That Time We Carried $20,000 Across The Border

This is the true story of how we transported $20,000 in cash across international borders. I would have loved to been able to provide photographic evidence of this, but frankly I was scared out of my mind when my boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to actually go through with this.

Instead, here’s a photo of the two of us back in our youth:

sarah and husband

Before I get into how we actually carried across all that money, let’s go over why we actually did it.

I lived in China for 8 years. I must have really liked it because that’s where I met my husband, got married and had a kid.

Among the cool things you get to do? Visit really crazy places. One of the most memorable places was a restaurant called “Modern Toilet” where you literally get served chocolate ice cream in toilet bowls. I’m not kidding.

While there were many great things I loved about China, unfortunately the major drawback was their banking system. (It has gotten noticeably better over the years for expats, but at the time we were living there it was terribly frustrating)

Language barriers aside, doing any kind of international transactions was a pain in the ass. My husband and I each saved quite a bit of money in our accounts living there, and we both needed to transfer this money into our home country’s accounts to pay bills and for other reasons. This meant that every month or so, we had to go to the bank to do two wire transfers: one to my bank in Canada where I’m originally from, and another into my husband’s account in the U.S..

The rules in China, however, are that you’re only allowed to transfer a certain amount of money internationally every month. On top of that, whenever you wanted to make a transfer you not only needed your IDs, but a whole slew of paperwork as well. This included our work contracts, our Chinese tax returns, official declarations from the government about how much we made, and a stack of forms from the bank. There was also no online banking or instructions/bank tellers who spoke English there at the time (7 years ago), so we had to rely on Google Translate to figure everything out.

I waited at least two hours every time I went to the bank on a good day, and it wasn’t ever fun for the tellers either. They had to stamp every freaking piece of paper, get approval from the manager for every button they pressed on the computer, and all the while trying their best to speak broken English.

My husband didn’t fair any better during his visit either. In fact, he’d go multiple rounds trying to make the transfers happen while each time wasting two hours and then at the end being denied over and over!

We even tried giving Western Union a shot to see if it’d be any easier (and cheaper).


We ended up paying almost 10% in fees alone and it was equally as frustrating.

Then one day my husband joked that we should just buy a briefcase and carry all our cash over when we both went home for the holidays.

I’m always up for a challenge, so why the heck not? What could go wrong?

It was about three months from the time we decided to bring cash across to the U.S. and Canada to when we actually did it. Our plan was to exchange our money into U.S. and Canadian currency first, hide it in our apartment, pack it all in a suitcase, and then deposit everything once we landed in our home countries.

We looked up the maximum amount we could each carry across the border, and it came out to $10,000 USD per family. Since my husband and I weren’t technically married yet, that meant we could each carry $10,000 across the border without raising any eyebrows (or so we hoped).

Unfortunately, once again our plan hit some road bumps.

When we tried to convert our Chinese currency (RMB) into U.S. and Canadian dollars at the bank, we were met with solid resistance. The manager would literally give us “a look” and then flat out refuse to speak to us. We later found a translator who told us that it was virtually impossible for even locals to get foreign currency, and that the amount we were requesting was unheard of.

After grilling a local friend for alternatives, we eventually decided to take out Chinese RMB in cash, and then take that directly to a currency exchange stand in order to convert it over. She warned us that these places are usually located in sketchy areas, however, and that not so reputable people hang out there (though I hear it’s not the case anymore). These places will also try to rip you off by giving you decent exchange rates, but then sneaking in counterfeit bills.

So off my husband and I went. We didn’t want to do too large a transaction at first just to be safe, so we started with $1,000 and found a place to exchange our money. My husband is six feet tall and I’m pretty sure that helped keep the loiters at bay. When we got our money, we hid around a corner to check each and every single bill to make sure they were legit, and then went on our merry way when it was good.

It took us about six weeks to exchange $10,000 each. You’re only allowed to exchange a certain amount each time, so we had to make multiple visits which was for the best as neither of us enjoys carrying around too much cash at one time.

During this time we hid the money around our apartments. I literally stuck hundred dollar bills under my mattress among other places as I was so paranoid about someone breaking in! We also hid money:

  • In jacket pockets
  • In shoes
  • In crockpots we barely used
  • And in tupperware

When it came time to go visit our families at Christmas, we gathered all our money in one place and planned how we were going to pack it all.

I don’t know about you, but seeing $20,000 in physical cash is A LOT. We had it stacked on my bed and it looked like a giant mountain to me. I looked at my husband and literally asked if I could swim in it. After all, it was a once in a lifetime experience!

Next thing we knew, we threw a bunch of bills up in the air and were frolicking around in money. There’s something about doing backstrokes on a bed with $20,000 that does it for you 🙂

money pool

Finally, We Carry The Cash Over

Now came the hard part: how do we actually carry all this cash? Without getting stopped at the border?

We crossed off the suitcase idea as that would just be way too suspicious, and eventually figured that dispersing our money was the way go to. The x-rays will show we had money, but at least there wouldn’t be huge stacks all in one place.

Here’s what my husband did:

  • Bought special cargo pants with multiple pockets so he could take the cash in and out when going through security
  • Sewed secret pockets in his laptop case
  • Rolled up t-shirts in his carry on luggage with money in it
  • Carried cash in his wallet

Here’s what I did:

  • Hid cash in my laptop case and purse
  • Stuffed some money in my bra (this was before those fancy machines at the TSA security check)
  • Stuffed money in my makeup case
  • Put bills in-between pages of the books I was “reading”

Keep in mind, we weren’t doing anything illegal although it sure as hell felt like we were. In hindsight we probably went a little crazy on hiding everything, but I wasn’t going to take any chances with people either stealing from us or being stopped at the border. Our track record up to this point hadn’t been that smooth.

Then off we went!

Step #1: Go through security in China and board the plane. Success! We stated we were carrying cash, but nobody asked us how much so we easily got our exit stamps.

Step #2: Relax on the plane. Fail. We could barely sleep, as we were just too paranoid the entire trip.

Step #3: Get across the U.S. border! (We made our first stop in my husband’s country before heading to Canada). My hands were shaking the entire time as I filled out the immigration form –  I felt like I was lying when the form asked if I was carrying more than $10,000 in cash, but I checked the “no” box.

Then it was the moment of truth…

I walked over to the customs agent, he looks at me and then down at the form, asks me where I’m staying (I manage to utter “my future in-laws”), looks back down again, and then stamps the passport and says, “have a nice time.”

And just like that it was over! WE DID IT!!

My husband had the same experience clearing customs, and it was a piece of cake getting the second half of our money into my Canadian bank as well.

Pretty anti-climactic, I know – sorry – but what a whirlwind getting to this point… I’m just super grateful I never have to deal with this again. Though I have to admit, it was pretty fun swimming in all that money for a few minutes!

Anyone else ever launder move large amounts of cash across the border? Any tips for anyone who may have to do it themselves one day?

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