Accessing Money Abroad
There are several methods for accessing money abroad. Regardless of which method is best for you, be sure to have a backup plan in case one method fails.
- Bring a small amount ($100) of cash in U.S. dollars when you depart for study abroad to cover expenses like bus/taxi fares, snacks, and phone calls for the first couple days and in case you have issues with your debit/credit card. Some U.S. banks are able to provide foreign currency, so you may wish to obtain your local currency before departing the U.S. Otherwise, in most locations, U.S. dollars can be exchanged for the local currency at international airports, local banks, and exchange houses.
- Take some time before departure to familiarize yourself with the local currency in your host country.
- Understand exchange rates, how the local currency compares to the U.S dollar, and how this may impact your spending.
- If U.S. dollar is weaker than local currency: higher cost of living
- If U.S. dollar is stronger than local currency: lower cost of living
Cash & ATMs
Many stores, restaurants, and hotels in other countries (especially in smaller towns and cities) do not accept credit cards, especially for small purchases like coffee. For that reason, you should try to have a small amount of cash in local currency with you at all times.
ATMs are the best way to access money abroad and are increasingly available. Your bank or credit card company may charge fees for withdrawals overseas and may have a limit on the amount you can withdraw daily, so be sure to consult with your bank about this.
- Some U.S. banks have "sister banks" abroad that don’t charge fees for use – ask your bank about this!
- U.S. debit cards may not work in Europe, Asia, or Latin America, especially if they do not have the EMV chip.
- Verify your card and PIN number’s compatibility with machines overseas – some machines don’t accept PINs over 4-digits. Occasionally, PINs that start with a “0” do not work internationally, so if this applies to you, we recommend that you change your PIN before you go.
- Thefts at ATMs can happen, so be vigilant when taking out money at ATMs. Extracting large sums of money from the ATM and keeping large sums of cash on you (or in your personal space) increases the risk of theft. Carry with you only what you need. Review additional safety information on the Safety & Backup Plans page.
Credit cards may be less widely accepted for purchases in your program location than they are in the U.S. Also, some banks and credit card companies charge fees for international transactions. Contact your credit card company in advance to find out about any applicable fees. It may be more cost effective for you to limit the use of your credit card for purchases and/or plan to use cash more often.
It is still recommended that you bring at least one (and maybe a second backup) credit card. In most locations, big shops and restaurants will accept major credit cards (MasterCard and Visa are more widely accepted than American Express), and you can also withdraw cash with a credit card at most ATMs. Notify your credit card company that you will be abroad and to verify any foreign transaction fees.
For students studying abroad in Europe, be aware that in most European countries, credit cards use “chip-and-PIN” technology (cards have a small computer chip in them and require users to enter a PIN code to make purchases), rather than a magnetic strip and signature, which has been common in the U.S. This means that in many locations, particularly when paying at a self-service kiosk or ticket machine, U.S. credit cards may be rejected. If you do not already have a credit card with chip technology, it is recommended that you contact your credit card company before you depart to ask whether this is available.
Mobile payments, also known as mobile wallet, include any payments where a mobile device is used to authorize and confirm a transaction. Common examples include PayPal, Venmo, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Zelle, and many others.
In some countries, mobile payment is being used in place of traditional payment systems such as cash, credit cards, or debit cards. For example, they are becoming the preferred payment method in China (e.g. Wechat Pay and AliPay). Research if mobile payments are common in your host country. While this method of payment can be very convenient, also be mindful of security issues. Review additional safety information on the Safety & Backup Plans page.
- Opening a foreign bank account: It is not usually necessary (nor always possible) to open a bank account in your host country, especially if you will be abroad for less than a year. Most students find it easier to access their home country-based bank account via ATMs abroad.
- Traveler’s checks: They are becoming more difficult and more expensive to cash abroad. While they are safer than carrying cash and are valid indefinitely, this won't do you any good if you find yourself in a financial pinch and can't find anywhere abroad to cash them.
- Personal checks: It is virtually impossible to cash personal checks abroad – and extremely expensive when possible – so you should not depend on them as a means of acquiring money.
- Cash exchange counters: As convenient as they may seem, exchange counters are known for huge transaction fees on top of an already inflated exchange rate.