Using Money in the USA: Cash, Cards ATMs & Currency Exchange

You’ve got that epic holiday in the US planned.

Naturally, you want your money to go as far as possible.

This guide provides you with a thorough overview of how to take and spend money to the US so you know not just the ins and outs of the greenback but also how to get the best value during your time Stateside.

 

In this guide, you’ll find info on:

Paying for Things in the USA Using Cards

using a card to pay

Paying for things in the US using a card is really easy and convenient. Broadly, there are 3 different types of cards you can use.

Unfortunately, there isn't one type that's the 'best'. It's really important to understand each type to work out which one will suit you best.

Prepaid Travel Money Cards

Best Ways to Take Money to the US from Australia

A great option that helps you lock in exchange rates when you convert Australian dollars to US dollars, a prepaid travel money card also helps you avoid currency conversion fees and (in some instances) international ATM withdrawal fees.

A particularly big advantage is the additional security measure; many prepaid travel cards come with backups or replacement options.

But while you’re saving on some fees, you’re paying extra on others, such as the initial load fee, reload fees, and inactivity fees. You also need to plan your spending habits effectively or you may find yourself with excess currency on the card at the end of your trip.

Major Australian banks and money exchange providers like Travelex offer prepaid travel money cards.

 

Debit Cards

Chances are you already have a debit card and use it every day so wouldn’t this be the easiest option?

Some debit cards, such as Citibank and ING, even waive currency conversion fees, international ATM fees, and account keeping fees (with some caveats), making them a no-brainer.

But these cards are still an exception. Most other bank cards apply often hefty overseas ATM withdrawal fees and currency conversion fees.

One of the best travel money cards for the US is the Wise Travel Card, which doesn’t have purchase, load, or reload fees and offers the same exchange rates as those you see on Google or XE.com.

 

Paying with a Credit Card in the US

Best Ways to Take Money to the US from Australia

Credit cards are popular in the US and are accepted by most retailers. You shouldn’t have any problems with Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or Diners Club.

You can even use contactless payments at larger establishments like Kmart, Target, and Walmart.

As with debit cards, most credit cards will incur a currency conversion fee of 2-3% when payments are made in US dollars. There are also high fees for withdrawing money from international ATMs, a pitfall we’ll look at in more detail below.

As with debit cards, most credit cards will incur a currency conversion fee of 2-3% when payments are made in US dollars. There are also high fees for withdrawing money from international ATMs, a pitfall we’ll look at in more detail below.

Still, there are several reasons why it might be handy to have a credit card with you, including:

  • The additional security you get from rigorous anti-fraud measures.
  • The card serves as a good backup in emergencies.
  • Many credit cards provide travel insurance, sometimes eliminating the need to purchase your own.
  • Many credit cards have reward systems tied to travel points, helping you save money for future travels.

Learn more: The Best Travel Credit Cards to Use Overseas

 

A Note on Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC)

When paying with your debit or credit card in the US, you may be asked whether you’d prefer to be charged in Aussie dollars or the local currency.

This is a process called dynamic currency conversion (DCC) and is best avoided.

Foreign exchange rates offered by the retailer are likely to be worse than what your home bank provides.

Using Cash in the US

person holding some cash

While card payments are almost everywhere across the States, they’re still not accepted at smaller establishments. Not to mention the tipping culture is greatly facilitated if you actually have cash on hand.

You can take Australian dollars with you to exchange for US dollars on arrival in the States.

You shouldn’t have trouble exchanging Aussie dollars for the greenback in any tourist hub or at the airport – though it’s best to avoid the airport if you’re after a good exchange rate.

ATM's in the USA

A popular option is to wait until you arrive in the country and then withdraw currency from an ATM either at the airport or in town.

This is one of the most convenient methods to get US dollars in cash (there are plenty of ATMs throughout most American cities and towns and everybody has a bank card!). But there are still a few things to keep in mind.

Local ATMs are often your best bet for exchanging currency as they’re quick, easy, and conveniently located in almost every town across the States.

But beware of the exchange rates and fees you may receive. You may face a double-whammy hit of fees both from the bank of the ATM you’re using and your own bank for an overseas withdrawal.

Since bank cards are commonly used across the country, you’ll have no trouble finding ATMs. Visa and Mastercard are accepted almost everywhere while American Express has its own ATMs in all the major cities

It’s important to remember that every time you use your bank card in an ATM, you’re incurring not just any local ATM fees but bank fees for international ATM withdrawals as well as currency conversion fees.

With credit card withdrawals, it’s even worse; you’ll likely be hit with exorbitant cash advance fees, plus interest, when withdrawing from international ATMs.

You can avoid these fees by checking to see whether your bank debit card is part of the Global ATM Alliance or by pre-loading money onto your credit card (if that’s an option).

In Australia, Westpac cardholders (including those from St George, Bank of Melbourne, and BankSA), can use Bank of America ATMs in the US fee-free.

Currency Exchange in the US

Once you arrive in the United States, you can change your currency right away at the international airport. All major international airports in the United States have currency exchange offices, such as Travelex or International Currency Exchange.

But this might not necessarily be your best option as airport currency exchange bureaux are notorious for their poor exchange rates and high fees.

Many major US towns are common hotspots for foreign tourists so you should have no trouble finding currency exchange outlets in places such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, or New York City.

While you’ll find exchange bureaux in all the tourist areas, expect large exchange rate margins or high commissions to exchange your cash. You may also be asked to provide some identification.

Many local hotels also offer money changing services but you may pay a high price for the convenience of in-house currency exchange.

Buying American Dollars Before You Go

If you like the reassurance of having the local currency readily available from the moment you step off the plane, you have three options to pick up the cash before you go:

  • Buy the currency online and either collect it in-store or have it delivered to you
  • Swap US dollars for Australian dollars from a currency exchange store
  • Buy US dollars the currency at the airport

Online money changers like S Money often have the best exchange rates.

Travelex and Travel Money Oz also offer a foreign exchange service online but it takes between two and five business days before the currency is ready for pick-up or delivery so you need to be organised!

Buying your currency in-store can be a good option but it all depends on where you go. The money changers in the centre of the main cities tend to be more competitive than smaller stores in the suburbs.

Only change money at the airport as a last resort. The exchange rates and fees at Australian airports are among the worst in the world so avoid it at all costs if you want to get the best bang for your buck.

Best Ways to Take Money to the US from Australia

Some people like the added convenience of having the American currency with them before they even leave Aussie shores so they’re ready to go upon arrival in the US.

Having cash on you helps you pay for smaller items as soon as you step off the plane and then gives you more payment options and greater flexibility when buying anything state-side.

Foreign exchange providers with brick-and-mortar establishments might be a good option depending on where you go; Australian suburban outlets tend to have poorer rates than CBD money changers.

On the other hand, Australian airport money changers are among the worst in the world for rates and fees so they’re best avoided.

You can also buy American dollars at Australian banks but you’re likely to pay roughly 2.5% above the day’s market exchange rates.

Travelex and Travel Money Oz provide exchange services online but require several days for processing so you must be organised!

On the other hand, S Money offers the real mid-market exchange rates you see on Google or XE.com and can deliver the currency or organise a pick up for the next day.

Sign up to our Rate Tracker to get free updates on the AUD to USD exchange rate sent directly to your email inbox.

Is It Better to Exchange Money in Australia or the USA?

When it comes to the US, there isn’t a straight answer to this question. While countries commonly frequented by Australians (like the US) tend to offer cheaper currency exchange deals, the reality in the US is that it differs in each city.

You might find more reasonable exchange rates in places like New York, Las Vegas, or Hawaii. But cities less visited by Australians, such as Boston or Chicago, tend to offer worse rates.

How Much Cash Can I Actually Bring to the USA?

There’s no maximum limit to the amount of money you can bring with you to the US from Australia as cash, a money order, or travellers cheques. But it’s still worth noting that you must declare any amount exceeding US$10,000.

A Note on Travellers Cheques

Well past their heyday, travellers cheques are typically costly and hard to exchange. Sure, they’re a secure way to take money from Australia to the US (with replacement and refund options available).

But you often end up facing initial purchase charges, added insurance costs, and fees to cash the cheques in the US. It’s also becoming increasingly difficult to exchange them.

Ultimately, travellers cheques are more likely to prove a burden than a convenience.

Using a Mixture of Card & Cash

When you heading to the US, many experienced travellers use both cash and card.

The advantages of having both options are:

  1. With cash, you have a back up if you card doesn't work or is stolen
  2. With cards, you don't have to carry around larger amounts of banknotes
  3. The flexibility to choose which one will work best

Here is an example

Jason and Kate go out for dinner. They pay for their meal on a prepaid travel card and leave a tip using the cash that they have on hand.

The next day they realise that the balance of their prepaid travel card is really low so they use their debit card to withdrawal some money from an ATM before topping up their main card.

 

Using 2 Different Types of Card and Cash

A common mixture is to use a prepaid travel card for bigger expenses like accommodation, cash for meals, tours and tips and keeping a debit card kept with a passport as backup, just in case the other two options aren't available.

 

Is it better to use Cards or Cash in the US?

It really depends on the situation. Cards can be a more convenient for online purchases, accomodation and tours while cash is king in many places in the US. By carrying both, you can use the best option in each situation.

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