If you’ve used your credit card outside of the U.S. — or simply made a purchase online through a merchant that wasn’t U.S.-based — you may have noticed an extra cost get added onto your purchase. Called a foreign transaction fee, these costs can add up quickly.
Luckily, it is possible to steer clear of credit card fees for international transactions. Let’s take a closer look at what a foreign transaction fee on a credit card is, how much they typically run, and how you can avoid them.
What Is a Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fee?
A credit card foreign transaction fee is a surcharge, or an additional charge, that some credit cards add to transactions that are processed outside of the U.S. Said another way, it’s a cost that applies for credit card processing when certain conditions are met.
Credit card foreign transaction fees may apply when you make an online purchase from a merchant that’s located outside of the U.S. Additionally, they may apply when you’re using a credit card in another country.
While broadly referred to as a foreign transaction fee, this fee is actually comprised of two different charges. One part comes from the credit card issuers and the other is from the credit card network (think Visa or Mastercard, for example).
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How Are Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees Calculated?
To find out how international credit card fees are calculated for your particular credit card, check your card’s terms and conditions. You’ll likely find information on foreign transaction fees in a section titled “Rates and Fees” or “Pricing and Terms.”
In general, however, the amount of your credit card’s international fees is calculated based on a set percentage of the transaction amount.
For example, let’s say your credit card charges a 3% foreign transaction fee, and you’re paying about $50 for souvenirs you bought at a merchant abroad. In this instance, the credit card network may take 1% of the transaction, while the credit card issuer would deduct 1%. That would result in a total foreign transaction fee of $1.50 for that particular purchase.
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How Much Do Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees Cost?
Some cards don’t come with credit card international fees, meaning you don’t have to worry about this credit card cost. For cards that do charge foreign transaction fees, this fee can range from 1% to 4% per transaction, with 3% being the average rate.
When this credit card fee for international transactions is charged once, it may not seem like a big deal. But if you make a lot of overseas purchases, it can really add up. If you have a 3% foreign fee credit card, for example, that will tack on $3 for every $100 you put on the card.
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Foreign Transaction Fees vs Currency Conversion Fees
A foreign transaction fee isn’t the same thing as a currency conversion fee. Rather, a currency conversion fee is generally one portion of the overall foreign transaction fee you may be charged.
A currency conversion fee is the cost charged by the credit card network to cover the cost of converting funds into the currency of the merchant. So, if you were making a purchase in Spain, the currency would get converted from U.S. dollars to the Euro.
Visa and Mastercard charge a 1% currency conversion fee to card issuers. It’s up to the card issuer whether to pass along that fee to the cardholder as part of the overall foreign transaction fee charged — an example of how credit card companies make money.
Spotting Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees
Aside from looking at the terms and conditions you were provided when you received your credit card, you can look at your card issuer’s website to learn more about any foreign transaction fees. Information is typically listed in the “fees” section. You also could use the search function on that webpage to find any mentions of foreign transaction fees.
Another option is to look at your credit card statement, as issuers must list fees separately on your monthly bill. By reviewing this section of your statement, you’ll see what you’re actually being charged for purchases you’ve made that trigger this fee. Besides, routinely reviewing your credit card statement is a good credit card rule to follow anyways, as it can help you track your spending and notice any potentially fraudulent activity.
When Are Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees Charged?
Just like every credit card doesn’t charge a credit card annual fee, not all credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee. If yours does, then the credit card issuer will charge them when you’re using your card for purchases made outside of the U.S. This can include when you’re traveling in a foreign country and buying goods and services, or if you shop online with a merchant located abroad.
Tips for Avoiding Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees
Hoping to steer clear of a foreign fee on credit cards? Here are some ways you may be able to do so.
Find a Card With No Foreign Transaction Fees
The most straightforward way to avoid foreign transaction fees is to simply choose a credit card that doesn’t charge them. Some travel reward cards, for example, list zero foreign transaction fees as a benefit for card holders.
This isn’t limited to travel reward cards, however, and it doesn’t apply to all of them. In other words, you’ll want to make sure to shop around before committing to a card.
Consider an International Credit Card
If you’re a frequent traveler or have a big trip coming up, you may decide to get an international credit card. This will allow you to make purchases and use ATMs in many (but not all) countries around the world. An international credit card also can be helpful if you don’t want to convert U.S. dollars to that country’s currency or use traveler’s checks for your expenditures.
However, some international credit cards do have foreign transaction fees, so check carefully before signing up for one.
Exchange Your Money Before Traveling
You can also avoid foreign transaction fees by exchanging U.S. currency into the native currency for the place(s) you plan to travel. Then, you can simply pay cash for purchases.
Most major banks in the United States will exchange U.S. dollars for the appropriate foreign currency before you travel. They may not have less commonly used currencies available though, so double check before you head to the bank.
You may be able to directly exchange cash at a local bank, or you may need to place an order with a bank online or over the phone. Exchanges may occur the same day, or they may take a couple of days to complete.
If you run out of time, airports will likely have currency exchange services available, either in-person or through a kiosk. Although convenient, the exchange rates are usually less favorable to you than what your bank can offer.
Open a Bank Account With No Foreign Transaction Fees
Another possibility is to open a bank account that allows you to use ATMs without foreign transaction fees or out-of-network fees. Or, you might check to see if your local bank already offers this feature. Some banks have partnerships with banks abroad that can allow you to withdraw funds without paying fees, while others simply reimburse any incurred costs.
Before taking out too much cash, however, keep in mind the potential safety risks of carrying around a large amount of money.
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Once you know what a foreign transaction fee on a credit card is, you can figure out how to avoid them. At its simplest, a foreign transaction fee is an expense charged by many credit card companies when transactions are made with a merchant outside of the U.S. Not all credit cards charge this fee, so it can make sense to shop around for one that doesn’t if you know you’ll be making these kinds of purchases.
If you’re looking for a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, get the SoFi Credit Card. By avoiding that cost, you can put the funds you would’ve spent on foreign transaction fees toward enjoying your trip abroad. Plus, with the SoFi credit card, you can earn generous cash-back rewards through your spending.
Are credit card foreign transaction fees tax-deductible?
In general, businesses (but not individuals) can deduct credit card fees as long as the business can demonstrate that the card was used for business expenses. Check with your accountant for any specific questions.
Do foreign transaction fees apply to online purchases?
Yes. If you’re using a credit card that charges foreign transaction fees, then those fees will apply to online purchases if the merchant is not located in the United States.
Do all credit cards have foreign transaction fees?
No, they don’t. A number of travel cards don’t charge foreign transaction fees, though they’re not necessarily the only type of credit card that doesn’t levy this fee.
Are foreign transaction fees affected by exchange rates?
Typically, foreign transaction fees are based on a predetermined percentage of each transaction. That percentage doesn’t fluctuate when the exchange rate changes.
Photo credit: iStock/Vera Shestak
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