Getting foreign currency for your overseas travels

The near-universal acceptance of credit cards – particularly MasterCard and VISA – make it almost unnecessary to obtain the currency of the country to which you’re traveling. Almost.

While most merchants in most developed countries accept credit cards, it’s still nice to have a little of the local currency on hand for everything from small purchases to leaving a modest gratuity. But the question still comes up: what’s the best way to get those greenbacks (or yellow or blue or red-backs)?

The answer, almost universally, is to withdraw local currency from a bank-affiliated ATM after you’ve arrived in country. However, be certain it is affiliated with a bank or you could pay significantly more thanks to commissions, exchange fees, or other tariffs levied by currency exchanges. After all, they have to make a profit somehow; unfortunately, it is usually at the expense of the traveler.

Swiss francs

That means being vigilant, and perhaps researching the names of some local banks before you travel. For example, currency exchanges at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport (AMS) are available at GWK Travelex and Abn Amro. Both are convenient, but only ABN Amro is a bank. Currency exchanges typically charge higher fees or offer poorer rates than an ATM associated with a bank.

On our recent trip to the Baltics, we obtained Danish Krone (DKK) in Copenhagen and euros in Estonia and Germany from bank-affiliated ATMs. We paid a total of US$315.38 for 2,000 DEK, and US$577.91 for €500.

Had I chosen to get DKK at currency exchanges before leaving the U.S., I could have paid as little as $328.20 at Currency Exchange International, which is located in a local shopping mall, or as much as $351.29 at International Currency Exchange (ICE), which has branches at Sea-Tac International Airport (SEA). Euros would have been a similar story: $666.30 for €500 at ICE, nearly $90 more than what I paid by using overseas ATMs.

What about getting some currency from your bank here in the U.S.?

Most larger banks will be able to accommodate, but could take several days to get some of the less popular currencies. They will also sell at a less favorable rate, as they make their profit on the spread between the price they pay and the price for which they sell.

For example, before my trip to Dubai in 2016, I purchased U.A.E. dirham (AED) at 2.72 AED to the dollar. Had I waited until arriving at Dubai International Airport (DXB), I would have received 3.5 AED to the dollar at the Dubai Exchange. While it is a currency exchange, it is the only such establishment I have encountered that does not take significant advantage of those buying or selling foreign currency.

U.A.E. dirhams
Use your credit card

Because we’d obtained our currency from bank ATMs, our effective rates were roughly $0.16 per DKK, and $1.16 per euro; a good deal compared to other outlets but still not as good as simply using our credit cards.

Our last night overseas was at a lovely hotel in Copenhagen called the Absalon. Our room was DKK1,800, for which our credit card charged us US$269.58, or $0.15 per DKK. We received the same rate on many other purchases in Denmark. As an aside, if you are offered a choice of currency by the merchant, always choose the local currency and let your bank make the conversion.


There are currently a few countries that are nearly cash-free, and Sweden leads that pack. During our recent trip, we had several people including a bank official in Stockholm advise against obtaining Swedish Krona. Because many places do not even accept cash, we might have had a hard time getting rid of it before heading home.

Interestingly, in 1661 Sweden was the first European country to introduce paper money as bank notes. Now, nearly 400 years later, it may become the first European country to do away with cash entirely.

Sign at a kiosk in Sweden

Before you embark on a trip where you will be using your credit cards extensively, let your credit card companies know of your travel plans. It's likely you can do that on your bank's website, or you can call the customer service number on the card. My credit card companies only wanted the broad strokes: what countries and major cities I'd be visiting, along with the dates I planned to leave and return to my home town; they didn't need a detailed itinerary.

Polish złoty

By calling these companies before traveling to Italy in 2009, I likely saved us some hassle when we bought our Murano vase in Venice - a fairly pricey purchase clearly outside our normal spending pattern. But considering that we'd let them know we were going to be in Italy during that time period, there was no problem at all.

Make a second call to your bank to let them know you'll be traveling, even if your checking account and credit card are with the same institution. Too often, the various departments don't share information so make the second call to the Customer Service number on the back of your ATM card and advise them of your plans.

You may also want to confirm your daily withdrawal limit at overseas ATMs. If you plan to withdraw €500 upon your arrival in Europe and your daily withdrawal limit in the U.S. is $500, that could present a problem. Know before you go.

When you get home, look closely at your bank statement or online account summary. Upon returning from our Baltic cruise, I spotted an unauthorized withdrawal of Swedish Krona one day after I obtained euros in Copenhagen. The amount was small-ish -  about US$100 - so the crook may have been betting I would overlook that withdrawal or assume I'd forgotten to record it. Wrong! But I notified my bank immediately. It reversed the charge and issued a replacement for my ATM card, which had obviously been compromised.

Ideally, take two credit cards issued by two different banks, and only carry one at a time. Keep the other one in your in-room safe. Also, write down the international customer contact numbers for each ATM card and credit card, and keep that list separate from the cards. The list should look something like:
  • SeaFirst National Bank, ATM/debit card, 206-333-1234; MasterCard, 206-321-1234
  • Security Pacific National Bank, ATM/debit card, 213-455-5909; VISA, 213-459-3829.
Do NOT write down the card numbers; the bank will be able to call them up after getting some personal information from you, if should something happen.

Safe and happy travels!

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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