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Northwestern University

Handling Your Finances

Settle on the amount of money you will need while abroad. Make both weekly and daily budgets and stick to them. Learn the value of the local currency and look for special student rates and discounts. Friends with foreign experience and students who have participated in your particular study abroad program are excellent sources of advice on spending and saving money while abroad. For conversion tables, consult an online currency converter from sources such as Google or Yahoo.

The safest way to protect your finances abroad is to diversify them by using cash, a debit card or credit cards. Should one form be lost or stolen, you will have access to your funds through another form.

Most students access home funds through automated teller machines (ATMs). Since many ATMs abroad will only access a checking account, do not leave your funds in a savings account before departure. Otherwise, ATMs are used the same way that they are here: your home checking account is debited for your withdrawal and you draw out local currency. You are charged a service charge and the current exchange rate. Although this way of accessing money is convenient, you are warned not to use it as your only form of getting cash. Be sure to check with your bank at home to ensure that your PIN is valid abroad and to clarify what sorts of charges will be applied. Likewise, inform your bank that you will be abroad so that your access is not blocked due to suspected fraud. Your bank may be willing to waive your ATM fees since you are not able to use their machines. It never hurts to ask. If your bank cannot waive the international ATM fees, it may be wise to look around for debit cards that are better suited for international travel.

Credit cards such as Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are honored abroad, though not always as widely as in the United States. Credit cards make foreign currency transactions easy and are invaluable in a financial emergency. Take a credit card along, but use it wisely. Plastic can be dangerous because it is easy to overspend, service fees and interest charges can be costly, and the loss or theft of a card can inconvenience you, especially while traveling. Seek advice from the issuing company as to the card's applicability abroad and the billing rate for converting the amount of purchases abroad into dollars. Be sure to learn your PIN before departure. Contact your credit card company to learn your credit limit and the number to call in case your card is lost or stolen. Also let your credit card companies know the dates and locations of your travel. When cards normally used in the U.S. suddenly begin being used abroad, some credit card companies will cancel the card to avoid possible fraud and other security issues.

If any of your cards are lost or stolen, you will need to contact your bank and clarify whether it is an ATM, a debit, a credit, and/or a check card. The bank will need the number and possibly the PIN. It is useful to make a photocopy of both sides of each of your credit and ATM cards so that you have the account numbers and phone numbers to call in case they are lost or stolen. This article from Forbes provides some additional tips on what to do if your credit card is stolen while abroad.

Although it is uncommon, students who stay abroad for a semester or longer may open a bank account abroad. You can discuss this option with your U.S. bank or with a foreign bank upon arrival.

If you do not have an ATM card or credit cards with which to access funds, you have several alternatives, all based on the assumption that someone at home can send you money.

If all else fails, turn to the Bureau of Consular Affairs. After an investigation determines that an American is genuinely stranded, a consular official will seek one of your friends or relatives to help. If no one can be found, an official may advance money, but a "limitation" will be put on your passport, signifying that it is to expire when you reach home and cannot be renewed until the loan is repaid.

Avoid the extra stress, expense and hassle by bringing the necessary funds, carrying your funds in a variety of forms, and sticking to a budget. Back to top