“I am going to Europe. Should I take USD with me to exchange there or should I get Euro’s from my bank before I go? What is the best way to get foreign currency?”
Every day on social media I see a variation of this question, and I think I have answered it hundreds of times to share my experience. I’ve now travelled to almost fifty countries and this is the method I use myself.
As context, I am Australian, so my knowledge is from that perspective, but I have also seen many other comments on line. So while I have not personally dealt with this from a US/UK/EU or any other perspective, I know it is fairly universal.
But first, something to consider. You have booked this amazing international holiday to a place you have been thinking about for years. You have likely paid thousands of dollars for it (especially if you are travelling from Australia!). If you have to pay a few extra dollars for your foreign currency transactions is it really going to be a deal breaker? Now I am as
much of a tightass thrifty as they come, and I will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to save a few dollars, but you have to weigh up for yourself whether the stress and worry and research and extra time and walking is worth it to save what is essentially a tiny percentage of your overall trip cost. I say this to put what often is a huge worry for people into perspective. While it’s nice to save those few extra dollars, don’t stress too much if you can’t.
So how do I keep the costs down?
Get a Debit Card with no International Transaction Fees
This is the most important step of all. Most banks, including all four of the big Australian banks, charge a fee for international transactions – but there are some out there that do not! Find one in your area and open an account.
Before you travel, make sure you let your bank know where you are going and how long you will be away. Some banks make this easy and you can do it online, others you will need to give them a quick call. This should ensure that your card is not blocked when you use it internationally. If it does get blocked, remember it is the bank just trying to protect your hard earned money. Give them a call and they should sort it out.
Here are some suggestions that I am aware of in different countries, but I can only really vouch for the one I use. Please do your own research to ensure you find the product that suits you best – this is just to give you some ideas where to start.
- Citibank Plus – this is the account I use and recommend. There are no account keeping fees and no international transaction fees from Citibank for either ATM or in-store purchases. It is a Mastercard so can be used anywhere that Mastercard is accepted. Occasionally there will be a fee charged by the foreign ATM, but it is usually small. The only place we have been to where this card would not work is in Bulgaria.
- Macquarie Bank
- Charles Schwab
- Capital One
(Do you know of a good option I have not included above? I would especially like options from other countries. Please let me know in the comments below.)
How to Use Your Debit Card to get Cash
I no longer get foreign currency in advance. I leave Australia with around $200 AUD in cash, and also a small stash of USD and/or Euro, usually less than one hundred of each that I have acquired during my previous travels. Depending on where I am going, I may also take other left over currency I have, but I generally don’t keep much so this would only be small change.
I get all my foreign currency from an ATM at the airport on arrival. Even in more remote countries such as Myanmar or Laos or Albania or Oman I have not had any issues. I will also always use the local currency, even though often USD or Euro may be an option. I have found things to be cheaper when quoted in the local currency, and since neither of those currencies is my native one, it makes no difference to me in terms of loss on exchange.
If the ATM gives you the option to be charged in your own currency or the local one, always select the local currency. The exchange rates given by your own bank will be much better. As a recently example, when I was in Malaysia, the ATM offered to transact in AUD for me, charging $216.79. I declined the offer and later checked my bank statement to find I was charged $207.37.
How to Use your Debit Card for In Store Purchases
If you are using your debit card in a store or restaurant to pay for something you have just bought, you may be given the option to do the transaction in the local currency or your home currency. Again, always choose the local currency. Your debit card will provide a much better exchange rate than the locals will.
What About Card Security?
This is at least as important as the card fees! No one wants to end up in a foreign country with no access to cash. Here’s the way we handled this during our gap year. We did get to test out our backup plan when my husband was pickpocketed, so I know it all works.
Firstly, think of your transaction free debit card just like you would one of the many Travel Cards on the market. Do not transfer all your savings into it before your trip or use it as your everyday account. Do not link it to any of your other accounts. You want it to be a stand alone card. Transfer just enough cash to get you through a few days, then transfer more over as you need it. For us this meant we never had more than $500 in the account. If the card was somehow compromised, then this would therefore be the maximum amount we would lose. Not inconsequential, but also it would not be the end of the world.
Keep a second card (your normal bank account and/or a partner’s separate free transaction account) elsewhere in your luggage/hotel/with your partner so if something does go wrong, you always have another option available to get cash. This was important when our debit card was stolen. It meant I did not have to stress about our cash situation when our card didn’t work in Bulgaria either, we just got out our other card. (I should note our second card was not fee free, but for only a few transactions it was peace of mind. As an extra piece of security, our second card was a Visa, in case Mastercard was not available)
It’s important to remember debit cards are not as secure as credit cards! If your credit card is compromised, a quick call to the bank and the transactions are reversed. If your debit card is compromised, you likely will never see that money again – or at the very least it will take months to get it back. Because of this, I recommend to actually use a credit card for as many international transactions as you can (again, find one with free international transactions) and only use your debit card to withdraw cash.
For increased security, when choosing an ATM, choose one at a bank. Often they may be inside a building and they are also more likely to have security cameras than the generic ATMs on street corners and in convenience stores. A bank ATM will likely have better exchange rates too.
Other Currency Tips
Here’s a few other random tips we have found useful over the years.
- It’s always good to build up a small stash of major currencies, mostly USD or Euros. They can almost universally be exchanged for the local currency in a pinch. Even our AUD would have been a struggle in some countries we went to.
- Don’t use Travel Cards. They may look like they don’t have many fees, but the exchange rate is likely terrible. If you like them for the security, consider what I have written above.
- Don’t use airport currency exchange booths, they really do offer the worst possible rates. Although having said this, we often used them to exchange our last few notes before we flew out of a country.
- Leading on from above, don’t take your foreign currency to the next country to exchange (unless it’s a major currency like USD/EUR) – it could be one of those that you can’t exchange it outside of it’s home country. Either exchange for the next county’s currency, or if not, USD to add to your stash. We had this issue when we took some Indian Rupee to Sri Lanka. We did eventually find somewhere to exchange them, but it took a bit of searching and the rate was poor.
- You can get cash from your local bank before you leave at good rates, but this is only practical if you are going on a short trip and you are comfortable with taking the risk of carrying larger amounts, perhaps your whole budget, with you.
I hope that you found this helpful and straight forward. I haven’t crunched any numbers here on purpose. Firstly because every bank/country/currency is different and there is no way I could cover even a small selection and do this justice. And secondly, by tomorrow it would all be out of date as exchange rates change and banks change their products. So this is just a guide to give you a starting point for your own research.
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.