The Comprehensive Guide to Study Abroad Finances (Free Budget Template)

Studying abroad is both an exciting and nerve-wracking time. You’re anticipating all of the amazing memories and adventures that await you while trying to figure out how you can make all your dreams come true on your student budget. In our experience, many students come abroad not knowing much about how money and finances work during their time in Europe. That’s why we knew it was important to share a fully comprehensive guide to study abroad finances!

Can you use American Express in Europe? What are my American debit card costs to pull money out of the ATM? How much travel can I really afford?

We get into all these questions and more so that you can take control of your finances during your study abroad program. Don’t forget to get your free copy of our Semester Budget Spreadsheet and start mapping out your budget for your time abroad.

1) Call your bank

Fees For Using Your American Card Abroad

First things first, call your bank and find out what they will charge you for using your credit or debit card abroad. Some banks charge a foreign transaction fee which is a percentage of the transaction amount, typically between 1-3 percent of the transaction, but this will vary based on your bank.


Bank Determined Exchange Rate

In addition to fees for using your American credit or debit card abroad, which can add up fast, American banks also will determine the exchange rate that they using to convert your currency. Many banks do not use the current market exchange rate that you would see if you did a quick Google search on “Euro to USD exchange rate.” Find out what exchange rate your bank will be applying to your transactions abroad. If Euros are costing you more than they should, it might not be beneficial to use that card while in Europe.

Foreign ATM Fees

Another cost to find out from your bank is whether or not they will charge you to use foreign ATMs to take out cash from your account. This fee is normally no higher than $5 per ATM transaction but again can result in unnecessary costs for students who are on a tight budget.

Inform Your Bank of Your Travel Plans

Finally, once you’ve determined that your bank will be a good option for you to use abroad, inform your bank that you will be traveling and for them to put a travel alert on your account. If you forget this step, you will more than likely confront issues with your card being declined abroad due to suspected fraudulent activity on your account. Be sure to not only include the country in which you’re traveling to, but also Europe as a whole. When you’re booking travel to other countries your card might get declined if you attempt to purchase something in a country you didn’t include on your travel alert with your bank.

2) Consider opening a new checking account

If once you’ve contacted your bank and found out all the information regarding your debit or credit card and you have decided that this card will be too costly to use abroad, there are solutions out there for you to consider that will save you money in the long-run.

We’ve provided a few of our top picks for travel checking accounts and debit cards. What is most important is to do your research in advance and select the best option for you.

We are not affiliated with the suggestions listed below and are not endorsing their services. 

Internet or Digital Banks



Wise (formerly Transferwise)

No fee American Checking Accounts

CapitalOne 360

Charles Schwab

4) If possible, use a travel credit card

Not only do we recommend having more than one card in case of emergency or unexpected situations, such as losing your card, but we would also suggest using a travel credit card when possible. Travel credit cards typically have no foreign transaction fees and provide you with the best market exchange rate possible.

Insurance and Protections

Travel credit cards provide additional insurance and fraud protections that many debit cards don’t. This is an added level of security to ensure your money and spending while abroad.

Pro tip: The most commonly accepted credit cards in Europe are Visa and Mastercard, so make sure at least one of your cards is Visa or Mastercard. Although they have expanded their network in recent years, Discover and American Express are unfortunately not accepted at many locations in Europe, so don’t count on being able to use those cards while you’re abroad. American Express is more widely accepted in Europe as of 2021, but Discover is not.

5) Choose to pay in local currency

Will you pay in Euro or USD?

“Euro or USD?” If you’ve travelled in Europe before and used a card to pay for your purchase you have more than likely been asked this question and been unsure how to answer.

You should choose to process your transaction in the local currency. The rate your bank uses is almost always better than the one the business converting the currency for you will use.

6) Don’t use a currency exchange

Seriously, please don’t exchange your currency. Instead, take money out of a local bank ATM. The exchange rates offered at currency exchanges will end up costing you a large amount of money, so try to avoid them altogether.

Also, if possible avoid Euronet ATMs! They charge large transaction fees and use an unfavourable exchange rate.

7) Keep a budget to track spending

Bottom line? Do your research and make sure you’re informed about how your money is being spent while you’re abroad. Euros can add up quickly while you’re abroad, so plan ahead and keep a budget to help track your spending. Get your free Semester Travel Budget Template to keep your travel budget in check and see as much of Europe as possible!