What are some newer international banking options for travelers?
February 17, 2014 9:35 AM   Subscribe

After trying to deal with Wells Fargo's atrocious service and policies, I'm ready to look at other banking options when traveling.

I tried to keep the details short, but things got a bit wordy. Actual question comes in about half way down.

I work outside of the US and travel quite a bit through SE Asia. During my last trip to the US, I closed some old credit union accounts and combined my meager assets into a Wells Fargo account. I thought a larger bank might give me better service when abroad.

After dealing with Wells Fargo for a few months, I am honestly astounded at how terrible they are when helping customers who are currently abroad. Without explaining all the details, let it be said that I am canceling my account and will never work with them again.

I guess I've been spoiled by using banks in countries outside the US, but there are a few things that really surprised me:
1. I couldn't control my own ATM withdrawal limit. I was forced to keep an extremely low withdrawal limit that couldn't cover my daily expenses. I'm not rich by any means, but between hotels, and eating, the daily limit was literally too small for me to live off of.
2. This was accompanied by excessive ATM fees. $5 from Wells Fargo and $5 from banks in country. This cost me an additional $200.00 over course of my most recent trip due to the incredibly small withdrawal limit.
3. Difficulty in transferring money to other accounts, both international and US accounts. Wells Fargo doesn't not allow simple transfers between even other US banks. There are other services with additional fees that involve 3rd parties and emails and mobile phones, but nothing bank to bank.
4. Terrible access to my own money.
5. No complaints department. Only a snail mail address, obviously worthless when abroad. No email, no phone number.
6. No communication between service reps, online service or home branch. I ended up making 20+ phones calls and needed to explain my situation every time. There was no option to add notes or flags to my account or to reference previous emails or phone calls.

As there is no way to make a formal complaint, let me take an extra second to say: Do not use Wells Fargo if you travel. It's like being back in the 1980s and being forced to rely on traveler's cheques. (Which one customer service rep recommended.)

Actual Question:
I'm looking for international banking options that allow flexible transfers and gives me control over my own ATM withdrawal limits. No international ATM fees would be a plus as well.

I'm not talking about millions of dollars here. I've got a pretty humble job and just want to be able to access my money across different countries. This isn't any sort of money laundering or tax evasion, I imagine the amounts aren't even a blip on the radar. This account would rarely be above 10,000 USD. It's an account I'd like to keep mostly for travel. I end up in some developing areas, so access to cash over relying on credit is important.

Main points:
No excessive or irrational fees. (Or at least a way to have them waved later.)
Able to set my own cash withdrawal daily limit at ATMs.
Ability to use both Swift Codes and or ABA banking numbers.
Good online services are a plus.

Does anyone have any suggestions? I'd like an international bank with a big presence in SE Asia.

posted by Telf to Work & Money (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For a US bank, try Schwab Investor Checking.
posted by kindall at 9:44 AM on February 17, 2014

HSBC has an expat banking option. They also have locations/atms in many APAC Locations.

I have NO idea if they're easy to deal with or not, but you can call them collect or via Skype at:


To ask them about ATM limits, etc.

Good Luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:55 AM on February 17, 2014

Capital One 360 doesn't charge any fees for foreign transactions or ATM withdrawals. They do not reimburse any fees charged by the local ATM.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 9:59 AM on February 17, 2014

My theory is that what you really need to do is get a sort of quiver of banking products that address different needs. One problem is that even banks like HSBC don't necessarily operate homogeneously as "HSBC". I'm not 100% sure if this is the case with HSBC, but I believe it is. HSBC, like every gigabank, has been built by dozens of acquisitions. So if you open your HSBC account in California and then try to access your account at an office in Bangkok, you might find that the local branch can't see your account details, has different rules, etc. Many, many of the big banks work this way. Sometimes they will open a local "shadow" account but moving money to it goes through wire like it would between any two random bank accounts.

- Schwab Investor Checking is amazing. They reimburse *all* ATM fees, even the ATM fees from foreign ATMs, and they don't charge anything for foreign withdrawals. This one feature of Schwab Investor Checking makes it worth having. But it does nothing else good, so you basically have to use it as a cash-emitting tool.
- American Express, especially Platinum level and up. American Express is, first of all, more of a bank than a credit card. If you are in major cities that have American Express offices, they do all sorts of weird stuff that's convenient. They'll do cash currency exchange between unpopular currency pairs. They'll cash *personal checks* drawn on the US banks of cardmembers in either dollars or local currency. That alone is incredibly convenient sometimes, when you find yourself needing a fairly large volume of, say, hundred dollar bills in a hurry and you don't have time to wait for wire transfers, etc. Amex Platinum costs around $400 I think, so you have to check into whether the benefits make financial sense for you or not, but it really can be handy for dealing with money if you travel a lot.
- Capital One credit cards, like Venture, covers not only foreign transaction fees, but also the 1% that even the "no foreign transaction fees" Visa/MC network fee that is often passed on on international CC transactions, *and* they still give you your 2% virtually-cash-back discount.

Those are the basics. My theory is that what you want to do is keep all your money in a master US bank that has good customer service, reasonable everything else, low fees, and so on. The problem is these kinds of banks are very hard to find. I think probably the best thing to do is find a really good credit union that you are eligible to join and use that as the master bank. Then you transfer money to the Schwab account for cash withdrawals every so often (within the USA, ACH transfers are usually free). You use the master account's checks at Amex, to pay Amex/Capital One bills, etc. If you need to transfer to another bank abroad, you use this bank, and the big advantage there is that its run by real people who want to help you.

3. Difficulty in transferring money to other accounts, both international and US accounts. Wells Fargo doesn't not allow simple transfers between even other US banks. There are other services with additional fees that involve 3rd parties and emails and mobile phones, but nothing bank to bank.

This is going to be a problem no matter what. It's just a really archaic system. There are some banks in the USA that seem to find these requests really odd and some that seem to do it every day (Bank of New York Mellon), but it's going to be a pain regardless, and mostly cost money.

Within the US, this should be doable without much trouble. You just want banks that support ACH transfers, which are cheaper and faster. Usually, they are free. Some banks will also allow you to essentially use your debit card to "pay" a different bank, for a nominal fee of a dollar or so., for instance, does this. Most credit unions do this. However, can not even initiate a SWIFT transfer, so it's a non-starter for your real problem.

Outside the US, things get more complicated. You can transfer money from a US account to a foreign one over ACH, but only to accounts in certain countries. Mostly, you are going to have to do SWIFT wire transfers, which take forever, cost a lot of money, and frequently have weird problems.

Many, many times, unless you need to buy something extremely expensive, it ends up being cheaper and easier to just either withdraw money via your ATM account (ACH transfer to Schwab is free, withdrawal is free. You have to deal with the withdrawal limits, though) or to write a check to Amex. There are small fees here hidden in the FX rates but in my experience they have been extremely reasonable. Then you can either redeposit the cash in a local bank, give it to whoever you need to give money to, etc.
posted by jeb at 1:55 PM on February 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

For the wire transfer component, I've used Xe Trade to transfer money to small businesses in China in the past and found it very easy. It's mostly free and you can pay Xe via ACH. They take it from there.

You might also consider private banking. Some have extremely low account minimums (~$300), will still assign a private banker to you, and offer a hefty per day withdrawal limit (above $2,000). Message me if you want more details.
posted by jwells at 5:20 PM on February 17, 2014

I opened a Citi account to streamline transactions between SE Asia and the USA, finding a better fit and more convenient features/services than HSBC. I could deposit checks in either PHP or USD at an ATM in Manila and access them within a couple days in USD.
posted by a halcyon day at 6:51 PM on February 17, 2014


That was an excellent answer. Thanks for taking the time to compose that.
posted by Telf at 6:58 PM on February 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

To clarify: you travel through SE Asia for business? You should not be incurring such high fees for yourself. Shouldn't your company make sure you have a per diem/company card so that all business related expenses are not paid for by you?

International branches of local banks, as jeb beautifully pointed out, vary greatly in their service. While HSBC can disappoint, it may be worth looking US banks often have international bank alliances. I couldn't find the equivalent for Wells Fargo, but BoA for example has some limited partnerships for which there are not ATM fees.
Schwab is one of the few where you don't have to think too much about fees: probably your best bet.

If you live outside of the US, I'd look also look at mainly non-US banking options. Yes, it had become a pain as a US citizen to open an account abroad because of Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act ( FATCA), but I have found having non US accounts a life saver when traveling. It seemed like you had had positive experiences as well.

Granted, if you have a lot of money, your options become much wider.
posted by troytroy at 8:21 PM on February 17, 2014

I second Schwab Investor Checking. I use it almost exclusively for travel. To get money in, they have mobile deposits (pictures of checks with my phone) and I can mail checks into an office somewhere using prepaid envelopes they gave me.

To get money out, I can write myself checks.

I have used it in a half dozen countries (e.g. South Korea, Uganda, South Africa, US, Canada) with no issues and all fees reimbursed.

They're also great about travel notifications and not cancelling/putting holds when I let them know.
posted by KevCed at 5:44 PM on February 19, 2014

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