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Innovations and Payment Systems

Overseas travel – Tips to use your credit card, mobile banking worry-free while abroad


While geolocation, mobile apps and online tools have made it easy to use your credit card and bank account overseas, your card might still be declined. Follow these tips for a stress-free overseas card and banking experience

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Heading overseas? Make sure your mobile banking options are ready to travel, because nothing brings a Roman holiday to a halt faster than a waiter with a tablet that reads “payment declined.”

In your grandparents’ day, the only money maneuver necessary to travel abroad involved exchanging greenbacks for local cash. Your parents likely packed travelers checks, credit and later debit cards and accessed ATM machines abroad. Today’s travelers throw their own money uncertainties into the trip with mobile banking – and occasionally attempting to use that fading U.S. anachronism, the nonchip mag stripe card.

Regardless of your preferred payment method, the key to transaction approval overseas is not only to prove to your bank or card issuer that you are who you say you are, but that you are where you say you are, as well.

James Capolongo, who heads up consumer deposit products for TD Bank, says the same technological breakthroughs that created today’s mobile banking options now also enable banks and card issuers to more seamlessly approve our purchases abroad.

“The world has gotten much more complex, but there is so much technology that can help,” he says. “It’s all about understanding how to navigate it.”

Jason Tinurelli, digital marketing and payments strategy chief for U.S. Bank, agrees. “Today, cardholders may ask, \u2018Why can’t I deposit a check in Scotland?’ That’s something you wouldn’t have even thought about five years ago and now it’s a problem!” he says with a chuckle.

TD Bank and U.S. Bank are both involved in Visa’s next-generation geolocation technology, an emerging cardholder option in which the card issuer charts your physical location during a credit or debit transaction by triangulating the location of your smartphone.

The pros? Mobile banking from anywhere should become seamless because your bank will already know where you are. One possible con: there may be a chip card-esque transition period as card issuers introduce geolocation on their own schedules.

  • Notify your bank of your travel plans. Yes, it still helps.
  • Protect your mobile device(s) with a password.
  • Complete online bill payments before departing, as some banking app functionalites may be blocked while overseas.
  • Know your foreign currency and conversion rates.
  • Stow a backup credit card in a secure spot.
  • Use bank-affiliated ATMs to minimize/avoid transaction fees.
  • Log out after banking online, and never log into your card or bank accounts through unsecured Wi-Fi connections.

Ready for some overseas payment navigation lessons? Let’s break it down by payment type.

Cards abroad: They are accepted (almost) everywhere
Credit and debit chip cards are widely accepted abroad in banks, hotels, shops and restaurants bearing signs of network acceptance (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Europay, etc.). However, a few “sanctioned” countries, including North Korea, are off limits to U.S. cards and mobile banking.

“I can’t accept a connection from North Korea, but you’re probably not going to travel there anyway,” Tinurelli explains.

Despite the recent no-need-to-phone-us buzz tied to the rollout of geolocation, Capolongo suggests you let your card issuer know of your travel plans before you depart.

“Make sure to put a travel advisory notice on your account,” he says. “It makes a world of difference, because the last thing you want to do is find yourself overseas and have your debit or credit card be shut down.”

He also suggests leaving your fistful of cards at home. “Be very strategic and pick one debit card and maybe one or two credit cards,” he advises. “I wouldn’t bring a wallet full, just in case something should happen.” Wallets go missing, or left at a restaurant, or are pickpocketed. With a wallet full of cards, you will have to contact all of those card issuers.

Card trouble abroad? “The number on the back of the card is the best place to call, because with certain co-branded relationships between card and bank, the name on the front may not be who is servicing it on the back,” says Capolongo.

ATM: Keep an eye on those fees
Ready to tap an ATM in your destination city? First, leave your credit card tucked away and, if possible, grab your debit card instead, so you avoid the ginormous APRs and cash advance fees that usually accompany credit card cash withdrawals, either foreign or domestic. Second, be sure the ATM accepts your debit card brand, again to avoid fees. Third, know where your money is.

“With many ATMs in Europe, you can really only access a primary checking account on that card,” explains Capolongo. “So make sure you know which primary account is linked to the (debit) card, because that will likely be the choice that is available at the ATM.”

Finally, understand the fees you’re likely to face on a debit ATM withdrawal. These can include your U.S. bank charging you for using an out-of-network ATM, the bank that owns the ATM tacking on its own user fees (including a foreign transaction fee of 1 to 3 percent if your card doesn’t waive them) or both adding their own currency conversion fees.

You’re likely to encounter the costliest ATMs where most travelers congregate: airports.

Check with your bank before you depart to identify ATMs at your destination(s) that offer minimal fees for your debit card type. American Express, Mastercard and Visa all offer online ATM locators as well. To avoid out-of-network fees, look into acquiring a debit card that is part of a large international network, such as surcharge-free Allpoint, Visa’s PLUS and Mastercard’s Cirrus or Maestro.

“Make sure you understand the fees,” Capolongo warns.

Online shopping: Destination is key
If you anticipate shopping online abroad, say for commemorative sombreros in Spain, be prepared to make a matador’s adorno turn beforehand.

“The question is, where are you having those sombreros sent?” warns Tinurelli. “You’re dealing with two pieces there: How the merchant is going to view the transaction and how your bank is going to view it.”

For instance, say you’re staying in Spain. If you’re buying something on Amazon and you say your billing and shipping address are in Spain but your address on your credit card is somewhere in Minnesota, “they won’t match, and a merchant could decline it or the bank could decline it,” he says. “Whereas if you’re buying something online and shipping it home, you should be just fine.”

Need those sombreros in Seville? You guessed it: Call your bank/card issuer beforehand.

American Express spokeswoman Ashley Tufts suggests two more tips when shopping abroad:

“As you’re shopping internationally, regularly monitor your account activity online and register for account alerts, which notify you via email or text messages about payments, spending and potentially fraudulent activities.”

Mobile: (Secured) Wi-Fi rocks!
While your cellular service might be stellar at home, Tinurelli says it may not be the best option for online banking abroad.

“When traveling, some mobile providers will throttle your connection in some way, depending upon the plan or service you’re buying. So if you’re looking to do something that may require a little more data, like a check deposit, you probably want to do that over Wi-Fi,” he says.

“That’s all dependent upon your phone and the merchant that sells it, but as far as banking is concerned, you should be OK doing most of your normal banking function anywhere in the world, as long as you connect through the internet.”

Just to be safe, it’s wise to complete any online bill payment and check deposits prior to departure, as you may not be able to bank on your banking app with 100 percent functionality while traveling overseas.

Video: 5 credit card questions to ask before traveling overseas

And it goes without saying, never log into your bank or credit card accounts through an unsecured Wi-Fi connection that is not password-protected. Without a secure connection, you could make your information readily available to potential fraudsters.

Geolocation: Home on your phone
Geolocation promises to streamline our purchases wherever we roam by giving us the ability to set our smartphone as our “home” for card and online banking purposes.

“If you travel to California, for example, geolocation will ping your phone and set a new home location for you that says that transactions that occur in California are probably OK because that’s where you and your phone are,” Tinurelli says. “It’s a really neat tool because people carry their phones everywhere.”

And just in case your phone mistakenly identifies your location as in, say, Tijuana, when you are close to the U.S.-Mexico border, or in Canada when visiting San Juan Island across from Seattle, make sure to follow the aforementioned tips for seamless card use and online banking overseas. Bon voyage!

See related: The solo traveler’s guide to keep you and your cards safe, 6 ways to protect your cards when traveling abroadWould you trust your card at these sketchy ATMs?, Startups use tech to put cardholders in charge of security, Getting the best exchange rate abroad

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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