The history of currency exchange is a rich and storied one, going back centuries before Chicago became a city. Records found in Amsterdam indicate that at some point during Holland's Golden Age of the 17th century, the British and the Dutch were engaged in trading coin, 200-odd years before the Windy City’s first financial institution opened in 1836.
Since then, though, Chicago’s stature as an international city has grown exponentially – and so has its financial system. Whether you're a resident embarking on an overseas trip, or a visitor coming in from abroad, you’ll find plenty of options for exchanging currency in town.
Traveling from Chicago
Are you escaping Chicago in the dead of winter to trade snow-clogged streets and icy winds for more temperate climes? Savvy international travelers have long known that you can usually find the best exchange rate by using a bank debit card at an ATM to directly withdraw local currency. But what if you want to arrive with some local currency in hand to get you through the first day (or night)?
In this case, getting the foreign bills at your own bank may be a good bet. Account-holders often receive free or discounted, currency exchange services (assuming they carry the coin of your destination's realm on hand). The bank’s conversion rate should be based on the current market rate: Check online or with the day's newspaper financial page to compare (to learn more, see Understanding The Spread in Retail Currency Exchange Rates). Some banks that don’t keep foreign currency on hand will order it for account-holders.
While you’re at your bank, do ask about its policies on foreign transaction fees. Most U.S. banks charge at least a $2 to $5 fee for withdrawals from overseas cash points, and it’s not uncommon for them to charge a percentage on the total amount withdrawn: Figure about 1% to 3% of the transaction.
If your bank doesn’t handle foreign currency – and many smaller institutions don’t – then a currency exchange operator is your next best option.
Traveling To Chicago
The first rule of international arrivals, from an economic perspective, is to avoid the currency exchange at the airport. So, as you step off the jet way into O’Hare’s newly overhauled Terminal 5 – unveiled last year after a $26 million renovation – wheel your carryon straight past the currency exchange stores and kiosks. After you clear customs, you should probably go straight to in-airport bank or bank ATM. (Now you can immediately pay for that Chicago-style deep-dish pizza with U.S. dollars. See Top Spots to To Take Your Clients in Chicago.)
But what if you have a wad of cash money to turn into dollar bills? You might head to a local bank, which will generally offer a decent exchange rate. If you’re not a U.S. resident, however, you may be charged steep transaction fees as a non-account-holder. In this scenario, your best bet may be a currency exchange in the city.
Between steep overseas ATM fees and often unfavorable bank policies, you might prefer this option anyway. Keep in mind that while currency exchanges may not offer exchange rates that can compete with the market rates offered by ATMs, their rates shouldn’t be too much lower – and their transaction fees are generally less expensive. Ultimately, currency exchanges in popular tourist cities work in competition with one another, and thus may be more flexible, especially in comparison with a bank, on negotiating either a waived transaction fee or, if you’re lucky, a better exchange rate.
Once in Chicago: Currency Exchangers
If you’re a tourist, it’s likely you’ll be hitting the city’s famed Michigan Avenue – part of which makes up the Magnificent Mile – anyway. In the Shops at North Bridge, look for Currency Exchange International, one of the city’s most reliable firms. While they don’t exchange coins, only paper, they do guarantee to match, or even exceed, the rate offered by local banks on the same day and time. They’re open far later than most banks: until 9 p.m. every day except Sundays, when they close at 7 p.m. If you’re coming by train (known in Chicago as the “L,” short for elevated) take the Red Line to the Grant Street station.
If you’re staying north of Chicago’s Loop in trendy Lincoln Park, the Clark Diversey Currency Exchange might be your best bet. Garnering excellent reviews for its consistently friendly and knowledgeable customer service, it also offers CTA transit cards. Currency must be paper – no coins accepted. If you’re headed to a late night comedy club or blues show and need to exchange, say, your Chinese yuan for dollars, this is your place: it’s open from 8 a.m. to midnight every day of the week.
A convenient drive from O’Hare airport, if you’re heading into the city, is Devon-Central Currency Exchange. Located in the northwest area of Chicago, this friendly, family-owned business has been operating since 1951.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve done your pre-trip research, you have a good grasp on the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and home country’s currency. Upon arrival, you can double-check the rate by picking up a newsstand copy of the "Chicago Tribune" or "Chicago Sun-Times" (both available at O’Hare newsstands) or look up the current market rate on your smart phone. However you plan to change your coin, you’ll want to have an accurate sense of the rates – before the transaction occurs.