Foreign Currency: What You Must Know Before You Travel Abroad


Often you will read beautifully worded blogs about a happy-go-lucky couple who traveled the world, living their dream, running with the llamas, and whatnot. Good for them. 

However, these blogs don’t usually cover the most critical aspect of enjoying a successful, not-sleeping-in-the-rental-car trip: understanding foreign currency.

What You Need to Know About Foreign Currency Before Traveling Abroad

You’re not going to get very far if you haven’t thought through your money plan while traveling abroad. Did you exchange your money yet? How much is the dollar worth in wherever-you’re-going? Do you have to pay fees, and if so, how much are they? Do you even know what the currency is in the place you are going? 

Don’t fret, don’t get overwhelmed. Everything you need to know about foreign currency before traveling abroad is right here.

The Different Types of Currency

The first thing you need to find out is what currency is used in the country you’ll be traveling. Pretty obvious. 

You can’t just show up with American dollars and hope someone will take it. There over 190 countries and 180 different currencies. I won’t be listing them all, but here are some of the more popular currencies and where they can be used:

  • European Euro (EUR) Austria, Belgium, Italy, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Slovenia
  • Pound Sterling aka Great British Pound (GBP) United Kingdom, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Gibraltar, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Tristan da Cunha, and the British Antarctic Territory
  • Chinese Yuan aka Renminbi (CNY) China
  • Swiss Franc (CHF) Switzerland, Liechtenstein
  • Japanese Yen (JPY) Japan
  • Mexican Peso (MXN) Mexico
  • Canadian Dollar (CAD) Canada
  • New Taiwan Dollar (TWD) Taiwan
  • Hong Kong Dollar (HKD)
  • Australian Dollar (AUD) Australia, Nauru, Tuvalu, Kiribati
  • Russian Ruble (RUB) Russia
  • Swedish Krona (SEK) Sweden
  • Danish Krone (DKK) Greenland, Denmark
  • Indian Rupee (INR) India, Nepal, Bhutan
  • Costa Rican Colon (CRC) Costa Rica
  • Cuban Peso (CUP) Cuba
  • South African Rand (ZAR) South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Eswatini
  • Egyptian Pound (EGP) Egypt
  • Jamaican Dollar (JMD) Jamaica
  • Vietnamese Dong (VND) Vietnam

Understanding Foreign Currency

It’s probably a good idea to do a little research on the currency you’ll be using. It’s easy to overspend if you don’t understand how the currency works or how much it’s worth.

Where to Exchange Your Money

There are multiple places to exchange your money, but you want to make sure you get the most out of it. Find the best option while avoiding fees and high foreign exchange rates.          

At home: The best place is at your home bank. Let them know early, maybe a few weeks before you leave, so they have time to order it. If there are fees, exchange a larger amount (but still only what you need) to avoid needing to return and pay them again.

In a foreign country: You will be able to exchange your money at banks in a foreign country, but the exchange rates will most likely be higher than at your home bank.

At the airport: You can exchange your money for the local currency when you land at the airport, but it’s not advised. The foreign exchange rates are almost always garbage, so you will be getting a lot less bang for your buck (or in this case, Yen).

Foreign Exchange Rates

OK, so about this “foreign exchange rate” I keep talking about. Basically, a foreign exchange rate is how much two nations’ currencies are worth compared to each other. 

Here are a few examples (these exchange rates were valid at the time of writing):

  • Euro to US Dollar: €4.21 = $5.00
  • British Pound to US Dollar: £3.78 = $5.00
  • Australian Dollar to Chinese Yuan Renminbi: $5.00 = ¥23

Make sure to check the exchange rates every day, as they are always changing. You don’t want to lose out on $50 because you decided to hit up the bank on Tuesday instead of Monday. A quick Google search will give you the most up-to-date exchange rate (or you can click here).

Research Foreign Exchange Rates

If you have some flexibility for vacation dates, researching and tracking foreign exchange rates can be a great money-saver when planning an international trip. 

Foreign exchange rates can fluctuate drastically each day, and if you understand those fluctuations, you can save you some serious rubles.

Research Currency Fluctuations

The same can be said about currency fluctuations. If you have flexible travel destinations, do some research and go somewhere the US dollar is strong. In some countries, like Brazil, it’s worth over 4.5 times what it’s worth here in the States!

Using Credit and Debit Cards

If you have credit or debit cards that you plan on using, call and let them know you’re leaving the country. Your purchases could get flagged once you start spending money in a foreign country, and your card could be deactivated. The last thing you want to do is spend your precious vacation time verifying your identity on the phone with “Brian from customer support.”

While you’re at it, check and make sure your cards are accepted in the country you’re visiting. Visa, Mastercard, and Discover are widely accepted, but not always.

If you’re using a credit card, check the benefits. Credit cards that offer international travel benefits are handy in these cases because you can usually avoid fees (and rack up points!).

Traveling Safely with Your Money

It’s vital to keep your money safe. Tourists may look silly with fanny packs, but there’s a reason they use them: fanny packs aren’t easily ripped out of your hands.

I’m not saying you need a fanny pack—just be aware when you are out and about. If you’re staying somewhere secure, consider taking only the money you need for the day and leave the rest there. And for the record, a hotel drawer is not a safe place!

Make a Money Plan (and Stick to It!)

This is standard advice, but it needs to be stated. You’ll be in a foreign country. If you run out of money, the pickle you’re in is a little bit bigger. 

Make a list of everything you might spend money on, even the dumb stuff, and make a budget. It’s better to be prepared than to be left out in the rain with only your suitcase to cover you (trust me on this).

Budget Your Travel Spending

It’s crucial to keep checking and updating your budget. It’s easy to get off track and spend more than you planned. Keep your budget updated, so you’re not surprised if your card is declined at dinner. Here are a few things you should include in your budget and a sample spreadsheet to use:           

Budget Item Expected Cost Notes
Food Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks should be included in this.
Hotel or Lodging Make sure to ask about any additional fees not included in the daily price.
Transportation Bus passes, taxi fares, and plane tickets.
Tourist Activities and Sightseeing Look for citywide passes that include multiple places.
Souvenirs Try to not buy them from the major tourist locations because the prices will be elevated.
Extra Emergency Cash Always bring just-in-case money!


Leftover Foreign Currency

After you’ve seen Buckingham Palace and have made it safely home, what do you do with the unused money? Well, you could:

  • Save it for future trips – If you’re a constant traveler, then it’s a no-brainer when it comes to what you should do with leftover foreign money. Save it for next time (in a safe place, of course).
  • Keep it as a souvenir – I like to make scrapbook pages and shadow boxes. Keeping a bit of your leftover money like this is a fun way to remember a vacation.
  • Trade or give it away – Maybe your friends or family members are going on an international trip soon? Give (or sell) your foreign currency to them. 
  • Donate it – At the end of your trip, you could always find somewhere and donate what you have left. Stuff it in a change jar or pay for someone’s coffee. Share a bit of your wealth in a foreign land.
  • Exchange it back – Or you could do the boring thing and exchange it back for cash, but chances are there is so little left that the fees and exchange rates will eat most of it up—your call.


If all of that was way too much, here’s the breakdown of the important stuff: 

  1. Find out what currency you need (and understand it!).
  2. Exchange $ for that currency at your local bank to get the best exchange rates.
  3. Let your bank and credit card companies know before you leave the country.
  4. Use credit cards with travel benefits to avoid fees.
  5. Make a budget and stick to it.

Money isn’t the most memorable part of a trip, but it is one of the most vital components. Get the most out of your money and prepare early. I’ll bet you £10 you won’t regret it!