Hello from Paris!
BF and I left Sunday night for our two-month Parisian adventure. We arrived on Monday morning after an easy flight. We even lucked out and didn’t have a third person in our row on the plane – score! We made it through immigration quickly, hopped in a taxi and met our Airbnb host who let us into our apartment. The apartment is full of Parisian “charm” (read: quirks. Who wants a toilet in a separate room from the sink?), but it has everything we will need for a very comfortable stay here.
Today, I thought I would share one important aspect of traveling abroad: accessing money. I’ll also sprinkle in a few pictures of our trip along the way!
If your money is in an American bank, you’ll need to plan ahead to make sure that you have access to money while traveling abroad. I have travelled to 25 countries on four continents, so I’ve had a bit of experience with accessing money overseas. My approach has varied country by country. Some countries have strong ties to American banking institutions, making it easy to take out cash or use credit cards. Other countries have a much less international banking system, which often means credit cards are not widely accepted and bank fees run high.
My best overall advice for accessing money abroad is to do research in advance and have contingency plans. As I’ve said, the banking system varies drastically by country and likely even within different areas of the same country. Before you travel, look into what banks are near where you’re staying or what credit cards are accepted in that area. Don’t assume that the cash you bring will be enough to get you through the trip and therefore leave your credit cards at home. Don’t assume that your credit card will be accepted as widely as it is in the US and therefore not carry cash. Make sure you have multiple methods of payment that you can use in a pinch. You never know what might come up!
Getting cash before you go
Maybe the safest way to ensure that you have access to money abroad is to get foreign currency before you leave home. Most banks can provide foreign currency. Depending on the currency, you may need to order the currency ahead of time from the bank. I am a Bank of America customer and I have learned that they carry Euros and a few other currencies at their largest branches (two within the Boston area). At other branches or for less commonly used currencies, you must request the currency in advance. AAA can be another source of foreign currency if you are a member and have a local branch.
There are two downsides as I see it to getting currency in advance. First, you are likely to get a better exchange rate at a bank in the country you’re travelling to than in the US. For example, as of this writing Bank of America is offering Euros in the US for an exchange rate of $1.175/€1. Alternatively, the official exchange rate is $1.11/€1. This means that it costs me $117.50 to buy €100 from Bank of America in the US, but only $111 to buy that same €100 in Europe. You pay almost 6% more in the US, which doesn’t sound like a lot but can really add up if you’re withdrawing substantial amounts of foreign currency.
The second downside to getting cash before traveling is that you might make yourself more susceptible to theft. Carrying cash is always somewhat risky – once it’s gone it’s gone – but this is compounded if you’re traveling as many touristy areas are known for having abundant pick-pocketers. If you decide to carry cash when you travel, I recommend putting it in a few different places so that if something gets stolen you don’t lose everything. I’ve even used a money belt on rare occasion when I’ve had to have a lot of cash.
Fun anecdote: I once had to bring $2k in US dollars to Argentina to pay for my apartment while studying abroad. I felt like some kind of drug lord with $100 bills strapped to my stomach!
Getting cash while abroad
The next option for accessing money abroad is to get cash in country. This is usually what I opt for, especially for longer trips that will require more currency. Depending on the country, you may be able to find a bank that has an affiliation with your US bank and therefore offers minimal fees for withdrawing money from ATMs. This is how we are accessing money in Paris. Bank of America has a relationship with BNP Paribas so we are able to get cash from BNP’s abundant ATMs. There are still some fees associated with getting cash from affiliated ATMs. In this case, we’ll pay a 3% fee. Since this is less than the 6% premium to get euros in the US, and also gives us much more flexibility to get as much cash as we need when we need it, this option makes the most sense.
If you are in a country that does not have banks affiliated with US banks, opening an account at a smaller US bank or credit union might be a good option. Because such banks often have a smaller physical presence, they are more likely to allow access to ATMs that they don’t own. For example, in addition to my Bank of America account, I also have a checking account at a credit union affiliated with my parents’ employer. The credit union has very few branches, which has its downsides but also means that they provide free access to any ATM within certain networks. My debit card has several symbols on the back for various networks it is affiliated with (Plus, Star, etc.), and I can access my money at any US ATM within these networks without paying any fees. Many of these networks also have affiliations abroad, and I incur only a minimal fee (also around 3% I believe) to withdraw money from these ATMs. This is how I accessed my money while in Argentina and it worked very well.
An important thing to know is that many foreign ATMs only accept PIN numbers that have four numeric digits. Make sure to set your debit card PIN to a four digit number before leaving the US. Also, always make sure to notify your bank of travel plans so that your account doesn’t get shut down for presumed fraudulent activity. In my experience banks are very good (maybe too good) at monitoring this. On more than one occasion I have gotten calls to verify foreign transactions – usually hotel bookings in foreign countries but made from my computer in the US. This both comforts and annoys me.
It is also worth noting that I have yet to find a way to get foreign currency without paying any fees or surcharges. 3% isn’t a ton, but it is still something. If anyone has any thoughts I’d love to hear them!
Using credit cards
Last but not least is using credit cards abroad. In the US, I use credit cards almost exclusively. In the past, I have typically used cash much more frequently while abroad, mostly to avoid fees and because credit cards were often not widely accepted. In the last few years, however, I have started to use credit cards much more frequently while traveling. As always, credit cards offer a level of protection that cash just doesn’t. I have found that they are more and more widely accepted in foreign countries (at least in the ones I’ve traveled to recently), even for smaller amounts. And lastly, I’ve found a few good credit cards that offer no foreign transactions fees, making them a very attractive option financially. When BF and I got our joint credit card, we specifically selected one with no foreign transaction fees because we travel abroad frequently.
When using credit cards abroad, it is important to know which credit cards to bring. While I love my Discover card, I leave it at home when I travel as it just isn’t accepted most places. Similarly, I’ve found that American Express isn’t widely accepted abroad (although on this trip I’m noticing that this is changing). I like to bring a Visa and a Mastercard (remember – you need a contingency plan!). Most European credit cards are now “chip and pin,” which American cards typically are not (yet), but I haven’t had any trouble on this trip using the old fashioned “sign your name” method.
Two other forms of payment come to mind as worth mentioning here. Traveler’s checks seem very antiquated to me, but in some instances they might be useful. When I studied abroad I brought some travelers checks in case of emergency. I got them at AAA. I honestly don’t remember how to even cash them at this point. Does anyone still use traveler’s checks?
Lastly we have bank checks. I have no idea if these would be accepted abroad, but my guess is that it would be complicated and slow. My check book has never left the country, which tells you something I guess.
How do you access money abroad? What kinds of fees to you pay (if any)?