What to Do With Leftover Foreign Currency

Some practical tips for using up your extra yen, euros, francs, and beyond.

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Photo by Michelle Heimerman

While credit cards have become the most popular way for Americans to pay for goods and services, if you’re traveling overseas, it’s a good idea to have some cash in hand. Many other countries, like Morocco, Egypt, and Greece, remain primarily cash-based. And even in countries that aren’t as cash-reliant, you’re bound to run into a place, like a street food stand or small, local art store, that doesn’t take credit cards.

Chances are you’ll end up with some leftover coins jingling around in your pocket or a small stack of banknotes, which might have you wondering what to do with this foreign cash once you return home.

Fortunately, there are numerous practical and creative ways to make the most of leftover international currency.

Convert it

One of the most straightforward options is to have your leftover coins and bills converted to your home currency or that of the country you’re going to next. Most international airports have exchange counters to help with that (though many only accept banknotes, not coins). However, if your bank is able to exchange your foreign cash (or drop the funds directly into your account), that is often the better bet, as banks typically offer better rates than the stands you’ll find at the airport. Either way, exchange rates and fees can vary, so it’s a good idea to shop around for the best rates.

Also, keep in mind that some currency exchange services offer “buyback” programs for their customers, wherein they let you sell back your unused foreign currency at a better rate or with lower fees compared to a standard exchange service. That only applies to money you’ve previously exchanged, though—it wouldn’t apply to money you pulled from an ATM.

Donate to charity

Put your leftover foreign currency to good use by gifting it to a charity or organization that accepts foreign currency donations. Airports throughout the world have collection boxes where you can deposit your spare change to organizations like animal rescues and child hospitals. If you’re back stateside, you might consider donating to UNICEF, which accepts foreign currencies as part of its Change for Good program. On some international flights, flight attendants will pass out envelopes or bring around a bucket where you can deposit your money for UNICEF, though if that doesn’t happen, you can also mail the funds directly to UNICEF.

Save it for future travel

If you’re a frequent traveler or have plans to revisit a particular destination (or know someone else who is), holding onto leftover currency can be a practical choice. It eliminates the need to exchange money upon arrival, and you can use it for initial expenses like transportation or meals.

However, remember that the currency might be less valuable in the future. Or that country might stop using that currency altogether. For example, Bulgaria is slated to join the European Union in the next year, and when it does, it’ll switch from its current currency, the Bulgarian lev, to the euro.

Use it to pay part of your final bill

While your fistful of change and banknotes might not be enough to pay the entirety of your hotel room charge, the fee for your taxi to the airport, your bill for your preflight meal or snack run, or the total of your duty-free shopping spree, it could pay for part of it. As you’re checking out, ask if you can first apply the remaining leftover currency to your bill and then put the rest on your credit card. You never know, whoever you’re paying might appreciate having a little extra cash on hand.

Sell it online

If you found some rather old or obscure currency (perhaps something that is no longer in circulation), you might find some luck selling it on an online marketplace, such as eBay or a specialized currency exchange website. Rare or unique banknotes and coins can fetch a decent price from collectors.

Keep it as a souvenir

Foreign coins and bills can serve as a unique, comparatively low-cost souvenir from your travels. You might consider displaying it as is or incorporating it into a crafting project, like making coins into jewelry or fridge magnets.

Load it onto your Starbucks card

Before leaving the country, you could bring your leftover currency to a Starbucks and have the barista top-up your Starbucks card. The funds will automatically be converted to your local currency, so you won’t have to worry about the exchange rate. According to Starbucks, this only works in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Mexico, and Australia.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at AFAR. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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