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One of the biggest issues frequent travelers need to deal with is managing their banking needs. Even simple withdrawals are more complicated when you're thousands of miles from your local branch. The best banks for international travel make it easy to access and manage your money from anywhere in the world. And they do so without charging you an arm and a leg in extra fees. Our guide will share some of our top picks, as well as give you things to consider when making your own choice.
What do the best banks for traveling abroad offer? Here's what to look for:
How we decide which international travel banks to recommend
Hold up. How'd these international travel banks make it onto this page? We'll tell you: The crew here at The Ascent recommends these international travel banks to our friends and family. That means we only list the good stuff -- big banks can't pay their way onto this page! Our litmus test is, would we recommend these international travel banks to Grandpa at his Beatles-themed birthday bonanza? Uh, yeah. You can bet on it.
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Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking
Capital One 360 Checking
HSBC Premier Checking
The things you'll want to consider when choosing a bank for travel are similar to choosing a bank for everyday use. But there are a few factors that will become more important when you're traveling than they may be otherwise. Here are a few things to look for when selecting one of the best banks for international travel:
The more you travel, the more some of these factors will matter. If you're only out of the country a few times a year, then you may just want a simple checking account with low fees. If you're living abroad, additional services may be a vital part of the decision.
Finding the best bank for international travel is essentially a two-step process. You need to not only choose a bank, but also a bank account. So, consider what you want from your bank -- as well as what you need from your bank account.
The first choice you'll need to make is the type of bank you want: an online-only bank or one with brick-and-mortar branches. This choice may depend mostly on how much banking you'll do in the U.S. versus abroad. If you're rarely going to be stateside, for instance, then the number of domestic branches isn't particularly important.
Learn more: Online vs. Brick-and-Mortar Banks
You don't need to choose an online-only bank to get a good digital banking experience. Most of the major U.S. banks have invested in making comprehensive, user-friendly online banking platforms and mobile banking apps.
Another factor is the size of the institution. For domestic banking, smaller banks and credit unions are often great because they tend to have lower fees, better rates, and better customer services. But larger banks may have more experience with international transactions than smaller banks and credit unions. They also likely have more resources to put in things like 24/7 customer service lines.
Related: Banks vs. Credit Unions
The types of accounts and services you need your bank to offer will depend on how you plan to use it. You may simply want somewhere to keep your money so you can access cash while abroad. In that case, look for a basic checking account with useful features like ATM fee reimbursement and no foreign transaction fees.
Related: Best Checking Accounts
In other cases, you may need additional services. For example, you may want the option to send wire transfers between accounts and countries without excess fees. Or you may want to use the same bank for all of your financial needs both home and abroad. In the latter situation, you should explore the bank's savings accounts and lending options.
Related: Best Savings Accounts
Online-only banks are often a good option for simple accounts with basic services and low fees. If you need more from your bank, an established brand with brick-and-mortar branches and a wide range of services may be the better choice.
At a minimum, you're going to want an account you can access at an ATM. You may also need to make the occasional purchase. This means your bank should offer debit cards that work everywhere, meaning they operate on one of the four major networks:
In general, Visa and Mastercard are more internationally accepted than Discover or American Express.
Related: Visa vs. Mastercard
Physically, your debit card needs to have an EMV chip, as many countries no longer accept cards with magnetic strips, even at ATMs. It should also be enabled for contactless payments, which is quickly becoming the norm throughout the U.K. and Europe.
One thing to keep in mind is that while you want the option to make purchases with your debit card, you should aim to use credit cards when possible. Credit cards offer more purchase protections, including legally limited fraud liability if your card is used while lost or stolen. Reserve your debit card for the ATM, and use credit cards for purchases.
Related: Credit Card vs. Debit Card
In addition to exploring the types of accounts a bank offers, consider the cost of those accounts. Bank accounts come with a range of fees, from service fees to maintain your account to transaction fees to use it. Most of these fees apply whether you're using the account at home or abroad, but some fees are particularly important when traveling.
All of these fees can add up to a big expense just to have access to your own money while traveling internationally. On the bright side, many of these fees can be avoided.
The simplest way to avoid these fees is to choose an account that doesn't charge them. And if all you need is a basic checking account for domestic use, that's easy enough to do -- especially if you're willing to use an online-only bank. Unfortunately, accounts without account fees usually have other issues, like ATM fees and foreign transaction fees.
Related: How to Avoid Checking Account Fees
That said, most accounts with monthly service fees will offer a few ways to get those fees waived. The most common method is by meeting minimum daily balance requirements. Mid-tier accounts with fees in the $10 to $25 range tend to have minimum balance requirements of a few thousand dollars. Higher-tier accounts with more features will have higher fees -- and higher balance requirements to waive them.
Alternatively, you may be able to get the fee waived by meeting particular usage requirements. For example, an account may waive the service fee if you make a certain number of debit card transactions. Regular direct deposits, such as from a paycheck, may also fulfill the fee waiver requirements for some accounts.
The simple way to avoid ATM fees, at least at home, is to choose a bank with a large network of fee-free ATMs. Many of the best banks operate their own networks, though some partner with a third-party ATM network (or some combination). This is a must if you're going to use the same account for banking in the U.S. as you do when abroad.
At the same time, no matter how robust an ATM network your bank has at home, chances are good it doesn't extend across the border. In this case, your best bet is to choose a bank -- or at least an account -- that offers ATM fee reimbursement. Often, this will have some sort of monthly cap, such as 10 out-of-network ATM transactions a month. The best banks for international travel will have a high cap -- or none at all.
Of all the fees to avoid while operating internationally, this may be the most important. Foreign transaction fees on debit card transactions, including ATM withdrawals, can add up quickly if you're dealing with a lot of cash.
You have a few options for avoiding these fees. The first is to choose a bank that doesn't charge them at all. Capital One, for example, is well-known for not charging foreign transaction fees on its debit and credit cards. If the bank itself doesn't have a flat no-fee policy, it may still offer specific accounts with no foreign transaction fees.
Another option is to stick to using credit cards whenever possible. Pretty much all travel rewards credit cards come without foreign transaction fees, as do a few solid cash back cards. Plus, credit cards are usually a safer way to make purchases anyway. Anywhere that accepts debit cards will likely accept credit, so reserve your debit card for the ATMs.
You always want your bank to have good security, but some features become even more important when you're frequently away from home. For instance, good banks for travel make it easy to freeze your debit cards and/or accounts if your cards are lost or stolen. It should also be easy to report a lost or stolen card through the mobile app from wherever you are.
Another key security feature is two-factor authentication for your bank's login. This is the system where you need to use both your password and a special code sent by text message or automated call to log into your account. It adds an extra layer of security in case your mobile device or computer is lost or stolen in transit.
It's always a good idea to choose a bank with solid customer service -- even small issues can feel big when your money is in jeopardy. But it's downright vital when there's a literal ocean between you and the nearest branch.
Perhaps the most important feature is a bank that offers 24/7 customer support. Banks with traditional 9-to-5 hours are fine when you're in the same zip code, but they can be inconvenient (at best) when you're in a time zone that's 12 hours ahead. At the very least, secure email or online chat support is a must.
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Capital One is one of the few banks that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees on both its debit and credit products by default. Not many other major banks have a blanket policy of no foreign transaction fees. That said, a number of banks will offer specific accounts that waive foreign transaction fees. For example, TD Bank's basic checking account has a 3% foreign transaction fee, but its mid-tier option has a 0% fee. Charles Schwab's only checking account also waives foreign transaction fees.
The best banks for international travel share a few common features:
Secure: A lot can go wrong while traveling. Good banks make it easy to report lost or stolen cards, freeze your accounts, and get replacement cards wherever you are. Their mobile app should also offer extra security features like two-factor authentication and biometric sign-in in case your device winds up in the wrong hands.
Many large financial institutions operate in multiple countries. However, banking regulations can vary significantly from place to place, and there are strict regulations in place about moving money from country to country. As such, few banks operate consumer branches in multiple countries.
In other words, you'll have a hard time finding a U.S. bank that operates regular bank branches in other countries. The alternative is to use a U.S.-based bank that offers great digital banking options and low fees on services like foreign ATM withdrawals and purchases in foreign currencies.
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