General Advice

What to look for? Which card should I get?

  • Get a card with a magnetic strip, an EMV chip and 4-digit (numbers only) PIN if possible. That way you maximize your chances for it to work anywhere around the globe.
  • Visa and Mastercard have the broadest acceptance worldwide. Discover/ Diners Club International, American Express, China UnionPay and JCB do have some sort of global footprint but are still much more limited. Relying on one of these exclusively is not recommended.
  • Mastercard’s exchange rates tend to be slightly better than Visa’s for most currencies.
  • Cards that only have the Cirrus or Plus logo can be used to withdraw cash globally, but not for purchases overseas.
  • Maestro cards are issued by Mastercard and are fine for ATMs and Point-of-Sale transactions with PIN almost anywhere the Cirrus/Maestro/Mastercard logo is displayed, but will work for internet purchases only if they have a 15-16 digit PAN number on the front and a three digit CVV number on the back – or some other method to fill that field if prompted. (Some report success with using the last three digits of their regular Maestro card number, others say any three numbers will work. All of which means that there probably is a way to use these cards for internet payments, if your card issuer allows it.)
  • V-Pay cards (distributed mostly by Visa Europe) rely exclusively on Chip and PIN, they will thus only work where this system is supported, which to date seems still limited outside of Europe. These cards might still have a magnetic strip, but no data is stored on it. I’d bring another card as well to be safe. As with Maestro, internet-ability depends on issuer.
  • Visa Electron cards can be used anywhere Visa is accepted, with the exception of offline POS terminals that cannot check the account balance.
  • Prepaid cards may have the advantage of less exposure of your current account if your card gets stolen (liability limits differ depending on your home country… in the EU it’s only 50€), but using a separate bank account for travel serves the same purpose.
  • Look up daily/weekly ATM and spending limits. If they are very low, could be a pain.
  • Make sure you’re not choosing a bank that blocks card usage in an unreasonably long list of countries. Some of the usual suspects may be sanctioned and unavoidable, but there are banks that go much further. Definitely ask or read up to be safe.
  • You may need to enable your card for worldwide usage. This can also include activating the magnetic strip on your card which is deactivated as standard by banks in some countries.
  • Some internet merchants require “3-D Secure” (Mastercard Securecode, Verified by Visa etc.) to complete a transaction. If your card does not support it, you cannot buy there or need to use Paypal or similar if offered. So ideally you should get a card that supports it. But it’s not a dealbreaker yet, the list of sites where it is mandatory is not all that long yet.

 

Minimizing fees & getting the best rates

  • Fees to avoid by degree of importance:
  • First, no monthly/annual fees, because they apply if you travel or not.
  • Second come foreign transaction/ currency exchange fees, because they usually apply to both, withdrawals and purchases.
  • Third, ATM fees that your own bank charges, because they apply to all withdrawals.
  • Only then look for ATM fee rebates. They are nice, but ATM surcharges are not (yet) the norm everywhere in the world, so depending on where you’re going you will profit from this a lot less than you’d think. Regions where they are prevalent are the Americas and parts of Asia.
  • Keep in mind that even in countries where they are not the norm, some ATM operators may still charge their own fee. The ATM will have to tell you how much at some point during the process. If your bank doesn’t rebate these fees, watch out or try to find an ATM that doesn’t charge.
  • If your card doesn’t rebate ATM surcharges and you’re traveling in a country where they are prevalent, pay for as much as you can by card to minimize your cash needs. Especially paying for accomodation and transportation can often easily be shifted online. Do watch out for scams though, see below.
  • If there is no interest free grace period for cash advances, avoid using your credit card at an ATM even if there is no cash advance fee. (Unless of course that still comes out cheaper than using any debit card that is available to you.) If you do, you should pay off the card as soon as you can. Or you could try to load a positive balance on the card if the issuer allows it – rarely.
  • Set up automatic payments for your credit card if possible. You might not always be able to do internet banking while you travel to pay it off.
  • You should never accept an offer to have a merchant or ATM convert into your home currency for you (technical term is Dynamic Currency Conversion). You will get a much worse rate. Always pay and withdraw in local currency.
  • You can check the Exchange rates that the networks use here:
  • Visa
  • Mastercard
  • Diners Club (requires app)
  • American Express (requires log-in)
  • China UnionPay
  • Only in countries with strict currency controls or runaway inflation will you get a better rate for hard currency on the black market, in these specific cases it makes sense to bring cash instead of using an ATM (if you’re okay with the risk that comes with doing something illegal)
  • If you intend to use an account/card for travel only, watch out for inactivity/dormant account fees.
  • Offers that require a monthly deposit are probably not a good choice for long-term travellers, where you in general have savings but not a monthly income. Depending on the specific requirements by the bank you could theoretically set up a monthly deposit from a different account of yours, but make sure that satisfies the requirement.

 

Finding ATMs & Backup Solutions

  • There are ATMs that accept international cards in almost every country in the world nowadays and very few countries where only local cards will work, usually because they are sanctioned (think Iran, North Korea etc.). There are however still countries where international ATMs are relatively thin on the ground, esp. developing countries. Inform yourself before you travel.
  • Each of the networks has a ATM search page and/or an app: Visa, Mastercard, Amex, DinersJCB, UnionPay
  • You should definitely carry a backup card, ideally one on a different network to maximize your chances. A Visa and a Mastercard is the ideal combination.
  • Bring some backup cash. Best in a widely accepted currency: US Dollar is still king, second choice are Euros.
  • Traveller’s Cheques are going the way of the dinosaurs and are nearly extinct. If you can still find an issuer in your country and you feel more comfortable with them than cash as a backup, by all means go for it. But they aren’t always easy to exchange. As a first choice solution for travel money they just plain suck.

 

Safety precautions

  • Inform your bank/card issuer that you’re travelling, so that your card won’t be blocked for “suspicious” transactions. Not required by all, but can’t hurt.
  • Keep your cards separate, if one gets stolen you’ll still have the other one.
  • Do watch out for scams, esp. skimming and card cloning. Not every restaurant/ shop is trustworthy enough to pay by card. And ideally only use ATM machines located inside a bank.
  • Observe your accounts regularly for unauthorized transactions. If your bank offers SMS, push or e-mail alerts for card transactions, subscribe to them.
  • Keep the number to call to block your card close – when it does get stolen or misused you can limit the damage.
  • A few of the new “mobile first” or “mobile-only banks” have apps that allow you to instantly activate or deactivate your card as well as control over geoblocking. Both are very handy features to prevent card misuse.
  • Relying on credit card travel insurance might not be wise, I’d get another one. If you’re travelling long-term they won’t cover you long enough in any case. If you’re from the EEA get True Traveller, if not get World Nomads or Safetywing.

Disclaimer

I’m not a financial advisor, everything you read on this website is for informational purposes only. While doing my best, I do not take responsibility for the accuracy of the information. Make sure you read all the fine print before you sign up for any of these products. If you have questions about fees or terms contact the bank/ card issuer.