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ATMs in Foreign Countries

Around the world, people understand the importance of cash-on-the-go and a secured purchase.

When traveling abroad, the use of 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 components of international travel, your best plan is 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 a variety of factors including interest rates, inflation, current political stability and 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 smart phone prior to your trip to help you track exchange rates in the countries you plan to visit.

The good news when it comes to 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 due in part 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.

Fees are Unavoidable

Avoiding an ATM fee is almost unheard of when using your 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 fee that is higher than your home rates, simply because you’re traveling internationally. These fees are arrived upon in one of two ways:

  1. A flat fee, typically ranging from $1-$6
  2. A percentage of your withdrawal, typically 1-3%

Be sure to check with your bank before you head out on your trip to see what the fees are. 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, this time from the owner of the foreign ATM you are withdrawing cash from. Typically, the best bet is to choose to make fewer withdrawals in larger amounts to try and cap the amount of fees that you are charged.

Finding an ATM

Your Travel Director or hotel concierge can help you find an ATM near your hotel or in the area you’re visiting. Another option is to seek out brands that are offered at home and abroad. ATM cards linked to the PLUS, Cirrus, or Maestro networks are often your best bet. With millions of ATMs worldwide, you’re likely to find one that accepts your card anywhere you travel.

Each of these networks offer an online ATM locator service so that you can plan ahead to ensure that an ATM will be available in the locations you plan to travel to. Check out:

MasterCard/Cirrus/Maestro ATM Locator
Visa/PLUS ATM Locator

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.

Tips for Using the ATM

Europeans have a different way of doing things than Americans. And really, isn’t that part of the allure of traveling there? Here are a few tips you’ll want to keep in mind for using your debit or credit card at an ATM:

  • 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 2 weeks in advance of your trip.
  • Another difference in European ATMs is that their pin code pads are solely numeric. If your pin is based on letters, you’ll want to convert that to numerals before your trip.
  • 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 withdraws, as opposed to both 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.
  • Finally, give your bank a heads up on your travel dates and locations before leaving. It’s fairly common for your bank to flag large, multiple, or foreign charges on your account and freeze the account for security reasons as a result. This can lead to declined purchases and an inability to use the card at ATMs. These security measures are easily avoided by giving your bank the heads up about your travel plans before you head out.

Best Debit Cards to Have

Not all cards are created equally when it comes to international travel. If you play your debit cards right though, you could get lucky and save hundreds on fees. For example, several banks are reputed for not charging foreign transaction fees for international usage. Banks known for offering this perk include:

  • Charles Schwab Bank: No ATM fees, no currency conversion fees regardless of network used for withdrawal
  • Capital One 360: No conversion fees, though you may encounter a fee from Mastercard directly for “adjustment factors”
  • Discover Bank: No ATM fees, but offers limited availability, with most ATMs found only in Canada, Mexico, & the Caribbean

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 as well. Just as with debit cards, you’ll want to do a bit of research into what your current credit card offers in the way of international ATM access and fees, and if there may be a better option for you. There are many internet comparison sites which 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

Other Options

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.

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