Travel Tips

Credit cards & ATM cards for international travel

Updated: April 16, 2011

For my trip to Europe, I did quite a bit of research on the best way of making purchases and getting foreign currency with the best exchange rate and least amount of transaction fees. Since that trip, I’ve used these methods on several international trips with much success! Here’s the final verdict:

Credit Card

When using a credit card for a foreign currency purchase, Visa & Mastercard charges the bank a fee, which is passed along to you. The bank will also charge you an additional fee for currency conversion. FlyerGuide has a great chart on the fees you can expect from your credit card when using it for foreign currency transactions. In the end, you might be looking at 1-3% in fees. The Capital One credit card does not charge any fees for using your card to make a foreign currency purchase, not even the Visa/Mastercard fee. Not only are there no fees, but the exchange rate isn’t too shabby either. When I got home from my Europe trip, I looked at the charges from my trip online and got a BETTER exchange rate than what XE.com’s Universal Currency Converter quoted as the exchange rate for Euros to U.S. dollars!

I have the Capital One Standard Platinum card with No Hassle Rewards so there is no annual fee and I earn 2% cash back on gas and groceries and 1% cash back for all other purchases too! So you’re really getting paid to use the card! Here’s a list of other credit cards with no foreign transaction fees”.

If you are traveling with your spouse, I recommend that you each get a separate credit card account for each of you, not just be authorized users on the same account. Many foreign countries are infamous for pickpockets. If you are both carrying the same card and one is stolen, then you’ll have to close that account and the other card on the same account also cannot be used. If you are each carrying separate cards from different accounts and one is stolen, you’ll have the second card to use still on the rest of your trip. In general, I don’t recommend that spouses carry the same ATM card for the same reason. Have a primary ATM card (hopefully, the one I mention in the next section) and have your spouse carry a backup ATM card for another bank account.

During my trip, I used my credit card whenever I could to minimize the amount of foreign currency cash and because I get rewards for using the card. Most restaurants and large stores took credit cards but small shops and street stands only took cash so you’ll still need to have some foreign currency, which brings me to…

Using the ATM for foreign currency

When it comes to getting cash in foreign currency, it’s widely known that a foreign ATM will have the best exchange rates. Your local bank of a currency exchange desk (like those at the airport) will usually give you a very poor exchange rate. For my international trips, I get around U.S. $50-100 in foreign currency from my local bank. I have bank accounts with Chase and Bank of America so I called them both, as well as our local American Express Travel Services. Chase gave me the best exchange rate out of the three but it was still 6% higher than what I was being quoted online by XE.com’s Universal Currency Converter. While doing this will always yield a poor exchange rate, I do this in case the ATM at my destination airport doesn’t work and I have enough money to at least pay for a meal and a taxi to get to my hotel and a bank with an ATM. Once I get to an ATM in my destination country, I withdraw additional foreign currency I need for the trip and the exchange rate is usually what is quoted by XE.com. If I need more cash during the trip, I just get more out of the ATM. It’s super convenient! Using an ATM definitely gives the best exchange rate but how do you avoid ATM fees?

In the United States, you usually get hit with a $1.50-$2 fee for using another bank’s ATM and you can expect that fee in foreign countries as well. In addition to that, most banks will charge you an additional $3 fee for using a foreign ATM AND up to a 3% foreign currency conversion fee! FlyerGuide also has a chart on the fees you can expect from your bank when using it in a foreign currency ATM.

The Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking account reimburses you every month for all fees incurred when using a domestic or foreign ATM, making it free to use ANY ATM worldwide. There are no monthly fees or required minimum balances for the checking account. Schwab also has a generous $2000 daily withdrawal limit (but the ATM you are using will most likely have its own lower withdrawal limit). When opening the account, you will also need to open a Schwab One brokerage account but again, there are no fees or minimum balance if opened together with the High Yield Investor Checking account. You also do not need to go into a Schwab branch to open these accounts. I did everything by mail & phone and it was super simple. You can transfer money in and out of your checking account online through the Schwab web site but you can also go to a branch to make a deposit or just mail your deposit to them.

Even though I originally opened the account for my Europe trip in 2009, Chris and I now use this ATM card as our emergency ATM card at home since we can use any ATM for free. No need to hunt for your bank’s ATM! It’s perfect if I ever need some extra cash while out and about! I usually keep a few hundred dollars in it and when we’re about to travel, I just go online and transfer additional money into it for the trip. I use it for domestic travel too.

By the way, I do not get anything for recommending Captial One or Schwab. These accounts have made my trips as fee-free as possible and I hope they’ll do the same for you for your next international adventure!

For more reading about foreign bank fees & how to avoid them, check out these articles:

Please confirm all the details with a representative before opening an account.

3 thoughts on “Credit cards & ATM cards for international travel

  1. Have you encountered any issues with needing a 4-digit PIN number for credit card transactions? I heard this is becoming more of an issue in Europe and even in 2007 when I visited Copenhagen, some places required a PIN number, so I was forced to use my ATM debit card (and racked up 4 overdraw penalty fees!). Are there any US credit cards that offer a PIN number card or can you request them?

  2. Phillip – I was never asked for a pin number when using my credit cards. I do have 4 digit pins assigned to every credit card that I bring just in case I need to use them at the ATM but have never had to so far. I use my ATM card to get cash when traveling abroad. As I mentioned in the blog entry above, I have the Schwab account and get reimbursed for all ATM fees so it works out very well. I have read that many ATM’s can only accept 4 digit pins so I would advise that you change your pin to 4 digits before traveling.

    Hope that helps!
    Rebecca

  3. Great to hear! My ATM Debit card has a 4-digit PIN, but I avoid using it as a debit card as, like you, I prefer earning rewards on my credit card. Love your blog – such helpful tips!!

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