You can typically use a debit card when traveling in another country as long as the merchant accepts transactions from the card issuer. Debit cards are especially useful when withdrawing cash from ATMs internationally, but cash and credit cards may make more sense for other purchases abroad.
In this guide, we’ll cover the ins and outs of this scenario, including:
• Can you use a debit card internationally?
• Are you charged fees when using a debit card internationally?
• How can you safely use a debit card in another country?
• Can you withdraw money at an international ATM?
• What can you do if your debit card doesn’t work?
Can You Use a Debit Card Internationally?
Yes, you can use your debit card internationally, though you may incur foreign transaction fees. Depending on where you travel, you might find merchants that only accept cash — or may only accept cards from specific issuers — so it’s a good idea to have a mix of payment methods with you.
Visa and Mastercard are almost universally accepted anywhere you can pay with plastic. While Discover and American Express have historically been less accepted outside the United States, the two card issuers have made significant strides in recent years. To be safe, it’s a good idea to carry cards from more than one issuer, as well as cash, when traveling abroad. Just be sure you have details like the customer service phone numbers in case you were to lose your cards or be the unfortunate victim of a pickpocket (see more safety tips below).
Recommended: How to Travel on a Budget
Will I Face Fees If I Use My Debit Card Internationally?
While you can typically use a debit cards in another country, you may have to pay a foreign transaction fee. Though these fees vary by bank and card issuer, they are usually around 3% of any transaction abroad.
In addition, you may be given the option by a merchant to pay in local or U.S. currency. If you opt for the latter, it is known as dynamic currency conversion (DCC), and you will likely face an upcharge, possibly a steep one. It’s wise to decline this offer.
If you want to avoid foreign transaction fees, you may need to open an international credit card designed for travelers or find a bank account offering a debit card without these fees.
While you can use a debit card for purchases abroad, experts often recommend paying with cash or a credit card as it can offer better protection if a thief gets their hands on your plastic.
Instead, debit cards are ideal for taking cash out of an ATM. If your bank offers in-network ATMs in foreign countries, you can avoid ATM fees by withdrawing money from those specific ATMs — though you may still contend with foreign transaction fees.
What to Do Before You Travel to Another Country
Traveling to another country is exciting, but there’s a lot to do before you hop on that plane. You may have to find a pet sitter, book hotels, or renew your passport, but there are also a lot of important financial moves to make before traveling internationally:
• Informing your bank: Banks and credit unions offer a wealth of services to prevent fraud. Unexpected transactions in foreign countries can be a red flag to your financial institution; in attempting to protect you from fraud, they may decline the transaction or freeze your card. It’s a good idea to let your bank and/or credit card issuer know where and when you’ll be traveling so there aren’t any interruptions to your banking service.
It can also be wise to note customer service numbers for your bank and credit cards in a safe place but not in your wallet in case you were to lose your wallet or be robbed while traveling. You can then spring into action quickly to report losses.
• Exchanging your money: You’ll want cash in the local currency for your trip, but it’s a good idea to exchange your money before setting out on your travels. Airport kiosks, hotels, and train stations have notoriously high exchange rates; you’ll likely get a better rate if you exchange in advance with a bank or credit union near you.
That said, you don’t want to carry too much cash on you when traveling in another country, meaning you’ll need to exchange money as you go. You can avoid high exchange rates abroad by getting cash from an in-network ATM using your debit card and staying within your ATM withdrawal limits.
• Getting travel insurance: If you’re paying for your travel with a rewards credit card, you may already carry special credit card travel insurance. But if cash and debit cards are your primary resources, you’ll likely want to find travel insurance through a third party. Travel insurance can help with the challenges and costs of trip cancellations, lost luggage, rental car issues, and even medical care in foreign countries.
• Getting an international phone plan: Even the best laid plans can go wrong. If you get lost, want to use a translator, or need to call your bank to troubleshoot an issue with your debit card, you’ll want a call, text, and data plan from your phone provider. It’s a good idea to ask your provider in advance about their international plans and see if you can work it into your travel budget.
Recommended: How to Save Money on Hotels
Ready for a Better Banking Experience?
Open a SoFi Checking and Savings Account and start earning up to 3.75% APY on your cash!
Tips for Safely Using Your Debit Card Internationally
Taking your debit card with you abroad can be convenient, but it’s important to prioritize safety when spending money in another country. Here are a few tips for safely using your debit card internationally:
• Wear a money belt: Pickpockets can ruin a vacation in a matter of seconds. Keep your valuables (wallet, passport, smartphone, etc.) safe by keeping them out of your pockets, and don’t lug around a purse on your shoulder, either. Instead, wear a money belt — a pouch on a belt that keeps your money securely attached to your person. You can store your debit cards, credit cards, and cash in the pouch.
• Tell your bank you’re traveling: Avoid becoming stranded in another country without access to your funds by alerting your financial institution of your travels. This should prevent them from freezing your card because of unusual activity.
• Bring multiple forms of payment: Because something can go wrong — lost or stolen funds, payment type not accepted, etc. — it’s wise to have multiple forms of payment with you when traveling internationally. Ideally, your money belt may have a credit card, a debit card (from a different issuer), and cash in the foreign currency.
• Practice ATM safety: When using your debit card to withdraw funds at an ATM, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself and your money.
◦ Don’t use the ATM alone, if possible.
◦ Don’t use the ATM at night.
◦ Memorize your PIN (and make sure it’s unique); don’t write it down anywhere.
◦ Watch someone else use the ATM first; if they can successfully retrieve their card and their money, that’s a good sign that criminals haven’t tampered with the machine.
◦ Learn to check ATMs for card skimmers. If a machine looks like it’s been tampered with or has an extra bit of plastic around the card slot, don’t insert your card and find another source of cash.
Recommended: Renting a Car With or Without a Credit Card
Can You Withdraw Money at an International ATM?
If you’re wondering “Can I use my debit card internationally?” you may well be thinking about withdrawing money from an ATM while abroad. That is a top reason to bring your debit card with you when traveling overseas. Before traveling, you can research which ATMs are in your bank’s network in the country you’re visiting — and even make a list of their locations so you know where to go during your trip.
While using an in-network ATM may help you avoid ATM fees, some banks and card issuers may still charge foreign transaction fees. If you regularly travel abroad, it may be worth opening a checking account with a debit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees.
Pro Tip: If you are worried about ATM fees abroad, you may be able to use your debit card at a store and request cash back at the register. However, foreign transaction fees may apply.
What to Do If Your Debit Card Does Not Work?
If you’re in a foreign country and your debit card isn’t working, don’t panic. There are a few things you can do to ensure you can safely spend your money abroad, like:
• Calling your financial institution. Making an international call might be expensive, but talking to someone at your bank can usually rectify any issue with your debit card. Also, some financial institutions have numbers to use when traveling internationally. It can be wise to note that information down in advance so it’s handy.
• Using another form of payment. If you’re in the midst of a transaction, it might make sense (at least temporarily) to pay with a credit card or cash until you’re in a calmer place. Then, when you’re back at your hotel or another quiet place, you can resolve your debit card issues.
• Finding a U.S. embassy. As a last resort, if you have no way of getting money and are stranded abroad, find a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. In emergencies, they may offer temporary loans to travelers.
Recommended: Credit Cards vs. Debit Cards
Banking With SoFi
If you’re planning on traveling internationally, you probably know that you may be hit with various foreign fees. Here’s some relief: When you bank with SoFi, you’ll have a debit card you can use without foreign transaction fees. That’s just one of the perks of opening an online bank account with SoFi. Our Checking and Savings account offers a competitive APY and no monthly fees, plus the convenience of spending and saving in one easy place.
Is it better to use cash instead of a debit card internationally?
When traveling internationally, it’s a good idea to have a mix of payment methods: cash, credit cards, and debit cards. Some experts advise using credit cards and cash for purchases and relying on your debit card exclusively for ATM transactions.
Can I use my debit card in all countries?
In most cases, you can use your debit card in other countries, as long as the merchant takes credit cards and accepts cards with your logo. Visa and Mastercard are the most universally accepted, with Discover and American Express following closely behind. When you use your debit card abroad, you may have to pay foreign transaction fees and ATM fees.
Is it better to use a credit card or debit card internationally?
When traveling abroad, you may want to prioritize payment methods that do not charge foreign transaction fees, whether that’s a credit card or a debit card. However, it’s a good idea to carry both kinds of cards (plus cash). Experts recommend using a credit card or cash for purchases and utilizing a debit card to withdraw more money at ATMs as needed.
Photo credit: iStock/Anchiy
SoFi® Checking and Savings is offered through SoFi Bank, N.A. ©2022 SoFi Bank, N.A. All rights reserved. Member FDIC. Equal Housing Lender.
SoFi members with direct deposit can earn up to 3.75% annual percentage yield (APY) interest on Savings account balances (including Vaults) and up to 2.50% APY on Checking account balances. There is no minimum direct deposit amount required to qualify for these rates. Members without direct deposit will earn 1.20% APY on all account balances in Checking and Savings (including Vaults). Interest rates are variable and subject to change at any time. These rates are current as of 12/16/2022. Additional information can be found at http://www.sofi.com/legal/banking-rate-sheet
Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.