The Ultimate Guide to Currency Exchange in US

currency exchange in US

There is no single method that yields the best results when it comes to currency exchange in US. Rather, the best price depends on what currency you’re buying, how much and where you’re located. This guide offers some good rules of thumb to help you find the lowest cost for your next currency purchase.


What we will cover in this guide:

  1. The four cheapest ways to buy travel money
  2. The best way to buy currency exchange in US– depending on your circumstances
  3. Currency conversion tips to stretch your dollar


The four cheapest ways to buy travel money

Exchanging currency online is rapidly growing in popularity, and there are a few reasons for this.

  • A lot of times online exchange rates beat those you’ll find in-store
  • There are tons of pick up locations making ordering online easier than before


It’s not all positive, though. Funding an online currency purchase with a credit card can lead to a number of fees. We recommend paying via direct debit from your bank account, if possible. It’s also important to give yourself a bit of time as ordering online can take a few days.


  1. Go into the city and visit a specialized money exchange business
    This can be one of the cheapest and most straightforward approaches, especially if you are buying Euros or Pounds. In major cities, there will often be a good number of exchange companies. By shopping around or negotiating, you may be able to save yourself a little bit extra. The downside of using these specialist money-changers is that they don’t have a great amount of cash available in less used currencies, such as Vietnamese Dong or Thai Baht. They can also have their reserve of Euros or Yen exhausted on busy days, so there is never a guarantee they’ll have what you need. Calling ahead can help to eliminate this problem.
  2. Use a bank
    Conventional wisdom says that using a bank to buy travel funds is going to be one of the most expensive ways to do it. However, this is not always the case. When it comes to the most common currencies, most banks won’t offer a very competitive exchange rate when compared to dedicated currency providers. However, for lesser known currencies, such as the South African Rand or the Polish Zloty they can be a good value. To determine if using a bank is the right choice, be sure to check the exchange rates and compare.
  3. From a friend
    If you are able to buy some currency from a friend or another traveler this can be a good option. These situations are often win-win for both parties. You can use the bank rate for exchange or whatever you agree on, and the best part? You’ll save money on commissions and fees. If you’re exchanging from a friend the risk is pretty low. But if it’s from an unknown party you always run the risk of counterfeit money or old or damaged currency. In some scenarios, it can work great but generally, there are risks and often you won’t find the amount you need or the correct currency.
  4. Buy when you arrive
    Sometimes the most cost-effective method is to wait until you arrive in the country you’re traveling to and then buy currency. Prime examples of this are in Hong Kong or Bali. Of course, it can be hard to find good currency exchange services there and your odds of being scammed go up considerably. US dollars are pretty commonly stocked and recognized around the world (a few countries even adopt them as a de-facto currency) but generally the further you are from the states the harder it will be to exchange dollars for something else. To figure out which way is the cheapest to buy your foreign currency be sure to look at our comparison tool.


The best way to buy currency  depending on your circumstances

Vacation money (less than $2000)

If you need less than 2000 for a vacation abroad you’re best off ordering it online. Why?


Very few providers are charging flat rate fees these days. So for this relatively small amount, all you’re going to pay is the exchange rate margin. For smaller amounts, the difference between in-store and online won’t be huge so you can go with the convenient option online.


It’s best to try to lock in a good exchange rate the month before your trip and then pick it up on your way out of town. This is better than running all over town trying to save a few bucks.


Buying or selling over $2000

Buying in large increments can work in your favor because you generally have more room to negotiate and may qualify for better rates. Not all online providers will do this, though, so check around. Also, know that many banks won’t reward you for larger amounts so steer clear.


So, in this case, going in person to a currency retailer might make the most sense, strictly because you can do your best negotiating in person.


Thai Baht, Indonesian Rupiah and other ‘exotic’ currencies

If your destination is a country that doesn’t use one of the “major” currencies you are probably going to want to visit your bank, try Travelex.




A lot of the small currency exchange retailers you’ll see around don’t stock these “exotic” currencies as often or in large quantities. As a result, they might not have what you need and the odds of them offering a truly competitive exchange rate is lower than the options mentioned above.


Related: How to get a better exchange rate at LAX


Currency conversion tips to stretch your dollar

Look out for fees

When buying a little bit of money for your vacation it’s unlikely you’ll be charged, but that does not mean it can’t happen. If ordering in person ask the cashier about fees, if doing so online read the fee structure quickly. Any reputable money exchange provider will provide this information.


Request a better rate

If you don’t ask you’ll never receive. If you’re exchanging a lot of money it’s foolish not to ask. Also, often you’ll find there is some wiggle room.


Call ahead

Once you’ve figured out which currency changer you want to use give them a quick call. Why? This is just to save you the time of visiting and then realizing they don’t have the currency or amount you require.


Another thing you’ll want to remember to ask is about denominations. You don’t want to turn up at the retail location for your money only to find out all they have is $50 bills.


Don’t put all your money in one spot

Before you embark on your trip be sure to consider how you’re going to carry your money. The following routine has been successful in our experience:

  1. Take some small currency for taxis, meals, and tips
  2. Have some cash on a travel card for big purchases like hotels, etc
  3. Have your debit card handy as a backup plan

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