Bringing the right cards with you, knowing how to use them, and picking the right ATM will help you avoid unnecessary fees during your trip.
We Americans relish overseas travel for the opportunity to immerse ourselves in foreign cultures and see, taste, touch and Instagram the remnants of ancient civilizations. But upon arrival, one timeless truth often hits us smack in the pocketbook: Cash is still king in much of the world.
Despite the convenience and perks we associate with credit cards, debit cards and mobile banking apps back home, using them abroad can prove expensive if you don’t know the fees you’re being charged to purchase cash as a tourista.
How can you land the best deal on local currency abroad? Climb aboard and let’s find out.
Low-fee card and ATM options while traveling abroad
- Identify foreign ATMs from your bank and its foreign partners. Interbank networks might let you use theirs free of charge.
- Don’t use credit cards at ATMs. Any cash withdrawal will be considered a cash advance.
- Pay in local currency. You will likely be offered the option to pay in dollars. Don’t.
- Pick a card with no foreign transaction fees. Most card issuers offer them.
- Make sure your travel cards contain EMV chips. Your old mag strip card might be rejected overseas.
Foreign fees and what they cost
Because exchange rates between U.S. dollars and other currencies are in constant market flux, new travelers often begin their overseas journey with a less-than-accurate grasp of their financial starting point.
This shaky start often erodes further just steps from their arrival gate with their first visit to a foreign ATM or an airport currency exchange booth (Forex, Thomas Cook, Travelex, etc.). It’s here that newbies typically first encounter the fees they will face to swap dollars for local cash. These include:
- Foreign transaction fee: This fee, charged to most credit and debit cards, cash conversions and retail sales, is based on a percentage of the purchase amount, typically 1-3 percent, with no minimum or maximum. It’s also referred to as a foreign exchange or currency conversion fee. While this fee is charged by U.S. credit/debit card transaction processors (Mastercard, Visa, etc.), it is usually passed along to the consumer by the card-issuing bank, which may tack on its own fee as well.
- International Service Assessment fee (ISA): Banks and credit unions also typically charge a flat fee of $1 to $5 for using a foreign ATM network.
- ATM owner’s fee: While foreign ATM owners often tack on their own fee as well, many post the amount on-site as a courtesy to budget-conscious travelers.
- Dynamic currency conversion fee: Some banks and retailers offer the option to put your currency purchase through in U.S. dollars rather than the local currency, at a rate set by the merchant. The cost to consumers can run as high as 7 percent for this service, and you’ll still be charged the foreign fees that are applicable to your card.
Here are a few tips for a seamless transition.
Identify ATMs from your bank and its foreign partners
Interbank networks, such as Visa PLUS and Mastercard Maestro or Cirrus, enable network ATM cardholders to access surcharge-free ATMs abroad. There are also some megabanks, such as Citibank, that have their own international network of ATMs from which its customers can pull cash fee-free.
“There are not a lot of ways to avoid a currency conversion fee, but there are ways to avoid ATM fees abroad by seeking out any partner banks of your home bank,” advises Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based consumer action group.
- First, check your bank’s online network locator to see if its partner ATMs are convenient to your travel destination(s).
- Then check to see if your ATM card is in network, and if not, ask your bank or credit union about signing up for a qualifying card.
- Because some ATMs abroad don’t accept three-digit PINs, make sure your PIN has four numerals and doesn’t start with a 0.
- Be sure to write the numbers down before your trip, as some foreign ATMs do not have letters on their keyboard. Pro tip: Do not write the number on the card.
Don’t use credit cards at ATMs
Cardholders are often blindsided by the fact that credit card cash withdrawals at any ATM are considered a cash advance, meaning you’ll be subject to both a fee and high interest rates that kick in the moment you grab the bills.
According to CreditCards.com’s 2017 cash advance survey, the average cash advance APR is 23.68 percent, with a typical fee of 5 percent of the advance or $10, whichever is greater.
While some cards, including Discover, Capital One 360 and Charles Schwab, don’t pass foreign ATM fees along to you, they may restrict the offer to partner ATMs or require you to open a brokerage account to qualify.
Pay in local currency
While many retailers and some banks abroad will offer to charge your purchases in dollars, Sherry suggests passing on the offer and pay in the local currency. A currency conversion at the point of sale – known as dynamic currency conversion – will cost you.
“Where Visa and Mastercard come in is, they actually do the conversion at market rates, and that’s where consumers can save. You get the benefit of large institution rates rather than local banks or businesses.”
Video: 5 credit card questions to ask before traveling overseas
Pick a card with no foreign transaction fees
Travel experts suggest you carry three cards abroad: a primary credit card, a backup credit card and a debit card. Carry the primary credit and debit card with you and stow the backup in a separate, secure location.
As the two credit cards, here’s how to make them a real money saver: An increasing number of credit cards are available without a foreign transaction fee. CreditCards.com’s 2017 survey of credit card fees charged by 100 widely held cards showed that just 56 cards carry a foreign fee, down from 77 in 2015.
CreditCards.com offers a selection of the best cards with no foreign transaction fees.
Make sure your travel cards contain EMV chips
As America continues its transition from old-school mag stripe cards to the multifunctional EMV chip cards that are standard throughout the world, some U.S. travelers are caught off-guard when their chipless mag stripe card is rejected overseas. If there’s time before departure, request a chip version of the cards you plan to take to avoid this potential inconvenience.