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I am planning a trip to a conference in Switzerland, and my airfare will be reimbursed to me when I arrive there. They will be reimbursing me in Swiss Francs. I want to get a good exchange rate.

Is it better to exchange the Swiss Francs in Switzerland for USD? If so, where?

Or, is it better to exchange it for USD back in the US?

  • 4
    Besides the answers telling you to exchange in Switzerland (which is correct, USA bank fees and exchange rates are unbelievably bad), even better would be their making an electronic deposit to your credit card, if you have a card that does not charge for foreign currency transactions. There are a number of such cards: United Mileage Plus, Capital One, Schwab, etc. Check the fine print. And that is probably where the money is going eventually anyway. You will also want such a card for your expenses (food, souvenirs) in Switzerland, whether paying directly or getting cash from an ATM. – Andrew Lazarus Oct 9 '14 at 22:15
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It would be more convenient for you to change your Swiss Francs to US Dollars while still in Switzerland, and you would probably get a better deal too.

If you walk down the street in the center of any Swiss town, you'll encounter a bank every block or two. They will all likely post their exchange rates quite visibly, and will happily deal in cash. (The Swiss are quite happy to deal in large bills. You can use a 200 CHF note to buy an apple at a grocery store, and the cashier will make change for you without blinking.) Once you return to the US, you'll have a harder time finding a bank that will want to deal with Swiss Franc bills (much less coins), and you certainly don't want to go to one of those tourist money-changers.

So, which Swiss bank? Without recommending any particular bank, I would suggest picking a consumer-grade bank (not a private bank for wealthy clients), preferably one of the smaller ones. As an example, compare rates for Banque Migros (a venture related to a large supermarket chain) to UBS (the largest Swiss bank):

  • Banque Migros rate is currently 0.965 CHF → 1 USD (look under "Cours de Bourse → Devises" on the front page)
  • UBS rate is currently currently 0.99 CHF → 1 USD ("1 USD CHF Buy Banknotes")
  • 4
    Also check for bank fees beforehand. Some banks levy a fee if you are not a customer of that bank. There is a list for CHF->EUR fees here (in German, column "Gebühr" are the fees, dated March 2014), it's most likely similar for CHF->USD exchanges. Also, some banks might offer better exchange rates for amounts above a certain threshold (e.g. CHF 1500). The denomination of the CHF notes is not important, so if you want you can use 10.- notes or 1000.- notes (yes these exist) in the same way. – jmiserez Oct 9 '14 at 12:57
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In my experience it is less expensive and much less hassle to change your Swiss Francs to USD while still in Switzerland.

I would, however, not go to a bank to change money, but rather to a train station. All major SBB train stations allow you to change money, and their rates are very good.

More importantly, though, they have much better opening hours than banks, i.e. they open earlier, close later, and several are open on week-ends. And since you're traveling, anyway, chances are that you'll be near a train station at some point.

  • This is correct. However not that SBB train station counters charge a fee of CHF 4 for changing money. – drat Nov 21 '16 at 1:04
  • @drat: correct, the conditions have worsened over the years – Jonas Nov 21 '16 at 8:55
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The rule of thumb is that you get a better exchange rate selling a currency than buying it, so in theory will get a better exchange back in the USA. BUT US banks are notorious for poor exchange rates as there is not a huge demand.

Best course of action is to watch the appropriate exchange rates and see where the better rate is. You would be looking at "sell" rates with a Swiss bank and "buy" rates with a US bank.

3

The best rate I could find was on those online websites:

So, these are some kind of online banks specialized in foreign exchange.

The rates they offer are much much better than any regular retail bank: you can see their rates on their official websites, & compare them with your regular retail bank. The difference can be as high as saving 100 USD for every 2000 USD you exchange.

Signing up for an account with those guys is very quick, it takes just a couple of business days with CurrencyFair & I expect a similar delay for TransferWise.

On top of being very cheap on the rate, then sending your money to any account (in the supported countries) only cost 4 USD (at currencyfair). Versus your regular retail bank probably charging you 10 to 15 USD to send money abroad.

In your case, the only trick is that you'd need to then send the exchanged money to a CHF account. To then access it, use it. Not sure how easy (& how expensive) it is for you to setup an account with a foreign currency (in my retail bank it's free so it was a no-brainer).

Making myself clearer with a real-life example: I had to change Swiss Francs (CHF) in USD, see the steps I followed:

  1. Open an account with CurrencyFair (free & took 1 business day)
  2. Open an account in USD with my retail bank "bank x"
  3. Transfer my CHF from "bank x" account to my CurrencyFair account
  4. Exchange the money in USD on CurrencyFair
  5. Transfer the USD from CurrencyFair account to my bank account in USD in "bank x"

I did use this service times, & some friends also use this service, this works amazingly well & you save a crazy amount of money.

Note: I chose to use CurrencyFair rather than TransferWiser because it is more transparent than transferwise on "how it works", but also because it provides more options on exchanging money (see "Why use the CurrencyFair MarketPlace").

Resources:

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