You’ve earned it and saved it, now what is the best way to take money abroad?
When it comes to accessing your travel money overseas, there are a handful of options to consider. I will list them in order according to what I do and would recommend that you do, and then I’ll get in to each one individually:
- Plan to use your ATM card;
- Bring plenty of US cash with you (perhaps to exchange later);
- Plan to use your credit card;
- Get foreign money from your bank before you go.
Please notice that I did not mention Traveler’s Checks. That would entail waiting in line at a bank when I’m sure you would rather be spending your time sight-seeing. Traveler’s Checks are a cumbersome detail of the past that nobody wants to deal with these days, so just as you shouldn’t waste your time with them, we won’t waste any time discussing them here.
1. Using your ATM card abroad
This is the option I am partial to, but I must preface this with the fact that I always bring about $100 emergency cash (in USD) to use or exchange later if necessary. I stash this emergency cash away somewhere in my backpack. Usually before I leave my arrival airport, I will stop at an ATM and pull out as much cash in the local currency that my bank in the US will allow me. This is about $300 US. It does cost more to get money out of an ATM abroad than in the States (about $5), and then there are conversion fees, etc., and it can really add up. That is why I suggest pulling out the most allowed every time, to avoid paying the extra fees.
I have four suggestions when it comes to using ATMs abroad:
- If possible, choose an ATM that does not suck in your card, but rather one that you slide your card in and pull it out quickly, much like the one pictured on the left. This way you will never be victim of the ATM stealing your card (not that this is a common occurrence, but it can happen in a scam).
- Whenever possible, choose an ATM that is directly connected to a bank behind it. Try not to use free-standing ATMs, as these are most-often targeted for scams.
- Make sure you are familiar with the currency exchange rate and do the math to be sure you know how much to withdraw. For me the math is the hard part. I have never ever been good at math, and unfortunately I have a story to prove it. Along with that story is a wonderful free app that I discovered, which I hope will prevent my mistake from happening again. Check it out to be sure you don’t make the same mistake.
- No matter what kind of security the ATM has, meaning even if you find yourself in a telephone booth-like box to use an ATM, always hold one hand over your fingers as you punch in your pin code. You could potentially save yourself from becoming a victim of ATM skimming, in which scammers use tiny video cameras to capture your pin entry.
2. Bringing US cash abroad
You may want to do some research about whether or not your destination country accepts US dollars (sometimes this is the case in various Latin American countries). This can be quite advantageous for you if it does, because generally when you spend it, you will receive your change in local currency. I know a lot of travelers who just bring a bundle of US cash with them, either planning to spend it normally or exchange it abroad. Exchanging cash abroad does cost money. Exchange rates are never quite in your favor, and you won’t get a straight across exchange. I am not convinced that exchanging money is cheaper than pulling money out of an ATM, so I opt for the latter.
Three things to keep in mind if you bring US cash abroad:
- Don’t store it all in one place. Carry some with you and store the rest somewhere in your luggage for safety.
- Don’t flash it around, ever. If you need to count it, do it in private.
- The probability of you running out of your cash stash is high, so have a backup plan to bring an ATM card and credit card anyway.
3. Using your credit card abroad
This one usually goes hand in hand with using my ATM card for me. Be aware that most credit cards will charge you a 3% foreign transaction fee for every use of the card. This amount can also add up, but if you are using your credit card for small purchases, it does not add up very quickly. I usually try to figure out whether or not it’s cheaper to pay the 3% fee than keep pulling money out of the ATM. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it isn’t, sometimes it just makes my brain hurt.
The single best option for accessing your money abroad is to have a credit card with zero foreign transaction fees. This guarantees you are getting the exact exchange rate of that moment without any extra charges. Plus if your credit card earns rewards, you are earning while spending. Win-win. My husband and I got the Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer Visa this year, and it worked wonders for us on our recent trip to Europe. We used it everywhere we could, and only had to pull out cash about three times in two weeks (for both of us), since credit cards are not accepted everywhere. We saved money and earned rewards = best option available.
Two things to be aware of when using credit cards abroad:
- Expect to be able to use Visa and Mastercard. Do not expect to be able to use American Express or Discover in most places.
- Watch out for cash advance. Unless it’s an emergency, do not use your credit card to get cash back from an ATM or other service, because depending on your card, a cash advance fee will probably cost you $30-40. You may be advised by your credit card company to get a 4-number pin for your card, but this is not necessary. This pin will give you access to ATMs that you may as well avoid unless it’s an emergency. If you do happen to want to get a pin assigned to your credit card, just call your card company and request one.
4. Getting foreign currency from your local bank
Did you even know this is possible? You can order whatever type of currency you will be using right from your local bank and pack it in your bags before you even leave the US. Check with your bank to see if it’s possible to order in person or online. This is a great option for traveling to a brand new place where you aren’t sure yet what your situation will be like, or for travelers who would like to have some peace of mind and not worry about getting money as soon as you arrive in your destination country.
Two things to keep in mind when ordering foreign currency:
- Make sure you give your bank enough to time order your currency since it is likely they won’t have it on hand to give to you right away.
- It will only last you so long, of course, so have your backup plan ready to withdraw money out of the ATM or use a credit card.
Two things you MUST remember about bringing money abroad
As in, no matter what you do with the above information, definitely remember these two things!
1. CONTACT YOUR BANK
No matter how many cards you bring, whether ATM or credit, be sure to contact your bank using the customer service number on the back of your card to let them know you will be leaving the country. Regardless of how you plan to get money abroad: let your banks know that you are taking your ATM and credit cards abroad! If you don’t do this, chances are very high that your bank will red flag your card and either freeze it or shut down your account entirely after your first transaction. Even if this account freeze is temporary, it is a major inconvenience. If this happens, not only will you not be able to get any money out of that account, but you will also need to figure out a way to get in contact with your bank in the US, reactivate your account, and perhaps arrange to receive a new card in the mail because yours is now deactivated. The mail? While traveling? Yes, this is why you should avoid the situation completely. It is often the last thing I do in the airport before boarding my flight abroad, but I always make a point to do it. Call the number on the back of your card (all the cards you are bringing) and advise your bank(s) of your travels.
2. HAVE A BACKUP PLAN
If you only bring one source of money abroad with you (one ATM or credit card or whatever it might be) what sort of trouble will you be in if you misplace it or if the bank freezes it? Let’s not go there. Make sure you bring at least two sources of plastic access to your accounts, even if one is for emergencies only. Here’s another tip: don’t pack them in the same place. If you keep both or all of your cards in one wallet and then lose it, you will be no better off than you would had you only brought one card. Keep secret stashes of these important things so that you can be as prepared as possible for anything. Have a backup plan!
It’s your turn to share. Do you have a success story or even a horror story to share about accessing money overseas? What did you learn from it?