Around the world, people understand the importance of cash-on-the-go and a secured purchase. When traveling abroad, an ATM can be a bit less direct and come with a few more fees than the cards you use at home. As with most international travel components, your best plan is to research. Let’s take a look at what it means to use ATMs abroad and also explore the best cards and options to help you get the most for your travel dollar.
Understand Exchange Rates
A dollar in the US is not a dollar in the UK. The value of currency from country to country will change based on various factors, including interest rates, inflation, current political stability, and the debt load of the country to which you’re exchanging. You should note that exchange rates are fluid and often change day to day. It’s not a bad idea to install an app on your smartphone before your trip to help you track exchange rates in the countries you plan to visit.
The good news about exchange rates is that you’re almost always guaranteed to get the most favorable exchange rate possible by using your debit card at an ATM, as opposed to changing literal currency at a conversion retailer. This is partly due to the fact that bank tellers or conversion counters can often add up to an additional 2% to the transaction, making your dollar worth less.
Having a basic understanding of the current exchange rate between countries prior to pulling funds from your ATM accounts will help you better compare “apples to apples” on how much money you really need and how much you’re really pulling out of your account.
Use a Debit Card, NOT a Credit Card
We recommend that you arm yourself with a debit card that draws funds from your checking account. Using your credit card can be prohibitively expensive at cash machines. Ensure that the bulk of your balance is in the primary account. Some foreign ATMs will only allow you to access the primary account for withdrawals instead of checking and savings accounts. Be prepared by having the bulk of your funds in the main account so that you don’t wind up without access to the cash you need.
Fees When Using Your Debit Card Internationally
Avoiding an ATM fee is almost unheard of when using a card abroad. You should expect, at a minimum, to pay the same fees you would experience back in the States by using your card at an out-of-network ATM. That’s the best-case scenario. It’s more likely that each transaction will encounter a higher fee than your home rates simply because you’re traveling internationally. You'll most likely be charged a flat fee, typically ranging from $2-$6, plus an additional fee that's the percentage of your withdrawal, typically 1-3%.
Be sure to check with your bank before heading out on your trip to see the fees. These fees are often changed without warning and can vary greatly.
In addition to the fees your bank charges you, you should also expect a second fee from the owner of the foreign ATM you are withdrawing cash from. Typically, the best bet is to make fewer withdrawals in larger amounts to try and cap the number of fees you are charged.
In addition, the back of your card will likely also have icons of other networks that will accept your card. ATMs will almost always identify the icons of cards they accept, so it becomes a simple matter of matching to see if your card is accepted at a particular ATM.
Best Debit Cards with No or Low Foreign Transaction Fees
Not all cards are created equally when it comes to international travel. If you play your debit cards right, you could get lucky and save hundreds on fees. For example, several banks are reputed for not charging foreign transaction fees for international usage.
||No Foreign Transaction Fees
||No Foreign Transaction Fees
||2% Foreign Transaction Fee
Planning Ahead and Keeping Your Pin Number Safe
Plan and, again, try to make only one or two larger withdrawals instead of making numerous little ones to limit these transaction fees. Memorize your four-digit pin code for your debit card, but never write it down, and don't carry it with you. You can always tell a safe person back home and, worst-case scenario, give them a call in a pinch.
Ensure that your pin code is no more than four characters long, as most European ATMs won’t accept longer pin codes. If your code exceeds four characters, talk to your bank about changing it at least two weeks before your trip. As well, often with European ATMs, you'll find that the pin code pads are solely numeric. If your pin is based on letters, you’ll want to convert that to numerals before your trip.
Popular Credit Cards for Travelers
In addition to your debit card, many ATMs will be able to read a credit card and issue a cash advance. Just as with debit cards, you’ll want to do a bit of research into what your current credit card offers in international ATM access and fees and if there may be a better option for you. Many internet comparison sites rank the best cards for international travel. Top contenders are regularly listed as:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred card
- Discover It card
- Capital One Venture Rewards card
- Airline Rewards cards
Alternatives to Using an ATM
In addition to your bank ATM card, it is advised to carry at least one form of backup currency while traveling. Popular options include credit cards or pre-exchanged cash.
Are travelers’ checks a good idea?
These days, not really. The fees add up, and you need to take time out of your vacation to wait in line at a bank to cash them. Once again, using an ATM is a better choice.