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Using Credit Cards and Debit Cards Overseas

When I moved to the UK and opened a bank account, I had no idea that anything but a Visa or Mastercard logo could be on a debit card (in other parts of the world, there are other kinds of debit cards). I should have looked into this before hand, but it honestly didn’t cross my mind. So let me help you learn from my naiveté. Here are a few things you should know before making the overseas bank account and credit card blunders that I did:

Tell Your Credit Card Company you are Going Overseas

Call your credit card company and bank and let them know you are moving or traveling, for how long, and in what countries. As I learned the hard way, if a foreign charge appears on a credit card the company may put an immediate hold on the account. This is comforting if you are worried about a band of gypsies stealing your wallet as you are backpacking across the former Eastern Bloc, but not so convenient when you are trying to pick up the tab for lunch. Nothing says “choose my company for your needs” like having your credit card declined in front of prospective clients!

Do you take American Express?

Although the answer is usually yes, you get a lot of funny looks.

I quickly tired of being treated as a tourist in the city I lived in. American Express is a great card to have when you are traveling on vacation. They have lots of member services and convenient locations throughout Europe if you need help in person or want to contact a local office by phone in the city you are in. But if you aren’t just traveling for a short time, Amex may not be the best credit card for international travel. You will want a bank card with a Visa, MasterCard or Maestro logo on it for everyday use.

My Bank Card Looks Fake

If you decide to get a new debit card overseas and are worried that your new card looks like a fake MasterCard, you are not alone. I was convinced that my bank was a sham from the beginning. Not to fear: Maestro is a member of the MasterCard/Maestro/Cirrus ATM network and is a European debit card owned by MasterCard. Maestro offers PIN-based account access and can be used in most countries throughout the world including the US. Any fees charged for international transactions are bank-dependent, so be aware of your bank’s policy before you travel.

Other symbols you might see on an overseas bank card or credit card include Solo, Visa Electron, and, in Ireland, Laser. Many of these symbols will also appear with a MasterCard, Visa, or Maestro logo, so as long as they are co-branded with one of the big three they can be used almost anywhere in the European Union and throughout North America, including Canada. Ask the right questions during a personal visit to the bank you choose. The best way to make sure your everyday life abroad does not involve a daily struggle to access your own money is to choose the right international bank wisely from the beginning!

Published or updated on May 25, 2010

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  1. R F says:

    I’ve had my account frozen back in 2006 when I was in Central Europe. It was embarrassing having to use another credit card, but when that card got frozen, I realized it was Wells Fargo and I had to call them from Europe. I wasn’t very pleasant to them on the phone. I’ve also learned that I have to call them every time I plan to go to Vancouver, which is only a 2.5 hr drive from me. I find it ridiculous but what I find ridiculous is the $5 fee for using an ATM in Canada.

  2. Andres says:

    One thing that this article didn’t touch on but should have is the fact that some cards charge interest on purchases made abroad. Make sure to thoroughly research the interest rate that each of your cards charge. In my case, my capital one credit card doesn’t charge any interest while my visa bank card (CHASE) charges approximately 3% which can add up after the ATM charges.

  3. James says:

    this is good information to have. i had no idea…

    talk about perfect timing i am planning a trip to Europe in less than 6 months.

  4. Panda Mike says:

    I would also advise to go travel with more than one credit card. If, for any reasons, your card is being stolen, cloned or frozen, you will be able to use your second card.

    Also, keep this second credit card elsewhere (in your luggage, in the hotel room, etc.). If you get your wallet stolen, you will still be able to access money easily.

  5. Do people still use / take traveler checks? I even remember just maybe 10 years ago TV ads for them. Dont think anyone would know what to do with them these days

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