- See Wikivoyage:Currency for editing guidelines for currency expressions.
Information on using money is covered in shopping, and the Buy section of destination guides. This article contains general information about obtaining money, in its various forms, for use in many destinations, often with currencies other than at home.
There are a number of ways to obtain and exchange money while traveling. You are always trading off expense, risk, and convenience. Unfortunately, organized and other criminals have developed numerous ways to take your money. Credit cards have legal limits on how much you are liable if used illegally. Debit and ATM cards have other risks and benefits. This article discusses how to use them, their risks, and how to obtain currency or cash.
Foreign currency exchange is similar to the stock market; however, very large day-to-day changes in rates are uncommon. Before and as you travel, you need to know the relative market values of your home currency and currencies where you'll be traveling. Exchange rates are available through numerous sources, like bank web sites, finance websites, currency exchange sites, and popular search engines like Google, Yahoo and others will convert directly in the search bar. You can also download a variety of apps.
It is very important to know whether a given rate is the number of foreign units in your home currency or vice versa. Getting it backwards could be a very expensive mistake. This error is most likely to happen if both currencies are within two or three fold of each other in value. The best way to avoid any mix-up is to find out if one unit of currency at your destination is worth more or less than your home currency. For example, the British pound is worth more than one US dollar, while the Japanese yen is worth far less than a US dollar. Currencies worth more should have a rate greater than one – use this multiplier. Conversely, currencies worth less should begin with a decimal (for example: 0.2345) – use this multiplier also. If you only have the rate in the other direction, the reciprocal or inverse key on a calculator (usually 1/X) will change it back. For example, if you have the rate of 4.264 but know it's worth less than your home currency, the reciprocal key will switch it to 0.2345 again (approximately). As an error check, the two forms of the rate multiplied together should be closely equal to one (0.9999, 1.0001 or similar). If you have one rate for buying and the inverse for selling, note the spread below.
Both forms of the exchange rate serve a purpose. Using the previous example, upon arrival, you'll receive 4.264 units of foreign currency for each unit of your home currency (less fees). On departure, you'll receive 0.2345 units of your home currency for each unit of left over foreign currency (again, less fees). Likewise, multiply by 0.2345 to convert foreign prices to your home currency.
At exchange counters, both a "buy" and a "sell" price for your home currency will be displayed. The closer these are to each other (called the "spread"), the better the deal. The published international market rates (only available to those exchanging the equivalent of US$ millions) should be in the middle of the buy and sell price. Less commonly exchanged currencies are likely to have a large spread, making it quite expensive to buy and sell.
In addition to the exchange rates at an exchange counter, also note all the fees charged for any transaction. Some may be fixed, others variable. The net cost for currency exchange is nearly always substantially higher than obtaining currency by ATM, as costs are greater for banking tellers and office space (especially at airports).
If you are going to exchange money to do shopping, the rate of interest is the one that includes the fees. You get it by dividing the amount of foreign money you get by the amount of domestic money you pay. As you do not want to use your calculator all the time, it is a good idea to find a rough estimate with which you can count with little effort. If you round up to 5 in this example, you can multiply by five (or divide by two and move the decimal point) to get a conservative price in your own currency. You then dismiss any offer that is not cheaper than at home by that rate – in fact 15 % cheaper – or use your calculator for offers that come close. If you are good at maths and fractions you can usually find something that comes closer than that.
Cash is a traditional and versatile payment method, and one that can still be used for paying for most general goods and services you need while travelling. However, cash cannot be used for all purchases. There are also restrictions on carrying or sending money across national borders (see below).
Most countries require you to have cash in the local currency. However, in some developing countries as a tourist you will be expected to use a hard currency (see below) rather than the local currency – typically U.S. dollars or euros, or a regional hard currency. In some tourist areas, airports, airplanes, and border regions, you may be able to get by with any major currency or the currency of the bordering country. Often this will be at an additional expense built into the rate of exchange. Macau practically accepts Hong Kong dollars at a 1:1 basis with the pataca and the difference is not noticeable for smaller transactions. However exchanging Macau's money back into Hong Kong dollars outside Macau is quite expensive if not impossible, even in Hong Kong. Cross-border transportation-related charges from Malaysia to Singapore accept Singapore dollars on a 1:1 basis as the exchange benefits the seller. It won't work in reverse.
Cash cannot be used for all purchases. A lot of kiosk-based transactions (e.g. at McDonalds) don't accept cash. Most car rental companies require a credit card. Major hotels often require a credit card or a large cash bond. If you only have cash, you'll be in the queue for those entry tickets while your neighbors have jumped the queue and gone to the machine with no queue that only accepts credit cards, or purchased the tickets online on the way there. Some license-plate tolling can only be paid with a card online, and there is no practical method for a tourist to pay with cash. Cash won't let you rent a bikeshare in Washington, DC, or top up your transit card at a station in Sydney. Public transit systems all over the world – including in places like Managua – are getting rid of cash altogether, requiring payment with a custom built card instead.
Another disadvantage to cash is the risk. If you lose it, you can't get it back, and if someone finds out you have a large wad of cash, you become a potential target for a thief or robber. Some defenses are discussed in the pickpockets article, but there is no complete defense — carrying cash always involves a risk. Travel insurance may cover loss or theft of cash to a certain value. If you get a counterfeit note, or get the wrong change from a business, you usually have little recourse.
When you use local money, familiarize yourself with the basic note designs and their security features (watermarks, holograms, etc.), and watch out for counterfeits and obsolete currencies. Make sure to look up the exchange rate before starting your trip and if possible look it up from day to day to see whether it fluctuates a lot. If you have forgotten to do so, and need a rough ballpark figure, airports and bank money exchanges usually have accurate (if sometimes bad) exchange rates. Remember: the difference between buying and selling rate is their profit, so the lower it is, the better the rate. Of course all of this does not apply to countries with an "official" exchange rate, that has nothing to do with the actual value of their currency, or countries with runaway inflation. (Venezuela, and Zimbabwe until 2015, are examples of this.) Banks and money changers (operating out of an office, not flashing wads of cash from a coat pocket) are nearly always safe, but taxi drivers and petty traders may be tempted to palm off useless notes. When in doubt, reject unfamiliar notes. Also, be particularly suspicious of large notes, as they are more commonly faked.
If you intend changing your money overseas, be sure to bring notes from your own currency only in good condition and only the most recent (re)design (unless it's really new). Banks at your destination cannot easily or cheaply exchange worn-out currency for replacement as they can with their country's own currency. Worn paper currency may be devalued – if it is accepted at all. Even if in good condition, previous designs of your currency may not be accepted due to counterfeiting concerns. If you are intending to use U.S. dollars overseas, be aware of the particular series that are accepted, and take only crisp notes. If you are acquiring U.S. dollars to take to countries other than the U.S., let the bank or exchange know, so they can give you newer notes of the right series.
There is usually no limit to the amount of your own currency you can take into or out of another country. However, you must declare amounts over a certain value. Usually around US$10,000 or equivalent – but read the immigration forms carefully. Some countries have limits on the amount of local currency you can take with you from the country. Check local guides.
Where to get or exchange cash
In many countries, the best option (given the convenience and typically good exchange rate) is to use an ATM in the destination country instead of bringing large amounts of cash to exchange. See the section below on cards and ATM use. There are typically larger fees and poorer exchange rates associated with exchanging cash over using an ATM. An exception to this rule is the Asian financial hub of Singapore, where small, independent money changers often provide better rates than banks or credit card companies.
Money exchanges work on the basis of selling a foreign currency at one rate and buying at another. Make sure that you know the current interbank exchange rate before you leave home. Where there is more competition, the rates are likely to be better. The most convenient exchange locations (such as at airports, malls or major hotels) generally have the worst rates. If possible, check the difference (or spread) between "we sell" and "we buy". When this is more than 10%, you're definitely being ripped off. However some money changers don't offer the same spread either side of the midrate. In a tourist area they may sell local currency further from the midrate than the buy – knowing that most of their transactions are with tourist buying the local cash. The best exchanges can go as low as 1.5% from the midrate. Also, check if there is an additional fixed commission for each transaction, and take that into your calculation. Exchanging foreign currency directly with banks is usually possible. You can usually depend on a bank to not have the best or worst rates available. Some banks will only entertain you if you have large amounts, and others have outsourced their exchange function to a exchange bureau. Another disadvantage is that they mostly have limited operating hours so during weekends and holidays, you're out of luck. Some institutions require identification before exchanging currency, particularly for larger amounts.
In some cases it may be better to exchange your money before you leave, in others it may be better to do it in your destination. As a general rule, the lesser-known currencies in the world have less favorable exchange rates abroad. In fact, they may first be converted to a well-known currency like the U.S. dollar before being converted back into the host currency also at unfavorable rates. If this is the case, convert your home currency into a major currency (usually the U.S. dollar) before leaving, then exchange that major currency into the host currency when you arrive. You also have more time to shop around for the best rates before you leave. At your destination, finding the money-changer with the best rates takes some of your valuable holiday time.
Most major currencies are subject to counterfeiting these days. Study the notes of the currency of the foreign country to become familiar with how it is supposed to look and feel. Almost all currencies employ anti-counterfeiting technologies, including color shifting ink, watermarks, special threads, iridescent inks, raised printing, holograms and other features. Be familiar with them so that you can quickly check them when you get a new note, whether it is from change from a larger note, or from a money exchange. If you are unsure, don't be afraid to say that you would rather get a different note, or say you would rather get two smaller notes for change. (For example, if you get a ten in change that you don't like the looks of, ask for two 5s instead.) If you end up with a counterfeit, you won't get compensated after you leave by whoever gave it to you, and you may end up having to explain it to the police.
Black market exchange
In some countries the official exchange rate is fixed at a completely unreasonable or unrealistic rate. In these countries the black market will provide a much more realistic evaluation of the currency's worth and is practically unavoidable. For example, in 2007, the official exchange rate was 250 Zimbabwe dollars to the U.S. dollar, while the black market rate reached 600,000:1.
However, the risks of black market exchange are legion. First and foremost, black market exchange is illegal and both buyer and seller may face severe sanctions if caught: the seller may even be (or work with) a police officer out to trap tourists. Second, the risk of fraud is high: you may get obsolete banknotes, fake banknotes, less than the promised amount or nothing at all. Consider carefully whether you need to exchange in the first place, as businesses in countries with basket-case currencies will often be more than happy to accept hard currency directly instead (although this, too, will often be illegal), and you may get all the local currency you need back as change.
Change only a bit at one place and the rest elsewhere so that if you are scammed, it will be less of a loss.
The key guideline to successful black market transactions is to receive the money before you hand yours over. Count the notes, inspect the notes carefully, compare them to any you already have, and, only then, surrender your own money to the vendor. Do not allow them to take back the money they gave you, as this is where various sleight-of-hand tricks can be pulled to replace the legitimate bundle with something entirely different.
In countries where foreign exchange rates are reasonable, it is best to avoid the black market entirely: you risk losing all your money for little gain at most.
An exception may apply in countries such as Nepal and India where doing a legal exchange at a bank can involve wasting an hour or more but most hotels will change money for you instantly and fairly safely. The rate may not be much better, but the convenience is.
A convertible currency is a currency that can be easily converted into another country's currency; conversely, an inconvertible currency is theoretically worthless outside its country of origin. A few countries, like Cuba, still issue one convertible currency for tourists and one inconvertible currency for locals. In some countries like Tunisia and India, importing or exporting (inconvertible) dinars and rupees is technically a crime, although such regulations are rarely enforced for small amounts. Still, find out the laws beforehand and follow them.
Convertibility is set by law and not always entirely reflected in reality: some currencies like the Indian rupee are inconvertible in theory but fairly easy to trade in practice, while others like the Swazi lilangeni are fully convertible in theory but almost impossible to sell or buy in most of the world.
Despite the name, inconvertible currencies can often be purchased at a discount outside the country of origin as people holding onto them want to get rid of them. Finding somebody to buy them is more difficult. Also note that state-run shops in some countries will also insist that tourists produce certificates of exchange to prove that their money was obtained from a legitimate source like a local bank at the official (usually poor) exchange rate, and such certificates are also often required if you want to change back any unneeded money within the country.
If travelling to a country with an inconvertible currency or one that you can't, in practice, buy or sell in your home country, you should convert all your money to a major international currency before leaving the country. The following currencies listed are very actively traded on the foreign exchange market, and as such are widely available and can be exchanged at banks anywhere in the world:
- U.S. dollar
- British pound
- Japanese yen
- Swiss franc
- Canadian dollar
- Australian dollar
- New Zealand dollar
The list is in order of preference and in reality, the first 3 on the list are normally exchangeable in even the most remote money exchange office. Although not as widely traded as the eight currencies listed above, the Chinese Yuan is becoming more widely available at money changers due to China's rising status as a major economic power.
In many poorer countries with inflationary, unstable, and/or inconvertible currencies, a foreign hard currency may prove more useful than the local currency. Although its value fluctuates, the "gold standard" for currencies remains the U.S. dollar. It may be accepted as payment directly by locals, though not necessarily at a good exchange rate. In fact several countries in the Caribbean, the Americas and Southeast Asia use it as their de facto – or even official – currency. The euro is also increasingly well accepted, at least in regions with many European visitors, and small countries with economically powerful neighbors may also accept regional hard currencies (such as the Thai baht in Laos and Cambodia, the Australian dollar, or sometimes the New Zealand dollar in much of Oceania). Some currencies have a fixed exchange rate relative to the euro, the U.S. dollar or another currency. While some are "pegged" 1:1 (Panaman balboa to the U.S. dollar, Falkland pound to the British pound) which often ends up meaning that both currencies are equally accepted, others such as, e.g., the Bosnian convertible mark are pegged in other exchange rates (in this case 1 euro for 1.95583 mark) and have to be exchanged more likely than not. That said, those currencies tend to be hard to exchange for anything but the currency they are pegged to and sometimes exchange is only possible in the country where said currency is legal tender. This "peg" also has a tendency to break if the government issuing this money runs out of hard euros, dollars or pounds with which to buy back local currency. In a nutshell: balboas, Falkland pounds or Bosnian marks tend to be nothing more than a souvenir once you leave the area where they are official.
If neither your home or destination country uses a globally well-known currency, you should take the most often exchanged hard currency at your destination. For example, someone traveling from Singapore to Mexico should take U.S. dollars. Although this involves a double conversion, it will almost always prove to be cheaper than a single conversion (i.e. the exchange rate in Mexico for Singapore dollars, or in Singapore for Mexican pesos is likely to be terrible).
You can also use hard currency when haggling with locals by offering hard instead of local currency. Use the conversion rate to your advantage and make an offer in hard currency. Showing a few U.S. dollars in the process might help but be sure to show only what you are willing to pay. Also, if you plan on haggling, be sure to have small notes available so you don't need much change back, especially if you just haggled a price much lower. You don't want to be giving a vendor 50 for an item worth 5; you'll be inviting the vendor to try to sell you more things or, even worse, let nearby pickpockets know how much you have.
It is wise to carry an emergency stash of hard currency separated from all your other belongings and valuables. Some businesses that deal with many foreign tourists may also accept foreign money but almost always at an inferior exchange rate to allow for the inconvenience.
Under most circumstances, you can't exchange coins once you have left a country. Exchange them before you leave, drop them in a charity box, or souvenir them. Becoming familiar with coins and currency for your destination country and not mixing coins from various countries in your purse or pocket can save you collecting too many coins before you depart. To avoid accumulating too many coins in the first place, use them as much as possible to pay (instead of notes) during cash transactions. Some countries have coins that are relatively large in value (such as 2 euros, 5 Swiss francs, 2 Canadian dollars, 500 Japanese yen or 5 Bosnian convertible marks), which are advisable to spend first.
In the U.S., the UK, Ireland and Canada you can find a Coinstar machine in many supermarkets. This will take any small change and convert to an eCertificate for some stores or as a voucher to spend in the store you are in. As there is a 10% charge on the spend-in-store voucher this is less favorable than simply spending the coins themselves in-store at their face value, but this may still be better than carrying a lot of coins back to your home country.
Debit, credit, ATM and prepaid cards
Debit cards, credit cards and prepaid cards can be used to withdraw cash from automatic teller machines (ATMs), pay restaurants and hotels and make purchases, where they are accepted.
Debit cards are sometimes known as "check cards" or "bank cards", because they withdraw money from your bank account when you use them. ATM cards are debit cards that can only withdraw cash from an ATM. They are linked to an account in the same way as a debit card, but with different risks. (See "Debit and ATM cards: Risks/trade-offs" below.)
Credit cards are not linked to an account with funds in it, but instead charge against a credit line, to be repaid later.
Prepaid cards, sometimes called "travel money" cards, are stored-value cards that you top-up and then draw down. They can often hold a number of different currencies on the card.
All these cards are usually branded with one of the card brands, such as Visa or Mastercard. These companies facilitate the acceptance of the card. Cards that only carry the brand of your bank are usually just ATM cards. These cards can be used at your bank's ATMs, as well as networks of ATMs and point-of-sale shopping networks that your bank is a member of.
Often credit and debit functions are combined in a single card, so that every time the card is read you choose whether to use the bank account or your credit.
Using ATMs (or cash machines) can be the most convenient way of obtaining any currency while you are away from home, domestically or internationally. Except in a few countries, Mastercard, Visa, and Cirrus- and Plus-networked cards are accepted at nearly all ATMs worldwide. Using an ATM or debit card, the money will come directly from your bank account, and this is usually the cheapest way to get local cash.
The fees involved vary depending on your bank, the ATM and their relationship. The information posted at the ATM or shown on the screen will indicate how much the ATM operator will charge you; your own bank/card issuer may add its own fees and surcharges, thus the total fees can be higher than what is indicated on the ATM. Check your bank/card issuer's fees for more information. In the European Union the fees are regulated, so getting euros from a euro account is often free – but not with all cards and not with all ATMs.
ATMs worldwide mostly follow an established pattern in order to withdraw cash. Inserting your card and verifying yourself with a personal identification number (PIN), before specifying the amount of your withdrawal. It may be possible to intuitively use an ATM in the local language. But newer ATMs, or those from major banks or in tourist areas, may allow you to choose an alternative, familiar language on the initial screen or after inserting your card. Make sure you are aware of the current exchange rate before getting into the withdrawal screen, as your withdrawal amount will normally be in local currency.
Use the security precautions you would at home: be aware of people or hidden cameras being able to see your PIN as you enter it, and use an ATM in a safe location. ATMs in airports, bank lobbies, and contained within shopping malls tend to have better security (installing a rogue camera or card reader is more difficult there, and security will intervene in case of robbery by nearby thieves). It is possible for ATMs to be hacked, with malware installed by criminals. Using these machines can then give others the ability to drain your account. Using a card that has some fraud guarantees, such as a credit card instead of a debit card may give some protection. Also use machines that are operated by larger well established banks that are likely to have better fraud prevention systems.
Prepaid cards sold for travel can usually be used at ATMs. Some prepaid cards may be restricted to purchases only. Again, check the fees.
In developed countries, ATMs are usually easy to find in larger towns, but not necessarily in the countryside. Even developing countries can usually be relied upon to have ATMs, but you may have more effort to locate them, and they may be more unreliable when you do. Countries with economic sanctions can fail to work with international cards. Some developing countries ATMs may only dispense local currency, where tourist establishments only accept U.S. dollars, or similar. This makes an ATM there effectively useless. Consult the country articles. Some ATMs offer more than one currency, often driven by their location and customer base.
Beware of card cloning in high-fraud countries. Thieves may place a device on an ATM's card reader to grab your card's information, or intercept the data when you use your card at a restaurant or store, and then create a duplicate of your card that they can use themselves. To reduce the risk of someone cloning your card, look for ATMs in locations that are well lit and visible to employees. Inspect the card reader on an ATM before you use it—if it is a strange shape, has a loose component, or doesn't match other ATMs nearby, don't use it.
You may be charged a fee to check your balance by your bank. However, sometimes your balance will be printed out for free on a cash withdrawal receipt; a last step may ask if you want one. With the various exchange rates and fees, the amount displayed on the screen may not be accurate. The best way to check your balance without charge is using Internet banking or your bank's smart phone app. When viewing your account activity online, your ATM withdrawals and purchases will be converted into your home currency. Traditionally you may not have received a balance on a foreign ATM, or it may display only in a foreign currency. However, many modern day ATMs will display your current balance in your local and home currency, and even give you the exchange rate used at time of withdrawal.
- In Japan, foreign card holders must use ATMs at post offices or 7-Eleven convenience stores, as Japanese banks issue incompatible cards.
- In China, UnionPay is the preferred card type, although it isn't too hard to find a store or ATM that accepts more global types such as Visa or Mastercard.
In any event, do the necessary research to find out about ATMs where you are traveling. Most countries' guides should be able to tell you whether fee-free ATMs are the norm. And have a backup method if ATMs look risky.
Having a bank accounts with a bank that has a worldwide presence (such as HSBC and Citibank) offer some benefits. Often they have fee-free ATM use at overseas branches of the same bank, and better connectivity and security features making them more reliable. Although they won't usually be able to help you at the tellers, they will often connect you via telephone to a call center of your own bank, that can handle any issues you are having.
Using cards at point of sale
The acceptance of debit and credit cards by business varies by country and area, so check the local guides. Acceptance is generally more common in more developed countries, but on the other hand, don't be too surprised if a market stall holder in a the remotest of small towns produces a credit card terminal from under the counter.
By far, the most accepted cards worldwide are Visa and MasterCard. If you are acquiring a card for travel, you should get one of these two brands of cards; most issuers should offer either of these cards by default. American Express and Diners' Club cards have global networks but acceptance varies widely depending by country and merchant. Discover, JCB, China UnionPay, NYCE, Star, MAC, and Shazam are regional. Acceptance outside the region is usually limited to areas catering to visitors.
Discover, JCB, China UnionPay, and India's RuPay have an alliance with each other, which allows any of these cards to be accepted on any of the other networks in the home markets of each issuer. This is purely a network alliance, that largely serves to make Discover more usable in China, Japan, and India. This doesn't mean that if the Ugg boot store in Sydney accepts JCB, that it will also accept Discover. Sales personnel may not be familiar with this, but it will work if you can convince them to try. JCB has a separate network alliance with American Express that operates worldwide.
Even if your card is accepted worldwide, you may come across some points-of-sale (e.g. ticket vending machines) that only accept domestically-issued cards. This is manifested through the requirement to enter a postal or zip code of your billing address. If you don't live in the country you are performing the transaction in, you won't obviously be able to provide the postal code. A similar situation may await you when you try to buy local transport tickets using a transport operator's mobile app (this is more common in the US and when this is the case, such apps are not going to be available on your country's mobile app store anyway); in this case, you will have to use the vending machines or a manned ticket desk and possibly pay only in cash.
Debit/ATM versus credit cards
Debit/ATM cards are linked directly to a bank/checking/cash account and immediately deduct the amount of the purchase or ATM withdrawal from the account. Credit cards are not linked to an account with funds in it, but instead charge against a credit line, to be repaid later. Debit cards can be used for general purchases as well as obtaining currency. ATM cards can only be used in ATMs for withdrawing currency. This means somewhat greater security for the latter, i.e.,
- If your ATM card is lost or number stolen, thieves cannot use it in any way without its PIN.
- If card and PIN are compromised, ATMs will dispense currency only in the general locations, dates/times and amount limits you arranged with your bank/credit union before travel.
- If a debit card number is lost/stolen, thieves can use it (with a "cloned" card and phony identification) anywhere to buy goods/services less than a certain amount (for each use) set by your bank...often $100 (equivalent) or less.
- If card and PIN are compromised, thieves can promptly empty the entire account, and may gain ability to use or steal other assets by examining account details.
When using any type of card to withdraw cash, your bank may charge a fee of 1–3% on top of foreign exchange, an ATM fee and perhaps others. In addition, most credit card users will be charged a cash advance fee and interest on any cash advance ("loan") from the day you withdraw it from an ATM until the credit card balance is fully paid. Credit cards sometimes also have a higher than normal interest rate applicable to cash advances. In some cases you can use a credit card like a debit card or prepaid card by making a payment into your credit card account in-advance, keeping the balance positive. In this case you can avoid the daily interest charge, but still may face other fees. Your bank may also limit its liability to the credit limit on the card if it is lost or stolen.
- Such costs will be unlike and separate from those for retail purchases, and the interest rate for cash advances will often be higher than for purchases. In some cases, your bank may limit credit card cash advances/loans to an amount substantially less than your overall credit line.
- While there is usually a grace period when using your credit card for purchases (you will not be charged interest if you pay off your balance in full within that billing period) there is usually no grace period for a cash advance using a credit card.
- Your bank's liability in case of credit card/PIN loss may be limited by law, at worst equal to your credit limit and credit balance.
Despite the fees you or the merchant pays, when making point-of-sale purchases, your costs/fees will nearly always be better if you use a credit card than a debit card. If your card is stolen, your liability will usually be limited by law (for U.S. banks, $50 for all misuse), and you can dispute fraudulent charges made by unauthorized users on a credit card. But, a stolen debit card and PIN may be used to empty its account, and require many hassles to re-establish security and (perhaps) regain funds. Again, see "Risks/trade-offs" below for ways to avoid this.
As above, credit card companies will protect you if you are charged more than you agreed to pay, if you pay for something and never receive it (strict deadlines may apply), or if your card is cloned (duplicated) without your knowledge and then fraudulently used without being physically stolen.
Credit cards may also include other benefits such as cancellation insurance for flights (usually only in the case of serious sickness), theft or loss insurance for goods (usually only if stolen within 90 days of purchase and a proper police report is filed), collision insurance for rental cars, and emergency health insurance in certain situations while you are traveling. Your card's issuer should fully describe those benefits and their limits.
Credit cards may also provide rewards programs that give you free flights or cash back after a certain (large) amount of spending. The cards may be linked to a frequent flier or hotel loyalty program. If you have an American Express card, in case of a lost or stolen card, you can obtain cash advances and replacement cards easily, by visiting an American Express office.
There are, however, a few merchants (mostly hotels and rental car firms) who abuse credit card clientele.
- A hire car firm may attempt to rent you a vehicle with minor windscreen damage or small dents, then accuse you of causing that or more damage when or sometime after you return the vehicle. It may automatically charge claimed repairs to your card at questionable or inflated prices. This justifies action before you accept the vehicle for use, i.e., inspect the car thoroughly, inside and out, for damage or missing items, photograph/document any untoward condition seen, and have the condition noted with an agent's initials/signature on your contract at check-out. Consider taking similar photos as you return the vehicle as proof of its condition.
- With hotels, examine the details of your bill before you pay and leave. It can be very difficult to get your bank to process a charge-back if you are careless about an overcharge or hidden charges at the time of booking, e.g. resort fees.
Many Visa or Mastercard debit cards (mostly issued by banks in Asia) are not embossed (no raised letters/numbers), hence they are indicated as "For Electronic Use Only." This means that they can't be used for transactions that require physically imprinting on a merchant's charge slip and/or manual authorization. Acceptance of these "Electronic Use Only" debit cards for online purchases may not be guaranteed even with sufficient funds, and may need clarification with the issuing bank. Consult the issuing bank about how to effectively use the card if going somewhere you've not yet used it.
Before you leave home
- Advise your bank about when and where you are travelling. This can help avoid triggering its fraud monitors that may cause transactions to be rejected, or even freeze your card account. They may also need to get international support specifically activated for your debit or credit card.
- Make note of what to do if your cards are lost or stolen. Note the numbers of your cards, the numbers to call. If your bank has an app that can freeze your card, download it.
- If your bank detects fraud, they may try to contact you. Some banks will send you a SMS notification if they decline your card. If you don't have a phone where you can receive a phone call or a SMS, it may result in your transaction being declined or your card frozen.
- Take a backup card or cards. Keep them separate from your primary cards. Make sure they are also activated for use where you are travelling to. Consider leaving a spare card with someone who could courier it to you in an emergency. Banks can charge large sums for this service.
- Get a separate PIN for each of your cards, and remember them! You can and should choose PINs that you can remember easily. Choose numbers, as not all ATM machines have or accept letters. Don't write any down, or make any obvious (e.g. 1234 and 1111).
- PIN code lengths vary from country to country, but for maximum compatibility you should try to make each you'll use 4 digits before traveling. If you have a six digit PIN and can only enter four, try the first four.
- Ensure you accurately enter the PIN when using an ATM. Some ATMs keep your card during your access, and might confiscate it if you make three incorrect PIN entries.
Most banks do not hold you responsible for any transactions made on your card that occur after you report it lost or stolen. So make sure you report any loss or suspected compromise immediately. Use of credit and debit cards is not recommended in a few countries due to high potential for fraudulent misuse, e.g. Nigeria. Your bank should be able to advise you.
"Chip cards" are credit and debit cards with an embedded chip in addition to or instead of the magnetic stripe. These cards are ubiquitous in Europe, Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and are being introduced rapidly in the U.S.
A 'chip card' will generally need to be inserted rather than swiped at point of sale. Generally you will enter a PIN (cards with this configuration are called 'chip and PIN' cards), but sometimes the terminal will still generate a sales docket to be signed. In ATMs when you insert your card, there is no change. Some swipe ATMs will ask you to reinsert your card after you have swiped it.
In the U.S., all stores that display the Visa, MasterCard, or American Express logos must also accept the swipe-and-sign version of the credit cards; however, some may initially refuse to do so (be persistent, asking for the manager if necessary). Elsewhere however, with self-service machines such gas pumps and ticket vending machines, you may be out of luck. This is also the case in countries where 'chip and PIN' is the norm where chip cards that do not have a PIN may be declined.
As with all cards, check your statement regularly, and report any instances of unauthorized transactions.
Contactless cards and mobile phones
Chips on some cards (and passports) include radio frequency identification (RFID), made to be energized by a nearby (authorized) scanner. Often times, a signature and/or PIN are not needed for small transactions done through contactless. Cards that come with this technology and bear the contactless symbol (see the right hand side) and merchants that accept contactless payments will have that decal posted somewhere in their premises (either at the window/door or at the tills). Most of these use an entirely different technology from the debit/credit cards and have inadequate security, e.g. allowing almost any nearby wireless scanner to read data the card/chip holds. That can include personal and financial information, or enough data to gain access to it. This has spawned a small industry in RFID-protected wallets for cards and passports. Learn from each issuer how secure your RFID cards are, and carry and protect them accordingly.
Some mobile phones (notably iPhones released since 2014 and selected Android models), and by extension smartwatches linked to them, have a provision where users can input their debit and credit card information and 'tap' such phones on readers that accept contactless cards (VISA, Mastercard, and AMEX) to pay for a transaction. They work similar to contactless cards but have an added layer of security (e.g. fingerprint verification) before the transaction goes through. Once set up, the device doesn't need an internet connection for use in traditional brick-and-mortar merchants but information about the transaction will only be displayed once an internet connection has been established. Although in theory such technology is supposed to work anywhere with a contactless symbol, it may be difficult to use devices linked to European bank accounts in North America and vice versa. Availability of this technology varies by country and bank.
Holds on funds
Most large hotels and all car rental companies put a funds "hold" on your credit card for a larger amount than the amount of your pending room or vehicle charge. A $100 car rental can render a card with a $3000 credit limit useless if the car rental agency puts a hold on an excess amount for the full $3000. This usually takes the form of a pre-authorisation, and the "hold" is removed automatically when the final transaction is put through. The "hold" can remain for much longer when the final transaction is never processed, and you have to wait for the pre-authorisation to expire before you can access those funds. This can happen if the hotel doesn't use the pre-authorisation code when you check-out, or if you prepay the hotel bill, and don't incur any charges while staying, there is no final transaction to clear the pre-auth. Usually a pre-auth will expire within 10 days.
"Cardlock" (pay at the pump) fuel pumps will attempt authorization for at least $75–100 on debit cards, even when a lesser amount of fuel is requested. Usually the pump will display the amount. The hold will be released when the transaction is finalized, but you may have to see an attendant if you want to buy $20 of petrol with a debit card with only $20 of funds.
Holds on funds can be more of an issue with debit cards than with credit cards - because your own funds are being held. It's usually best to pay for car rentals and hotels with credit cards where the only hold is on your credit limit.
If you appreciate the convenience and increased security of such a card, you can ask your bank or credit union for an "ATM only" card. It should (per your request) be networked with ATMs worldwide and only usable in ATMs (or permitted point-of-sale systems) and only with your PIN.
As long as your PIN is secure, this removes the possibility that your card can be stolen or copied and used without your knowledge. Your "ATM only" card also can't be used for phone or Internet purchases, further minimizing the risk someone can copy your card numbers and make unauthorized purchases.
It may be possible to get a Visa, Mastercard or American Express-branded prepaid card. This prepaid card works similarly to a debit card except that it is not a bank account. Since it is not linked to your bank account, your maximum exposure is limited to the amount of money you have transferred to that card's balance (minimum top up amounts apply).
Prepaid cards may or may not be capable of being topped-up, depending on the issuer's policies. If so, once the balance is completely depleted, the card can't be used anymore and should be physically destroyed. However for cards that may be topped-up, they can be done so in the issuing banks or online. You do not need to have a bank account with the bank that issued the prepaid card but having one has advantages such as more convenient options to top-up your card (e.g. online, via ATM). There is usually no minimum denominated amount for top-up. Still, you should only top-up the amount you need for a certain number of anticipated uses.
Availability of those cards within each country varies. Some countries like the U.S. have prepaid Visa, Mastercard and American Express available at the counter of pharmacies or grocery stores; they just need pre-payment and activation at the purchase point. Others will allow you to get them from well-known foreign exchange stands (e.g. Thomas Cook, Travelex). But a few will only make these cards available directly from participating banks.
Generally, these prepaid cards can be used worldwide unless indicated otherwise (most notably, generic Visa, Mastercard and American Express gift cards issued in the U.S.) However online use of prepaid cards depends on the issuer.
Fees can be levied on the card purchase, on top-ups, on withdrawals, on non-use, and on closure. The exchange rates used when converting to a different currency on the card, are not the standard Visa or Mastercard rates and are determined by the issuer. These can easily be up to 10% from the "mid-rate".
Prepaid cards may or may not allow withdrawals from an ATM (depending on the issuer), and those that do may assess an additional fee on top of the usual fees imposed for withdrawals. That, because using a prepaid card is supposed to encourage electronic point-of-sale transactions.
Prepaid cards often have no PIN and therefore cannot be used for 'cardlock' pay-at-the-pump fuel purchases. They can still be processed manually by the fuel station attendant.
It will usually be cheaper to obtain and use a low foreign transaction fee debit card than a prepaid card for foreign currency transactions. The only disadvantage...you are subject to volatility in exchange rates, as your debit card only stores your local currency.
Specialist travel currency cards
Consider purchasing currency cards such as Cash Passport. These are normally branded in a MasterCard and in some cases a Visa logo, and hence can be used in anywhere where merchants accept those cards. The normal currency cards being offered are denominated in U.S. dollars, euros, pound sterling, Canadian dollars and Australian dollars. You will top up in your home currency and it will be converted into the currency of the card.
Some currency cards are capable of containing multiple currencies at once. In this case, you may be able to change money between currencies offered by that card.
The rates usually fall between 1.0-2.5% of the base rate used by MasterCard or Visa, which is still better than using your everyday debit or credit card directly. In order to take advantage of the best rates, top up online and use the currency card only for transactions in the currencies of the card. When using a currency card having multiple currencies, make sure that the currencies have sufficient balance to cover transactions you wish to make. If you are offered a conversion to your home currency, reject it as well.
In some countries, it is possible to get travel cards that convert your transaction using the SPOT or interbank rate. This means you are going to be charged at the same exchange rate that foreign currency traders use. These travel cards are usually associated with a mobile phone app, which you need to download in order to apply for such cards. These apps can give you your transaction history, allow you to top up funds, convert between currencies, etc. Some cards on the other hand will not require you to top up funds; they will directly charge your debit card but will use the interbank rate instead of your bank's rate, which may have foreign exchange fees or other surcharges associated with it.
If you have a European euro bank account you can obtain a V Pay card. This can be used as a debit card in shops and restaurants in other euro countries with no additional charge. Can also be used at European (but not worldwide) ATM machines.
Card usage fees
Transaction fees can be charged by the bank or institution that issues your card, the company that clears or processes the transaction, and the merchant or the ATM-owner where you use your card. These fees can be fixed, a percentage of the amount, or built into an exchange rate - or a combination of these.
Per the above discussion on card types, most card issuers will charge a foreign transaction fee of up to 4% of the transaction amount every time you make a purchase or cash withdrawal in a foreign country. This fee may be charged even if the transaction is in your home currency but with a foreign bank. Be careful purchasing other countries on the web, where the currency amount may be displayed in your home currency, but you still may pay foreign transaction fees. Try to find a card issuer that doesn't charge this fee or has a low fee.
- In the United States: Capital One, Costco Anywhere Visa, First Republic, Marshall & Isley, PNC Bank, Webster Bank, and many credit unions.
- In the United Kingdom: Halifax.
- In Australia: 28 Degrees or Citbank Plus.
- In Canada: Home Trust or Rogers Bank (which charges 2.5% exchange, but provides 4% cash back on foreign transactions).
This can save you a considerable amount on any extended travel. Card issuers may also charge a foreign ATM usage fees as a fixed fee. Check your banks fees well in advance of travel, and consider applying for a new card with lower fees for travel. Allow plenty of time for the application and to receive the card.
The processing company - Visa, Mastercard, American Express, etc. - build a small margin into the exchange rate they convert at. You can find the exchange rate that Visa or Mastercard exchange rates on their website. American Express charges an exchange rate that is 0.0% to 0.5% worse than the rate charged by Visa and MasterCard. Generally the rate is 0.5% to 1% from the midrate. The exchange rate applied to a transaction is usually the rate on the transaction processing date, that can vary from the purchase date. Therefore, unless currency rates are fixed, it is impossible to know exactly what exact exchange rate will be charged until the transaction is posted to your account. Any exchange rate fluctuation may be in your favor, or against you.
When paying by a credit/debit card, different exchange rates might be used depending on your bank policies. Check which exchange rate does your bank use, the credit card company rate is usually much more favourable than the bank rate. Usual practice is that if your bank has an exchange rate available for a currency, they use that rate, and if they do not trade this currency, they use credit card company rate. Thus, exotic currencies might be actually cheaper then expected. However, if your home currency is not a first tier currency, the bank policy might be to use their rate to exchange the amount to hard currency, eg. Euros or Dollars, and then use the credit card rate to exchange it to the desired currency, meaning you will pay the exchange rate twice during one transaction. If going for an expensive or long holiday, the exchange rates are likely to be the most most expensive part of card usage costs.
ATM owners can charge a fixed fee to use your card at an ATM, on top of what your bank charges you. This will usually be written on the ATM or displayed on the screen. Check for partnerships with your card issuer to reduce this fee; some ATMs may have partnership arrangements with your bank to have lower fees or fee free withdrawals. Consider larger withdrawals to reduce the impact of fixed fees. Before going to some country, get to know the local fees - so you will know that in Thailand it is normal to pay quite a large fee while in Europe this is unusual. If there are multiple ATMs next to each other, you can shop around for the smallest fee. ATMs of a local bank usually charge smaller fee than ATM only companies, such as Euronet in Europe.
Merchants may charge a surcharge or require a minimum purchase. Local laws can affect how common merchant surcharges are. Merchant surcharges can be a fixed fee or a percentage of the transaction, and they should be advised at point of sale. These can vary between card types, and between debit and credit cards.
Dynamic currency conversion
When you are paying by card for items or services priced in a foreign currency, some merchants will offer to convert your transaction into your home currency. This is called Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC). If this is offered, you should decline it. Merchants aren't disclosing one key point: their exchange rates are often worse than whatever your card issuer would have provided had you paid in local currency – sometimes up to 10% worse.
- Always check your receipt, and if you see anything involving your home currency in a country that doesn't use that currency, ask the merchant to redo the transaction in the local currency. If the merchant insists that the conversion is automatic, report transaction to your credit card issuer. Visa requires the merchant to disclose the fee and must provide the consumer with a choice of getting the bill in the customer's home currency or the local currency.
- Some credit card terminals will show you an amount in your home currency and ask you to accept or decline the amount. Declining the home currency option will process the transaction in the local currency, which means your bank or card issuer will do the conversion for you.
- Some cash machines are also known to use dynamic currency conversion, much like credit cards at the point of sale, and should be declined. The machine will ask you if you would like the amount in your home currency or local currency; even though you will always receive the local currency. If you decline (cancel), some ATM machines are programmed to automatically cancel the transaction, which is to say that the bank is forcing you to accept dynamic currency conversion. Your best choice is to just find another ATM that doesn't use dynamic currency conversion.
- Merchants may try to convince you that paying in your home currency will avoid foreign transaction fees. Instead you will pay a higher exchange rate, and you may still pay the foreign transaction fees with your card issuer that often charges these fees on foreign transactions regardless of the currency used.
A travellers cheque (or travelers check) is a cheque issued for a fixed amount in a specific currency that you purchase with your funds in advance. Once the most popular way of taking currency overseas, these are declining in popularity due to widespread adoption of payment cards; the number of businesses willing to cash a traveller's cheque is also in decline. There is often a fee (about 1% of face value) when purchasing the cheques at a bank; some automobile associations waive this fee as a service to their members.
Before buying travellers cheques, confirm they will be accepted where you are travelling. As there are many common scams involving forged or stolen cheques, many merchants no longer honor them; travellers buying travellers cheques before a trip sometimes return home having been unable to use them anywhere.
Be sure to get the cheques in the currency of the country to which you are travelling, or (if that's not possible) whichever one gives the best exchange rate there. Travellers cheques are available only in major currencies. For example, if you are travelling to the USA, you could purchase ten US$100 travellers cheques before you travel there, and use them when you arrive. You sign each cheque when you purchase it and again on the same cheque to redeem it.
One of the main advantage of travellers cheques is complete protection against loss or theft. Once you report them as missing, the issuing company will replace them. You must also keep a record of your used cheque numbers. Most travellers cheque issuers have arrangements to replace them around the world in a short time frame so you are not long left without cash. If you are unsure which cheques you have already cashed and which are missing, your refund may be delayed until the issuer can figure out which ones have been presented.
A second advantage is that travellers cheques in a foreign currency may allow you to lock-in an exchange rate without the risk of cash, or the fees associated with a pre-paid card. If you are travelling from Germany to the U.S. and know you are spending $1,100 to stay at your New York hotel that accepts travellers cheques, you can purchase that value (U.S. dollar denomination cheques) in advance with no risk of exchange movements at the time. That said, should the euro rise in value in the meantime, you paid more than you could have. Thus, it's a trade-off of stability versus possibly a better rate. Just make sure the hotel accepts travellers cheques before you purchase, or you have a way of cashing them elsewhere upon arrival.
Travellers cheques can be exchanged for cash at some banks and exchange bureaus. A hotel may sometimes provide this service to its guests. American Express travellers cheques can also be exchanged at American Express travel centers. Fees for cashing traveller's cheques vary by destination and institution. Some banks will cash some brands of cheques free, but this is increasingly rare. American Express will cash their cheques free at their travel centers if they are in the denominated in local currency. More often, fees apply, a sliding scale or a flat fee that may apply only above a certain threshold. If you are cashing travellers cheques into different currency to their denomination, fees may also be charged for the exchange.
Travellers cheques can also sometimes be used for purchases at point of sale, although less widely than credit cards. In general, only the largest stores and hotels will accept travellers cheques for payment.
You will pay a fee to buy travellers cheques. If they are denominated in a foreign currency, this fee may be built into the exchange rate.
If you have travel insurance, you may care to compare the benefits under your policy. Credit card companies will usually offer a 48-hour emergency replacement or cash advance service for a fee, and these fees may already be covered under your policy. The policies may also cover the loss or theft of cash.
Personal cheques and bank drafts
A personal cheque (or check) issued on a current account with your bank or credit union is not likely to be widely accepted for travel. Acceptance is typically confined to the travellers home country or region in local currencies and the cheque risks being worthless if the underlying account is overdrawn.
A bank draft or cashier's cheque is issued by a banking institution, drawn on its own funds instead of an individual client's account. These are now so uncommon that they are unlikely to be accepted without special arrangements being made. These have been almost completely replaced by telegraphic transfers - funds transfer directly between international bank accounts.
Carrying or sending money across national borders
Countries track large movements of money across national borders. This is to help prevent money laundering, tax evasion, and transfers of funds to criminal and terrorist groups. If you transfer money between international bank accounts, or use your credit card in a foreign country, this is reported automatically, but if you carry large amounts of money (typically more than US$10,000, euro, or similar hard currency) you will need to declare it whenever you leave or enter a country. Don't forget monetary instruments such as traveller's checks count as well, as do personal cheques, bank cheques, postal orders or similar monetary instruments that are able to pay the bearer cash. If you or one of your travelling party could exchange them outside the country for cash, you should declare. This typically does not apply if you are abroad, but not the funds or the party to be paid (e.g. domestic online payment, internationally mailing a cheque both drawn and payable exclusively in your home country, etc.) If in any doubt, just declare.
Some countries, such as India and North Korea, do not allow the country's home currency to be imported or exported at all. Other countries may have such a low import/export limit in the country's currency that these limits effectively stop you importing or exporting the local currency. This means that you will have to bring all the money you need in a convertible currency and change it to the local currency when you arrive. Likewise, you must change all the local currency back to hard currency before you leave. Often, these laws are poorly enforced. At other times, they can be inconvenient when converting back to hard currency may require a receipt. Check local guides for likely issues.
If you need to use your pre-existing online bill payment from your bank or PayPal while abroad to pay bills back home, let them know a week in advance which countries you will be visiting. Banking and payment websites are aware of your access from a foreign country because they can track the origin of your Internet IP address, which is country specific. You will likely be blocked from your account to prevent fraud, unless prior arraignments were made.
Getting money in an emergency
You should have a plan for how you will get money in an emergency.
If you have a spare card that you left at home, you can use that card to do things like book prepaid accommodation online through an accommodation booking site. In some countries you can even use a spare card or a friends card to purchase eGiftCards, that give you a number or a bar code you can use at point of purchase in supermarkets, etc.
If you have a premium credit card, or an American Express card, contact their assistance numbers. The credit card assistance lines will often wire you cash as a cash advance on the credit card.
If you have travel insurance, contact their assistance line. Most insurance companies cover lost cash and cards, but most will have to process a claim before they will help you, which is practically useless.
If you have someone willing to send you money, there are several options for getting money fast in an emergency. These include the following:
- Having someone back home directly depositing money into your bank account. You then use an ATM to make withdrawals. If you both have a PayPal account, this can be done online by computer. It will take a couple days for the money to transfer from your PayPal account to your bank account (longer over weekends and bank holidays), and don't forget to initiate this yourself on the PayPal website as soon as possible. However, if you have PayPal's debit card (MasterCard/Cirrus), the funds will normally be available immediately. (Don't do the aforementioned transfer in this case.) This is not without risk; as Paypal is not a bank and is not regulated as a bank, your recourse is relatively limited if they freeze your account or hold your funds for any reason. There are no fees for funds sent directly from bank accounts of family and friends (i.e. non-commercial transactions), but credit/debit card, and foreign exchange fees apply. Typically, these fees are similar to or somewhat less than what others charge. Although PayPal offers many foreign currencies for sending money, the funds must be in the same currency as your bank account back home. Only if you're relying on a trusted friend abroad, should the funds be sent in a foreign currency.
- Moneygram is a private money transfer company with many franchise outlet around the world. Someone can pay in money at one office giving the name of the receiver and will be given a reference number. Within an hour you can obtain the cash anywhere in the world if you have the reference number and some form of identification. Fees are higher than interbank money transfer but it has the advantage you do not need an account in the sending or receiving country. There are some dedicated Moneygram shops but in most countries agents are in small supermarkets (often catering for expatriates), newsagents, tobacconists, and some banks, often in areas of high immigrant populations. In the UK and Canada the Post Office is an agent.
- Get money from a friend via wire transfer services like Western Union. (similar to MoneyGram). If you know your credit card numbers, you can use it to wire yourself some money. However, this is quite expensive, since it will be treated as a "cash advance," in addition to the hefty Western Union fee.
- XOOM ("zoom") is now owned by PayPal, and has wire transfer services similar to Western Union and Moneygram. Some countries have cash home delivery available.
- Sending cash via an overnight courier service (this is reliable, but is sometimes not allowed in the courier company's terms of service.)
- You could sell personal possessions such as a camera or sport watch.
Your embassy may be able to provide a short-term emergency loan. In many cases, the embassy may only offer help in obtaining a loan from a third party. They will certainly want to see that you have exhausted all other avenues open to you.