The originator of American currency, debatably, is among one of Massachusetts’ many claims to colonial fame. In 1690, the then–Massachusetts Bay Colony printed and circulated the soon-to-be nation’s first colonial currency. While other colonies quickly followed suit, by 1764 the British Parliament outlawed colonial currencies, making them decidedly illegal tender. When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, the Continental Congress issued its currency to finance the fight for liberty. Unsurprisingly, the British Parliament didn’t recognize this currency, either. Called “continentals,” these paper bills lacked the backing of gold or silver.

Since the British lost the Revolutionary War and the U.S. dollar officially became the nation’s legal tender, it’s become a lot easier to exchange currency in Boston. Whether you're an American seeking foreign currency for a trip abroad or a foreign visitor in the U.S., here's the best way to exchange currency in Boston.

key takeaways

  • In Boston, as in most places, the best currency exchange rates are at banks and bank ATMs—though you need to watch out for fees when using the latter.
  • Two recommended currency exchange stores in Boston are Currency Exchange International in Copley Place and the Boylston Street Travelex.
  • Avoid exchanging money at the airport, where rates tend to be the poorest.

Currency Exchange Options in Boston

Whether it's dollars you need—or a handful of Thai baht or Danish krone—you could do well to head for the Boston branch of Currency Exchange International, which advertises its services with an appealing guarantee: It claims to match (or beat) any bank on the same product or service on the same day and same time of the exchange. Bills only, though: No coins are accepted. Centrally located in Copley Place, it’s easily reachable by public transit, or the “T”: Take the Orange Line to the Back Bay Station or the Green Line to Copley Station. 

Many travelers find Travelex Currency Services remains a better option than most banks, which often require a minimum transaction amount. The Back Bay location (there are two others, in Cambridge and at the airport) near the Boston Public Library, on well-traveled Boylston Street, gets good reviews for its friendly staff and social media promotions, which sometimes offer waived transaction fees for participation. Fees are also often waived for transactions of more than $150 to $200; be sure to inquire.

General Currency Exchange Tips

If you're a foreign traveler, the cheapest way to exchange money is often to use your credit card or bank debit card at an ATM. These generally offer the lowest exchange rates between your home currency and U.S. dollars. However, it’s crucial to research your credit card's or bank's policy on overseas withdrawals, because there may be extra fees involved. If you make numerous withdrawals, these quickly add up.

When using an ATM, if given the option, always choose for the fee to be charged in the local currency.

Many times, a traveler has returned home from a jaunt abroad to face not only jet lag but also the shock of finding countless charges on their checking account. The sticker shock doesn’t always end there. It’s common for banks to not only charge the equivalent of a $2 to $5 fee at foreign ATMs (one not part of their network) but also to take a small percentage on the amount of cash withdrawn. Called a foreign transaction fee, it varies from about 1% to 3% of the withdrawal. Many credit cards also sock you for foreign transactions or currency conversions.

It’s for that reason, among others, that some travelers prefer to patronize a currency exchange store. While currency exchanges rarely offer exchange rates that come in as favorably as ATMs, they tend to charge lower transaction fees; so do a quick calculation and see which option yields the most favorable result. Keep in mind that currency exchanges, especially in major tourist areas, work in fierce competition with one another. The fiercer the competition, the more likely you’ll be able to negotiate on the transaction fee—or even sweet-talk your way to a slightly more favorable rate.

That said, you may want to forgo the airport currency exchanges—they’re notorious for offering the worst exchange rates. These shops trade on their convenience—they're usually the first option you see, once you clear customs—and the fact you might need the coin of the realm to catch a bus, train, or taxi into town. Plus, you haven't had a chance to suss out the going rates elsewhere. Even the Logan Airport American Express location gets low marks for exchange terms.

At best, use the airport outlets to exchange just enough money to get you into the city and the place you're staying.

Plan in Advance

An alternative is to check before your trip to see whether your bank carries foreign currency, or if it will order it for you: Many banks offer convenient currency exchange services for account holders. While the conversion rate should be on par with the market, always check online to compare, and if your bank’s deal seems off, mention it to your banker.

it’s prudent to gain a pre-departure grasp of the exchange rate between your country’s currency and the U.S. dollar. Of course, markets are volatile, and currencies can drop or rise in a day, but usually—excepting war, political upheavals, natural disasters or market crashes—checking in advance will give you a generally excellent picture of what you’ll get for your euro, pound, or yen. Once in Beantown (one of the city's affectionate nicknames), keep up on currency news by checking with the local Boston Globe or The Wall Street Journal’s financial pages.

Whether you're visiting Boston—or leaving it to travel outside the
U.S.—it pays to research exchange rates in advance to make sure you're
being offered a fair rate. If you're an American who travels abroad regularly, it pays to open an account at an online financial institution, such as Capital One 360 or Charles Schwab (the banking side of the securities broker), that doesn’t charge a transaction fee or a fee for using an overseas ATM. Such banks are rare, however, which is why a credit card with no foreign transaction fee that lets you withdraw cash from an ATM is a good thing to have in your wallet.