You put the rabbit in the hat...
November 21, 2018 11:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm an American citizen nearing the end of a several-months-long stay in Switzerland. For reasons too peculiar yet banal to go into, I have about $5000 worth of Swiss francs in cash. I don't have a bank account in Switzerland (it's complicated for Americans, so functionally isn't an option), and I don't anticipate coming back in the near future. What's the best way to take my pile of francs and turn it into USD, prioritizing exchange rate over speed?

Some additional details, just in case they're relevant: I have acquaintances and a distant (trustworthy) relative here I could ask a favor, but no one who seems like a natural go-to; my close friends here are from adjacent countries and don't have Swiss bank accounts themselves (and I don't know anyone who has advice on how to solve this problem).

I'm in a village and don't get in to the big city much, but would presumably make a trip to Lausanne just for this. (I.e. I can't, like, drop by a bank tomorrow on my way back from lunch to ask a question.)

I wouldn't mind carrying a pile of francs back home to the States if that made sense for some reason, but the potential risk (of loss/theft, or at least a shittier exchange rate) is pretty significant in relation to the benefits (deferring decision for a few months? I don't think there actually is a benefit, except for currency hoarding or something arcanely paranoid..).
posted by tapir-whorf to Work & Money (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Carrying that much cash across the US Border is going to earn you some scrutiny, with the consequences ranging up to confiscation (civil forfeiture); I suggest arranging an electronic wire transfer to an account in the US, with all the reporting and any potential fees and duties that involves.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:00 PM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Per CBP rules, you're allowed to bring up to $10k into the country without reporting it on a customs form. That being said, carrying that much in cash may indeed raise some suspicion, and I personally wouldn't do it.

Some kind of money transfer service is going to be your best bet. Either MoneyGram or Western Union should be able to send the money directly to your bank account, though I'd probably check with local banks first to see if they offer money transfers to non-customers.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:30 PM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think you are overestimating the risk of just putting the cash in your wallet and crossing the border. It is well below the threshold - you don't have to declare it or volunteer any information. Just make sure you don't lie about it if asked. Unless you are already setting off massive red flags, it is incredibly unlikely that you will be physically searched by border officers to the point where they pull the cash from your wallet and count it, and then decide to give you trouble over it despite the amount being legal.

Most money transfers are going to be unfavourable on both fees and exchange rate. Depositing the cash directly to your bank at home should get a reasonable rate. You can do better but then you're getting into elaborate schemes like brokerage accounts and Norbert's Gambit to save a small amount.
posted by allegedly at 12:59 PM on November 21, 2018 [11 favorites]

If you're really prioritizing exchange rate above all (and want a small adventure) I'd go to the exchange rate counters in Lausanne and see how much they're willing to sell USD / do the CHF->USD transfer for. Do the exchange locally and carry the cash in USD across on your person.

Going to various different counters will yield in slightly different exchange rates, and you may be able to negotiate the exchange rate for certain currencies if you tell you how much you are going to exchange.

I haven't done this in Switzerland, but I did this in HK's currency exchange kiosks in Sheung Wan, and beat any other exchange rate possible by going around to many different kiosks, comparing the prices, and then asking a counter if they'd be willing to exchange X amount for Y, asking for a number slightly below the lowest USD sell rate. In my case, it was $1000, not $5000, but it worked great.

Make sure that you have it written down on paper beforehand: "X CHF -> Y USD after fees", etc, as to clear up any miscommunication.

In the US, the exchange rate might be less competitive since local demand for CHF will be rarer unless you're in a major city like NYC or LA. Banks will not necessarily provide the best interest rate (check this page out and compare the CHF->USD rate, as an example.)
posted by suedehead at 1:08 PM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you do what suedehead says, I believe larger denomination notes are worth more when exchanging so it might so it might be worth your while to change your cash up to big bills at the bank to get a better rate. Maybe someone on here knows if this is the case in developed countries? It certainly is in developing ones.
posted by glasseyes at 1:16 PM on November 21, 2018

Prioritising exchange rates, the best way would be to have a friend, recently arrived from the US, who wants to convert USD to CHF (for a housing deposit for example - Swiss deposits are normally well over 5K). That way you can do the exchange at whatever rate says (or an average of the last couple of months or whatever seems fair) and both of you get a better rate than you would commercially. If you don’t have such a friend, I’d think about putting an ad in an expat facebook group or the websites for the Universities of Lausanne and Geneva.

If you decide to take the francs back to the States, any Swiss bank will change 5,000 CHF in whatever form you currently have to five purple bills that you are no more likely to lose or have stolen than any other sum of money you put into your wallet while travelling (you could get a money belt if you were very worried about it - the point is that it’s only a few notes, not a briefcase full.) Five thousand dollars is under the declaration limit for entry into the US, so you shouldn’t have problems there.

In terms of prioritising exchange rate (ie rate of return) over time, you could always open up an account in Switzerland and leave it there, of course. I’m not saying this will happen to you, but that’s what I did (mostly out of laziness) and the franc went up considerably in the couple of years that went by before I needed that money for something. It tends to go up when the world gets crazier - because it’s seen as a safe haven for value - so what it’s likely to do depends on your perspective of whether global stability is likely to increase or decrease in the near future. (Then again, I think the dollar has a similar tendency...)
posted by chappell, ambrose at 1:33 PM on November 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

In terms of prioritising exchange rate (ie rate of return) over time, you could always open up an account in Switzerland and leave it there, of course.

I would gladly do this, but I'm an American without a residence permit or a job here, which I think makes this basically impossible because of 1) changes to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act regulations + EU law a couple years ago that specifically affect Americans banking in Switzerland, and 2) I am not a multimillionaire, which would help to circumvent those restrictions. If you happen to know more than me, please say; I haven't looked into it too seriously because it seemed so unlikely to be an option.
posted by tapir-whorf at 3:22 PM on November 21, 2018

A question you may wish to research is the actual amount in cash that you would be giving up if you exchanged the money at the typical rate vs. the best possible rate. If the difference is worth the extra hassle to you, then go for it, but it might not be. Kind of like the currency exchange equivalent of driving an extra 20 miles to save a dollar in gas.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:33 PM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

You will not be able to open a bank account in Switzerland as a US citizen. Banks in Switzerland have even forced existing US-citizen, Swiss-resident customers to close their accounts: that's how scared they are of the jail terms that a number of Swiss banking bigwigs got around 2008. And you will be domiciled in the US, an absolute no-go.

I don't think you will have problems at the border. My partner and I entered the US carrying the maximum amount ($10,000) each, not realizing that the $10,000 limit is per family. We declared it and the CBP guys just said 'don't do that again' and sent us on our way.

So I would bring the cash home and deposit it in your US bank.
posted by ogorki at 3:44 AM on November 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

For those of you saying "bring the cash home and deposit it in your US bank," I've been traveling internationally for years and it's never occurred to me to do this. Is this a thing people do (rather than wiring it, say)?
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:47 AM on November 22, 2018

I’ve only done smaller amounts and I can’t vouch for other banks, but if you qualify for “relationship banking” at Bank of America deposits in foreign currency are fee-free. They didn’t take coins, but I don’t think any exchanges do either.
posted by fedward at 8:09 AM on November 22, 2018

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