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I live in the UK and am looking at opening a USD account. The primary reason for this is that I work for an American company whose employee share plan deals in USD, so it is required for that. However, I have thought of perhaps other uses too. I am not in any way a financial expert so I am wondering if my ideas make any sense.

Firstly, I intend/expect to travel to the US a bit over the next few years. So, I thought that in order to save cash for spending on those trips it would be better for me to save directly in dollars each month. Rather than saving in sterling and converting it to dollars in one big transaction just before travelling. I figure if I spread out exchanges then on balance I am usually going to get a better effective rate than if I leave myself at the mercy of whatever the rate happens to be when I convert in one go.

Secondly, I know it is a good idea to spread one's savings across a number of areas (cash, investments, gold etc.) if you want to see it grow. So, I thought why not save for the long term in multiple currencies. Rather than leave my cash savings as just sterling, I could spread them across a few currencies and theoretically see more growth. Does this make sense? I am honestly very much a novice here. But, given that interest rates vary based on the issuing central bank, I think I'll get different rates for different currencies and won't just have to rely on the rate for one currency doing well for me.

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    FWIW, I think it's a good idea. In short you're getting USD, so simply keep it as USD. It's quite true that in the future if you need USD for some reason (travel - whatever), you're all set. (Regarding your idea of growth etc, just utterly forget it, it's irrelevant and a crap shoot.) – Fattie Jun 26 '16 at 2:56
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Changing money from one currency to another can be a very costly transaction. Looking at today's rates for exchanging GBP to USD, the difference between the market USD/GBP rate and the rate offered by the high street banks is a little over 5%. For example, Barclays is quoting 1.2989 as compared to a market rate of 1.3685. Giving up 5% of your money just to change between currencies is a horrendous proposition. Despite Friday's extreme volatility in the currency markets, a difference of 5% (or higher) is typical of high street foreign exchange transactions.

One way of minimising this cost is to exchange large amounts at a time. For example, I know from experience that exchanging the equivalent of $10,000 with HSBC will get you a rate of about 0.75% away from the market rate. Exchanging the equivalent of $25,000 will get you a rate of about 0.25-0.50% away from the market rate. However, this requires that you have an HSBC "Premier Account". Lesser "status" accounts will get slightly inferior rates but still much better than the high street rates on offer.

The risk in exchanging larger amounts less frequently is that your timing may mean that you are buying a large amount at an unfavourable rate. However, saving 4-4.5% on the exchange means that it will need to be very unfavourable timing to leave you worse off.

It may be that other high street banks offer similarly favourable rates to those offered by HSBC on larger transactions. Speak to your bank asking them what they can offer and if necessary, speak to HSBC.

Regarding the purchase of shares via your employer's share plan, it is likely that your employer will offer you the right to pay in GBP at very favourable rates, with the employer taking upon themselves the requirement to exchange the funds. Speak to your employer.

  • I would have to pay the ~5% difference anyway if converting money for travel, so would my first idea still make sense? To convert as I save for travel rather than save in GBP and then convert in one go just before travelling? Obviously, as you say, it would be a bad idea for me to save in the long term like this unless I am dealing with large sums (not there yet!). – Luke Jun 25 '16 at 20:33
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    @Luke Credit and Debit cards can often offer better rates of foreign exchange when travelling. I recall the first time I used my card abroad and how surprised I was at the exchange rate used by the company. I had expected it to be very unfavourable, but it turned out to be much better than the high street rates. Ask your card company how they process foreign currency transactions. When you travel, if you take a small amount of cash and then use your cards for most of your transactions, you may save money on the foreign exchange. You can also use your debit card to withdraw cash abroad. – Nick Jun 25 '16 at 21:52
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    as Nick explains it's completely pointless changing amounts less than 20 or 30 thousand. Totally forget it if you're just talking "a thousand dollars/pounds or so". (I assumed in your question, you were talking about 20k here, 20k there.) But if you GET (say) 10 grand in USD from some transaction, sure, keep that in a USD bank for when you NEED usd for some reason. (Totally forget the idea that you'll "make money' from the arrangement...it's not an investment, just a convenience.) – Fattie Jun 26 '16 at 2:59
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    One minor point, be prepared to enter the world of ridiculously high money sending fees. I pay basically $50-$75 every time I send money around from asia/europe/us, and that's carefully selecting cheap wire-transfer-fee banks. it's madness. Almost all US banks (for example) keep $25 (!) when a transfer arrives from overseas. – Fattie Jun 26 '16 at 3:01
  • Okay then. I will abandon the idea! Classic case of my usual overthinking I think. :P – Luke Jun 26 '16 at 11:37

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