Carrying a credit card or debit card when you’re traveling abroad is a no-brainer. Using a credit card overseas allows you to track your purchases, cancel it if it gets lost or stolen, and earn rewards on your purchases that you can put towards future travel.
But using a credit card overseas isn’t always as easy as using plastic in the United States. Here are 15 things to know about using a credit card overseas.
What to do before travelling overseas with your credit card
Check if your card is accepted. Choose a U.S. credit card that’s widely accepted abroad. Generally, this means taking a Visa or MasterCard rather than Amex or Discover. Some U.S. cards are also starting to offer chip-and-PIN technology that can mean wider acceptance across Europe. Call your credit card company to find out how widely its accepted overseas and what fees you may be charged for purchases in foreign currencies.
Let your credit card company and bank know about your trip. If a credit card company or your bank starts seeing purchases overseas, they may flag your card as fraud and freeze your account. This is great if your card had actually been stolen, but less great when you’re traveling and your means of paying for things gets cut off. Let them know the locations you are traveling to and the dates of this trip so they do not freeze your card. They should note this in your account so there are no issues.
Know your credit limit. It’s not uncommon to accidentally to go over your credit limit – especially if you’re travelling for weeks at a time. At home, going over limit may be an inconvenience or incur a small fee, in different countries where credit cards are not as widely used, this may be seen in a harsher light. U.S. State Department websites vaguely suggest that Americans have been arrested for “innocently exceeding their credit limit while traveling abroad.” That’s probably an unusual situation, but one in which you certainly don’t want to find yourself.
Write down the international customer service number for your card(s). The usual 800 number for customer service won’t work abroad so find out the international number where you can reach them if your card is stolen, lost, or you encounter any other issues. Store it in your phone, e-mail it to yourself, or write it on a piece of paper you’ll keep with important documents.
Here are some international phone numbers for the biggest U.S. credit card companies. You can call these numbers collect to avoid charges.
- American Express: 1-336-393-1111
- Bank of America: 1-757-677-4701
- Capital One: 1-804-934-2001
- Citibank: 1-605-335-2222
- Chase: 1-302-594-8200
- Discover: 1-801-902-3100
Transfer extra funds to a savings account. If you’re bringing your debit card, only have the money in your account you will need for the trip and a little extra for emergencies. Transfer any excess to a savings account. This way if your card is stolen, the thieves can’t wipe out your entire account.
Understand the fees. When you use your debit or credit card overseas, the bank decides what exchange rate will be used between U.S. dollars and the currency of the transaction. Usually they build in a little bit of profit, but the rates are generally better than tourist money changing services.
But that may not be the end of the fees. Some credit cards charge an additional few percentage points of the transaction as a foreign currency transaction fee. Additionally, the fees for making ATM withdrawals abroad may be significantly higher than in the U.S.
Make copies of your cards. Make a copy of the fronts and backs of your credit and debit cards. This way if you’re cards are stolen, you can report it to the local police and the U.S. Embassy.
Limit your cards. You don’t need to take your entire wallet and all of your credit cards. This will just make the situation worse if your bag gets lost or stolen. Choose the best credit card for your travels, and bring one or two.
Be aware of what’s covered by your credit card. You may be pleased to find out your credit card may offer a form of travel insurance for anything you charge on the card. For example, if you charge a rental car with your card, you can be insured for any damages. Call your credit card company to see what’s covered abroad.
Safely using a credit card overseas
Protect your cards. Carry your cards in a safe way, like a money belt that wraps around your body or a purse that wraps across your chest. Wallets and purses around a shoulder can be targets, and a backpack can be easily looked through while you’re not paying attention. When you’re putting in your PIN, cover it. Someone can be looking over your shoulder to attempt to steal it.
Keep track of your card. Don’t let your card out of your sight. It’s not uncommon for merchants abroad to double swipe or take it in the back to copy information down. And of course, always make sure you get your card back before you leave.
Track your purchases. Keep a receipt for your purchases. Check your statements regularly while you’re still traveling. If you have any charges that shouldn’t be there, call your credit card immediately because time is a factor.
Ask if there’s a fee to charge. Some places charge a hefty fee for not paying with cash, so double check anywhere you go.
Always carry back-up cash. There’s a good chance you’ll encounter places that only accept cash. Also, credit and debit cards aren’t as reliable as you would hope. An ATM can eat your card, credit card machines can be down, or you can run into other problems using your card.
Act fast if your card is stolen. If your card is missing, contact your credit card company, the local police, and the U.S. Embassy. When you’re home, you can contact the IRS Identity Protection Unit to report any stolen credit and debit cards as a first step in mitigating potential harmful effects of identity theft.
Finally, and most importantly, enjoy your trip!