How to Bank Safely and Affordably Overseas
Travel banking overseas can be expensive. Learn how to avoid ATM fees, get the best exchange rates, protect against fraud, and save money while traveling abroad.
Avoid International Fees & Switch To A Travel-Friendly Bank
The easiest way to obtain local currency overseas is to withdraw it from an ATM. It's fast, painless, and offers a great exchange rate. But did you know most banks will charge you anywhere between $5-$7 every time you withdraw money from a different bank’s ATM?
Often both your bank and the bank that owns the ATM will charge you a fee. Those fees can rack up pretty quickly and can be used for much better things while traveling long-term. But this trick can save you anywhere between $750-$1000 during a year of travel– easily adding on another plane ticket or month of travel.
You can make the smart choice and spend $0 on ATM fees.
For those in North America, the Charles Schwab Investor Checking Account will keep your hard-earned cash in your wallet. Schwab will refund all of your ATM fees, even those charged by other banks, anywhere in the world. This is one of the most travel-friendly debit cards in the world with all the money you save. There are no minimum balances, online banking is easy, and everything is free.
A new account with them includes a Schwab One Brokerage Account, but there are no problems (or fees) if you decide not to use it. It’s possible to set up free online transfers with other banks too.
If you don't live in the US you can't open a Charles Schwab account, but you can get a HSBC Checking Account. This international bank has ATMs all over the world and you can open an account before you arrive to a new country. Its mobile app even lets depositors monitor and move money between HSBC accounts in multiple countries.
Unlike Schwab they will charge you a fee for using another bank’s ATM (remember the 2nd bank may also charge you).
...Or Go Completely Digital
Revolut has become a nomad favorite, especially the fee-free multi-currency debit card. It might also be the perfect card to use when you are just staying put at home.
There is even a location based security feature to prevent fraud. Once activated, Revolut will use your phone’s location to determine if your card has been compromised. For instance, if your card is being used in a different country to your phone’s location, Revolut will stop the transaction as it assumes your card’s like to have been stolen.
- no fees when paying for goods in any currency
- no fees when using or withdrawing from any ATM
- no fees when transferring money
- ability to convert currency at any time
- best available exchange rates
- location-based security feature-
- Since it's a phone app, if the WiFi is faulty it can do error payments, meaning charging you more than once.
- If there's a problem with your card or the ATM, there is a 45-day MasterCard chargeback process. That's a lot of time when you're traveling.
Banking Tip: To avoid any and all fees from your bank, always top-up Revolut in the same currency as the bank account/card from which you’re debiting the money.
N26 is available in all Eurozone countries except Malta and Cyprus. If you live in Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia you can now open an account.
You don’t actually need to prove that you’re a registered resident, but you still need a German mailing address for them to send out their amazing debit card. As a global-minded citizen, I’m sure you can make some German friends that will allow to you use their address as a C/O address for the purpose of opening the account. You can easily change the address after receiving the card.
They now offer three plans: N26, N26 Black, and N26 Business. Read about the changes here, and decide which plan is right for you.
- No monthly/yearly costs
- No set-up cost
- No ATM fees worldwide
- No foreign transaction fees
- No currency exchange markup
- The entire account opening process is online — you never have to physically show up anywhere
- Card usage push notifications from the app, not SMS (great for peace of mind when you travel)
- You need to be a “resident” of Germany or Austria. According to their FAQ, they may ask for residency proof as part of their online identity check, but I have not heard of any EU citizens being asked for this.
- You will not accrue interest on your deposits. But that’s a small price to pay with what you save on using the card abroad.
Digital currency has been becoming increasingly common among travelers because it's safer, faster, and easier on your wallet with exchange rates.
You can read more about transfers, e-wallets, and more in the Wirex article "Everything You Need to Know About Travelling with Bitcoins."
Fraud Protection: Use 3 Accounts For Safety
I remember a friend telling me a story about his friend's encounter with one of the most dangerous drugs in the world, Devil's Breath. His friend was chatting up a girl outside some bar in Colombia. Before he realized what happened, he found himself half-naked in an alley with no wallet or possessions on him. When he checked his bank account, everything was gone. He was robbed with no memory of what had happened because of the drug's scary side effect to increase suggestibility.
In Nassim Taleb's book Antifragile, redundancy is often the main ingredient to achieving antifragility. Learning to live like a Hydra can actually make you stronger under the stress and natural chaos of life. Here are three accounts you should consider opening before traveling:
#1: Personal Checking Account - This account is used for personal reasons, like paying bills, and anything not travel related. It can also be used as an emergency backup should your Travel Checking Account get compromised on the road. Keep your ATM card safe and hidden while traveling.
#2: Travel Checking Account - This account is used for travel expenses, including withdrawing money out of ATMs. If your ATM card details are stolen, it shouldn’t completely stop your travels. The thieves may get some money, but losses are minimized, and you’ll often be refunded by your bank soon.
#3: Savings Account - A Capital One 360 Savings Account is where your money can earn interest. This account can also be linked to your Personal Checking Account, should you need to transfer funds if your Travel Account is compromised or you're waiting for a replacement ATM card.
The redundancy built into this system keeps you prepared for anything, including bank fraud and lost or malfunctioning ATM cards.
How To Avoid High Exchange Rates
Anytime you exchange foreign currency, you are paying a small premium to the people providing the service. How much you pay depends on the method you use to exchange it. Some are a lot cheaper than others.
Exchange with Travelers: While this is definitely the cheapest way to exchange foreign currency, it’s not something you’ll be able to do all the time. Usually, when leaving or entering a new country, you’ll find fellow travelers heading in the opposite direction. This is a great opportunity to trade currencies with each other.
Use a Credit Card: Credit cards will give you the best exchange rates — slightly better than using an ATM. The problem is you can’t use them everywhere. Depending on where you’re traveling, many businesses only except cash.
A Note On Travel Rewards Credit Cards:
If you want to learn more about travel hacking with rewards credit cards, here's a great intro guide, "How to Fly For Free Every 3 Months," by Nomad Michael Gasiorek. It includes one of our travel hacking webinars in the article.
ATM Machines: Using your debit card to withdraw cash from an ATM is the next best thing to a credit card. Exchange rates are very competitive, and ATMs are available all over the world. Insert the card from your home bank, and instantly receive local currency to use as cash. Exchanging money using an ATM is both super convenient, and relatively cheap. Plus if your bank refunds any ATM fees (like mine does) it’s the best option out there!
Currency Exchange Booth: This is one of the worst options for exchanging your money. You’ll often see these places at airports or bus terminals. They offer terrible rates, and there is always a commission of some sort tacked on. Even if their sign says “No Commissions”, the exchange rate they give is padded to make a tidy profit off your ignorance.
Money Changers: If you thought currency booths were bad, these guys can be even worse. You’ll find them hanging out around international land borders. Sometimes it’s an outright scam. Taxi drivers will take you to the country’s border, where you’ll need to get out and jump into another taxi, but this 2nd taxi won’t take the last country’s currency. If you’re not prepared, this can force you to use the local money changer who just happens to be waiting with an absolutely horrible deal. If you find yourself in this situation, make sure to count the money you receive twice, and check for counterfeit bills before you hand over your cash.
Always know the exchange rate for the country you are traveling to. Check online before you go at http://www.xe.com/ or if you use a smartphone, download this free currency exchange app: http://currencyapp.com/
Transferring Money Between Banks
If you successfully open one of the bank accounts that I’ve listed above, you might wonder how you can fund your account if your current account is in a different country. There are many ways of accomplishing this, but often using a service such as TransferWise can save you lots of money. Be aware that intra-Europe your bank might actually be the cheapest option.
Tips For Fraud Prevention
Credit & ATM card fraud is a reality. Following a few simple rules will help protect you from disaster.
Check your Bank Account Frequently: Check your bank logs at least every week, so if something is wrong you can report it ASAP. Your bank can then resolve the issue faster before you really get screwed.
Call Your Bank Before You Travel: Let your bank & credit card issuer know what dates you’ll be in certain countries. This will help them identify & block any fraudulent activity on your account and make sure your cards still work abroad.
Keep Eyes on Your Credit Card: When paying by credit card overseas (especially at restaurants & bars), never lose sight of it or hand it to anyone unless you're paying for something at a store or restaurant. If the machine is not near you, ask to accompany the cashier to avoid card skimming scams.
Stay smart, protect your hard-earned money, and travel longer.
Do you have any travel banking tips? Let us know in the comments below!