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When traveling abroad I have noticed that usually the exchange rate is more favourable if I withdraw the cash from ATM at the destination. But getting money this way has always caused me some trouble since ATMs usually provide the cash in form of large bank notes.

Those large bank notes are usually not accepted by automatic vending machines (e.g. ticket machine) and small shops. It is possible but not always practical to ask locals for change, sometimes people just don't carry that much cash with them. I know that large shops will most likely accept the large bank notes but I will have to make some unnecessary purchase of overpriced goods. And personally, I think that carrying many small bank notes is safer than a few large bank notes.

Are there any good ways to change the large bank notes I get from the ATM to the smaller bank notes?

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Some strategies:

  • Take less out of the ATM. It may dispense different denominations and give you smaller notes if you only ask for a little money. This, of course, may backfire on you if you have to pay an ATM fee, since the fixed fee will add up to a higher percentage of the money taken out. But if you have a free ATM (or one where only a percentage-based foreign transaction fee applies), it's a worthwhile strategy.

  • Similarly, if you know what denominations the ATM dispenses (if it offers multiple denominations), you can be strategic when deciding how much to withdrawal to force it to give you at least some smaller bills. It's not always easy to know what foreign ATMs give out though.

  • Larger, higher-end hotels can often make change at the front desk or restaurant (in part because people need change to tip the hotel staff). This is intended for their guests, though they may be accommodating if you walk up to the front desk and generally look like you could be a guest.

  • There may be a staffed ticket window (for trains or public transit) that can accommodate larger bills than the ticket machines. Alternatively, pay for your tickets with a credit card.

  • You don't need to make an unnecessary purchase of overpriced goods to get change. Some shops may be willing to make change without a purchase (though often not), but you can always buy an inexpensive beverage, pack of gum, or a small snack and pay for it with a large bill. This gives you change and something refreshing or tasty. If you ask the clerk to change another bill at this time (before he/she has the register open), they may be able to accommodate you.

  • Grab a drink at a bar. You get a delicious drink and your change. If the bartender expects a tip, he/she will make sure you get small bills back as part of that.

  • Try at a bank. Whether banks will make change for non-customers will depend on the country and bank policy. You may have better luck if you tell the bank you just got the money from their ATM.

  • If you've been there before, bring some small notes home and bring them back next time. This can be a useful strategy for a currency you don't mind holding and are likely to use again, less so for an unstable currency or one from a place you're unlikely to return.

  • As you travel, you can keep an eye on your small bill supply and ensure it is topped up by using larger notes even when you have smaller ones available. This means you primarily only have to really worry about this problem at the very beginning of your trip.

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    For your first point - you could take out a non-round number, say, 90 rather than 100 - or 190 rather than 200, etc. - force the ATM to give you at least some smaller notes without costing you very much more at all. – EdC May 10 '16 at 2:14
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    Good point @EdC, if the ATM allows that. I've seen some Euro ATMs that are pretty flexible. A lot of American ATMs are 20s only, with the occasional obnoxious one that hands out 50s. – Zach Lipton May 10 '16 at 2:47
  • Similar in the UK - generally we'll get 10s or 20s, so not too bad. But I've seen some in Cambodia that'll spit out a $100USD bill to the unwary without batting an eyelid, and here in Vietnam, many ATMs will offer 50k and 500k notes. (perhaps it's an income disparity thing, the ATM needs to serve richer tourists and poorer locals) – EdC May 10 '16 at 3:08
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    Example: most European ATMs give out 20 and 50 Euro notes. Withdraw amounts ending in 80 or 30 (such as 80, 130, 180, 230, 280... Euros) to ensure you have at least four 20E notes. – Federico Poloni May 10 '16 at 6:14
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    Some ATMs around here will make their own choice of notes if you just select one of the standard withdrawal sizes it offers on the front screen -- but if you push "other amount", you will get a "choose notes" button to push instead of "OK" after typing in the amount on the PIN pad. – Henning Makholm May 10 '16 at 10:09
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Some ATM's in Western Europe ask you what denomination you prefer. If that is not the case, I usually try to do some mental arithmetic and withdraw an amount which cannot easily be factored by whatever large denominations exist in the foreign country. Say, for example, you are in the Euro Zone and want to avoid €50 notes. You can withdraw an amount that cannot easily be factored by €50. Federico Poloni gives a practical example here for Euros:

Example: most European ATMs give out 20 and 50 Euro notes. Withdraw amounts ending in 80 or 30 (such as 80, 130, 180, 230, 280... Euros) to ensure you have at least four 20E notes.

Obviously, withdrawing say €80 can result in various combinations, including €50 + €20 + €10. This method is therefore not bulletproof, although it ensures that you will get a combination of denominations, including small bills.

  • I think that your answer is a good one, but I don't get your example: I've had it a couple of times that withdrawing 80 Euros gave me 50+20+10. This problem generalizes to all decimal numbers ending with "80" and "30". – DCTLib May 10 '16 at 10:12
  • @DCTLib The method is not bulletproof obviously since we are effectively trying to reverse-engineer how the ATM will "think". Nevertheless you will get a combination of denominations, including small notes. – JoErNanO May 10 '16 at 10:17
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    In my experience most ATMs in the UK don't dispense £50 notes, The only exception I can think of is in a casino. – PeterI May 10 '16 at 10:18
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    @JoErNanO Not going to work in Germany, Austria or France (and I remember from all the news coverage about Greece that their ATMs give out notes other than 20s too) from the top of my head, because those do give out 10€, 20€, 50€. Seems more like a Italian pecularity at this point, certainly not "most European ATMs". – Voo May 11 '16 at 8:27
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    So far we know that this seems to work fine in Italy, but won't work in half a dozen other European countries. So the claim "Most European ATMs" is rather unfounded, if anything the opposite seems true (although we really don't have enough evidence to support either claim). – Voo May 11 '16 at 8:51
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In Japan, Japan Post Bank ATMs give 1,000 and 10,000 yen bills only. You can request arbitrary amounts of each, and the bills to be dispensed are displayed for confirmation before the transaction is complete.

The easiest way to request 1,000 yen bills when withdrawing an amount which is a multiple of 10,000 is to use the 千 (1,000) button instead of or in addition to the 万 (10,000) one. For example if I want to withdraw 10,000 yen as ten 1,000 yen bills, I type 10千 instead of 1万. Likewise, if I want to withdraw 40,000 yen as two 10,000s and twenty 1,000s, I type 2万20千.

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Small shops are usually reluctant to take large notes at the beginning of the day, because they start with a limited amount of cash to make the change. Once they've had a few customers, they usually have enough money in the cash register to accommodate you.

So, if you have troubles paying a shop with a large note, you should simply try again later, sometimes just letting a few people make their purchases ahead of you. Asking the shop by what time they expect to have enough change also helps.

If you want to make purchases in vending machines, simply look around: there might be a special terminal which makes the change. Those are installed together with vending machines to improve the sales.

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I try to pay for each purchase using only the next larger denomination. That what I end up with plenty of change.

Paying for a 1200 rupee hotel? Use 2x 1000 rupee notes.
Paying for a 120 rupee taxi? Use a 500 rupee note.
Paying for a 15 rupee bottle of water? Use a 20 rupee note.

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