The short answer to the question, “Can I use a credit card in another country?” is yes, you can. The longer answer? Responsibly using your credit card abroad may require a little bit of forethought and planning. It’s important, for instance, to take precautions to ensure you don’t get hit with high foreign transaction fees. You also want to avoid having your card declined because the issuer didn’t know you were traveling and thinks it’s a fraudulent charge.
We’ll review those scenarios and more as we share smart strategies to use your credit card internationally without any hitches or way high fees. Let’s look into:
• Whether you can use your credit card abroad
• How to safely use a credit card overseas
• The cost of using a credit card when traveling
• The pros and cons on using plastic when in another country
• Alternatives to using a credit card when abroad.
Here’s what you need to know.
Can You Use Your Credit Card Abroad?
Whether you’re planning a quick weekend trip to Cabo or going to college abroad, using your credit card can be a super convenient way to pay for day-to-day expenses. It’s also more secure than carrying cash. After all, if you lose paper money, it’s gone… but if you lose your credit card, you can just call the issuer and let them know.
That said, you probably don’t want to rely solely on a single credit card as your only source of funds. After all, it is possible to lose your credit card, even if it’s replaceable. Additionally, not all vendors will necessarily accept credit cards, and some may not accept the specific type you have. Generally speaking, Visa and MasterCard are more widely accepted than Discover or American Express. Worth noting, though: Both of these latter credit card companies are working hard to increase their overseas presence.
You’ll also want to be aware that many credit cards come with foreign transaction fees that can stack up quickly, even if they appear small. For instance, a 3% foreign transaction fee means that if you put $500 on your credit card during your trip — which is pretty easy to do when you’re wining and dining abroad — you’ll spend an additional $15 just for the privilege of using the card. That’s likely enough to buy a whole ‘nother meal or several delicious copas of European espresso. Using a credit card responsibly means being aware of these charges and deciding when and if they are worth it.
Finally, keep in mind that you’ll want to call your card issuer ahead of time (or, if they have one, use their online contact system) to put a travel advisory on the card. That way, they won’t automatically flag a transaction thousands of miles away from home as fraudulent — which could lead to an inconvenient and frustrating declined transaction.
Is It Safe to Use Your Credit Card Abroad?
As long as you’re making purchases from reputable vendors, it is safe to use your credit card abroad. Determining who’s a reputable vendor and who isn’t can be challenging when traveling, and credit card scams can be rampant wherever you go. And it’s always possible, whether you’re traveling or at home, to have your credit card information stolen and used fraudulently. (For example, some criminals steal private information by installing credit-card skimmers on self-service gas pumps.)
How to protect yourself? The best way to ensure your credit card is still secure is to regularly check your transactions and ensure they’re all legitimate. If you see one you don’t recognize, immediately contact your credit card issuer so they can remove the charge and issue you a new card.
Of course, while traveling internationally, it may be difficult to have that new card delivered to you on time to be useful. This is why it’s so important to have some backup funding with you, including some local currency as well as possibly an additional credit card.
What Are the Costs of Using a Credit Card Overseas?
Using a credit card overseas can get expensive awfully quickly. Let’s say you read the fine print and see a foreign transaction fee listed in your credit card contract. You may think that’s the only cost you’ll face for using the card overseas. Unfortunately, though, there are some hidden costs you may run into depending on how you use the credit card. Here are a few to look out for:
• Regular foreign transaction fees Like the 3% surcharge we made an example of above, these charges are levied by credit card companies simply for your conducting a transaction with a foreign vendor.
• Cash withdrawal fees In some cases, you may be able to use your credit card to access cash money from an ATM. Doing so may incur additional ATM fees on top of the foreign transaction fee, which will likely also be assessed. You may even be hit by a third fee from the ATM provider, which is to say, this probably isn’t the best way to access foreign currency. (More on the right way to do so in just a minute.)
• Dynamic currency conversion This is a service that some card issuers offer, which allows you to see what the cost will be in your home currency. Although this can make you feel more secure when it comes to knowing how much something really costs, you may pay for the privilege of seeing that information ahead of time. If you can, choose to have the price listed in the local currency. If you really need to know what that translates to in US dollars (or whatever your home currency is), look it up on your phone. There are plenty of sites and apps that will do the math for you.
• Interest As with any credit card purchase, if you let a revolving balance rack up on your card, you could be subject to expensive interest charges. The best practice is to pay off your card in full, each and every month.
The good news: It’s totally possible to avoid foreign transaction fees by opting for a card that simply doesn’t charge them. You can also skip dynamic currency conversion and decide not to use the card to withdraw cash from an ATM. These moves will help whittle down your fees.
Recommended: What is Revolving Debt?
Using Credit Cards to Withdraw Cash Overseas
As mentioned above, using credit cards to withdraw cash overseas is possible, but it might not be the smartest option. Along with any foreign transaction fees, you could also be charged cash withdrawal fees, ATM fees, and more.
That said, it is a good idea to have some local currency with you for your journey. So if you aren’t going to use your credit card to withdraw it, what are your options? While ordering foreign currency will almost certainly come at some cost, there are ways to lower the associated fees and save as much as possible.
For example, you may be able to order foreign currency from your regular domestic bank, which could come with fewer charges than withdrawing from an overseas ATM using a credit card. You may also see currency exchange services available at the airport, but these can be pricey in their own right.
Another good option: Withdraw money from a foreign ATM — but using the right kind of card. Some banks offer debit or prepaid cards with no foreign transaction fees, and may even throw in ATM fee reimbursement so you truly don’t have to worry about any additional fees. Of course, you’ll have to put in the effort ahead of time to ensure your bank offers a product like this or even to open a new bank account for this purpose.
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Is It Better to Pay or Withdraw Money in Local Currency?
As mentioned above, one of the costliest parts of overseas travel is dynamic currency conversion — the service that lets you choose to pay in your own currency at a point-of-sale transaction. Dynamic currency conversion comes at an additional cost, and that’s not counting any other foreign transaction fees you might be hit with.
All of which is to say: If you can, paying in local currency is almost always the better option. (And, of course, with cash, you won’t face any additional charges other than what you already paid to acquire the currency.)
Pros and Cons of Using a Credit Card Overseas
As with any financial decision, using a credit card overseas has both pros and cons to consider. Here are a few to mull over.
Pros of using a credit card overseas:
• More secure than cash, which can be easily lost
• Easy to use and less bulky than carrying around bills and coins
• Some cards offer special travel perks, such as the ability to earn miles as a reward, which can make travel easier and cheaper
Now, let’s look at the other side: the cons of using a credit card when you travel outside the U.S.
• Can come with costly foreign transaction fees, some of which may be hidden
• Not all overseas vendors accept credit cards (or all types of credit cards)
• Could be declined if you don’t put a travel advisory on your card
For those who like an at-a-glance approach to seeing the benefits and downsides, take a look at this chart summarizing both sides of charging purchases with a credit card when on foreign soil:
|More secure than cash||May trigger costly foreign transaction|
|Easy to use and less bulky to carry||Not all overseas vendors accept credit cards|
|May offer special travel perks, like earning travel miles||Could be declined if you don’t add a travel advisory to your account|
Alternatives to Using Credit Cards
If you decide you don’t want to use credit cards overseas, you can always rely on cash. Ideally, though, you’ll also want to carry a debit card connected to your checking account that allows you to access more cash in case you overrun your original budget or need money in an emergency.
You may also be able to pay for certain goods and services using an online P2P payment system like Paypal or Venmo, or purchase gift cards for specific vendors ahead of time. Although they’re slightly outdated, traveler’s checks are still available, though relatively rare compared to their heyday. They offer another relatively secure way to pay for goods and services overseas.
Tips for When You Travel With a Credit Card
For the best success when traveling with a credit card, follow these tips:
• Choose a card that’s widely accepted worldwide.
• Shop around for a card that doesn’t assess foreign transaction fees.
• Call your card issuer ahead of time to tell them you’ll be traveling. This will help you avoid having a transaction declined while you’re abroad.
• It’s a good idea to travel with some backup funds, whether that means cash, a foreign-transaction-fee-free debit card, or another credit card.
Whether you’re studying abroad or just enjoying a foreign getaway, it’s possible to use a credit card in another country. Yet, if you’re not careful, you may run into costly foreign transaction fees that can stack up fast. It’s a good idea to do your homework ahead of time to avoid any billing-statement sticker shock or regret. With a little planning, you can enjoy your travels without the cloud of growing credit-card debt hanging over your head.
Looking for a bank that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees? SoFi has you covered, wherever you are. Sign up with direct deposit, and you’ll get both Checking and Savings accounts with one easy application. Better yet, you can earn up to 1.25% APY on your balance. Nothing like earning money just for having money! And we don’t charge you the usual account fees either.
How do I pay internationally with a credit card?
The same way you do at home: You might swipe, dip, or tap the card at the point of sale. Use a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees to minimize charges as you travel.
Is it better to use a debit or credit card abroad?
Whichever option offers lower — ideally, zero — foreign transaction fees is the best bet. Keep in mind that withdrawing money from an ATM using a credit card can be a very expensive option for acquiring foreign currency.
Can I withdraw money from my credit card abroad?
You can, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Many credit cards charge foreign transaction fees as well as cash withdrawal fees that can really add up. Look for a bank account that offers a no-foreign-transaction-fee debit card, or order foreign currency ahead of time from your local bank.
Photo credit: iStock/martin-dm
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