Tourism is one of Hawaii's largest industries. In 2014, a total of 8,308,114 visitors arrived by air or by cruise ships, according to data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority. On average, each visitor stayed in Hawaii for nine days and spent $196 per day. Lodging was the largest expenditure category: At $6.3 billion, it accounted for 42% of total visitor spending. Food and beverage expenditures were the second largest category, accounting for $3 billion – or 20% of total visitor spending. Visitors also spent $2.3 billion on shopping, $1.3 billion on transportation and $1.3 billion on entertainment and recreation. 

In 2014, the United States was the largest single country of origin for visitors to Hawaii: 3.3 million came from the U.S. West and 1.7 million came from the East. As for tourists from abroad, the biggest sources were Japan (1.5 million), Canada (524,500) the Asian continent (368,000), Oceania (371,000) and Europe (143,000). Regardless of country of origin, the majority of visitors start their trips in Honolulu, and overseas travelers will have to exchange some of their home currency for U.S. dollars before heading to the beach.

Here are a few options for exchanging currency – information also useful to Honolulu residents heading abroad who want some euros or yen in their pockets before they depart. 

At the Airport

The currency exchange kiosks in airports offer notoriously bad rates, but their convenience can offset the small financial loss if you need cash right away, especially for your first meal or a ride to your resort. ICE (International Currency Exchange) currently operates six branches within the Honolulu airport: 

  • International Group Arrivals. Hours are 6:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., seven days a week. Contact: 808-839-0850.
  • International Arrivals, Main. Hours are 6:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., seven days a week. Contact: 808-839-0846.
  • International Arrivals, Outside. Hours are 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., seven days a week. Contact: 808-839-0853.
  • International Departures, Gate 12. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., seven days a week. Contact: 808-839-0819.
  • International Departures, Gate 25. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., seven days a week. Contact: 808-839-0829.
  • International Departures, Main Lobby. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., seven days a week. Contact: 808-839-0353.

ATMs

Even though a currency exchange kiosk at the airport can be convenient before leaving the airport, ATM machines offer the same convenience – plus better exchange rates. Some banks charge fees of anywhere from 3% to 8% of the transaction. Before you travel, check with your bank to find out its policy so you know what to expect. If you do pay a per-transaction fee, you can cut down on overall fees by making a few large withdrawals instead of multiple smaller ones. 

There are about a dozen ATM machines within the airport, operated by several Hawaii-based banks, including American Savings Bank, Bank of Hawaii and First Hawaiian Bank (there is one Cardtronics ATM in Baggage Claim H at the Ground Level). Once you leave the airport, you’ll find plenty of ATMs in all the usual places – shopping centers, grocery stores, near tourist attractions – but they are all Hawaii-based banks, rather than international banks that travelers may be used to seeing.

While the 10 biggest banks in the U.S. (Bank of America, Citi, Chase, Wells Fargo, etc.) have lots of ATMs and branches in most states, they have no retail presence in Hawaii. There are a few factors for that: the state’s distance from mainland U.S. (Hawaii has its own time zone, six hours behind New York City, except during Daylight Savings Time when it's five hours); a relatively small population; local competition; and high real-estate costs. (Bank of America attempted to break into the market in 1992, but ultimately sold its branches five years later to a Hawaiian bank.)

Because Hawaii doesn’t have any of the big banks with an international presence, you’ll probably end up paying a transaction fee any time you make a withdrawal. One option if you don’t want to pay ATM fees: You may be able to use your card as a debit card and get cash back at a participating retailer, such as a grocery store. (see Credit vs. Debit Cards: Which Is Better?) Many retailers place a tight cap on cash back, so there may be a $20 limit with each purchase. As such, this strategy works if you only need a little pocket change, but it’s not a good idea if you need more than a little cash.

Currency Exchange Stores

There are other currency exchanges in Honolulu away from the airport. A few options include:

Travelex – multiple locations including: 

  • 1450 Ala Moana Blvd (in the Ala Moana Shopping Center), 808-949-2813.
  • 2424 Kalakaua Ave., Ste. 202B (at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki), 808-922-3588.
  • 94-790 Lumiaina St. in Waipahu (at Waikele Premium Outlets), 808-677-0330.

Pacific Money Exchange. 339 Royal Hawaiian Ave., 808-924-9318.

Paradise Foreign Exchange. 2222 Kalakaua Ave., 808-225-3709.

The Bottom Line

A credit card is another good option for covering expenses while traveling. They are widely accepted throughout the islands, plus they limit the amount of cash you need to exchange and carry with you. Some cards charge fees that can add about 2% to 3% to the cost of any overseas transactions. If you are a frequent traveler, or if you know you’ll use your card a lot during one trip, it’s a good idea to look into a zero foreign-transaction-fee card. These cards have no fees – plus you’ll get a better exchange rate than you can get by changing your money.

One thing to keep in mind: Avoid using a credit card to get cash from an ATM or a cash advance at a bank. Interest starts accruing as soon as you have the cash in your hand, and you’ll usually pay a cash-advance fee on top of that.