This is one of the more important aspects of returning to Canada for citizens who have lived abroad for many years and want to repatriate some or all of their money back to Canada and converted to Canadian dollars ("CAD"). There are several aspects to foreign exchange considerations:
The key word for understanding foreign exchange is timing.
When moving back to Canada some years ago, I personally fell into the trap of wanting to have all of my money in Canada when I arrived back. I converted our holdings to CAD and set up life in Canada with those funds before I actually returned. Due to exchange rate changes in the months preceding our return, I lost CAD 14,000 on the conversion rate difference from my earlier projections. Had I waited for a more favourable rate, I could have recouped most or all of these lost monies. As exchange rates go up and down over the years due to a combination of sudden events and fairly clear patterns, timing becomes the key variable.
As of the latest update to this document (March 2020), the Canadian dollar (CAD) is at a very, very low level compared to the US$ (USD). Given this situation, should you convert some or all of your foreign currency back to Canadian dollars right now?
In summary, timing is the key consideration for moving some or all of your monies back to Canada when you are returning to reside here.
Major costs in Canada when you return can be the purchase of real estate for living in or as an investment, a vehicle, or even money for post-secondary education for your child. Living expenses in major cities in Canada are continually rising so plan on having enough cash in Canada to live comfortably, too. Clearly, bringing some money to Canada is essential.
I have also added some USD foreign exchange considerations to the "Moving Back to Canada from the USA" page, which can give you some more general considerations.
The opportunity facing Canadians considering moving their USD funds to CAD is embodied in this chart:
Quite simply, the mid-term projection of the USD is anyone's guess, but as of March 2020, it is very, very strong compared to the CAD and this is certainly a very good time to move money to CAD from USD. Note: The USD seems to be strong, but there are so many variables changing in world economics at this time that is very hard to predict what will happen next.
This leaves Canadians moving back to Canada with some fundamental questions to consider:
If you need the money to be in Canada now, or very soon, exchanging now from USD may save you from future losses from a poorer exchange rate. If you are exchanging GBP to CAD, ongoing post-BREXIT implications could go either way: Strengthening the GBP or weakening it, so there is no definitive timing implication for that currency. Australian Dollars? The AUD has declined in recent years, giving you fewer CAD for your AUD.
If you can wait for the very long term (5-10 years +), You can more accurately match any currency's high exchange rate to your needs.
If you are not in a rush to move your money back to Canada, and want to balance the risk of your holdings (called "hedging"), perhaps keeping 40% in USD, 40% in CDN, and the remaining 20% in EUR, YEN, or CNY (RMB) would make sense. More below, in "Part 2: Hedging".
"Hewers of wood and drawers of water"
This used to describe the early Canadian economy. Resource-based. And we did most of our trade with the U.S.
Today, the Canadian economy is more diversified, but we still retain some of the economic pillars of the past. What Canada looks like now:
The challenge for the present and future? We still do a very large portion of our trade with the U.S.!
Another old saying:
"When America sneezes, Canada gets a cold".
Given our reliance on the U.S. for trade, and the fact that the U.S. population and economy is 10 times the size of Canada's, is there cause for concern when this friendly neighbour gets economically sick?
The simplest and most clear message coming from Canadian reliance on our economically significant neighbour to the south is that you might consider holding a significant part your financial investments outside of Canada and the U.S., in foreign currencies and investments. Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, and Japan all offer an opportunity to off-set economic risk in the U.S., and by association, Canada.
This is more complex stuff. If you have significant financial holdings in a foreign currency I suggest you consult with a financial advisor who understands currencies, specifically.
"Hedging" simply means balancing your risk or "not putting all your eggs in one basket".
When one currency goes up another goes down, by default. Obviously you want to be invested more in currencies that go "up" over time and not down. However, this is devilishly hard to predict, per the timing issue noted above.
For most people, this means you need another tool: Owning more than one currency so that when one goes down, you have another that goes up. You won't make any major gains on your money from a currency value perspective...but you won't ever lose much, either, assuming you have spread your risk across a few currencies.
If you are getting paid in one currency, and putting away savings for the future, hedging is a powerful risk reduction tool for you.
Here is an example mix, assuming you are still living overseas or are returning to Canada but do not want to immediately convert all your funds:
You have Australian dollars (AUD) 100,000. Here is how you might hedge it:
AUD 40,000 (40%)
USA 21,000 (20%)
EUR 16,000 (20%)
CDN 21,000 (20%)
(The above is just an example to illustrate hedging and the actual amounts will fluctuate based on changing exchange rates).
Another example mix, if you want to be a bit more widely invested:
AUD 20,000 (20%)
EUR 16,000 (20%)
CDN 21,000 (20%)
CHF 19,500 (20%)
JPY 37,000 (20%)
Important note: This currency "hedging" will not likely be in cash that is held in bank accounts, to be clear. If you have an investment account (stocks, bonds, ETF's, etc.) you can hedge across currencies by holding bonds or bond ETF's, for example, that are denominated in different currencies. This way you can achieve not only currency valuation stability, but some income from your money, too.
Holding multiple currencies might seem complicated, but it really is quite simple. If in doubt, always hold at least 2 different major currencies, ones that are not closely tied together. For example, the USD and CDN are too closely tied together. Having these two currencies is not considered an effective risk management strategy. CDN and EUR are not as closely tied together. Holding funds in these two currencies would be the start of an effective hedge strategy.
You sell your house in California, for example, and tell your bank to transfer the USD$800,000 you got from the sale to your Canadian bank account and all is good. Easy.
You are in Hong Kong and are moving back to Vancouver, for example. You simply have your HK bank wire your HKD or USD savings to your Canadian bank account and your Canadian bank does the foreign exchange to CAD as the money arrived in Canada. Easy.
(Yeah! This was the shortest section on the whole web site!)
But wait a minute...! There are a few things to be aware of:
Did you know that banks generally give you the worst foreign exchange rate and have the highest fees?
Many of my clients are now using private foreign exchange companies to transfer their funds to Canada and converting them to CDN dollars in the process, at a much better exchange rate and with much lower fees than using foreign or Canadian banks.
Transferring $5,000 to Canada? Use your bank for doing the exchange to CDN. Using a foreign exchange company won't make much difference.
However, if you are transferring $25,000, $50,000, $100,000, $500,000, or $1,000,000+ there will be a very big difference and using a foreign exchange company will mean substantial savings. Typically hundreds and usually thousands of dollars in savings!
From a client:
Using a foreign exchange company over the bank to send the deposit for my condo saved me about $660! I didn't expect that much of a difference.
Here are a few private foreign exchange companies to consider, based on client reviews.
We sent the wire [transfer] from the Bank of America in Bellingham at 11:00am Tuesday morning. Wednesday morning Knightsbridge confirmed that they had received it. Thursday morning it was in our [Canadian bank] account by 7:00am, perhaps earlier. Knightsbridge guaranteed the exchange rate before the transaction was undertaken. I’m not sure how it could be better and for more than $0.6 million the exchange rate saved thousands over the bank.
Based on comparing the bank's exchange rate with the rate I was given with Knightsbridge I probably make about 9K, WOW thanks for that heads up, totally worthwhile.
For moving money, I have used Xoom (part of Paypal) and TransferWise for several smaller transfers and then used TransferWise for a large transfer from proceeds of the sale of our house in the US. TransferWise has higher limits than Xoom, but both are easy to use. Transfers from the USA for US residents can be done by direct debit (easiest) or using a domestic wire (for large amounts with TransferWise). Of the two, TransferWise is the most transparent in the fee structure, exchange rate, and processes. They have also been very good at answering questions so far. I also had accounts with OFX and HiFX, but neither one is transparent about the exchange rate. What you see on the website public page for the rate is higher than when you log into your account-a bit of bait and switch. With Xoom and TransferWise, both have the accurate exchange rates available without logging in.
I opened an account with EverBank a couple of years ago. They are an online only bank based in Jacksonville, FL and were acquired by TIAA in 2016, so very stable. They offer foreign currency accounts with VERY low spreads so I have been converting funds to CAD periodically. They charge .75% on up to $100K, 0.5% $100K-$400K and 0.375% over $400K.
In summary, shopping around for the best foreign exchange rate (including fees!) is in your financial interest if you are moving large amounts back to Canada when you return.
Off-shore banking might conjure up images of people hiding their funds from tax collectors of their country of residence. While off-shore banking might be used by some people for such unsavory purposes, accounts with banks that are legally structured in far-flung places in the world are really just great banking services for lots of normal expatriates who want their accounts and funds free to be easily moved around the world.
Opening an international off-shore bank relationship with a major international bank makes sense for many expatriates and Canadians returning to Canada to resume residency. You can hold multiple currencies in accounts with the bank and access your accounts and funds electronically from anywhere in the world. HSBC is an example of one such bank. On top of offering accounts with multiple currencies, HSBC will also give you an international credit card that is not linked to the country you are resident in. It comes with high fees for usage, but while traveling or between country residencies, it might make sense. (Note: This is not an ad for HSBC and I do not work for them or are paid by them in any way).
Per the hedging discussion above, off-shore banking is a great way to set up a simple hedging strategy. As international banks understand multiple currencies much better than local banks, they are in a position to make your hedged savings happen quickly and easily.
An interesting new "borderless account" option is emerging for people who want to keep money "offshore" but still access it in Canada easily while managing multiple currencies to ensure they "hedge" their money. A client shared the following:
"I note you recommend getting a Canadian bank account in advance of moving. None of the Big Five [banks in Canada] make that easy. They want me to register a Canadian address ... and then show up in person at the nearest branch. I need some way of transferring the proceeds of our house sale to Canada, so we can buy a house... The fintech app Transferwise has just introduced a "borderless account", which purports to work like a CDN bank account for any $CDN funds."
Opening a bank account while visiting Canada, with a foreign address
You can open a bank account quite easily in Canada when you are physically present, and have a foreign address. Just bring lots of identification for proof that you are you and it is then very easy to open an account. The problem noted in the quote above is for people trying to open an account from abroad, either over the phone or electronically. It is possible to open a bank account from abroad. Check out the Taxes, Accounting, and Banking page of this site for experiences clients have had opening an account from abroad.
One final note on off-shore banking:
Integrity. I strongly suggest staying in your integrity at all times with off-shore banking, tax considerations, or any other question when moving back to Canada. A wise person I know, who lived a quietly wealthy life, explained it this way:
"I never cheat on my taxes. And I sleep well at night."
Please share your ideas, considerations, and experiences relating to foreign exchange. I will post them here as help for others. Along with a credit to you will be a big thank you on behalf of the many people you will be helping!
Latest update to this page: April 2020