Leaving the country soon? There are several different methods for accessing money abroad, and each has both pros and cons.
Cash (and Travelers Checks)
One way of accessing money abroad is to bring US dollars to exchange. You can convert US dollars to local currency in the airport or at a bureau of exchange or bank. However, this can be a risky strategy, as your cash could be stolen or lost! Unlike cash, travelers checks can be replaced by your bank if stolen, but this is a rather antiquated way to access money abroad. Many foreign retailers no longer accept travelers checks, although banks, bureaus of exchange, and most hotels will still cash them from you.
Debit Cards: Accessing Money Abroad
Debit cards are generally considered to be the safest and easiest way to access money abroad, although bringing some USD and a credit card as a backup is not a bad idea. With a debit card, you can withdraw cash from any ATM, although you will incur some fees. Many banks charge a flat fee for each withdrawal from an ATM belonging to a different bank. If your bank operates abroad, be sure to use their ATMs to avoid these fees. And if your bank charges a flat fee to use ATMs from other banks, try to make larger, less-frequent withdrawals to minimize these fees. In addition, most ATMs charge a small fee (between 1-5%) for withdrawing cash. Before you leave, ask your bank:
- About limits on withdrawal amounts and about foreign withdrawal fees (If you are living or studying abroad, ask your bank if they can waive or negotiate these fees – sometimes banks are willing to do this)
- Change your PIN if it is more than four digits, as most foreign ATMs only accept four-digit PINs
- Ensure the account you want to access abroad is a checking account – savings accounts often cannot be accessed from foreign ATMs
- Tell your bank when and where you will be traveling so your account doesn’t freeze due to unusual activity
- Consider giving a trusted family member access to your checking account while abroad. If your debit card is lost or stolen, or if you have questions about your account, it may be easier to have someone in the United States call your bank on your behalf. Banks can typically only talk to the cardholder about the account, so make sure whoever calls is listed on your account!
Credit Cards: Accessing Money Abroad
Credit cards are certainly an option, although many countries are much more cash-dependent than the US. Although many stores abroad do not accept credit cards, they are still a useful (and highly recommended) back-up option. Visa and MasterCard are accepted widely in countries where credit cards are more common, although American Express and Discover Card are accepted less frequently. Most credit cards have a foreign transaction fee between 1-5%, so be mindful of this when making purchases. The Capital One Venture card and Chase Sapphire Preferred card are two of the best credit cards for travelers, with no foreign transaction fees and generous cash back for travel purchases. Before you leave, ask your credit card company:
- What international fees your credit card charges for foreign transactions (If you are living or studying abroad, ask your bank if they can waive or negotiate these fees – sometimes banks are willing to do this)
- Tell your credit card company where/when you will be traveling to avoid freezing your account due to “unusual activity”
- Set up a PIN for your credit card. Overseas, it is common for credit cards to have a PIN, and this may be required to make purchases
- Consider giving a trusted family member access to your checking account while abroad. If your credit card is lost or stolen, or if you have questions about your account, it may be easier to have someone in your home country call your credit card company on your behalf
Other Tips for Accessing Money Abroad
Take photos or make photocopies of the front and back of every debit/credit card you will take overseas. Leave a set of copies with a family member and take a set abroad with you. Keep these copies separate from the cards themselves. In the event of accidental loss or theft, you will still have the the 800 number to call and the card number, expiration date, and security code.
While you are out and about, carry only the card and amount of cash that you will need that day. Keep your other debit/credit cards in a safe place, and always leave behind at least one card and some cash in case your purse or wallet is stolen.
Want to know more about study abroad? Click here to read all my tips and tricks about studying and living abroad! Or read about different countries where I have studied and lived abroad, such as India, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Morocco!