The Complete Guide to Exchanging Foreign Currency

By Sarah Li Cain · April 28, 2023 · 7 minute read

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The Complete Guide to Exchanging Foreign Currency

You’ve probably had to exchange foreign currency when traveling to another country, whether you were on a vacation or a business trip. And you likely realized it can be expensive.

Though you typically have to pay fees to access foreign currency, it’s worthwhile to learn how to do so for as little money as possible. Just knowing the ropes can help you shave down the moolah you pay to get a supply of euros, yen, or pesos.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

•   Where can you convert currency?

•   How can you get a good rate of exchange on converting currency?

•   What are the best and worst places to convert currency?

The Benefits of Exchanging Foreign Currency

Though many places will accept credit cards overseas, it can still be useful to convert your dollars to foreign currency. Here’s why:

•   There may be places that only accept cash, such as when you buy food at markets, haggle for souvenirs, or shop at stores that don’t accept any other form of payment.

•   Having some cash is a great backup form of payment in case you run across issues with your credit card.

•   Cash can be a helpful way to create a budget while traveling. Say, if you give yourself $30 a day for food, having that cash in your pocket can help you avoid going overboard vs. swiping too much with a credit card. That can keep your budget in balance.

•   Exchanging foreign currency also gives you the potential advantage of avoiding currency conversion fees and staying within your vacation budget. For instance, some international retailers give you the opportunity to pay in local or your own country’s currency. If you choose the latter, you may get a poor exchange rate.

By exchanging foreign currency ahead of time, you may be able to avoid paying more than necessary and better take advantage of more favorable exchange rates.

Finding Places to Exchange Currency

Now, for the question of where to exchange currency: In general, the best places to exchange foreign currency are locations you can visit before you head to the airport.

Banks and Credit Unions

Most major commercial banks will have foreign currency available for you to exchange. Your bank may only charge you the exchange rate and no additional fees depending on the currency you want to exchange. In this case, you may nab the most cost-effective method to exchange currency.

Your financial institution may offer several ways to request foreign currency — online, over the phone, or at your local branch.

Not all banks keep every possible currency on hand (and the same holds true for credit unions), so you may need to do some advance planning. It could take several business days to exchange currency.

Recommended: What Is a Foreign Currency Bank Account?

Withdrawing Cash Before You Leave On a Trip

It may be a good idea to have some cash on hand to exchange as you need it while traveling, especially if you’re unsure of how much you need. Keep in mind that you may have fewer options for saving on fees.

However, if you convert cash as you need it, you won’t be stuck wondering what to do with leftover foreign currency after you return home.

Another option is to withdraw cash in local currency at ATMs overseas. Ask your bank if it has any fee-free ATMS in international locations. If not, double-check to see if there are any fees, and what foreign exchange rate you may be subject to. Depending on what you learn, it could be a smart move and be a good solution to where to convert currency.

Online Currency Conversion

The last answer to “Where can I exchange currency” is with online currency conversion companies. Many offer competitive fees and exchange rates. Some may only charge you the mid-market rate — known as the “true” exchange rate or what banks charge each other. Conversion fees may be a flat rate or a percentage of the amount you exchange.

These services, like Travelex, may make cash available at their bricks-and-mortar locations or get funds to you at home.

Another advantage of online currency conversion companies is the convenience. In many cases, you may be able to initiate a currency conversion 24/7. You may also be able to receive the foreign currency as soon as within a few minutes.

If you choose to go this route, compare fees and exchange rates to see what the best fit is for your situation.

Recommended: How to Deposit Foreign Currency in Your Bank Account

Worst Ways to Exchange Foreign Currency

Now that you know where to exchange currency, take a closer look at some places to avoid, where converting currencies can wind up being more expensive than necessary.

Airport Kiosks

Exchanging your cash at kiosks at the airport usually results in some of the highest fees and less favorable exchange rates out of all the options mentioned above. However, they can be a convenient option, especially if you weren’t to exchange any currency ahead of time.

Prepaid Debit Cards

Though it depends on the prepaid debit card you choose, you may be able to use this kind of plastic outside the U.S. at international ATMs. If you do, however, you may be subject to fees such as third-party ATM fees and foreign transaction fees. Plus, the foreign currency exchange rate may not be great.

Some foreign currency conversion services may offer these cards; again, check fees and rates to see if this is a good deal.

Local Currency Conversion Kiosks

You may find currency exchange kiosks at highly-trafficked tourist attractions or even your hotel. Like airport kiosks, they’re a convenient place to exchange currency, but you could be paying high fees and facing lower than average exchange rates.

Alternatives to Exchanging Foreign Currency

Instead of exchanging cash and using it while traveling, you might use your credit or debit card if you’re traveling to another country.

Using Your Credit Card On Trips

When using your credit card overseas, try to choose one that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. That way, you’re not paying more fees than necessary. As mentioned above, choose to pay with your credit card in local currency to avoid paying more fees. (There is also the option of international credit cards you might explore.)

You’ll probably also want to avoid using your credit card for a cash advance during your trip. In most cases, you’ll end up paying a cash advance fee and interest starts to accrue immediately.

Before going on your trip, make sure to notify your credit card issuer or bank of your plans. That way, they don’t accidentally deny your transaction believing it’s fraudulent. Fortunately, though, credit card protection likely covers you if you are scammed while traveling.

Using Your Debit Card in a Foreign Country

Debit cards are typically backed by Mastercard or Visa, brands which are known around the world. You may find that you are able to use your debit card for transactions when traveling, especially where those brands are welcomed. Your debit card may also help you withdraw cash from an ATM internationally.

The Takeaway

Exchanging foreign currency before you go on your trip is most likely your best option as it tends to offer the best fees and exchange rates. Using your credit card is also great, either as a backup, or if you want fraud protection. Whichever option you choose, shop around to ensure you’re getting the best fees and rates.

Working with your bank is the best way to ensure you’re financially sound when you go on your trip. And having the right banking partner will also keep you in good shape every day when you’re home. A SoFi Checking and Savings account — though it doesn’t currently offer foreign currency exchange — has plenty of features designed to help you maximize your hard earned dollars. This includes no account fees, automatic saving features, and a competitive annual percentage yield (APY). Plus, you’ll spend and save in one place, which can simplify your money management.

Better banking is here with up to 4.20% APY on SoFi Checking and Savings.


Do banks exchange foreign currency?

Yes, most banks will exchange foreign currency. However, the types of foreign currency available will differ from one bank to another. Your financial institution may need a few days to get the currency you need.

Is it better to go to a bank or currency exchange?

In general, it’s usually better to go to a bank because you may not have to pay conversion fees depending on the currency. However, currency exchanges may also offer competitive currency exchange rates.

Where can I change currency for free?

When wondering “Where can I exchange currency?” one place where you may be able to do so for free is at your bank. This, however, will depend on the currency and your bank’s policy.

Photo credit: iStock/Anurak Tepkhamtai

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