The best banks and cards for American travellers

AccountNetworkTypeOverseas foreign ATM feesInternational ATM surcharge rebatesForeign currency transaction feesmonthly/ annual feesnotes
Schwab Bank High Yield Investor CheckingVisaDebit0unlimited00have to open a free brokerage account as well. No cash deposit, no international wires.
Advancial FCU Ultimate CheckingVisaDebit0unlimited00$5 to join by joining connex
Fidelity Cash Management AccountVisaDebit0unlimited0-1% (see note)01% fee only assessed for signature POS transactions, see here
State Farm CheckingVisaDebit0unlimited with a direct deposit, up to $10 per month without00"For International ATM Fees incurred traveling outside of the U.S., please call Us at 877-734-2265" see disclosures. In practice apparently rarely needed.
Salem Five Direct eOne CheckingVisaDebit0up to $15 per month00Surcharge-free ATM access at Allpoint abroad
NBKC Personal AccountMastercardDebit0up to $12 per month00
Digital FCU Free CheckingVisaDebit0up to $10 per month with a direct deposit00$10 to join
TD Ameritrade Cash Management AccountVisaDebit0- (rebates US ATM fees only)00Brokerage account. No cash deposit. Surcharge-free withdrawals at TD Bank ATMs in Canada
Capital One 360 CheckingMastercardDebit0-00"As of March 31, 2017, you don’t have to tell us when and where you're traveling, inside or outside the United States." Surcharge-free ATM access at Allpoint abroad
Varo (Bancorp Bank)VisaDebit0-00Mobile-only bank. Surcharge-free ATM access at Allpoint abroad
Discover Cashback CheckingDiscover/ Diners Club Int.Debit0-00Surcharge-free ATM access at Allpoint abroad
Booyah BankDiscover/ Diners Club Int.Debit0-00
Dow Chemical Employees CU (all cards)VisaCredit0.56% - 0.79% interest per month-00$35 to join or Dow stockholder
America's Credit Union FCU (all cards)VisaCredit0.61% - 1.39% interest per month-00$40 to join. Card app let's you activate/deactivate card, set limits etc.
Andrews FCU (all cards)VisaCredit0.64% - 1.39% interest per month-00$5 to join
Garden Savings FCU (all cards)VisaCredit0.64 - 1.39% interest per month-00free to join
Advancial FCU (all cards)VisaCredit0.71 - 1.16% interest per month-00$5 to join by joining connex
Pentagon FCU (several cards)VisaCredit0.74% - 1.39% interest per month-00$17 to join
PSECU (all cards)VisaCredit0.79 - 1.09% interest per month-00$20 to join
Interior FCU (all cards)VisaCredit0.81% - 1.39% interest per month-00free to join
Digital FCU (all cards)VisaCredit0.85% - 1.39% interest per month-00$10 to join
First Tech FCU (several cards)MastercardCredit0.97% - 1.39% interest per month-00$8 to join
Kinecta FCU MyPowerMastercardCredit0.97% - 1.39% interest per month-00$10 to join
Boeing Employees CU (all cards)VisaCredit0.96% - 1.75% interest per month-00$20 to join
Apple Card (Goldman Sachs Bank)MastercardCredit1.02 - 1.81% interest per month-00
ZeroMastercardCredit1.88% interest per month-00
Deserve (Celtic Bank)MastercardCreditnot available-00
Petal (WebBank)VisaCreditnot available-00
American Express BluebirdAmerican ExpressPrepaiddisabled (US ATMs only)-00No load fee. Cash deposit at Walmart. No chip.

Rules for inclusion: The US banking market is so enormous that I have limited the list to nationwide operating Banks and Federal Credit Unions (that anyone can join) offering free accounts and cards that can be opened online only. You may find similar offers at local banks or restricted credit unions. If you’re willing to keep a big balance or pay an annual/monthly fee there are also additional offers out there.

To further whittle this list down I’ve limited the credit cards to ones without a cash advance fee.

Recommendations:

The clear winner here is Charles Schwab. Best alternative is Fidelity (read this) or Advancial Credit Union. All other popular free accounts that offer unlimited international ATM refunds like SoFi and Radius charge a foreign transaction fee of at least 1%.

For a simple credit card with absolutely no fees the Penfed Promise, Petal Card or Kinecta MyPower are the best deal. A credit card without a cash advance fee has the additional benefit of being useful as a backup for ATM access. Interest alone can be pretty negligible as you can see. You will of course need a PIN to do that.

If you’re hunting for cashback or rewards I’d go with a cashback card like the BECU Cash Back and avoid complicated reward rules to keep track of. Sure, for serious travel hackers there are other considerations, but that’s not my field.

Other notes:

  • Visa charges 1%, Mastercard 1.1% to their member banks for foreign currency transactions. It is however on the banks/card issuer to decide if they want to pass those fees on or not and how much of it, and to inform you if they do, see here: “Two federal laws — the Truth in Lending Act (Regulation E and Regulation Z) and the Truth in Savings Act — require banks and financial institutions to disclose when such fees are passed on to debit card and credit card holders.” Almost all do (those listed in the table above being the exception), many even tack a percent or two on top for their own profit. For checking accounts/debit cards, this fee often cannot be found in the regular fee schedule but is buried deep in the fine print in one of the Disclosure documents (usually Electronic Fund Transfer) under Debit Card Transactions and foreign currency exchange.
  • You will have to jump through some hoops to open an account at most credit unions that don’t serve your community. You have to become eligible to join (donate to or join some org) and buy a share for which you have to open a basic share savings account with them. Is it worth it? Depends, in general their credit cards have lower rates (capped by law at 18% for Federal Credit Unions) and fees, but they offer no better checking accounts or rewards. Which means if you want a low to no fee credit card or branch service (they have shared branching) it is, otherwise probably not – unless you have a general preference for their banking model. Most allow you to apply for a credit card before becoming a member, so you don’t have to join only to find out that they’ll reject your card application.
  • Discover has cooperation agreements with local networks in China (UnionPay), Japan (JCB), Korea (BC Card) and India (RuPay). If you travel to these countries a lot, a Discover credit card could be a useful addition to your card portfolio and get you near universal acceptance. Discover cards do not have a foreign transaction fee either.
  • Bank of America offers free ATM access in about 70 countries and territories through the Global ATM Alliance. What sounds promising is not a good deal though, because you’re still on the hook for a 3% currency conversion fee. Which cancels out whatever you may gain from not getting hit with a surcharge (dirty secret: in many of those countries ATMs don’t even take surcharges). Plus, Bank of America checking accounts aren’t free either.
  • Reimbursement schedules for ATM surcharges vary. Some banks refund them right away, other’s do it bundled at the end of the month.
  • Of the listed credit cards only the Firsttech cards use the PIN when paying in a store, all others are signature based. The Penfed cards are able to function in a PIN based environment at automated gas stations in Europe for example, but will still prefer signature in all other instances. State Department FCU let’s you choose. For more on that topic see here and here.
  • Some US banks have rather long (and irrational) lists of blocked countries where their cards won’t work. Not all of them communicate that openly. You should definitely ask to be safe. (Personal opinion: that list is crazy, there are EU and even Eurozone countries on that list…North Korea? Sure. Slovenia? Come on.)
  • Most US banks require you to inform them of your travel plans, so that they won’t block transactions abroad. Check with your bank.
  • Andrews FCU offers cheap Euro Bill Pay and SEPA transfers. If you’re spending extended time in Europe and don’t want or can’t get a local account it’s a convenient solution.

Term explainer:

Overseas ATM fee: The fee your own bank charges you for withdrawals when you use a foreign ATM abroad.

ATM surcharge rebate: How much of the fee the owner of the foreign ATM may charge you directly your bank will pay back to you. Not all ATMs charge a fee, but if they do it will show up on the screen at some point during the withdrawal process.

Foreign currency transaction fee: The fee your bank charges you for a transaction in a foreign currency. Unless otherwise noted this fee applies to both, ATM withdrawals and POS transactions in a store/ or on the internet.

 

Spotted a mistake, or know another card that doesn’t charge? Shoot me an email at webmaster [at] nofeesoverseas.com

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.