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 kicked off 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.

Benefits of Currency Exchanges

If you're a foreign traveler, the cheapest way to get dollars is often to use your credit card at an ATM. These generally offer the lowest exchange rates between your home currency and U.S. dollars. However, transaction and ATM fees can quickly add up (more on this under “Americans Abroad: ATMs and Banks,” below). It’s for that reason, among others, that some travelers prefer to use a currency exchange. While currency exchanges rarely offer exchange rates that come in as favorably as ATMs, they tend to charge lower transaction fees. 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. 

Currency Exchanges in Boston

Whether it's dollars you need – or a handful of Thai baht or Danish kroner for the security of knowing you'll be covered when you arrive in Bangkok or Copenhagen airport – you could do well to head for the recommended 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. No coins are accepted. 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. 

On well-traveled Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay, you’ll find Travelex Currency Services. This location near the Boston Public Library 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. If you hope to exchange less than that – say, just enough for a taxi from the airport to your Mexico City hotel plus your arrival dinner – Travelex remains a better option than most banks, which often require a minimum transaction amount. One hundred dollars is typical, though not the rule.

Americans Abroad: ATMs and Banks

When you're outside the U.S., ATMs offer the most efficient way to get foreign cash, along with the best exchange rates. However, it’s crucial to research your bank's policy on overseas withdrawals. Many times, a traveler has returned home from a jaunt abroad to face not only jet lag but also the shock of finding countless $5 charges on his or her checking account

The sticker shock doesn’t always end there. It’s common for U.S. banks to not only charge a $2 to $5 fee at foreign ATMs but also to take a small percentage on the amount of cash withdrawn. The latter is usually called a foreign transaction fee and varies from about 1% to 3% of the withdrawal. See How Foreign Transaction Fees Work for more on this and advice on charging your cash withdrawals to a credit card instead of your bank debit card.

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.

If you travel abroad regularly, it pays to open an account at a bank, such as Capitol 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.

Foreigners in Boston

If you’re arriving in the City on a Hill from another country, 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 or your yen. In Boston, keep up on currency news by checking with the local Boston Globe or the Wall Street Journal’s financial pages. The New York Times is also widely read in Boston, although you’ll win over the locals if you read their local paper.

While it may seem like a no-brainer to follow the “no airport” rule, some travelers break it when they spot the familiar American Express sign – a trusted American travel brand that dates back to 1850. While the brand may still instill trust, the Logan Airport American Express location gets low marks, and irate customer reviews for wildly unfavorable exchange rates that come in far under market rates – rates that some travelers on social media say are far worse than airport exchange rates at foreign arrival airports.

The Bottom Line

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. And everyone who travels outside their home country would do well to seek ways to minimize paying foreign-transaction fees. You can save significantly if you do.