Before you leave the country, you’re going to want to make sure that you can access your money while abroad without paying outrageous fees.
It’s your money — you shouldn’t have to pay to use it.
By doing a little extra legwork ahead of time, however, you can easily avoid foreign transaction and ATM fees, as well as set yourself up to make money by taking advantage of travel-friendly rewards programs.
Open a Bank Account without Foreign ATM Fees
A quick way to rack up enormous fees is to pull money out of a foreign ATM from an account that charges foreign transaction fees. A lot of accounts will hit you with an extra fee of up to $5 for each withdrawal — this is in addition to the ATM fee itself, which can get spendy ($6 in Thailand, for example).
Moving your spending money into a checking account without foreign ATM fees will save you hundreds of dollars each year, because you’ll always want to pull out money in the local currency when you arrive in a new country.
I’m only going to talk about the account I use myself, but The Points Guy has put together a good list of other options.
Schwab Investor Checking
I signed up for the Schwab Investor Checking account because I liked the idea of an entirely online bank account. They let me deposit checks through my phone, and I can transfer money to the account from any of my other bank accounts — for free — using their transfer setup.
On top of this, the Investor Checking doesn’t charge foreign ATM fees, the debit card they send has a chip (more on this below), and they even reimburse the ATM fees charged at the ATM.1
They also have killer chat support if you have questions — I once started out with questions about setting up an automatic transfer and ended by asking a bunch of Investment 101 questions. The agent was smart and super helpful; he even gave me the name of a restaurant to try in Barcelona.
Keep a “Local” Bank Account
If you get checks in the mail — whether it’s from a client, a tax refund, or a birthday card from your grandmother made out for the age you just turned — it’s sometimes handy to ask your contact person back home (I send mail to my parents, but you can also get a virtual assistant or your accountant to handle this for a fee).
For this reason I keep a Wells Fargo account open. I figure that way I can find a branch anywhere in the US, which means my contact person, or myself if I’m in-country for some reason, can quickly drop into a branch to deposit a check.
So far I’ve had very little reason to use this account, but for the once or twice I have, it’s been worth keeping it open.
Use Credit Cards with No Foreign Transaction Fees
If you’re not paying attention, you may get dinged for an additional 3% of every purchase made outside the United States on your credit card. That adds up fast when you travel often.
However, there are a large number of credit cards without foreign transaction fees. In this article, I’ll talk about the two credit cards I actually use. For a compiled list of all the cards available, NerdWallet has a solid roundup.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is my card of choice when traveling. The rewards are great, and the annual fee is cheap ($99). So far this year I’ve already made enough in rewards to pay back the fee and then some, and since I pay off my credit card balance in full every month, I’m effectively getting paid to use this credit card.
There are no foreign transaction fees or currency exchange fees, and the rewards system is specifically geared toward travelers.
On top of all that, it’s a Visa card with a chip, so I’ve never had an issue using it to pay — if the business accepts cards, this one will work.
Delta SkyMiles American Express
My backup credit card is the Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express, which has excellent benefits if you fly Delta frequently. There are pretty sizable mileage bonuses if you hit set spending thresholds each year — you can get to the Silver Medallion level almost without getting on a plane using this card — and it gives you double miles for any Delta purchase, plus 1-to-1 miles-for-dollars rewards for everything you spend on the card.
With this card’s help, I’ve had Platinum status on Delta for a while now, and the advantage of priority security line access alone is worth the membership fee for the card.
In addition, there are no extra fees for using the card abroad — the only challenge is that it’s American Express, so it’s not accepted everywhere.
Bonus Tip: Switch to Chip Cards Before You Leave
The United States is behind the rest of the world in credit card security, but that appears to be changing soon. The rest of the world, for the most part, uses chip and PIN cards.
If you’re planning to travel outside the US, a magnetic stripe card is likely to confuse the hell out of the kid making your coffee, so it’s a good idea to get chip cards before you go.
Fortunately, thanks to the impending chip card switch-over in the US, many banks are already issuing chip cards, and the ones who aren’t will probably do so if you ask.
I called about all of my credit and debit cards before I left, and had no issues getting a chip card issued in most cases. The exceptions were Discover2 and my local credit union. The rest of my cards were quickly reissued — without changing the card number — and I had switched over to chip cards within a week.
A Little Upfront Prep Will Save You Hundreds of Dollars
By taking a bit of time to get your money organized in a way that doesn’t cost you extra to access while traveling, you can save yourself a huge amount of headache (and dollars) once you’ve set out on your journey.
What to do next.
If you’re like me, the idea of traveling permanently while making a living probably seems like a dream — but you don’t think you can pull it off.
I felt that way right up until I actually boarded a flight to leave the United States back in 2014 — and now I can’t believe I didn’t start living this life sooner.
The secret to a life on your terms — work where and when you want, living anywhere in the world — is remote work. And there’s good news: it’s easier than ever before to join the ranks of location-independent workers around the world.
I want to help you. The best remote workers all have a set of non-technical skills, and I’ve put together a free 6-point checklist to help you master them — and ultimately master your time and ability to work anywhere in the world.