If you've never had to do it while abroad, knowing how to exchange money without getting ripped off can seem tricky, but it doesn't have to be.
Don't blow your travel funds on bank fees and petty scams! Use these tips and know the current exchange rate before you enter a new country.
Money Exchanging Basics
Many money changers will refuse any torn, damaged, or even crinkled banknotes so try to get rid of those ugly bills first by spending them. Larger denominations are preferred and it may simply be impossible to exchange banknotes of the smallest denominations. Coins are rarely -- if ever -- accepted.
How to Check Currency Rates with Google
There are plenty of phone applications and websites available, but you can easily receive quick, up-to-date currency rates for the country you are visiting by formatting a special search on Google. You'll need to know the official abbreviation for each currency type.
Format your search as: AMOUNT CURRENCY1 in CURRENCY2. For example, a basic check on Google to see how many Thai baht one US dollar is worth will look like this: 1 USD in THB.
In some instances you can spell out the actually currency name in your search (e.g., 1 US dollar in Thai baht) but not always; using the abbreviations is more reliable.
Some common Western currency abbreviations:
- USD - US dollar
- EUR - Euro
- GBP - British pound
- CAD - Canadian dollar
- AUD - Australian dollar
Check Exchange Rates for East Asia
Check Exchange Rates for India and Sri Lanka
Check Exchange Rates for Southeast Asia
You can use Google Finance to check other types of currencies.
Searches for Burmese kyat (MMK), Cambodian riel (KHR), and Lao kip (LAK) don't work in Google's currency queries at this time, you can try www.xe.com instead. The official currency of East Timor is the US dollar.
Tip: Laos, Cambodia, and even Vietnam regularly accept US dollars for everyday transactions, however, keep an eye on the floating exchange rate that each place offers.
Tips for Exchanging Money in Asia
- Know the international exchange rate before you approach the counter.
- Never accept torn or damaged banknotes.
- Even if others are waiting behind you, carefully count your money before walking away.
- Use a calculator or phone to check the math.
- Get a receipt.
Exchange Money or Use the ATM?
While using ATMs is often the most convenient and cheapest way to obtain local currency, sometimes you'll be forced to exchange money from home or your previous country. ATM networks sometimes go down -- particularly on islands and in remote destinations -- or the exorbitant bank fees make exchanging actual currency a better option.
ATMs in countries such as Thailand charge US $5 - $6 per transaction on top of whatever your bank charges for international withdrawals. You'll have to make an educated decision based on where you are and the situation at hand for deciding when to exchange money.
You should never rely exclusively on ATMs to access your travel funds; always hide some cash for emergency situations. Even despite the weakness compared to euros or British pounds, the US dollar is still more widely used and accepted throughout Asia.
Bank, Airport, or Black Market?
While exchanging money immediately upon arrival in the airport makes the most sense, you may receive far better rates from banks or third-party exchange booths once you get into town -- each country is different.
Consider exchanging only a little money at the airport until you can check signboards in town for better rates.
Exchanging money in tourist places can be hit or miss. While many windows and counters will advertise a better exchange rate than what you find in banks, there is always the potential for a scam to unfold. If you are completely unfamiliar with local currency, you probably won't spot a counterfeit banknote mixed into the colorful wad of cash.