Guide to buying foreign currency

Find out how you can buy foreign currency and make the most of your money next time you go overseas.

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Whether you're heading to an iconic city or escaping to some far-flung jungle, having cash in the local currency is essential. For starters, there are some times when cash could be the only option – such as when you're shopping in markets, using ticket machines or just want to buy a snack and some water at the airport. Beyond that, having cash can be a good backup option in case something happens to the card you plan to use for most of the trip.

So if you're getting ready for your next trip, here's a step-by-step guide to comparing and buying foreign currency. You'll also find tips on how to manage your travel money so that you can get the most out of it when you're overseas.

What you'll find in this guide

How much foreign currency do I need?

This depends on how you plan to spend your money when you're away. If you're taking a travel money card or a regular debit or credit card, you may want to use that for most of your spending. If that's the case, you may only need a small amount of backup cash (e.g. around 10% to 20% of your total spending money), especially if you know there will be ATMs around.

On the other hand, if you're travelling to a place where cards are not widely accepted, you'll need to get enough foreign currency to pay for most of your spending. Either way, start by looking at your budget for the trip, then work out how much of that you'll want as cash.

Example: Getting foreign currency for a 10-day trip

Say you're going on a 10-day trip overseas and have budgeted around AUD$200 per day in spending money, totalling AUD$2,000 for the whole trip. If you plan to make most payments by card, you could decide that getting around AUD$200 to AUD$400 in foreign currency would cover your cash spending.

On the other hand, if you plan on spending most of your money in cash, you could buy the entire AUD$2,000 equivalent in foreign currency. Or you could get 80% to 90% of your spending money as cash and have the rest on a card. Either way, you'd end up with both cash and a card, making it easier to spend money wherever you went.

Where can I buy foreign currency?

There are four options for buying foreign currency either before or during your trip:

Online foreign currency orders

You can order foreign currency online anytime through a currency exchange service. Some services deliver the money to you directly, while others may require you to pick it up from a service centre.

Australia Post foreign currency options

Australia Post has two options for buying foreign currency. You can order it online and pick it up from a participating Australia Post outlet within two to three business days. This service is provided by Travelex and has a minimum purchase amount of AUD$500 and a maximum of AUD$5,000.

Alternatively, you can buy foreign currency in-person at Australia Post and get a minimum of AUD$200 or maximum of AUD$5,000 in one to two business days.

Bank orders

Most major banks in Australia offer foreign currency purchasing options. While this could be convenient if your current bank offers foreign currency, the exchange rates are often less competitive than those offered by other foreign currency services. So it pays to compare rates.

Currency exchange stores

If you have left your travel money to the last minute (or don't want to order it online), you can buy foreign currency in-person from an exchange service in Australia or overseas. These services are usually dotted throughout airports, as well as in most major cities. Be aware that last-minute currency purchases almost always have significantly less competitive exchange rates, so you'll pay more for the convenience.

How can I get the best foreign currency exchange rate?

On the day you want to buy your currency, look at the "buy" exchange rates for a number of different currency exchange services. This will help you find and lock-in the most competitive rate when you're buying foreign currency.

Keep in mind that exchange rates can vary between online services and stores, where the more competitive exchange rate is usually online. It's also important to look at the rates for individual services (rather than just searching online), as some currency exchange services also factor commissions or fees into the exchange rate offered, while others charge a separate fee that can also decrease the value of your currency exchange.

What details do I need when buying foreign currency?

Whether you're buying it online or in-person at a store, these are the key details and documents you'll need to get your foreign currency:

  • Photo ID. Many currency exchange services require valid photo ID, such as your passport or Australian driver's licence to confirm your order when you are buying or picking up foreign currency.
  • Contact information. Sometimes you may be asked for some basic contact details as part of the order, such as your full name, date of birth, address and phone number.
  • Payment details. Many online foreign currency services offer card payments, BPAY or a choice between these options. Keep in mind that BPAY payments could take longer to process, while card payments could attract a surcharge. For foreign currency purchases in-person, you can usually choose between cash or card payments. Just make sure you check if a card payment will attract a surcharge.

Watch out for fees when buying foreign currency with a credit card

As well as the potential of a surcharge when you buy your foreign cash with a card, purchases made using a credit card will be charged a cash advance fee, usually between 2% to 3% of the total amount. You'll also be charged interest at the cash advance rate from the day the transaction is processed.

Tips to make the most of your foreign currency

hand placing cash inside wallet

If you're busy planning your next overseas adventure, these tips will help you get the biggest bang for your buck with foreign currency:

  • Buy most of your foreign currency before you go overseas

    Getting your foreign currency early can help you save on fees and protect you from the less competitive exchange rates offered at airports or overseas. To give yourself enough time to order and get your foreign currency, aim to buy it around one to two weeks before your trip. If you're really keen to get the most competitive exchange rate, you could also start looking a few weeks before this to get an idea of currency rate fluctuations.

  • Get money for any airport stopovers

    Many overseas trips include long stopovers at international airports. So as well as getting foreign currency for your travel destination, it's useful to buy some currency for your stopover locations so that you can pay for food, drinks, souvenirs or even lounge access. Alternatively, you could pre-load a travel money card with a small amount of money for your stopovers, or use an Australian debit card or credit card. Remember that different rates and fees apply for each of these options, so give yourself time to decide which one will work for your trip before you leave.

  • Find out about taxes

    Each country has a different system for taxing goods and services. In some countries, the taxes will be included in the prices shown (as they are in Australia). However, in other countries – including the US and Canada – taxes are only added to the final receipt or bill. It's also possible to get a refund on some of the taxes you pay in certain countries – such as VAT (Value Added Tax) in the UK. Knowing this before you go can help you stick to your spending limits and avoid paying extra on your purchases.

  • Budget for tips

    If you're travelling through places where tipping is expected – such as the UK, the US or Canada – make sure you have some money set aside for it. Most places give you the option between cash or card tips, so you can choose what works for you. If you're unsure how much to tip, there's usually a suggested amount on the receipt. As a general guide, 10% is usually considered a conservative tip (and could be frowned upon), while 20% is a more generous tip.

  • Keep your cash secure

    Make sure you have your cash in a safe place when you're travelling. For example, you could keep cards and cash in separate places, put your wallet in a hidden pocket in your bag or clothing or use a money belt. Whatever you decide, remember to keep track of where your money is and don't leave your personal belongings unattended.

  • Declare amounts greater than AUD$10,000

    If you're travelling with more than AUD$10,000 in cash, you legally have to declare it at customs before leaving the country. This involves filling out a declaration form at the airport (or departure terminal for a ship) stating how much cash you are carrying. Note that it is illegal to try and avoid this process by splitting the money between several travellers.

If your next overseas trip is coming up, you can start organising your foreign currency now by comparing your options and the exchange rates available. Or, if you're still not sure how much foreign currency you'll need, start by comparing different travel money options to find the combination of cash and cards that works for you.

Compare travel cards, credit cards and debit cards

Name Product Available Currencies ATM Withdrawal Fee Initial Load Fee Reload fee
7-Eleven Just Go Pre-Paid Travel Card
EUR €0, GBP £0, AUD $0, USD $0, NZD $0

Compare up to 4 providers

Name Product Foreign currency conversion fee Interest-free period Purchase rate Annual fee
Bankwest Zero Platinum Mastercard
Up to 55 days on purchases
14.99% p.a.
Get 0% p.a. on balance transfers for 34 months (with a 2% BT fee), ​an ongoing $0 annual fee and 0% foreign transaction fees.
Bankwest Breeze Platinum Mastercard
Up to 55 days on purchases
0% p.a. for 15 months, reverts to 9.9% p.a.
$0 annual fee for the first year ($69 p.a. thereafter)
Get 0% interest on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months, a $0 first-year annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.
NAB StraightUp Card
0% p.a.
Save with 0% interest charges and 0% foreign transaction fees. Plus, $0 monthly fees when you don't use the card or carry a balance.

Compare up to 4 providers

Name Product Card access ATM Withdrawal Fee Monthly Account Fee Internatonal ATM Fee Foreign transaction fee
HSBC Everyday Global Account
Special offer: $100 cash bonus for new HSBC customers.
Earn 2% cashback on tap and pay purchases, and transfer money overseas online to family or friends and pay $0 International Transfer Fee (save $8). T&Cs apply on all offers.
Enjoy no minimum ongoing balance or transaction requirements and the flexibility to hold up to 10 currencies. Apple Pay and Google Pay available.

Great Southern Bank Everyday Edge Account
Refund of international ATM withdrawal fees and international card transaction fees (conditions apply).
$0 monthly account fee. Unlimited fee-free everyday transactions.
Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay available. Savings Top Up tool automatically transfers to linked savings account.
Citi Global Currency Account
Earn up to 0.45% p.a. interest on your AUD balance.
$0 monthly account fee.
Enjoy one linked debit card to hold up to 10 currencies and receive foreign currencies for free.

Compare up to 4 providers

Pictures: Shutterstock

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