Right now is a great time to exchange your Canadian cash into foreign currency such as USD, with the Canadian dollar on fire as of late.
The loonie has climbed 3.7% since the start of the year, the biggest gain among G10 currencies. The Canadian dollar was worth just US $0.67 a little over a year ago. Now it’s worth US $0.82, hitting highs not seen since early 2018.
While the pandemic has greatly reduced travel, some Canadians planning for a post-pandemic vacation may want to pull the trigger now on buying currency. Others could simply wish to accumulate more of the greenback for a rainy day fund.
Whether you want to exchange CAD, USD or any other currency, here’s some of the best ways to go about it.
1. Knowledge is power: know the midmarket rate
You’ll want to check out the Bank of Canada’s website in order to get a sense of how much your currency is worth. Here you’ll find a currency’s “midmarket rate,” or the midpoint between the buy and sell prices of any two currencies at any time. It acts as a global, trusted exchange rate between currencies.
But when you go to convert your cash, you’ll rarely, if ever, receive the midmarket rate. That’s because businesses mark up their currencies in order to earn profit. The difference between their rate and the midmarket rate is the “spread”, and is profit for the bank or foreign exchange company.
For example, at the moment the midmarket price to buy US$1.00 is CA$1.22. However, if you head over to Scotiabank to buy that US$1.00, it’ll cost you CA$1.25 at the time of writing. That difference of three cents is the money that Scotiabank earns, sometimes along with a small percentage fee.
Still, you always want to have a reference point for how much you can expect to buy or sell based on the midmarket rate.
At the moment of writing, Scotiabank will charge you CA$375 to buy US$300, CA$9.00 more than what you would pay for the hypothetical midmarket rate ($1.22 x 300 = US$366).
As a general rule, currency conversion stores/services tend to offer more competitive rates than banks. But, again, make sure to check their rates!
2. Exchanging your currency: banks and currency exchange services
So you’re ready to buy that fat stack of euros, dollars, pounds or maybe even Chilean pesos. The two most popular places to exchange currency in Canada are at banks or currency exchange services. The latter will often offer more competitive rates than banks, but not always.
Some banks or currency services can tack on fees either take the form of a flat transaction fee (i.e. $5 per transaction) or a percentage fee (i.e. 2.5% of the amount you are converting). A better option would be a service that does not charge any extra fees – only the conversion rate. That’s why it’s also a good idea to call the bank to get the most accurate numbers, because a bank’s website might not be transparent about its cash exchange rates.
These types of fees are more commonplace in currency exchange kiosks, like the ones you’ll find in airports. These can also be found in remote locations or tourist areas, and typically offer the worst rates.
Here’s a short list of Canadian banks and their USD rates (May 6, 2021):
Royal Bank: $1.24
TD Canada Trust: $1.25
Bank of Montreal: $1.26
Here’s a short list of Canadian currency exchange services and their USD rates (May 6, 2021):
Globex 2000: $1.25
ICE Canada: $1.26
Calforex (online rate): $1.27
3. Using money transfer apps
Rather than walking into a store, handing over Canadian money and receiving foreign currency (or selling your foreign currency), you can convert foreign currency into CAD online using your foreign bank account or credit card. The currency can then be sent for pickup or sent directly to your Canadian bank account often within one business day. However, these can be pricey.
Money transfer apps are primarily intended for individual A to send money to individual B in their currency. To to this, individual A pays with their Canadian bank account. The best example of this is sending money back to family overseas.
Or, if individual A is living in a foreign country, they can send themselves money using these apps. They pay with their Canadian bank account and receive foreign currency while inside that country, typically through a pick-up location.
In this article we’re talking about exchanging currency in Canada. Thus, these apps are only useful for those who have foreign currency in a foreign bank account and wish to convert and transfer this currency into their Canadian bank account.
For example, let’s say I have a US bank account at Wells Fargo and I wish to transfer US$300 into CAD into my Canadian bank account. Wise (formerly TransferWise) offers an exchange rate of CAD $1.21 in exchange for US $1.00. Wise is offering you $0.01 cents less than the Bank of Canada’s midmarket rate of $1.22.
The least expensive method of using Wise would include a US $0.93 ACH debit fee along with Wise’s US $2.35 fee for US $3.28 in fees.
In the end, that US $300 turns into CAD $359.92. The tradeoff is convenience and ease-of-use in exchange for potentially less competitive rates.
Western Union charges an automatic US $5.00 “transaction fee,” along with its exchange rate. At the time of writing, Western Union offered an exchange rate of CAD $1.19 in exchange for US $1.00. In the end, that US $300 turns into CAD $358.25.
WorldRemit charged a US $2.99 free along with an exchange rate of CAD$1.19. If you covert over US $700, WorldRemit bumped that exchange rate up to $1.20. In the end, it offered that US $300 for CAD $356.54.
Paypal’s Xoom service will charge an automatic US$4.99 “transaction fee,” along with Xoom’s exchange rate. At the time of writing, Xoom offered an exchange rate of CAD $1.17 in exchange for US $1.00. In the end, that US $300 turns into CAD $351.99.
4. The best of the rest: tips on how to exchange currency in Canada
- Avoid airports, train stations or touristy areas as these will offer the least competitive rates. Translation: less money for you!
- Shop around! If you live in a city, target a location or neighbourhood where several competing exchange businesses are located. For example, in Montreal several exchange services are located downtown on St. Catherine Street West around rue Fort. A few more are located near McGill University. Visit each store before finding the most competitive exchange rate.
- Remember to read the posted exchange rates carefully, and ask for the net rate after commissions. Some fees are per transaction, others on a percentage basis.
- Do your exchanging in bulk. Since any currency exchange service is going to charge you fees every time you buy or sell with them, try to aggregate your transaction. One transaction of US$5,000 will cost less in fees over the long run than five trips to the currency conversion service for US$1,000 each.
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