How to Cash a Traveler's Check
To contemporary world travelers – those who have heard of them, anyway – traveler's checks are an anachronism, long since replaced by plastic and gone the way of steamships and suitcases without wheels. However, travelers checks do still exist, and you can still use them. You just need to know how and where to cash them. The "how" is quite straightforward, albeit potentially time consuming: The "where" is the trickier part of the equation.
What Are Travelers' Checks?
A traveler's check is a form of currency available for purchase in set denominations (e.g., $20, $100, $250). They are similar in appearance to regular checks, but they are used more like cashier's checks or money orders in that they are prepaid and have a set value. The most notable characteristic of traveler's checks is their security – if they are lost or stolen, you can get replacement checks covering the full value of the old checks. They can also be spent or cashed only by you, in person, when presenting a valid I.D. Further, because they are not linked in any way to your bank account, there is no risk of identity theft when using traveler's checks.
While widely used until the mid-1990s, traveler's checks are not popular today because the majority of travelers have major credit or debit cards, making it easy and convenient to get cash from ATMs and make in-store purchases all over the world. At the time of publication, just a handful of financial institutions offer traveler's checks, including American Express and Visa. They can be purchased through some banks, AAA and online. MasterCard has replaced its paper traveler's checks with a prepaid card that works like a debit card, and Visa offers the similar Visa Travel Money Card as a more convenient alternative to its paper checks.
How to Prepare Traveler's Checks
Traveler's checks are issued with a set of instructions, which you should read carefully as soon as you receive them. Generally, there are two places on every check for your signature. You should immediately sign on the first line (on American Express Traveler's Cheques this line is at the top left corner) on every single check. Do not sign on the second line (usually at the bottom right) until you are cashing or spending the check.
Every traveler's check has a serial number. You need to record every serial number and the denomination of the matching check and keep the record in a safe place, separate from the checks. In the event the checks are lost or stolen, you'll need to know these serial numbers to request replacements. When you cash or spend a check, cross the serial number off the list in your records.
How to Spend or Cash Travelers Checks
In their heyday, traveler's checks were almost universally accepted at retail establishments as a form of direct payment. You could go into any store and, for example, present the cashier with a $50 traveler's check to purchase $40 worth of goods and receive $10 cash as change. Today, there are very few establishments where you can spend traveler's checks in this manner, and such a request would likely be met with confusion. It might technically be possible to find stores that still accept traveler's checks in major tourist destinations, but for most, it's not worth the time or effort to find out.
So, using traveler's checks today means exchanging them for cash at a bank or other financial institution. Some larger hotels might also perform this transaction. To proceed, present your traveler's check(s) to the bank cashier along with your photo ID. Sign the second line on the check in front of the cashier. You should receive the full value in cash in return, but some institutions might charge a fee for the service. It might also be a time-consuming process, especially if you're in a country with limited banking hours or staff.
If you are having trouble finding somewhere to cash your traveler's checks, go online or call customer service for the company that issued your checks. They should have a list of all the local places that accept the checks. You might want to research this before you leave home.
Traveler's checks never expire, so if you have some that are unused, you should be able to cash them at home, in your home currency. Expect to pay some fees to do this.