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Weekend Rewind: How To Avoid Foreign Transaction & ATM Fees While Abroad?

Weekend Rewind

Since there are so many new Readers to FFU, instead of writing new content every weekend, I am going to start to republish old articles from the FFU archive that according to Readers feedback, they have found especially useful.

For the Readers that are new, hopefully you will learn some new tips and tricks from these old articles

For Readers that may have previously seen the content, consider this a helpful reminder incase you planned on taking advantage of the post but forgot about it.

Reader Question: How To Avoid Foreign Transaction & ATM Fees While Abroad?

Reader Question: Hey Parag, just wanted to say I love your site. It is the first site I check every morning at work. My husband and I are planning a trip to Italy this Fall, so we took your advice and both signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card! What looked like $2,000 in airfare should now hopefully be free! I do have a question, I keep hearing about Foreign Transaction Fees. What exactly are they and are there any ways to avoid them? Thanks, Maria

What Are Foreign Transaction Fees?

Foreign Transaction Fees are the fees that your Bank or Credit Card charges you to process a purchase made in a foreign country.

This applies to almost all Credit Cards, Debit Cards, and ATM Cards.

Typically the fee is somewhere around 3% although some credit cards companies like Capital One do not charge this fee.

Full list of Foreign Transaction Fees can be found here.

That being said, Maria is in luck because as I talked about last week, one of the many perks the British Airways Card 100,000 Point Offer is that the British Airways Card has ZERO foreign transaction fees.

At a minimum this will save Travelers 3% when making purchases abroad!

While 3% does not sound like a lot, if you charge your Hotel, Tours, Food, Souvenirs, etc, on your Credit Card, it can add up extremely quickly.

When I went to Australia in 2010 with Emily and her Family, her Dad spent over $10,000 on his Credit Credit that had foreign transaction fees.

If he had a Card that did not have any foreign transaction fees, he would have saved 3% of $10,000 or over $300!

Therefore the easiest answer to this question is that when you go abroad, put all your purchases on a Credit Card like the British Airways Card that doesn’t have any Foreign Transaction Fees.

Getting Currency Abroad

Now sometimes when you are abroad, there is no way to use your Credit Card and you need cash.

From going to India numerous times, I can tell you that outside of luxury hotels, no one uses or accepts Credit Cards.

Luckily, there are a few ways to get currency abroad, a few are good but most are really bad in terms of exchange rates.

Travelers Cheques

With the advent of Credit Cards and ATMs, in my opinion Traveler’s Cheques are really a relic of the past and I don’t recommend them.

To add insult to injury, the first Travelers Cheque was issued in 1772 and American Express started issuing them in 1891, so a 120 years later, it is safe to say there are better alternatives.

Exchanging U.S Dollars For Foreign Currency 

While this is the route that many people go, it isn’t really cost-effective.

You can exchange U.S Dollars for foreign currency at your local Bank, the Airport, your Hotel, Street Vendors, etc.

However in all of these cases, you are certain to get an extremely unfavorable exchange rate, as the person buying your U.S currency is playing the spread in the exchange rates.

At a minimum, you will lose 5% – 15% in exchanging U.S Dollars for any foreign currency.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I was in College and had no idea what I was doing.

I went to Chase and asked to exchange a couple hundred U.S Dollars into Euros for a upcoming trip, I didn’t ask what the rate was, and when I got home I calculated that after all of Chase’s fees and spread on the exchange rate, it cost me almost 15% of the value of my U.S Dollars!

Using An ATM In A Foreign Country

Regardless of if you follow my other suggestions below, your best bet it to always get money straight from ATMs abroad.

While most U.S based ATM Cards will charge you an annoying 3% foreign transaction fee and an ATM withdrawal fee, the money you will withdraw will be at the official exchange rate at that second.

Even with the ridiculous 3% Foreign Transaction Fee and ATM withdrawal fee, you are still certain to get a better overall exchange rate than if you exchanged U.S Dollars anywhere else.

Since your U.S Bank will charge you to an ATM withdrawal fee on top of the 3% Foreign Transaction Fee, my suggestion is to withdraw large amounts of money ($500 or however much you need) instead of $50-$100 at a time when you travel abroad.

In the end this will save your money, just remember not to carry it all around with you at the same time and place some of your money in your hotel safe or travel wallet.

How To Avoid All Foreign Transaction Fees & ATM Fees Worldwide

Now if you are a person that travels a lot, your best bet is to bank with a financial institution that has no ATM fees anywhere in the World!

Yes those do in fact exist!

Bank Of America

A lot of people talk favorably about Bank of America because they are a member of a “global alliance” of ATMs and allows you to withdraw cash abroad without a fee and a reduced Foreign Transaction Fee of 1% at their Partner banks.

While this is a start, it is kind of annoying because the Partner banks are Country specific.

So for example when I was in Amsterdam, I used my BofA Debit Card to withdraw from a Barclays ATM at the airport, as Barclays in a partner of the “Global Alliance”.

However when I came home, I still got charged 3% Foreign Transaction Fee and $5 ATM withdrawal fee.  

When I called BofA to tell them that they messed up and I’d like the fee refunded, they told me that the “global alliance” only works for specific countries, in the Barclays example I could only use Barclays ATMs in the UK for free, even though Barclays has Barclays ATMs all across Europe.

Kind of dumb!

Time To Talk To Chuck

After deciding that Bank of America was worthless,  I looked for a new bank and came across Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking.

While most people think of Charles Schwab as an investment firm (which they are), they are also an actual bank!

I will preface the rest of this post by saying Charles Schwab is NOT paying me anything to talk about their free Checking Account or promote it in any way.

I am writing this extremely long review because I think their Online Checking is amazing and I want to help you save money!

That being said, with a Charles Schwab Online Checking Account, you get 100% free checking.

No fees, no minimums, no direct deposit needed, plus free checks, and real customer support.

I’ve had my Charles Schwab High Yield Checking Account for over 2 years now, and I have not paid a single cent to them for anything.

a credit card on a paper

I kid you not! Everything you hate about your current bank is FREE at Charles Schwab, no strings or fees attached!

However the best part of Charles Schwab Checking is…


Let me just repeat that.


Now when I say ATM fees, I am not just talking about the fee your Bank charges to use a non-preferred ATM,  I am also talking about the $2 – $3 fee the ATM charges you.

Charles Schwab refunds all of these fees!

Now I only travel abroad maybe 2-3 times a year, but what is nice is that the free ATMs also relates to U.S ATMs. So I can effectively take money out of anywhere for free.

Most people take out money out once a week from their Bank’s ATM to avoid fees, and if they run out of cash then they have to pay a fee to use a non-preferred ATM.

With my Charles Schwab Checking Account, I can take money out wherever.

If I’m at a bar and run out of cash, I can just hit up the Bar’s ATM even if they charge a $3 withdrawal fee because Charles Schwab will reimburse me. Thanks Chuck!

Now I know firsthand what a huge pain in the butt it is to switch banks because we just switched Emily over to Schwab.

However when you realize how much money your Bank is stealing from you to perform basic functions, on top of the fact that you are giving them YOUR money to hold which they are lending out to make even more money, it is really amazing.

How Much It Really Costs To Have A Bank Account

I always talk about Mint.com and this is why.

I will probably do a complete overview of Mint.com one of these days, but the reason why it is amazing is that you can get a complete overview of your entire financial situation all at once.

This includes all your transactions over any given period.

So in my numerous attempts to convince Emily to switch to Schwab, I finally just went to Mint, searched for Fees and pulled up all the fees that Chase charged her over the last 3 years.

In the image, you only see ATM fees but they also charged account maintenance fees, fees to order checks, minimum balance fees, etc.

a screenshot of a computer


Even I was surprised by that number!

Without checking Mint, it is extremely easy to think “oh my Bank only charged me $3, not a big deal” but those $3 ATM fees and $6 monthly account fees add up really quickly!

Unless you do a high level look at your finances, 99% of customers would never know how much their bank charges them.

Do you know how much you spent on ATM fees in the last year? Probably not!

And let’s be honest, your Bank isn’t going to send you any kind of financial statement at the end of the year saying,

“Thanks for being such a profitable customer! In the last 3 years, we charged you $300 in easily avoidable fees that you probably aren’t even aware of. We hope you will continue to Bank with us as we plan on stealing some more money from you next year!”

As I stated earlier, I know exactly what a huge pain in the butt it is to switch over your Bank because you most likely have online bill pay set up and a host of other features.

However in doing consulting work for a few of the big banks, the dirty little secret I learned is that they give you all those “free” services so they can keep you locked in!

Banks know that if all your financial information (like online bill payment) is set up on their platform, then you are going to be less likely to switch because you have to move all that information over to your new Bank.

Remember what a pain it was to switch your cell phone plan before you could keep your same telephone number? Same thing!

Although Bank of America severely underestimated the backlash from social media, when they tried to roll out their $5 debit card fee last summer, it wasn’t just some boneheaded random move!

Their highly paid consultants had researched it out and surveyed Customers to determine that because Bank of America’s Customers’ finances were so intertwined into Bank of America’s online banking platform, that even with a $5 debit card fee the majority of their Customers would be too lazy to switch.

Point of the story – Don’t be lazy and let your Bank walk all over you.

Remember it is your money that you are letting the Bank hold!

Banks can make money lending your money to people, but they shouldn’t be making money off of the people who are lending them money in the first place!

Opening An Account With Charles Schwab

Opening an account with Schwab is really easy and can be done online in 10 minutes.

As I said earlier, I get nothing if you sign up for an account except the satisfaction that I saved my readers from some future ATM fees!

Link To Charles Schwab

Even if there isn’t a Schwab branch near you, I would still recommend opening an account because all of their banking can be done by mail or via smartphones, and as I said earlier, you can take money out of any ATM for free!

There are 3 branches in Chicago, and I have never stepped foot into any of them because all of my banking is done electronically.

In the rare event I need to deposit a check, I can deposit it via the Schwab app on my iPhone or mail it in via a pre-paid envelope.

a screenshot of a bank account

As you can see above, it is 100% free to open an account.

There are no fees, no required direct deposit, or even any minimums to open the account.

You can open an account with as little as $0.01, and even withdraw that $0.01, and Schwab still won’t charge you any fees even if your balance is $0!

The only requirement is that you open a brokerage account when you open your checking account, however that is also 100% free.

Before you write this off, you don’t ever have to use the brokerage account, there are no fees for inactivity, and there aren’t any credit checks to open the brokerage account.

I personally do not ever use my brokerage account, and I have never been pressured to use it or even contacted about using it or any other Charles Schwab services.

Once your account is open and you fund it, Schwab will mail you your free checks and ATM card.

FYI – until you fund it with $0.01 cents or more, Schwab won’t send you your checks or ATM card.

I had a Roth-IRA which I also moved over when I switched my banking to Schwab, and it was extremely easy.

Best part is that if you ever have any questions about anything, you can always call them up and someone in the U.S will pick up instantly.


Hopefully that answers Maria’s question.

Basically, avoiding foreign transaction fees come down to 3 basic things:

  • If possible, use a credit card with zero Foreign Transaction Fees for all your purchases when abroad.
  • If you need cash while abroad, always use an ATM.
  • If you hate your Bank, switch to Charles Schwab.

If you have any questions about anything travel or miles related, you can always email me at FrequentFlyerUniversity@gmail.com!


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