How to Access Your Money Abroad
After three years of blogging about travel here at Sarah Going, I think I may have finally found my niche within the travel blogging industry (to the extent that I fit within the travel blogging industry at all): travel and money.
Based on the money-related travel questions I’ve been getting since I started traveling, I think that the affordability of travel, the realities of financially preparing for travel and how travel bloggers make money are topics we as travel bloggers need to be talking about more.
So I decided to start doing that here on my blog.
In addition to these more general questions, there is a practical money-related travel question I get asked often by people planning a trip: how to access your money abroad.
I’ve been sending what I’m sure are unorganized one-off emails answering this question for years... so it’s probably past time I organize this into a blog post.
Better late than never, friends. I will eventually get this blogging thing right.
But until then...
How to Access Your Money Abroad
Whether you subscribe to the idea that the best trips are planned within an inch of their lives, or you’re more spontaneous about your travel planning, putting a bit of thought into how you’ll access your funds before leaving for your next trip will save you time and money abroad.
To be honest, I’ve made a lot of money-related travel mistakes (including forgetting to tell my card providers I was traveling to Costa Rica at one point and finding myself in a situation where I needed to convert cash because I took too much local currency out of the ATM in Prague... embarrassingly recently).
As with most of my travel mishaps, those money mistakes ended up working out, but I still could have avoided them entirely if I had followed my own advice in this post.
If you just want the facts on this topic with less text (because you are currently about to board your plane... been there), scroll to the end of this post for a summarized checklist.
Plan to Use Cash (Local Currency) and Credit Cards Abroad
I’ve personally visited 20 countries in Asia, South America, Central America, North America and Europe, and cash is still the best way to spend money in almost every country I’ve visited. While credit cards have become more prevalent and widely accepted since I started traveling over a decade ago (particularly in North America and Europe), you don’t have to worry about your foreign credit card being accepted by local card readers if you always have some cash with you. Cash is also preferred when shopping in markets or buying food from street vendors in most countries in the world (including the U.S. and Western European countries), so it’s always good to have some cash on hand.
Using Cash Abroad
How to Get Cash Abroad
The best way to access local currency to spend on your trip is to get it from the ATM in the country you’re visiting. ATMs generally offer better exchange rates than any of the other available options for accessing your cash. A few things to remember:
Know your fees.
Before jetting off on your adventure, read the fine print about your debit card or call your bank or credit union. Determine the fees your bank charges for withdrawing cash from out-of-network ATMs and/or for withdrawing cash internationally. If you are dealing with a debit card that charges fees, consider consolidating your ATM withdrawals. I generally try to get all the cash I’ll need for my stay at once (that way, I only pay one ATM fee).
Know the rough exchange rate between your currency and the currency you are withdrawing.
This will save you from accidentally taking out way less or way more cash than you need. Look this up online ahead of time and write it down in case you don’t have WiFi at the time you’re using the ATM.
When using any ATM, always be alert and aware of your surroundings. Cover the keyboard when entering your PIN. Have your bag ready to put any cash directly into your wallet as soon as it is dispensed. Keep a firm hold on your bag. If the situation surrounding a particular ATM is too crowded or feels unsafe, don’t access cash there and go elsewhere.
Find a bank ATM if you can.
I’ve read some information online about the fact that ATMs in airports and major train stations may charge additional fees in comparison to bank network ATMs. I can’t say that I’ve personally noticed this phenomenon, but one thing I HAVE noticed is that ATMs in major tourist centers tend to dispense large bills that are difficult to break (seriously, what am I going to do with a 50 Euro bill when the most expensive thing I buy most days is a cappuccino?) I generally look up HSBC locations on my iPhone map when I get WiFi in a foreign city, then I go to a branch to access the ATM (any other large international bank also works).
You can (sometimes) convert big bills at a bank.
I’ve had mixed success with this even within the country of Austria (Vienna bank branches are apparently stricter than those in Innsbruck), but if you do find yourself with bills so large they are difficult to spend after you withdraw cash from an ATM, it is worth asking a bank teller if they can break the big bills for you. A currency exchange may also break big bills for you, but make sure they don’t charge any fees for this service.
Consider locking your debit card when you aren’t using it.
These days, many banks and credit unions offer the option to lock your debit card via an app on your mobile device or an online portal. Since you’ll be using your credit card for any non-cash spending while you are abroad, locking your debit card except when you need to use the ATM adds an extra layer of security in case your debit card or debit card number falls into the wrong hands while you are traveling.
Additional tips for using cash abroad
Contrary to popular belief, you probably don’t need to bring any local currency with you on your next trip.
However, if you do want to order a foreign currency from your local bank in your home country before you travel, make sure to get the full story about any fees you’ll be charged for that transaction and compare the exchange rate they are offering you to market rates to see if it makes sense. (You can look up exchange rates online.)
Generally, the most expensive way to access foreign currency is to convert cash in one currency to another currency.
While it’s a good idea to have a bit of your local currency with you in case of emergencies, your intent for this stash of cash should not be to convert it to local currency (unless you have to in an emergency.) If you do find yourself in a situation where you need to convert one currency to another, do some research online about currency exchanges and write down the market exchange rate before you visit any in person. Generally, currency exchanges in major tourist hubs (such as airports and train stations) don’t offer the best exchange rates, so try to look elsewhere when you can.
Using cash means using local currency.
Even if you find yourself in a scenario where your home currency is accepted by a retailer or restaurant while you’re abroad, using the local currency almost always saves you money. If local retailers and restaurants have a menu priced for tourists in your currency and a menu priced for locals in the local currency, those local prices are the ones that you want to be paying.
Using Your Credit Card Abroad
As mentioned above, I’m a big proponent of always having local currency on hand when I travel in case my credit card isn’t accepted, which can happen even in countries where credit cards are prevalent (this happened to me recently in Denmark). But if I’m traveling in an area of the world where the locals primarily use credit cards, then I will also use mine wherever I can.
If you’re planning to use your credit card abroad, here are a few things to remember:
Know your fees.
Just as banks can charge fees for foreign ATM withdrawals, credit card companies can charge foreign transaction fees... and these can add up if you are primarily using your card. If your credit card provider charges a fee on each transaction, you may want to use your credit card only on larger purchases (such as accommodation) and use cash for smaller charges to limit your fees.
Check your card network.
I use Visa debit and credit cards, and I've personally never spent money anywhere in the world that accepted credit cards but DIDN’T accept visa. These days I’ve noticed most places that accept cards will accept the major networks including Visa, MasterCard, and Discover. However, if you use an American Express card, consider bringing a secondary option if you have one available because AmEx remains the least accepted card network globally.
Pay in local currency.
If you’re ever given the option to pay in local currency or pay in your home currency when using your card abroad, always pay in the local currency. This option will give you the best exchange rate.
Separate checks/bills at restaurants still aren’t common in many countries.
While I’ve noticed restaurants in some countries (and particularly restaurants in tourist areas within some countries) offering to run separate checks and charge multiple cards at the end of a meal, this practice still isn’t common in many countries in the world. You’ll likely be presented with one check when you eat at a restaurant, so keep this in mind if you are eating with a group and intend to pay with your credit card (cash or payment apps such as Venmo work great in this situation).
Remember to Tell Your Bank and Credit Card Company You Are Traveling
I’m giving this tip a section of its own (with a huge heading), since it applies to both debit and credit cards… and it is deceivingly easy to forget to do in the run-up to a trip. These days, many banks, credit unions and credit card providers have an online option to report travel dates. Make sure to do this ahead of time so your cards work when you land.
General travel tips that apply to accessing your money abroad
General Tip #1. Do as the locals do.
If the locals use their cards, use yours. If they use cash, do that. If there is an option between local currency and your currency, whether that is at a point of sale or on a menu, always choose the local currency. If you can, use ATMs where the locals use ATMs (at bank branches, not at airports, train stations or tourist hotspots). If you need to convert currency, try to avoid tourist-focused currency exchanges.
General Tip #2. Be smart and safe.
A little research on the exchange rate between a foreign currency and your currency can help prevent you from getting ripped off. Locking your debit card when you don’t need it is an extra layer of security. Being aware of your surroundings when using an ATM, covering your PIN entry, and accessing good ATMs at bank branches when possible is smart and safe. Knowing any fees your cards will charge you can help you make an informed decision about how to access your money abroad (so you can save money).
What other tips for accessing money abroad do you have for first-time travelers? Do you tend to use cash or your credit card when you’re abroad? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Top Tips from this Post
Tell your bank and credit card provider you’ll be traveling (you can generally do this online)
Determine any fees that your debit card or credit card will charge you abroad to help you decide which card(s) to use
How to get cash: use your debit card to access local currency from ATMs while abroad
Search for major international bank networks in the country you are visiting, and plan to access the ATM at one of these locations if possible
Write down the exchange rate between your currency and the local currency (so you don’t withdraw too much or too little from the ATM)
Any time you are presented with an option to pay in local currency or pay in your home country’s currency, pay in the local currency