The history of currency exchange is a rich and storied one, going back centuries before Chicago became a city. In the 17th century, as the silver coin grew more popular in Europe, merchants required scales to calculate exchanges between all the different currencies.

Since then, though, Chicago’s stature as an international city has grown exponentially, as 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.

Key Takeaways

  • Chicago is an international travel destination as well as a major commercial and financial hub in America's Midwest.
  • As a result, foreigners visiting the Windy City will often have to change money to U.S. dollars.
  • You can easily find money changers at O'Hare Airport, at several bank and money exchange locations in the city, and through the city's numerous ATM machines.

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. 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. Many banks charge at least a small fee for withdrawals from overseas ATMs, and it’s not uncommon for them to charge a percentage on the total amount withdrawn: Figure about 1% to 3% of the transaction.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 arrival, from an economic perspective, is to avoid the currency exchange at the airport. So, as you step off the jetway into O’Hare’s Terminal 5 (overhauled in 2014 after a $26 million renovation) wheel your carry-on straight past the currency exchange stores and kiosks. After you clear customs, you should probably go straight to an in-airport bank or bank ATM. (Now you can immediately pay for that Chicago-style deep-dish pizza with U.S. dollars.)

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.

This exchange accepts coins and bills and guarantees to match, or even exceed, the rate offered by local banks on the same day and time. They are open Monday through Friday until 7 p.m. and closed on the weekends. 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. Clark Diversey is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekends.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve done your pre-trip research, you have a good grasp of the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and your 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 smartphone. However you plan to change your coin, you’ll want to have an accurate sense of the rates before the transaction occurs.