Everything You Need to Know About Currency Abroad: Banks, ATMs, Cards, and Currency

Using a Debit/Credit Card Abroad

  1. Bring two different cards

First and foremost the biggest tip for traveling abroad is to bring two different credit cards. Leave one in your apartment and only ever carry one in your wallet. In the most unfortunate case that your wallet or purse is lost or stolen, you won’t be stranded without a credit card. 

2. Watch out for hidden fees!

Most debit cards will have foreign transaction fees for every purchase you make with it, but there are some credit cards that waive the international fee. We recommend getting a credit card that does not have foreign transaction fees before you come abroad. Since the company will charge the best rate of exchange and not add additional charges on top. Simply call your credit card provider to confirm that there will be no foreign transaction fees. 

3. Alert your credit card company

Additionally, before you go abroad, make sure you let your credit card company know that you’re traveling, for how long, and where you think you are going. That way, they won’t shut down your card for fraud the minute it sees an international purchase.

Best US credit cards with no international fees

The two best cards for students with no annual fee and no international fees are the Bank of America Travel Rewards Visa Credit Card and Capital One Quicksilver One Cash Rewards Credit Card. Both have great travel rewards and points that can be used on flights, hotels, or cashback. Capital One also has zero foreign fees on ATM use abroad with their debit card. Most debit cards charge around 3% plus a five dollar fee for each ATM use, so this is huge in savings and highly recommended! 

Best International debit card

Revolut is the debit card to get for students studying abroad in Europe. All that is required is an EU phone number and an EU residency to sign up through their mobile app. Then you get your physical card mailed to you within a week and have the card digitally available for use on your phone – and can even add it to Apple Pay. In order to meet the requirements, grab a local phone plan (which is usually cheaper than keeping your US phone number) and simply swap the SIM cards in your phone. Then upload images of your student visa, and voila!

Why is this the best card? The card features wholesale conversion rates and the ability to hold multiple currencies beyond Euros like the Czech Koruna or the British Pound. It also allows you to create a digital card so that you know your credit card number is safe when making online purchases. To learn about all the features and how to sign up for the card check out our Revolut blog post here

ATMs and Withdrawals 

  1. Pull money out in large sums from bank ATMs that charge the least amount of fees.

Anywhere in Europe, look for ATMs that are connected to banks. These charge the smallest fees and have the best currency exchange rates. In Italy, these are known as Bancomat ATMs, and in Germany, you’ll be looking for Sparakasse.  Some US banks even have European partner banks that don’t charge fees, like Bank of American who partners with Barclays in the UK, Duetsche Bank in Germany, and BNP Paribas in France. Overall, the big takeaway is to avoid ATMs that are not connected to a bank, like Euronet. In a pinch, they’re great – but they usually have poor exchange rates and high fees.

2. Arrive with at least some Euros until you can get settled in.

Why? If you pull out a big sum, you might get big bills. Some establishments will give you trouble if you try to pay for a small coffee with a 50 Euro bill because it will be hard for them to make change. We recommend arriving abroad with some Euros from your local bank before you leave. It will have the lowest currency exchange rate and you will be able to request currency in only 10’s and 20’s. This will be extremely helpful for your day-to-day living and save you on expensive exchange rates abroad. This cash could hold you over until you can get your Revolut card set up, or until you learn the ins and outs of your local cafes, restaurants, and bars (if they take card, if they’ll let you break a large bill, etc). 

3. Keep it secure!

Final tip? If you’re traveling with cash, make sure you keep it secure–we’re talking deep in your backpack, in a secure pouch kind of secure. Don’t think about pulling it out until you arrive at your final accommodation. 

Currency Exchange

  1. Don’t exchange currencies!

DO NOT, we repeat, DO NOT bring USD to exchange, because the rates are terrible for currency exchange. Honestly, try not to ever exchange any currencies. When traveling to a new country, pull out a small amount of money at a local (bank) ATM and really budget for your trip. Only use cash when it is absolutely necessary and then you can splurge on the last day of your trip. There’s nothing worse than ending your semester with multiple Francs, Pounds, and even Kuna. Although we have to admit, some of these coins are really quite beautiful and nice to keep as small souvenirs!

2. Online shopping? Choose local currency at checkout.

When shopping online or given a choice at a shop, always choose to be charged in the host country’s local currency. When you use your credit card abroad, sometimes you are given the option to pay in Euros or pay in your home country’s currency. Never choose home country currency! It might sound familiar and you think it might be easier, but the exchange rate is never as good as the methods we’ve described above–and as we already discussed, if you’re using a good credit card without foreign transaction fees, you’ll have a better rate of exchange that way.

Travel Notice

Important Reminder: Talk to your bank & credit card companies before you leave

We’ve said it once, but we’ll say it again. Don’t forget to let your bank or credit card provider know you will be traveling abroad to avoid your card being temporarily frozen. Usually, you can add a travel notice on your mobile banking app–or just give them a call. Make sure to check off future travel plans while abroad.

Side note: should you run into any issues while abroad, make sure they have your home phone number or a parent’s cell phone for two-factor authentication. If you come abroad and get a SIM card or local phone plan with a new number, you won’t necessarily be able to log-in to your bank or credit card online since it will see you are in a new country. It will ask if it can text or call your phone number to confirm your identity, but if you have paused your US service, you won’t be able to do that.  A simple work around is to have them call your parent or guardian with the code you need.