I will be travelling to the US and have some (clarification: 7 or 8) 100 USD banknotes. When I arrive there, I would like to change them into 5/10/20 USD banknotes, to use when credit cards are impractical (probably mostly tips or small purchases).

Is it acceptable / customary / expected / normal to walk into a random bank office and ask for such change? Is there a fee for the change?

Any other options?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Willeke Jan 31 '19 at 17:37

Is it acceptable / customary / expected / normal to walk into a random bank office and ask for such change? Is there a fee for the change?

It is acceptable. Some banks may be more accommodating than others. I would expect smaller banks and those that emphasize customer service to be among the former. Larger commercial banks are more likely to be among the latter. There should be no fee.

Any other options?

Make small purchases, one for each $100 note. To be courteous, tell the cashier that you have no smaller banknotes before you present the merchandise, to give an opportunity to decline the transaction if the store lacks sufficient small change. Many stores refuse to accept $100 bills altogether, so you may have to try a few places before you'll find one that will accommodate you.

In practice, people commonly pay with $20 notes, so most stores will have a large number of these on hand. Making a $5 purchase with a $100 note isn't likely to cause more inconvenience than making the same purchase with a $20 note.

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    You can also try find a store with an automated checkout machine that is set up to handle cash and $100 bills, if you don't like the idea of the needing to talk to a cashier. I know my local grocery stores don't have a problem with it. Also, casinos (if there happens to be one nearby) are of course used to dealing with large bills (cashiers or change machines). – pboss3010 Jan 30 '19 at 12:47
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    @pboss3010 do the automated checkouts take $100 bills? In UK the max that most will accept is £20 (ie they refuse the £50). – Weather Vane Jan 30 '19 at 14:00
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    Making a small purchase at the airport when you arrive would be a great way of doing this. Of course, you'll pay a lot for that bottle of water or pack of gum, but they will be used to international travelers coming to town and not having small bills in hand. – FreeMan Jan 30 '19 at 14:01
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    I was thinking about that as well @WeatherVane. There are quite a number of smaller stores in the US that won't accept $100s because they're too often counterfeited and they don't want to deal with the risk. Many of the "big box" stores will take them because they have a machine at each register to check bills (I've seen some places scan $20s) to ensure they're legit, but smaller corner market places usually won't. – FreeMan Jan 30 '19 at 14:03
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    @BenCrowell the threshold is $10,000, so this question doesn't come anywhere close to having to worry about that. There's no restriction on what you can do with cash in amounts that large or larger, but there is a requirement for the bank to report such transactions. Anyone entering (or leaving) the US with cash and cash equivalents worth $10,000 or more, counting things denominated in foreign currency by converting the value to US dollars, must also report this to customs. – phoog Jan 30 '19 at 17:54

If you're staying at a hotel, you could ask at the front desk. Cash is still common enough in the USA that I would expect that most hotels would have enough cash on hand to accommodate you.

While I would be surprised if a "nice" hotel were unable to do this, I should say that I have never actually tried it myself.

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    N+1, because in my experience I use this at hotels in America allll the time. If they don't, I'd be surprised; but any normal bank nearby would be able to break the 100 for you, and almost any petrol station as well. – Mikey Jan 30 '19 at 15:29
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    @Mikey A lot of US gas stations ("petrol" stations to you Brits ;) won't accept any bill larger than a $20 (and have numerous signs saying so) because of the risk of taking in counterfeits. If they accept a counterfeit $20, they're out less cash. Also, small purchases with big bills are a popular way of introducing counterfeits and gas stations are popular targets. – FreeMan Jan 30 '19 at 15:53
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    @FreeMan, splitting hairs at this point, but gas stations don't take bills larger than a $50 or $20 because they have a policy of never keeping that much money in the register. Counterfeit happens, but robbery is more common and it is common practice for cash to be "stripped" from the register and put into a safe any time there's more than about $100 in it (depending on location, company policies, etc). – JPhi1618 Jan 30 '19 at 19:27
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    @reirab, yea, it's a combination of how busy the station is and many people just using credit cards. Also, I'm not talking about some big safe in a back room - it's a secure steel box under the counter that they can quickly and easily dump cash into. Its something secure enough that a robber can't get into it in a few minutes with some kind of slot to make it easy for a cashier to stick money in. Time-lock change machines are also used so a cashier can get rolls of ones or coins without a robber being able to access it. Oh, and counterfeit is certainly a concern too, just not the only one. – JPhi1618 Jan 30 '19 at 20:27
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    +1 hotels usually want you to tip their employees, and are usually happy to facilitate that by making change for customers. – Zach Lipton Jan 30 '19 at 23:12

It is common for retailers to provide change (we call this "breaking a bill".) Almost any major chain retailer will break a $100 for a small transaction. You may get attitude though because places like Wal-Mart may have to get extra manager approval to accept the bill or test it using a chemical ink to ensure it is not counterfeit but they will usually do it anyway after hassling you. A smaller business like a gas/petrol station may entirely refuse to accept the bill. Breaking a $100 bill is almost always possible but almost always a hassle.

Since you're asking this, you may also be interested in knowing:

Getting/using coins is not always easy but may be necessary. Many coin operated machines in the US accept quarters only. If you find yourself needing quarters ($0.25) you can usually get them in laundromats from a change machine in exchange for $1 or $5 bills. I run into this all the time when trying to pay for parking. Also, retailers have the right to refuse to accept payment in "burdensome" quantities of small coins. No, you should not pay for a cheeseburger with 600 pennies. In fact, many places will only accept coins if you are paying in exact change. People hate pennies. They are damaging our economy, it costs 2.5 cents to make a 1 cent penny. We only manufacture them still because of Zinc lobbyists and Lincoln fans.

Apple/Google Pay are quickly becoming widely accepted as forms of payment but you should always ask before accepting a service.

In the US, you will often be offered services before you pay. This confuses many tourist who end up getting in trouble once they have consumed a product or service not realizing their method of payment will not be accepted. An example is ordering street food without realizing they are expecting cash only. You probably won't get into any serious trouble but you'll likely get harassed or belittled.

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  • Tourists are also often surprised when they have the money in hand for the 3.5 USD cake, to discover that this is actually 3.78 USD because taxes are not included. This always gets me when in the US. – WoJ Feb 1 '19 at 10:03

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