International Credit Cards: Features, Benefits, and How They Work

By Jackie Lam · June 12, 2024 · 9 minute read

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International Credit Cards: Features, Benefits, and How They Work

If you want to avoid dealing with native currency or carrying traveler’s checks or cash when traveling abroad, an international credit card can be an asset. Having this kind of card in your wallet, which you can use both at home and abroad, can make for smoother trips overseas.

Here’s a closer look at what an international credit card is, its main features, and how to get an international credit card that’s right for you.

What Is an International Credit Card?

An international credit card is a credit card that you can use outside of the United States to make purchases and at an ATM. The major networks that issue international credit cards include Mastercard, Visa, Discover, and American Express.

However, having an international credit card doesn’t mean you can use it anywhere in the world. The countries where you can use a certain card depends on the network. For instance, Mastercard’s international cards can be used in over 210 countries, whereas Visa’s global network spans over 200 countries to date.

Features of International Credit Cards

Besides the fact that you can use the card overseas, here are some of the other features an international credit card may have:

International Chip and Pin

International credit cards feature an international chip and pin. Chip cards, or EMV cards (which stands for Europay, MasterCard, and Visa), add an extra layer of security to transactions.

With the chip and pin feature of international credit cards, you dip your card into the reader, then insert your PIN. This differs from in the U.S., where EMV cards come with chip-and-signature technology, which means you insert your chip and then may input your signature. Chip-and-pin is the standard everywhere else and, as such, this is what international credit cards offer.

Welcome Offer

An international credit card might have a welcome offer, which features an attractive introductory bonus. Typically, with how credit cards work, you’ll need to spend a certain amount on the card within the first few months of opening your account in order to earn the bonus. The amount you’ll need to spend, the time frame in which you’ll need to do it, and the number of bonus rewards points you can earn will vary by card.

Travel Perks

Some international credit cards come with attractive travel perks, such as trip cancellation insurance, rental car insurance, and lost luggage insurance. They might also feature access to exclusive airport lounges around the world.

To qualify for an international credit card with some of these luxury perks, however, you’ll usually need to have a good or even excellent credit score (meaning 670 or above).

Rewards Points

While many credit cards come with the ability to scoop up rewards points, international credit cards might offer a higher credit card rewards rate for travel-related purchases. This might include hotel stays, car rentals, dining out, and booked flights. For example, you might get 5x points on these travel-related purchases, whereas other purchases earn 1x points.

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Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees

An international credit card might come with a foreign transaction fee, which is a fee that applies when you make a payment with your card in another country. This fee is typically 3% of the total cost of the purchase, and it is charged in U.S. dollars. For example, if your total purchase came to $50, then the foreign transaction fee would be $1.50, for a total of $51.50.

If you’re not careful, foreign transaction fees can easily take a bite into your travel budget. Some international cards might not charge foreign transaction fees, which can put money back into your pocket and help you avoid credit card debt that’s hard to get rid of.

How to Get an International Credit Card

To get an international credit card, follow these steps:

1.    Do your homework to see which cards are most attractive to you. Which have the best perks, lowest fees, and most enticing rewards?

2.    You’ll also want to see which cards you can qualify for. By checking your credit score, you can better determine which cards you might get approved for.

3.    Apply for a credit card. The process of how to apply for a credit card is similar whether or not it’s an international credit card. You’ll usually need to provide basic personal and financial information, such as your Social Security number and details on your income.

4.    Once your application is submitted, the credit card issuer will do a hard pull of your card to determine your creditworthiness, which helps inform whether your limit will be above or below the average credit card limit. Be aware that a hard pull will likely result in a temporary ding to your credit.

5.    Find out if you’re approved. If you are, you can expect to receive your new card in the mail in seven to 10 business days. Your card will have a unique account number as well as the CVV number on a credit card.

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How to Choose the Best International Credit Card

What’s the best international credit card for you will depend on a handful of factors. Specifically, you’ll want to consider:

•   Where you’ll be traveling. Are you planning on using your card on business trips, and do you frequent certain countries for work? If so, there are certain countries or parts of the world where an international credit card may be more widely accepted. Different cards may be accepted in different locations.

•   Rates and fees. Look to see what the APR on a credit card will be. If you are likely to keep a balance, it’s particularly important that you have a good APR for a credit card. The lower the APR, the less you’ll pay in interest when you carry a balance. Also take a look at any other fees that may apply with the card, such as annual fees, late fees, cash advance fees, and, of course, foreign transaction fees.

•   Perks and rewards. Not all credit cards are equal when it comes to the perks and rewards they offer. It’s easy to be dazzled by attractive travel-related perks, but make sure they’re ones you’ll actually use. Also look at the earn rate for different categories, and see if the categories with the higher earn rates are in line with your spending habits. You want to use your credit card responsibly vs. overspending to earn rewards.

Pros and Cons of Using an International Credit Card

International credit cards have pros and cons, both of which are important to weigh.

Pros of Using an International Credit Card Cons of Using an International Credit Card
Less hassle when traveling Fees
Opportunity to earn rewards Might not be accepted everywhere
Travel perks Need to plan ahead to maximize perks

Pros of International Credit Cards

First, the upsides of international credit cards:

•   Less hassle when traveling: Perhaps the top advantage of using an international credit card is that you won’t need to fuss with native currency or carrying around cash or traveler’s checks. Plus, if something were to go amiss, you have the usual credit card protections in place, which could allow you to dispute a credit card charge or request a credit card chargeback.

•   Opportunity to earn rewards: Many international credit cards allow you to earn rewards for your everyday spending. Plus, some may offer higher rates of rewards for travel-related spending, which could be a big benefit for frequent travelers.

•   Travel perks: As mentioned before, international credit cards can come with a host of travel-related parks. For instance, international credit cards may offer trip cancellation insurance, car rental insurance, and free upgrades on hotels and flight bookings, to name a few.

Cons of International Credit Cards

Next, consider the potential downsides of international credit cards:

•   Fees: Some international cards have high annual fees, though these may translate to more attractive perks. You’ll also want to look out for foreign transaction fees, as these can quickly add to your costs when traveling.

•   Might not be accepted everywhere: Not all retailers within a country may accept payments with an international credit card. Some retailers might still only accept the local currency or certain payment methods. Additionally, international credit cards’ networks may not include particular countries.

•   Need to plan ahead to maximize perks: While international credit cards might come with some nice travel benefits and perks, it can take a bit of work and planning to make the most of them. For instance, if you want to rake in the bonus offer, you’ll need to plan for some big-ticket purchases to put on your card within the first few months of opening it.

Or, if a card features a travel credit that expires each year, the clock is ticking to use that benefit. This all could incentivize you to overspend, leaving you in a scenario where it’s hard to pay off more than the credit card minimum payment.

Recommended: Does Applying For a Credit Card Hurt Your Credit Score

The Takeaway

Having an international credit card in tow while traveling overseas can eliminate the hassle of dealing with foreign currency or carrying cash. When looking for a good that suits your needs, it’s important to weigh the perks against the downsides, particularly the fees involved.

Whether you're looking to build credit, apply for a new credit card, or save money with the cards you have, it's important to understand the options that are best for you. Learn more about credit cards by exploring this credit card guide.


Can I use my credit card internationally?

Yes, if you have an international credit card, you’ll be able to use your card outside of the U.S. Exactly which countries you can use your card in will depend on the network. For instance, MasterCard’s global network includes more than 210 countries, while Visa’s network includes over 200.

Should I withdraw cash with my international credit card?

While withdrawing cash from an international credit card is an option, note that doing so often comes at a cost. On top of the foreign transaction fee, which hovers at around 3%, there’s also a fee that applies to cash advances, and cash advances tend to have a higher APR. Interest on cash advances typically starts accruing immediately, as there’s no grace period on cash advances.

How can I find out which countries accept a given card?

Check the credit card network’s international use network to determine which countries you can use your card in. You may find this on the credit card network’s website or in the app or by contacting customer service.

Do I have to pay fees annually for an international credit card?

Some international credit cards do have an annual fee. Do your homework ahead of time to see what the annual fee is, and if the perks will offset the costs. Other costs you want to check include foreign transaction fees, cash withdrawal fees, and late fees.

Photo credit: iStock/Drazen_

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