Have you ever been on a trip abroad, only to realize once you got back home the egregious bank fees you had to pay on every transaction you had done?
This is common for travelers, as it sometimes feels like banks never run out of ideas to make us pay another bank fee. This is how you end up paying a fee for withdrawing in a foreign bank, another fee because you’ve been withdrawing in a foreign currency, and a conversion fee on top of the horrible exchange rate you’ll usually get from converting your money into another currency.
I’ve been traveling around the world for several years, and I managed to limit these bank fees to a number close to zero, and in this article I’ll explain to you how.
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Choose your Bank carefully
This is something you need to set up before embarking on a trip. This is also a major factor in how much bank fees you’re going to end up paying.
When I first started to travel, I didn’t pay much attention to all of this and just started my first trip with the bank I had been using for as long as I could remember. Careless mistake! Once I saw my bank statement after the trip, it was the last time I went on a journey with a traditional bank.
My Zero Bank Fee set-up
I’ve been going with a specific set-up for several years that has been working well for me:
I kept my traditional bank, where I only have a bank account. Since I have no debit or credit card there, I don’t pay a dime.
To make my purchases and withdraw money, I decided to go with a couple of digital banks, since I was attracted by the low bank fees they offered and the strong recommendation of some of my traveling friends.
I use my traditional bank account to wire fresh money into these neobanks, so that I never have too much or too little money on any of these. I even set up a recurring transfer to make sure I always have some money even if I go offline for a while.
Forget traditional banks, Neobanks are the way to go
I use these neobanks to keep my fees to a minimum. My main pick is Revolut, a UK company offering banking services. I have two cards with them, one Visa and a Mastercard, and several virtual cards that I keep for safe online payment. Having two cards allow me to have a backup in case one of these cards get swallowed by an ATM or stop working. It’s also interesting to travel both a Visa and a Mastercard, since some countries can be more keen to accept one or the other (Brazil comes to mind).
On top of Revolut, I also use N26, a German neobank that offers a basic account and a debit card. I don’t use this card much, I just see it as a useful backup solution, in case I run into any trouble with Revolut.
Both Revolut and N26 offer several plans, and I chose to go with the free standard plan as it fits my need.
The advantages of Neobanks
- You will be able to withdraw cash without being charged by your bank (withdrawals might be limited in terms of numbers or/and the total amount of cash)
- You will be able to convert currency at a near market rate
- You will be able to hold multiple currencies on your account
Being able to save on fees is the major advantage of these digital banks.
The drawbacks of Neobanks
Unfortunately, most digital banks are available only in a grasp of countries, often being countries from the European Economic Area, the US and a few more developed countries around the world such as Japan and Singapore. Although, these banks try to make it widely available, don’t expect it to come anytime soon. I remember my wife, born and raised in Hong Kong, tried to open a Revolut account about 3 to 4 years ago. Revolut mentioned on their website that “Revolut is coming to Hong Kong”, but no evolution has been made to this day.
The Best Banks for Traveling Abroad
These three might be the most famous, but plenty more digital banks exist, and I recommend to check out which one would fit your needs the best.
To this list we can also add more traditional bank such as Charles Schwab, offering a low fee debit card for US residents.
Check carefully for ATM fees when cashing back
Now that we manage to reduce your fees down to a minimum on your side, we’ll also need to be careful on fees when we’re withdrawing. These will usually be indicated when you’re about to cash back.
The fees can come in multiple ways:
- A flat-out and clear warning, letting you know that you will get charged x amount of money if you cash back at this ATM. This amount will quite often be different from one ATM to another, even in the same country.
- Always refuse the conversion rate the ATM will offer you and choose the local currency (the currency of the country you’re in). I have yet to come across an ATM offering an interesting exchange rate.
ATM fees can quickly add up if you don’t make sure you’re avoiding these.
How to know which ATMs charge a fee beforehand?
You could also make an online search by typing ATM fees + the name of the relevant country.
You’ll end up with a list of banks that are not charging fees, and you should target these banks whenever you need to make a withdrawal.
In some countries, you’ll find that most ATMs charge a fee, but it doesn’t mean that all of them do. When we were living in Vietnam, we discovered that 90% of them were charging a fee, but we found that VP Bank, a rather minor bank there, would never charge us anything. The least to say is that anytime I’d pass by this bank, I’ll usually cash back a bit of money.
Favor paying by card when available
A great tip to avoid cashing back too often is to favor paying with your card as frequently as possible.
However, many countries are still cash-based societies, where taking your card out to pay for a meal will make you seem like an alien to perplexed locals. The opportunities to pay by card will be limited, but you’ll surely be able to do so in most supermarkets, and pay your hotel reservation directly through the booking app.
Be aware that cards can be cloned by making an unauthorized copy of your card while you pay. If the place seems dodgy, always prefer to use cash.
One major factor to reduce your bank fee will depend on where you’re currently residing. Hopefully things will change fast so that all people can have access to zero fee payment solutions.
However, if you’re residing in one of these eligible countries, you have no excuse to keep on paying these insane bank fees. All it takes is a bit of research to see which bank could better fits your need. Opening an account will take minutes, and receiving a debit card might take a few more days.
Adopting a digital bank will usually rhyme with saving money during your trip abroad, allowing you to go farther with your money.
And you? Do you have experience traveling with Digital Banks? How did you manage to reduce your Bank Fee? Share your experience with us!