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The Best Way to Exchange Currency

In the old days, travelers who wanted to exchange currency had to go to their bank and place an order weeks ahead of their trip — and banks built a profit into the transaction rate. 

The only other options were to get currency at an expensive airport kiosk on arrival or carry traveler’s checks (which still exist, but good luck finding a place that will accept them!)

Exchange Currency via ATM

Now, things are much easier. You can withdraw Euros, Pesos, or Rupi from an ATM just as easily as you can withdraw dollars. So far, I haven’t encountered an airport that didn’t have an ATM conveniently located near the luggage carousels — and if there’s a problem with those, taxi drivers always know where to stop by an ATM so they can get paid. 


ATMS are conveniently located all over every city and large town, and even many small villages around the world have one. That means you don’t have to worry about keeping piles of cash secure while you travel — you can stop and get more whenever you need to. 

I’ve personally visited 40 countries and have always been able to withdraw cash immediately upon landing. I’ve rarely had an issue with getting cash, even in areas many people would consider remote, like South America, Africa, and India. A few of the guests on my Women’s Adventures have had issues, though, so I want to share some tips to help you ensure that you don’t have trouble at the ATM.

best way to exchange currency
Frequent Traveler tip: A coupon organizer is perfectly sized to organize leftover currency and metro cards you may need again. If you use local SIM cards for your phone, you can tape them in as well.

A note about credit vs. cash

In most cases, it’s best to use a credit card whenever possible. In some countries, like Iceland, cash is rarely seen, and even taxis have a place to tap your credit card.

Credit cards offer fraud protection that debit cards do not. They also offer a record of your purchases, which can help you budget better for the next trip. You’ll be able to see exactly how much you spent on ground transportation, food, souveniers, etc. if you use your credit card.

However, sometimes you genuinely need cash. Small merchants, street vendors, and remote countryside locations often don’t accept credit at all. And, in, general, you’ll feel more secure with a little currency in your pocket.

Tips for Using Overseas ATMs to get Local Currency

There are a few pointers to keep in mind when using your bank card overseas:

  • Let your bank know where you’ll be so they don’t freak out when someone suddenly uses your card in Aruba. Most banks have a travel notification form on their websites.
  • Turn on text notifications. If your card does get flagged for fraud, you’ll be able to unflag it on the spot if you have your phone set up for overseas use.
  • If you travel often, consider a bank with no foreign currency exchange fees. For US residents, Capital One and Charles Schwab both have no forex fees. Neither of these banks charges you for using an ATM, and Schwab will even reimburse you for local ATM fees.
  • Have a backup source. Sometimes a card just doesn’t work, and a backup source is vital. A debit card for your Paypal or Venmo account makes a great backup, since it’s so easy to move funds in and out of the account (although they do charge foreign exchange fees, so it doesn’t make a good primary method).
  • It’s a good idea to have one Visa and one Mastercard, just in case one network works better than another. 
  • In most major cities around the world and some small towns, you can use your debit or credit card for restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, and souvenirs.
  • In rare cases in remote places like India or Morroco your foreign debit card may give the local ATMs indigestion. If that’s the case, use Google Maps to find the nearest international bank. Some names to look for include Citibank, Santander, and HSBC.
  • Carry at least a few dollars or euros for emergencies. Both are widely accepted or can be exchanged at nearly any good-sized bank or hotel.

What if the ATM just won’t take your card?

  • If you’re traveling with a friend, ask them to exchange currency for you — just Venmo them some funds they can withdraw.
  • If you’re traveling alone, be sure to have the PIN number for a credit card wrtten down in a safe place. With a PIN, you can get a cash advance from an ATM. Use this only inemergencies, because cash advance fees are expensive.
  • Ask for help inside a bank or at a hotel front desk.

Best debit & credit Cards for Travel

My favorite credit and debit cards for travel are from Capital One. These cards charge no foreign exchange fees and no ATM fees (although I still have to pay the local bank fees.). They also don’t require me to notify them of travel plans. Sometimes they flag my first transaction in a new country as fraud, but I have text alerts set up so I can confirm the transaction. Cap One credit cards pay a generous cashback bonus, too.

Charles Schwab debit cards have no forex fees, either, and reimburse you for local ATM fees!

One final note: Banks charge customers for the service of exchanging currency. They always have. Even if your bank doesn’t charge Forex fees, you’ll see a markup in the exchange rate. 

But if you compare that rate to the exchange kiosk at the airport or streetside exchange places, you’ll find that you are nearly always saving money.

FAQs about Currency Exchange

Is it better to exchange currency before you travel?

No. You’ll pay higher rates ordering currency through a bank. Instead, look for an ATM in the luggage carousel area of the airport, or near the exit.

Where should I exchange currency when traveling?

Most frequent travelers prefer to simply withdraw local currency from an ATM. It’s much easier and often cheaper than using an exchange.

Is it cheaper to use credit card or cash abroad?

A credit card with no foreign exchange fees is nearly always cheaper than cash. Credit cards also offer a spending record and fraud protection.

How much cash should you bring on a trip?

It’s always safer not to carry a lot of cash. Unless you’re going somewhere terribly remote, it’s wise to use ATMs to withdraw cash as you need it, and use your credit card as much as possible.