After getting sick of paying bank fees, ATM withdrawal fees, and currency conversion fees, while traveling, I went shopping for the best debit card and credit card for international travel. After some trial and error, I believe I have found them. With these two cards, I have never been stranded without being able to get money from my account. As an added bonus I earn a decent amount of awards points too.
When I travel, I carry a Schwab Bank debit card and Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. These card recommendations will only be helpful for Americans. If you aren’t an American, skip down to the bottom for some helpful banking recommendations and tips for traveling abroad.
The Best Debit Card For International Travel
Every American traveling internationally should use the Schwab Bank debit card. The account you want to open is called the Schwab Bank high yield investor checking account. Benefits include:
- All ATM fees are refunded at the end of the month- With this card, you can use any ATM in the world that accepts Visa for free. At the time of the transaction, you will pay whatever fee the ATM charges. At the end of each month, Schwab will refund all of those fees to your account. There is no maximum or other requirements that you must meet. Most ATM’s charge $2-$6 per transaction. I have used ATM’s that charge up to $9 to withdraw cash. This can add up to hundreds of dollars if you are on a multi-month trip. Another benefit of this is that you can carry less cash. Instead of withdrawing the maximum each time you visit the ATM to avoid the fee, you can just take out what you need. You can simply visit the ATM more frequently and not worry about the cost. I do advise that you save your receipts just in case Schwab misses a transaction fee. You can simply show them the receipt and they will issue a refund.
- No foreign transaction fees- This means you generally get the best exchange rate. Schwab doesn’t charge you to do the currency conversion. Most big banks charge 2%-4%.
- If you lose your card, they will send you a new one wherever you are- I have never had to use this service and I am not sure if they charge for it but it gives real peace of mind. If you need a card replaced, you can get it.
- Schwab customer service is excellent- They are, by far, the best bank I have ever dealt with. I have called them a number of times and I am always speaking to a human being almost immediately no matter what time zone I am in. They also provide an international collect phone number so you can call customer service for free from anywhere. They are always professional and pleasant when I have called.
- The Schwab banking app is pretty good- You can easily track your money on your phone to help with budgeting. You can make or edit a travel notification on your account on the app. No need to call. This is nice if you don’t have an international sim card for your phone.
- When you open a checking account with Schwab, you also must open a brokerage account with them- This is the only requirement. You do not have to fund the brokerage account and it does not cost any money. I hold some of my investments in Schwab and find them to be a very good brokerage. They generally have low fees and solid investment products. Their research tools are helpful as well.
- Free checks- I haven’t used checks for years but if you use them, they are free with the Schwab investment checking account.
- The card is reliable- As long as you put a travel alert on your account to let Schwab know where you will be going, this card works. You can place the travel alert either by calling or using the app. Last year in Malawi, my friend’s card randomly stopped working. He tried several ATM’s from different banks and even called his bank and couldn’t get his card working. My card worked at every ATM that I tried in Africa.
- Schwab has excellent security- Every time I call they ask me at least 4 identification questions including social security number, mothers maiden name, employer, online banking username, and other security questions if need be. This gives me peace of mind that nobody other than me can access my money. They have also given me recommendations to increase security while calling about another matter.
I really can’t think of anything bad to say about this card. I am really happy with Schwab and their services. Can’t say enough good things about them. You can open a Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account here.
One thing to note is that Schwab doesn’t have many physical locations so you will need to fund your account through a bank transfer or you can mail them a check. They do not accept cash deposits at their locations.
The Best Credit Card For International Travel
I carry the Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card. I only opened this account for the points. You get 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points for opening this card. Sometimes they offer more so keep an eye out for special offers. That is enough for a one-way ticket anywhere in the world.
Last year I flew from Los Angeles, California to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for 40,000 points. You could probably fly round trip from the U.S. to Europe or Southeast Asia, or South America for 50,000 points if you shop around a bit or travel offseason. If you wish to redeem the points for cash, you’d get $500. It is better to use the points for travel as they are worth more than $.01 each. Benefits of this card include:
- No foreign transaction fees- Chase doesn’t charge to do currency conversion with this card.
- You earn one point for each dollar you spend- You can use this for airplane tickets on most airlines, hotel rooms at many chains, or redeemed for cash.
- You get a fancy metal credit card- Not important but it makes me feel like some kind of high roller.
- Chase points are worth more than a penny apiece- When you redeem your points for airfare or hotels, chase give you a little bonus. The points are worth about 1.25 cents per point. They also have a big network.
- Generally, credit cards offer more security than debit cards- If there is a fraudulent transaction or your card is stolen, you can get your money back more easily with a credit card than a debit card.
Drawbacks of this card include:
- There is an annual $95 fee to use the card- There is no fee for the first year.
- You must spend $4000 in the first 3 months that you have the card to earn the 50,000 point offer- This is a lot of money to spend for most people. There are ways to manufacture fake spending but that is against the rules and is dishonest. You can research it on your own if you want to try it.
- Chase is a big bank that will rip you off every chance they get- I hate giving them business.
The Big Banks. My Experiences with Chase and Wells Fargo
I have personally had bad luck with Chase. A couple of years back I had a business account with them. Someone somehow created and cashed a fake check for $600 from my business account. Chase refused to refund the money even though they agreed that it was theft and was fraudulent. I fought this for a number of months and ended up closing my account with them. I hate giving them business but I am happy to take advantage of their introductory credit card offers. My plan is to cancel the card before having to pay the annual fee. I also always pay my credit cards off in full each month so I am never paying them interest.
I don’t like Wells Fargo either and only keep the accounts open out of convenience. When I am in the U.S. there is always a branch nearby. That is the only good thing I can say about Wells Fargo. Other than that, they charge high fees like all of the other big banks and they have a terrible reputation lately for a number of reasons. The Wells Fargo cards I carry serve as backups if my primary cards are lost. They charge a high foreign transaction fee but come in handy if my other cards are lost or stolen or are shut off for whatever reason.
Helpful Banking Recommendations and Tips for Traveling Abroad
- You should call your bank and lower the daily withdraw and charge limit on all of your cards- I recommend $300-$500 for a cash withdraw limit and the same or slightly more for a daily charge limit. If you are being forced to withdraw cash from an ATM by a violent criminal, you don’t want them to be able to drain your entire account. Also, if your credit card information is stolen, you don’t want the card to be maxed out fraudulently. While unlikely, these events do happen. Taking this precaution limits your losses.
- You may also want to look into the offerings of your local credit unions- I was a member of a great one in Washington State until I moved to California. They offered a debit card with a very low foreign transaction fee that was a nice alternative to the big banks. Credit unions also often offer free checking accounts and have other benefits that big banks can’t offer because they are operating on a smaller scale locally. They are definitely worth looking into.
- It is also a good idea to always carry some cash- U.S. dollars are still the most useful in most of the world. They can always be exchanged to local currency. I like to carry enough dollars to sustain me for a week. Around $300 should suffice pretty much anywhere in the world. You will want to adjust this depending on your style of travel and budget.
- Sometimes working ATM’s are few and far between- Plan accordingly for this. Sometimes it is necessary to carry over $1000 in cash if you are traveling somewhere very remote where you won’t have access to an ATM.
- Always carry more than one card- I carry 4 but that is probably excessive. I keep them divided up and stashed away between my backpack and my person in case of theft or loss. Usually, 2 are kept hidden in my backpack and 2 are kept in my money belt or pocket.
- If you are using a credit card, remember to pay the card off in full every month- Credit card interest can be 17-25% or more annually depending on your credit score and other factors. It adds up fast. I never carry debt. Especially for travel.
- Make sure you are carrying a Visa card for travel- Most locations accept them around the world. American Express, MasterCard, and Discover are fine for backups but are not accepted at nearly as many locations.
For more banking tips, check out my Travel Money Tips.
ATM Safety and Tips
- Try to only use ATMs at banks- These will be less likely to eat your card or have skimmers installed. Banks also generally have security watching the ATM. They also will be serviced more often.
- Avoid privately owned ATM’s- They generally charge a higher fee and who knows how often they are serviced by the owner. Occasionally ATMs eat cards or have skimmers installed by criminals. A bank-owned ATM will be safer but it scams can still happen. Be careful in your ATM selection.
- Try to only use the ATM in a crowded place or if security is present- Sometimes criminals stand around waiting for a target to rob or pickpocket you.
- Don’t forget your card in the ATM- If it is found by the bank, it will generally be destroyed.
Final Thoughts: The Best Debit and Credit Card for International Travel
The Schwab bank debit card is the best debit card being offered for international travel. The ATM fee return alone can save you hundreds of dollars over the course of your trip. As for credit cards, keep an eye out for introductory offers in the form of travel points from the big banks. Especially Chase. You may be able to score a free plane ticket for your next trip.
Which debit and credit card do you travel with? Share your experience and recommendations in the comments below!
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