credit unions usually offer the best rates.
  • Major banks, such as Chase or Bank of America, often offer the added benefit of having ATMs overseas.
  • Online bureaus or currency converters, such as Travelex, provide convenient foreign exchange services.

Ordering cash online will likely include delivery charges and the exchange rate won’t be as good as with your bank; however, this is still a better option when compared with the must-avoid options below.

The best option for exchanging currency and saving fees is to use a foreign ATM or your own bank's ATMs overseas, if possible.

Piggybacking on the suggestion above, if you don’t have time to get the foreign currency before leaving or don’t want to carry a lot of cash, check to see if your bank has ATMs in the destination country. It may even have banking affiliates there. A key tip is to use an ATM within the airport as soon as you arrive.

When you’re back in the U.S., head to your bank or credit union to transfer any leftover foreign currency to U.S. dollars. It's important to note that some banks will not take foreign currency. As a last resort, if you have foreign currency leftover before you depart the country you're visiting, look to convert it at an airport kiosk or a store before leaving.

Using Credit Vs. Cash for Foreign Transactions

The world has become so digital that most people no longer walk around foreign countries with traveler's checks and money belts. That’s why you should take both a no-foreign-fee debit card and a no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card with you. The likes of Chase, Bank of America, Capital One, and other major credit card issuers offer specific no-foreign-transaction-fee cards.

It is best to primarily use a no-transaction-fee credit card, rather than cash, on an overseas trip as it will likely offer fraud protection; use currency only as a backup. You can replace lost or stolen credit cards, but lost cash can never be replaced.

However, don’t use your credit card for a cash advance to receive foreign currency. Doing so means you’ll get hit with a cash advance fee and a high interest rate that starts accruing immediately.

The widespread use and enhancement of technology have helped make using credit and debit cards possible in most parts of the world. However, there are exceptions, so it is worth investigating whether your destination accepts debit or specific cards before you go on a trip.

Other Travel Tips

One thing to do before traveling abroad is to let your bank and credit card companies know of your travel plans, although some banks are moving away encouraging from this practice. That way, if you use your credit or debit card abroad, these companies won’t cut off access to your account due to concerns of fraud.

Also, avoid paying in U.S. dollars while outside the country when possible, even if a merchant offers to convert them for you. This includes paying with a credit or debit card. The merchant would likely convert at a rate that’s disadvantageous to you and charge fees. The same goes for paying with U.S. dollars in the form of cash.

Worst Places to Exchange Currency

Some places that you should avoid for exchanging currency are:

  1. Airport kiosks and stores when heading to a country (not to be confused with airport ATMs): Plan ahead, as airport kiosks generally charge some of the highest fees and have the worst exchange rates. When returning to the U.S. with foreign currency to trade in, however, this sometimes might be the only option.
  2. Traveler’s checks and prepaid debit cards: These are not efficient and often carry various transaction fees. They add little benefit, in terms of security, when compared with cash. Prepaid debit cards also come with card fees, foreign transaction costs, and ATM-use charges. 

Where Can You Exchange Currency?

Banks, credit unions, and online currency exchange bureaus and converters provide convenient and often inexpensive currency exchange services. Also, your own bank's overseas ATM or a foreign bank's are ways to get local currency with a credit card or ATM card once you have arrived. Among the worst options are trading currency at a hotel or a currency kiosk in an airport or elsewhere in the country because these can be costly due to poor exchange rates and high fees.



What Are the Alternatives to Exchanging Currency?

Travelers can rely solely on their credit cards for purchases, if accepted everywhere in a country being visited. It's also still an option to bring traveler's checks, although these mostly have been supplanted by the widespread use of credit cards today. You can also choose to spend U.S. dollars in some instances while overseas, but this practice isn't recommended because the exchange rate given in a foreign country is often disadvantageous to the purchaser.

What Can I Do With Leftover Foreign Currency?

When you’re back home, you can go to your bank or credit union to transfer any leftover foreign currency into your own country's currency. Be aware that some banks will not take all foreign currencies. As a last resort, if you have foreign currency left over before you depart the country you're visiting, look to convert it at an airport kiosk or a store before leaving.

The Bottom Line

If you do a little homework before leaving for your trip by checking exchange rates, you’re likely to save. Remember to stick to ATMs and no-transfer-fee credit card spending, and avoid exchanging money at airport kiosks, hotels, and buying things with U.S. dollars to avoid costly exchange rates and fees.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Bank of America. "Foreign Currency Exchange."

  2. Chase. "No Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Cards."

  3. Bank of America. "Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees."

  4. Capital One. "Credit Card Frequently Asked Questions."

  5. Chase. "Do I Need to Notify a Credit Card Company When Traveling?"

  6. Wise. "Why You Should Not Exchange Currency at the Airport."