Bureau de change
A bureau de change (plural bureaux de change, both / /) (British English) or currency exchange (American English) is a business whose customers exchange one currency for another. Although originally French, the term “bureau de change” is widely used throughout Europe, and European travellers can usually easily identify these facilities when in other European countries. It is also common to find a sign saying "exchange" or "change." Since the adoption of the euro, many exchange offices incorporate its logotype prominently on their signage.
The term “bureau de change” is not used in the United States. Instead, the terms used in the United States and English-speaking Canada are “currency exchange” and sometimes “money exchange”, sometimes with various additions such as “foreign”, “desk”, “office”, “counter”, “service”, etc.; for example, “foreign currency exchange office”.
A bureau de change is often located at a bank, at a travel agent, airport, main railway station or large stores—namely, anywhere there is likely to be a market for people needing to convert currency. So they are particularly prominent at travel hubs, although currency can be exchanged in many other ways both legally and illegally in other venues. Some of the major players include Travelex, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and HSBC.
The exchange rates charged at bureaux are generally related to the spot prices available for large interbank transactions, and are adjusted to guarantee a profit. The rate at which a bureau will buy currency differs from that at which it will sell it; for every currency it trades both will be on display, generally in the shop window.
So if the spot price on a particular day is €1.50 to £1, in theory £2 will buy €3, but in practice this would be hard if not impossible for average consumers to get. If the bureau de change buys £1 from a consumer for €1.40 and then sells £1 for €1.60, the 20¢ difference makes a profit.
This business model can be upset by a currency run when there are far more buyers than sellers (or vice versa) because they feel a particular currency is overvalued or undervalued and becomes “not worth a Continental”.
The business may also charge a commission on the transaction. Commission is generally charged as a percentage of the amount to be exchanged, or a fixed fee, or both. Some bureaux advertise themselves as commission-free, which mathematically just means they further load their offered exchange rates. As an additional complexity some bureaux offer special deals for customers returning unspent foreign currency after a holiday. Bureaux de change rarely buy or sell coins, but sometimes will at a higher profit margin, justifying this by the higher cost of storage and shipping compared with banknotes.
Changing money at a bureau is often more expensive than withdrawing it from an automatic teller machine at one’s destination or paying directly by debit or credit card, but this varies depending on the card issuer and the type of account. Some people may feel uncomfortable carrying a lot of cash and so prefer to use a card.
Some may also prefer to hold foreign currency rather than change it back if they are expecting to return to where it is used. Companies that frequently send employees abroad may essentially act as their own exchange by reimbursing their employees in the local currency and holding the foreign currency. If exchange rates are relatively stable, the fees charged by a bureau may exceed any likely fluctuation and it also makes the company’s accountancy easier.
In the alternate, some prefer to buy their currency before they travel, either just for a sense of security, or because they speculate the exchange rate is better at that time than it will be when they make their trip.
In 2002, many bureaux reported substantial reductions in profit due to the replacement of many European currencies with the euro.
A number of countries require bureaux de change to register as Money Service Businesses that come under Anti-money laundering controls. However in countries where currency exchange is lightly regulated they can be used as front organizations for money laundering. Customers bring legally obtained money and receive illegally obtained money in return. The owners of the bureau may themselves launder money.
In popular culture
- The 1994 news parody The Day Today featured a spoof soap opera called The Bureau, set in "a 'high class' bureau de change" and run by soap-opera stereotypes (the arrogant boss, the gay man, etc.). In the programme, the soap supposedly replaced the BBC Nine O'Clock News, and then failed to attract large audiences leading to it being sent on tour on the back of a lorry. This was a reference to the failed BBC soap opera Eldorado.
- See, for example, A tourist site for London, A Bureau de change
- See, for example, Kennedy International Airport
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