Overseas money
May 30, 2005 11:23 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to get money out of your bank while traveling overseas? I'll be traveling around the world from Australia next month. I don't like traveler's checks much. How about ATM withdrawals? Any good tricks to get cheap transaction fees and good exchange rates?

I'll be traveling to the US, Canada, Ireland, Japan and Thailand.
posted by Dag Maggot to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total)
I just used my visa card - no fees, accepted everywhere, and the exchange rate was better than I could get from currency converters. But my credit card account it at a credit union, not a bank (it wouldn't suprise me if the credit card experience was very different through a bank, so I thought I should mention that). My account is based in the USA, and I was using the card in New Zealand earlier this year.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:31 PM on May 30, 2005

ATMs are everywhere. I realized this when I was traveling in Vietnam last month and pretty much every hotel lobby had an ATM machine in it.

The advantage: The money is given to you in local currency. You don't have to carry anything more with you than an ATM card.
The disadvantage: Check with your bank first about exchange rates. My bank also charged me a "foreign exchange fee" on each withdrawal which irked me to no end given how long I've been a customer of theirs and how much money I have with them. So... check that out first...

Other than that, I just took a credit card for larger transactions plus a few hundred dollars in hard cash (US Dollars) in case of emergency.
posted by vacapinta at 11:33 PM on May 30, 2005

Most US ATM machines do not charge an additional fee for international cards, i.e. yours. Also, you tend to get the best exchange rate using a card rather than at a cash exchange. This may be US only, but it's a good idea to let your bank (or card issuing company) know that you plan on travelling overseas during the time you are gone. Overseas transactions can show as suspicious activity and they may deny your purchases.
posted by karmaville at 11:35 PM on May 30, 2005

I've had good experience using my (Canadian) debit card on all continents at ATMs. The convenience was well worth the fee. However, keep in mind that it probably won't work in very many stores for actual purchases -- mine doesn't even work in USian retail outlets, only in ATMs. As suggested, take a credit card for backup and some US dollars -- preferably not 50s.
posted by Rumple at 11:48 PM on May 30, 2005

One option is to get a "prepaid" credit card. You can get them from Visa and I'd assume Master Card has an equivalent.
That way you can have a few set up at whatever amount you want, you want spend what you can't afford, and if it gets stolen you're in much less trouble.
posted by cushie at 7:21 AM on May 31, 2005

One thing Dan Maggot -- and this is most likely linked to who you bank with -- but I was in Vietnam for 2 years in the recent past and it cost me I think $2.50 each ATM transaction (visacard via HSBC [in Oz]). That ended up at $4.50 because of Vietnamese govt. surcharge.
So I recommend asking your bank. My mum went to UK recently and even as a pensioner she had to pay some sort of surcharge for ATM transactions. I'm a bit pessimistic these days thinking that there's anyway around the bank charges.
posted by peacay at 7:38 AM on May 31, 2005

However, keep in mind that it probably won't work in very many stores for actual purchases -- mine doesn't even work in USian retail outlets, only in ATMs.

In most American retail outlets, only debit cards with a credit card logo on the front (that is, a debit card and not just an ATM card) work. Most American banks issue them that way, so then you can use it in any machine that takes a credit card. I have no idea how Australian cards are configured.

More generally, yeah, you'll get fees. So take out a reasonable amount each time. But it is so much easier to take money out of the ATM and the exchange rate is so much better that the fees seemed worth it to me. Also, many American ATMs will charge you a fee on top of your bank's fee. Look for a Washington Mutual or Commerce bank.
posted by dame at 7:45 AM on May 31, 2005

debit card. withdraw fairly large amounts so that fixed charges are relatively small, but not so much that if you're mugged it's a terrible loss.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:47 AM on May 31, 2005

If you use an ATM card, make sure your PIN is not longer than 4 digits. I'm really smug about my super-secure 8-digit PIN, but I couldn't use my card anywhere in Paris.
posted by agropyron at 7:47 AM on May 31, 2005

It may be a good idea to take two different cards. Last year I was in Spain, and in some machines, one charge card would work when the other wouldn't.
posted by naturesgreatestmiracle at 7:50 AM on May 31, 2005

I usually use my debit card abroad, but I also try to carry a couple hundred dollars in traveler's checks in case of emergency (I've never had to to use them, and I generally just deposit them right back in my bank account when I get home).

In case there's a bank strike, or a national holiday you weren't expecting, or you're unable to find a bank or ATM anywhere near you, or a store's computers are down, etc.

Also, if they are stolen, most companies replace traveler's checks within a day. ATM cards, depending on how big your bank is, can take several days to weeks (and some won't mail replacements to an address that's not your home address).
posted by occhiblu at 8:10 AM on May 31, 2005

Also, many debit cards have a daily limit. If you're going to be using it for your major purchases (hotels, etc.), make sure you'll stay under the limit for that day, or ask your bank to raise the limit.
posted by occhiblu at 8:13 AM on May 31, 2005

I always travel using ATM's (my bank does not have extra fees for international withdrawals). I also take a small amount of travellers checks for emergency cash that I stash in several different places/bags in case I lose/get robbed of any thing. I also have learned the hard way that not all countries are on all ATM networks. In Guatemala, for example, the majority of ATM's are on the Visa/plus system and not on the Cirrus system (although this seems to be changing). Having a backup card of a different network is useful.
posted by Staggering Jack at 8:24 AM on May 31, 2005

my bank does not have extra fees for international withdrawals

It's my impression that banks like this are becoming rare. Therefore, I would find it useful if these banks were identified, in this thread.
posted by Rash at 8:34 AM on May 31, 2005

Nationwide Flex Accounts (UK building society) don't charge for ATM withdrawals abroad.
posted by the cuban at 8:47 AM on May 31, 2005

When I was last abroad (2001) I used my debit card to take cash out of the ATMs. I was abroad for about six weeks, and I probably did the withdrawals once a week. I actually used my debit card in places like grocery stores and similar and the cash for incidentals. I didn't have a problem at all. (US debit card, UK and French Banks, btw.)
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:04 AM on May 31, 2005

I've always just rocked the ATM card. You get the best exchange rate that way. I did run into one problem in central america though, where the ATM's were on a different network than my American bank. The remedy was me going into the costa rican bank during business hours and they would just run a credit card transaction for cash. No worries. Using my ATM card as a credit card with hotels, restuarants, etc... worked fine also.
posted by trbrts at 9:06 AM on May 31, 2005

Rash - I use a USAA account for travelling. You have to have a connection to the U.S. military in order join.
posted by Staggering Jack at 9:19 AM on May 31, 2005

I've always gotten along well with credit cards and ATMs in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. If you have multiple credit cards, you should give each company a call and find out which one offers the best exchange rates: these can vary significantly on a company-by-company basis.

Also, beware that credit cards and ATMs might be tricky in Japan. Credit cards are not accepted everywhere (they're not nearly as common as in Europe and North America, at least), and the main ATM system is not networked to the global system. You can find global ATMs (typically operated by Citibank), but they're few and far between. I would recommend bringing as much cash as you feel comfortable with.

I don't know about Thailand.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:40 AM on May 31, 2005

Also, the ATM charges are roughly the same as you'd find if you were changing Traveller's Checks (from US $ or Euros, or whatever) into the local currency at a bank. The American Express places don't charge if you use Am Ex cheques, I think, but you don't want half your day scheduled to find the proper place to save $2.50 or whatever.

Here's my money scheme: I always have traveller's cheques worth a few hundred dollars in US currency for emergencies. I travel all the time, so I don't bother cashing them as soon as I get home, then getting new ones to leave again. I just keep them in my travel case with my passport, US student visa, etc. I also have several credit cards, for large purchases (air travel, trains, rental cars, hotels, electronics, books, anything likely to get lost/stolen as it has purchase protection), and two ATM cards (one American and one Canadian). I also usually have a bunch of currency stashed away (depends where I'm going, but somewhere around $100 US) in my wallet or pocket or backpack pocket, in case I'm stuck without the traveller's cheques.

I don't use the credit cards to get cash (they charge a small fortune for that), but know your pin number just in case. I take out around $200 US (whatever that translates as in the local currency) at a time using my ATM cards - if that amount gets lost/stolen, it's not the end of the world, but any less and the charge per transaction isn't worth it to me.

This sounds like overkill, and it probably is for most of the time, but seriously, I've had to loan people money while travelling because their one ATM card or credit card wasn't working in the machines, had been demagnetized, or had been put on 'hold' because their international travel use was setting off the protection system at the card offices. If that happens, you then have to get to a phone, call in to your credit card company, and get them to unhold your card. Not always possible when you need the money, so I've had to loan money for plane/train/emergency medical help before - always willingly, but I've never felt comfortable that I'd have the luck to find someone with a backup plan like my own when I'd need it the most, so I've always tried to cover the most of the (minor) possibilities on my own.

Before you go: (1) get international travel health insurance, even if only for catastrophic incidents. The low price is worth it, and you won't regret a penny of it, even if you don't end up using it. I know far too many people that take risks while travelling that they wouldn't while they are at home, and some aspects of international travel are, by definition, more risky than sitting on your ass at home. Get the travel health insurance. (2) Call your credit card supplier to put a note on your account with the locations/countries to which you will be travelling so that they don't keep putting holds on your card. It's annoying when you're trying to pack, but really annoying when you're abroad with weird phones or no money to get a phone card (seriously). (3) Call your bank to find out THEIR charges for ATM use abroad, and then notice which ATMs don't charge for international cards, and you'll minimize your loss. (4) Get a little bit of money, in the local currency, for your first stop, to get you from the airport to your lodging and some food. If it's a normal airport (not in the middle of the boonies), you can always use an ATM there, or change a bit using the extortion rates at the exchange kiosk, but I just take a bit with me. Makes it easier. (5) Take a few traveller's cheques for emergencies (in US dollars or UK pounds or Euros or some other internationally recognized currency.) Important: leave the serial numbers with someone at home, in case your whole bag gets stolen, so you can get reimbursed for the lost cheques to help you on your way. This is important. And, don't forget to keep track (on the road) of which cheques you've used (so you also know which can be replaced should that be necessary). (6) Keep your money safe, but don't let it rule the way you travel. I've travelled all over the place, and so have my friends, and if you take some smart precautions, your shit will be safe and you will have fun. If you take a lot of over-zealous precautions, your shit won't be that much safer, and you'll have less fun.

Again, written out like this it seems ridiculous, but I've honed it over time and through experiences, and this system works well for a trip that goes through all kinds of countries and situations.

Also, another tip: don't be afraid to send stuff home. I have learned that buying something that is too heavy or bulky to carry for the rest of the trip shouldn't be a declaration that you can't buy it. I lost one small package along the way, but everything else made it safe and sound, and I have much cooler dishes, linens, pictures, paintings, carvings, mementos than I would have if I'd carried everything with me.
posted by fionab at 12:24 PM on May 31, 2005 [1 favorite]

Sorry, by "I know far too many people that take risks while travelling that they wouldn't while they are at home," I meant that they do those risks without having insurance or an understanding of what they're doing. Of course, take lots of risks and do stupid things, but be smart about it!
posted by fionab at 12:26 PM on May 31, 2005

When travelling I use a combination of visa and cash withdrawals. If you are going to withdraw money and have somewhere safe to leave it I'd suggest withdrawing more than needed to save on transcation costs, in the UK last year it cost me 5 aussie $ for each atm withdrawal. Visa transaction, there will still be some charge but no where near as much as an atm withdrawals.
posted by Chimp at 2:42 PM on May 31, 2005

Like the others said, a combination of cheques, ATM and credit/debit cards is best. Visa debit cards aren't that common in Oz, but definitely handy.
As an Aussie travelling to NZ/US/South America I have never had any issues withdrawing money from Cirrus ATMS (AU banks incl. CBA, ANZ, Citibank, and CUA). The CUA Visa debit card was also very handy for this, as well as a backup 'credit card'. My Citibank VISA Credit card was never rejected anywhere (apart from that one bakery in NZ - go figure), and CB never questioned the out-of-country spending.

My father does a lot of travelling to South Africa (land of theft) as well as random SE Asian countries (eg Burma), and he swears by a combination of VISA and Amex. He basically lives on the two and pays them off through Internet banking whenever he has to. When going to the dodgiest countries, though, he always makes sure to have some traveller's cheques. Just in case.

One thing I would thoroughly recommend, though, is contacting your bank and putting someone who isn't travelling with you on the 'authorised contact' list. My parents recently had this issue, when both of them were canoing the Zambezi river in Zambia - Citibank had noticed all the out-of-country charges, stopped the cards, and were trying to contact them at their home phone number. CB refused to talk to me, and would only give an Australian contact number for my parents to call from deepest, darkest Africa.

Bit tricky, that.

Fortunately, the aforementioned AMEX just kept on keeping on, otherwise they would've been seriously up the creek.

< anecdote>I had my wallet stolen when in Chile (yay Chile), which was a PITA but not a catastrophe simply because I had AMEX traveller's cheques stashed randomly about my person and luggage. I wouldn't travel anywhere without them, now.< /anecdote>
posted by coriolisdave at 3:03 PM on May 31, 2005

I travelled to Japan in 2002, preferred method for payment was cash actually, many of their atms only have prompts written in Japanese, though around Ginza district (shopping Mecca) you will find atms with both English and Japanese prompts. Tend to agree with the other posters, fees may depend on your bank.
posted by Chimp at 3:05 PM on May 31, 2005

I'll second (third ?) the 'mix it up' answer. A mix of
* Travellers Cheques - if the worst happens and you loose everything (Fire/Theft/Alien Abduction), at least you can get your TC's back, and AMEX outlets are everywhere down here see http://travel2.americanexpress.com/tcintl/feefreelocator/default.asp?country=australia&#copy - like a previous poster said, don't carry all of them in one place and WRITE DOWN THE SERIAL NUMBERS.

* ATM card - As common here as anywhere I've travelled (except Cambodia, there's ONE in the entire country), it's too easy and I've never had an issue with using my ATM card overseas.

* Cash - I only ever carry/xchange as much cash as I need to get me to my first ATM/Traveller's Cheque exchange location, usually this is enough for a meal or two and a taxi or public transport.
posted by oliyoung at 3:41 PM on May 31, 2005

Fionab covered it. My wife and I spend 7 - 8 months a year out of the country in Mexico or Asia (different countries same time.) We use the same credit card for business and another same card for our stuff. Make the call to the credit card company and make sure you get the person that can actually fix the security system. It took me in Mexico and her in China to finally it straight so they understood that they will see charges from 2 places at once. After we got to the right person we have had 0 problems. We both use bank card to get cash with no problem or crazy charges. (5/3 Bank).
A recent problem has been on top of however the credit card companies figure the exchange rate they have been adding a 3% charge to all international charges. They send out the little terms documents that say they are doing this and you don't have to allow them but by declining you give up the card after 6 months or so. So on top of the interest rate they get you for if you don't immediately pay they stick 3% on top of all international charges.
The biggest problem for us is cash. The countries we go to are mostly cash based and we have to plan for that to insure we have enough float in the bank to withdraw when needed.
posted by mss at 6:54 PM on May 31, 2005

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