Where can you exchange currency without paying large fees?

Adam Rozsa
21.01.22
4 minute read

Planning a trip and wondering: where can I exchange foreign currency? This guide is for you. There are a few different ways to get currency exchange, including:

  • Use airport kiosks prior to leaving the US
  • Buy traveler’s checks or foreign currency cash from your bank or credit union
  • Choose an online exchange bureau
  • Buy currency on arrival at your hotel or in popular tourist areas
  • Use your debit or credit card in foreign ATMs
  • Choose Wise to exchange currency with the mid-market rate

We’ll cover the key options, and also look at how a Wise account and debit card can help you save money on currency conversion.

Open a free Wise account online or in the Wise app to hold and exchange 50+ currencies. You’ll get a better rate than you’d find at your bank or an airport kiosk, and can spend without the hassle of converting traveler’s checks - you can save up to 6x. More on that later.

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Where can you exchange currency in the U.S. before traveling?

Here are some of the options to help you choose the best place to buy foreign currency for your trip.

Airport kiosks

Buying your currency at the airport before you leave may seem like an obvious option, but it’s typically one of the most expensive ways to exchange currency.

While every major airport will have one or more currency exchange kiosks available, the exchange rates and overall costs here tend to be poor thanks to a captive market and lack of real competition.

Bank or credit union

Many regular banks and credit unions offer travel money services to their customers. You may be able to convert major currencies on the spot - but for more unusual currencies, or high value transactions, you’ll probably have to call ahead to ensure the branch has the currency you need.

Exchanging money at your bank can be a handy option if the service is available - but the exchange rate you’re offered is likely to include a markup - an extra fee - on top of any commission charged.

Online bureaus & currency converters

Specialist online currency conversion services will allow you to buy your local currency prior to your trip. Pay with a transfer from a savings account or checking account, or using a credit or debit card, and the currency can then be collected from an agent location or courier delivered to your home address for safety.

Online bureaus are often cheaper than using an airport kiosk, as it’s a more competitive market. However, exchange rates are still likely to include a markup, which can push up the overall cost.

Wise

Open a Wise account and debit card before you leave the US, and you can hold and convert 50+ currencies to spend or withdraw with your linked Wise debit card. All currency conversion uses the mid-market exchange rate and low, transparent fees. That works out on average 6x cheaper than a regular bank.

There’s no minimum balance and no monthly fee. Just top up your account in dollars, switch to the currency you need with the real exchange rate and a low fee, and spend or withdraw with your card just like you would at home.

No foreign transaction fees and no exchange rate markups. See how much you can save with Wise:

Where can you get foreign currency overseas?

Arranging your foreign currency before you leave the US isn’t right for everyone. If you’d rather wait until you arrive to get your foreign currency, you might consider:

Traveler’s checks

Traveler's checks - including American Express traveler’s checks - are becoming less common in many parts of the world. In fact, many major banks including Bank of America have stopped issuing traveler’s checks as they are not accepted in many foreign countries these days.

If you do manage to find somewhere which will exchange your checks for you you’re likely to be stuck with a poor exchange rate and high fees - avoid this route if possible.

Using your credit or debit card

Using your debit card to spend or make withdrawals can be a smart choice as long as you keep an eye on ATM fees and find a card with a low foreign transaction fee

You’ll also want to check your bank’s ATM limits to avoid surprises when you’re overseas, and pay in local currency to avoid Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC). Using a credit card to make ATM withdrawals isn’t usually a good idea due to cash advance fees and interest charges.

move-and-manage-your-money

Cut the costs of spending and making withdrawals overseas with a Wise card. It’s free to spend any currency you hold, and Wise’s smart technology means that if you don’t have the right currency in your account, the card will automatically convert to it from the balance that’s cheapest for you.

Use your card in 200 countries to spend like a local - you can even link your card to Apple Pay or Google Pay for convenient mobile payments. Withdraw money from anywhere with 2 free withdrawals a month, up to a value of 100 USD.

Get a Wise card today

Prepaid debit cards

Another option is to use prepaid international debit cards. There are many different cards out there which allow you to top up your balance in dollars and then make ATM withdrawals or payments in a foreign currency when you arrive.

Prepaid cards have the advantage of being separate from your main bank account - so even if your card is lost or stolen, thieves can’t access the bulk of your money. However, they also often come with high costs, including top up charges and inactivity fees - check the terms and conditions carefully if you’re considering one.

Carrying dollars

You’ll be able to exchange dollars on arrival at airports, hotels and in major tourist areas. However, this has the same issue as changing money at an airport - a captive market leads to poor exchange rates and high fees. Plus you’ll need to take the risk of carrying around large amounts of cash, which can make you a target for thieves.

Bottom line: Where to exchange currency in the U.S. and overseas?

Exchange your currency before you leave the US:

  • At an airport kiosk
  • At your bank or credit union
  • Through an online exchange bureau

Or you could sort out your travel money when you arrive:

  • At an exchange office in your hotel or in popular tourist areas
  • By making ATM withdrawals

However, for most people, the cheapest and easiest solution will be to open a free online Wise account to access currency exchange with the mid-market rate.

Just top up your account in dollars, and spend or make ATM withdrawals once you arrive in your destination to avoid foreign transaction fees and save up to 6x compared with using your regular bank.


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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