You might not even notice it, but chances are you’re losing money every time you use your normal bank card abroad.
Legacy banks are awful when it comes to using them abroad. They charge extra for using ATMs in other countries. They give you foreign currency at a totally unfair exchange rate. They add hidden fees. With some banks, it’s like daylight robbery.
When I was still a permanent nomad, I calculated I was actually losing many hundreds of Euros in bank and exchange fees every year.
Fortunately, things have changed in recent years. There are now new types of bank cards that let you avoid most fees and get a fair exchange rate. Better yet, their mobile apps and features that can be of huge help when traveling.
In this post, I’ll be talking about my three favorite providers of travel debit cards. These are not credit cards that give you the most Airmiles or rewards (that’s a whole other subject), but bank cards that let you best avoid fees on your day-to-day payments when traveling abroad.
Why use travel debit cards?
Travel bank cards give you better access to your funds while traveling. Typically, traveling is associated with transfer fees, exchange rates, withdrawal fees, and other seemingly hidden rates that you come across when using traditional banks abroad.
The companies leading the transition to mobile banking are Revolut, Transferwise, and N26 — and I use all three of these cards. Although very different, each of these companies has cards designed for travelers that can make life much easier during your trip.
Besides reduced fees and more convenience, there are other advantages. Having a mobile app to monitor your transactions is amazing, as it helps you keep an eye on your spending but also monitor for fraud. In my travels, it’s happened several times that my card was hacked or that I was victim of an ATM scam, which took days or even weeks to notice on my bank statements. But with the push notifications of a mobile app you’ll be able to see when something is wrong immediately. You can also easily block your card in the case of fraud.
If you’re traveling frequently or long term, then spreading your travel money across several debit cards will not just reduce fees but also make things more secure and give you multiple fall-back options for getting money out.
Let’s take a look at the best travel bank cards available to help you decide which is the best for you.
Transferwise is one of the most established mobile banking platforms that cater to travelers. Since it really gives you the full package for managing money internationally, it’s my personal favorite platform.
With a Transferwise Borderless Account, you can transfer money online and send money abroad to more than 50 countries. It does this at very low exchange rates, much closer to the real exchange rates you find on Google than normal banks. (One way they reduce rates so much is that they often don’t exchange the currencies at all, but manage supply and demand through local transfers. It’s pretty clever!)
Transferwise operates via a mobile app, with which you can apply for a physical travel credit card for free. It works like a debit Mastercard but it uses Transferwise’s low rates. The app lets you monitor your spending but also has capabilities for instantly freezing your account in the instance that your card gets lost or stolen.
It’s a popular choice for travelers because of its flexibility around the world. You have the option of converting money into more than 40 currencies – when you use the Transferwise travel credit card, you will be spending money in the local currency to avoid foreign transaction fees.
Transferwise is also one of the most transparent companies when it comes to its rates and fees. It provides users with the real exchange rate when making conversions. Signing up for a Transferwise account is free, and there are no monthly or annual account fees. ATM withdrawals are free up to $250 per month.
(Besides the debit card, TransferWise is also amazing for receiving regular bank transfers from different countries. I use TransferWise for receiving most of my business payments at Indie Traveller instead of regular banks or PayPal, saving me tons of money every month.)
N26 is a mobile banking platform founded in Germany that is now used worldwide by travelers. It’s a complete banking system that you can manage all while on the go. Your balance is covered by deposit guarantees in the EU and US, which may be important if you plan to store lots of money on it.
More than just a platform to transfer money, you can request a physical card at N26 that you can use as you would any other bank debit card. And while making your usual payments, you may as well take advantage of the cashback and travel discounts offered by N26.
The N26 travel credit cards work in sync with its user-friendly mobile app — the app sends you real-time alerts about your account activity. You’ll get instant notifications about payments, deposits, and withdrawals. In case your card gets lost or stolen, it also includes the ability to lock your account.
You can easily add money to your N26 account via an external bank account, Paypal, Cashapp, and other services. It also designates special savings accounts to put money aside for upcoming trips or travel activities easily.
The best part about N26 is no hidden fees. N26 has no minimum account balances, no maintenance fees, and no insufficient funds fees. You’ll be spending a lot more money on travel and pleasure instead of fees.
N26 also allows you to withdraw money locally at ATMs with no fees in the US, Canada, Puerto Rico, Australia, Mexico, and the UK.
Revolut is one of the newest mobile banking platforms that pairs a mobile app with a physical travel credit card. Revolut is one of the most versatile travel credit cards, giving you access to spend in over 150 currencies. You can initiate money transfers in 28 currencies and get notifications about any activity in real-time.
Your funds are always safe when using Revolut. It’s an FDIC-insured banking system for up to $250,000 and has a freeze card feature in case your credit card gets lost.
Revolut has three account types, with standard (suitable for most travelers) being free, and the highest level costing $14.99 per month for exclusive features. One of the advantages of banking with Revolut is that it uses the interbank exchange rate for spending and transfers.
Revolut offers fee-free spending and ATM withdrawals up to a specific limit. It charges a fee when transferring over $6500 or for weekend transfers. You can use it with any ATM for up to $300 per month and a small fee of 2% for anything over the limit.
One cool additional feature is that Revolut can offer you travel insurance, which it calculates automatically on a per-day basis using the geolocation from your phone.
Save money by getting all 3 cards
Travel credit cards are best for managing your money effectively while traveling as opposed to collecting miles and points for travel. With the fee savings and convenience that they offer, it’s a great alternative to your regular banks.
Below is a comparison of the three bank cards mentioned:
|Open an account||FREE||FREE||$0-$14.99/mon|
|Monthly account fees||FREE||FREE||FREE|
|Transfer money rate/ Convert currencies||Real exchange rate||Rate based on Visa (subject to change)||Interbank exchange rate (0.5% over $6500)|
|Monthly ATM Withdrawals||FREE up to $250 (2% over $250)||FREE in select countries (2% Out-of-network ATMs)||FREE up to $300 (0.5% +2% international ATM fee)|
|Adding Money||0.2% (direct debit)||FREE||FREE|
As you can see, each of these cards offers fee-free ATM withdrawals up to a certain amount each month. Since the cards are free to sign up for, you could get all of them and spread your travel funds across these cards.
One advantage is that if someone hacks your bank card, they won’t get access to all of your money. (This actually happened to me a couple of years ago in Honduras, where I lost over $4000 through fraud that took months to get back. That’s not a problem if each card only has a few hundred Euros or Dollars.)
The other advantage is that you can use each card up to the monthly limit and not pay any ATM fees. For many of the budget destinations covered on this blog, such as in Southeast Asia, using several travel debit cards concurrently could be all you need for ATM withdrawals without any fees.
This post contains affiliate links which may give me a commission at no extra cost for you. My commercial policies are explained here.