Soaring out into the great unknown, traipsing about foreign lands, basking in liberation from responsibilities back home. Traveling represents cathartic release from nine to fives and the hassles that come with it. Yet, despite the euphoric euphemisms, you still require at least some degree of funding while living abroad.

For the majority, that means bank cards. Whether you’re using a debit card to access your checking account and ATMs, or a credit card for most transactions, there are several factors to keep in mind. Factors regarding subtle differences between credit and debit spending, backup plans in case of unforeseen problems , and hidden fees. So we’re going to walk you through the travel meta of managing bankcards nice and slowly. The sooner you get a handle on it, the sooner you’ll be back to the stress-free enjoyment of overseas living.

Debit Cards: Factors To Consider

Online Banking: Many banks nowadays feature online banking where you can transfer money between checking and savings accounts. Make absolutely certain you have access to this while traveling. It’s one thing to have a large, vulnerable wad of cash in your checking account while in your home country. But the risks jump higher when moving from hostel to hotel to ATM in unfamiliar territory. It’s best to have as little as possible in your checking account at any one time while traveling.

Withdrawing from ATMs: Most opt to carry a debit card with them, and withdraw cash from ATMs for a majority of their spending needs. As noted above, you should always be cautious when withdrawing cash in new surroundings. Avoid withdrawals after dark whenever possible, unless you’re in a well-lit commercial space like a mall or an airport. Most checking accounts have a limit for how much you can withdraw in a day, so check with your bank to ensure you always have enough cash on hand. The biggest downside of ATMs though, are the withdrawal fees…

ATM Fees: Your chances of finding designated ATMs that match your bank or bank affiliates are pretty low when abroad. This means you’ll likely be paying ATM fees to your own bank, and conversion fees to the commercial bank’s ATMs that you’ll no doubt be using. It’s usually only $1 to $5 per transaction, but that adds up over time. Therefore, you’ll always want to withdraw in bulk whenever possible. Another alternative is to open a bank account in your host country, which will be covered later on.

Foreign Transaction Fees: When making foreign transactions, with either a debit or credit card, your bank will convert the purchase to your local currency and skim around 1% to 3% off the top. So let’s say your week-long stay in London’s Shangri-La costs you $1,400 total. If your bank charges a 3% foreign transaction fee, that’s $42 dollars extra on top of your bills! When it comes to these purchases though, credit cards offer lower fees than debit cards, and in some cases, no fees at all…

Credit Cards: Factors to Consider

Avoiding Foreign Transaction Fees: As seen above, these fees can really strangle your finances for all they’re worth. If your bank is complicit in charging foreign transaction fees, consider applying for a credit card that doesn’t charge them. There are numerous options like Discover and Citibank as seen here, but Capital One is the most popular and accessible option.

Should you be unable to attain one of these cards, then make sure you always convert any purchases to the local(country you’re in) currency. If you choose to convert to your home currency, say Yen to USD, you’re at the mercy of conversion rates charged by the vendor. Instead you should always convert to the local currency since your bank will handle the conversion rate, and the fee your bank charges will be lower than what other vendors offer.
Passport: Many credit cards from the U.S still use magnetic stripes for transactions whereas much of the rest of the world, Europe especially, utilize chip technology for their cards. Since the magnetic stripe system is more susceptible to fraud, many overseas vendors will ask to see your passport during transactions. It’s only meant to ensure that you’re the authorized user of your card, so keep it handy for important purchases.

Dealing With And Preventing Emergencies

In addition to managing fees and knowing when to use a credit vs. a debit card, you’ll also want to curate plans of action for when unexpected dilemmas fly your way.

Your Card Is Lost/Stolen: It’s smart to use a money belt or neck pouch when carrying cards on your person. But accidents happen, and thieves can catch you blindsided. Or perhaps you left your card in the ATM and carelessly walked off. Whatever blunder befalls you, the first action to take after losing your card is to contact your bank. They can cancel your cards and freeze your accounts to prevent fraud. If it’s a debit card, consider moving your funds from checking to saving immediately before making the call.

Replacing Your Cards: When your card is missing, you’ll obviously need a replacement. The best action here would be to carry a backup card in the first place. But should you have lost your one and only card, you’ll likely need to utilize support from back home. A close friend or family member could mail the replacement through one of several services.

Fedex, UPS, and DHL allow you to ship packages to to one of their international offices for pick up; perfect if you’re staying in a major metropolitan area. Shipping to a hotel is also an option if you’re staying in one long-term. Either way, you’ll generally want to avoid major post offices if you can help it due to disorganization and how difficult they are to navigate(especially in foreign languages). Private postbox companies like Mailboxes ETC. may cost more, but they’re much more reliable. And finally, do not ship an activated bank card. Wait to activate it until it’s literally within your grasp.

Opening New Bank Account: A potentially quicker route than waiting for a card in the mail is to open a checking or savings account in the country you currently reside in, thereby acquiring a new bank card. It depends on the city and country, but oftentimes you can open an account with one of the country’s largest commercial banks. Information is available online pertaining to which banks will allow this. Take note though that banks can change their policies on a whim, and it’s ultimately up to the individual clerk on whether or not to grant you an account.

Generally, a passport and a bare minimum amount of cash are all that’s required for an account. The next step is to transfer money from your account back home to your new bank account. You can use third party middlemen for these transfers, like Western Union, but many banks offer this service themselves. Your bank back home will typically just require the swift code of the receiving bank and your explicit permission to make the transfer.

Quick Review

You’ll want to skim over these last few bullet points to ensure you’re not forgetting anything important. Remember, managing your bank cards during travel isn’t difficult. With the proper planning beforehand, and an awareness of hidden fees, you can avoid losing money over simple mistakes. So with that said, proceed ahead for the quick review:

  • Keep as little cash as necessary in your checking account at all times. Online banking transfers are great for this.
  • Avoid ATMs after dark or in suspicious areas.
  • Withdraw in bulk from ATMs as they charge $1 to $5 per transaction.
  • Always convert to local currency as the foreign transaction fee is cheaper when your bank handles it.
  • Credit cards like Discover, Citibank, and Capital One charge 0% foreign transaction fees.
  • You may require a passport for identification when purchasing items with a bank card overseas.
  • Call your bank immediately if your card goes missing so they can cancel it.
  • FEDEX, UPS, and DHL are safe services for shipping replacement bank cards overseas.
  • Never activate a replacement card before shipping it.
  • Avoid post offices, go with private mailboxes for maximum reliability.
  • Look good when opening an account abroad since the clerk has the last say on granting it to you.
  • Check to see if your home bank can transfer funds to your new account directly instead of using a third-party service.
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