Upon landing in a foreign country, expect a lot of lines. There’s immigration, passport control and customs inspection. But there’s one line you can — and absolutely should — skip: the airport currency exchange.
Not only does the airport currency exchange counter’s line cut into precious time abroad, but it’s typically a terrible money move. Airport currency exchange rates are among the worst you’ll find.
It’s not uncommon to see airport exchanges charging 14% more than the current International Monetary Fund (IMF) exchange rate. NerdWallet even found some premiums exceeding 17%. Some also charge additional fees on top of the poor exchange rate.
So what do you do if you need cash upon arrival to order a cab or tip the bellhop? Consider ordering foreign currency before you fly.
Most banks allow you to order foreign currencies, which you can typically pick up at a local branch before your trip. Some banks offer to ship currencies to you, and sometimes they don’t even charge extra for postage if you order a certain amount.
Plus, the exchange rate can be good. For instance, at Bank of America, the exchange rates we checked in January 2024 average roughly 6% more than the IMF rates — and less than half of what the airport currency exchanges are charging.
How to order foreign currency from your bank
While the exact process varies by bank, most major banks make it easy to order online.
Typically you can access the currency exchange webpage through your bank’s website or mobile app, or by phone. From there, you usually enter the currency you need, add the desired amount, select the pickup method and place your order.
While you can generally expect a solid exchange rate, use a trusted source such as Reuters or the International Monetary Fund to find current exchange rates and ensure you get a fair deal.
Additionally, understand all the fees involved. For example, Citi charges a $5 service fee for transactions under $1,000, though it’s waived for clients with premium bank accounts.
Or you might get charged a shipping fee. Bank of America’s standard shipping costs $7.50, but overnight shipping is $20. Sometimes you can avoid shipping fees by opting to pick up the cash at a local branch or by being a loyal customer. Bank of America Preferred Rewards program members get free standard shipping.
There’s also generally a minimum amount of foreign currency you can order ($100 or $200 is common) and a maximum ($10,000 within a 30-day period is common).
Other good ways to pay abroad
Find an in-network ATM abroad
Major banks usually have branches abroad or partner with other banks to create a network. Using those ATMs often provides a decent exchange rate while eliminating out-of-network ATM fees.
If you end up using a non-network ATM, pay attention to ATM fees, which vary but usually run about $5 per transaction. Given that, consider limiting ATM debit transactions by withdrawing the amount you think you’ll need for the entire trip, or at least a large portion of it.
ATM availability is more common in some places than others. Macau has the highest number of ATMs per capita with 316 ATMs per 100,000 adults, based on 2021 data from the World Bank Group. Uruguay, Canada and Austria are other destinations with the most ATMs per capita.
But other countries tend to have far fewer. For example, Kenya had fewer than 7 ATMs per 100,000 adults and Nepal had only 20 ATMs per 100,000 adults, according to the same data.
Pay with a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees
Depending on the card, you might get dinged with foreign transaction fees of 1%-3% when you make purchases at non-U.S. retailers abroad.
That’s why it’s wise to carry a no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card abroad.
And more international merchants are taking plastic. This wider card acceptance and increased security are reasons travelers are ditching cash, according to the Visa Global Travel Intentions Study 2023, which polled more than 15,000 people in the Asian Pacific region between April and June 2023.
While this type of card won’t help you pay at cash-only businesses or get money for tips, it’s otherwise one of the smartest ways to pay internationally.
Try paying in cash dollars
If all else fails, offer to pay in U.S. dollars. In fact, some merchants or individuals accepting tips prefer it in certain countries. You might find vendors willing to give you an even better deal if you pay with U.S. dollars.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2024, including those best for: