Travel Banking Tips: Protect Your Money

Travel Banking Tips

How to Avoid ATM Fees & More Financial Travel Tips

Travel Tips

Travel banking overseas can be expensive. Learn how to avoid ATM fees, get the best exchange rate, protect against fraud, and save money while traveling abroad.

Avoid International Bank Fees

The best way to obtain local currency overseas is to withdraw it from an ATM. It’s quick, easy, and you’ll get a great exchange rate. But did you know you’ll be charged $5-$7 every time you withdraw money from a different bank’s ATM?

Often both your bank and the bank that owns the ATM will charge you a fee.

When you are traveling for a long period of time, this can add up to hundreds of dollars! Let’s say you withdraw money 3 times per week while on the road (I’m not a fan of traveling with tons of cash).

This will cost you a whopping $780-$1092 after a year of travel — easily enough to continue traveling for another month.

Choose the right bank, and you will pay $0 in ATM fees from now on.

Travel Friendly Debit Card

With a Charles Schwab Investor Checking Account you’ll never have to fork over your hard earned cash to greedy bankers again. Schwab will refund all of your ATM fees, even those charged by other banks, anywhere in the world.

I’ve been using their account for a few years and absolutely love it.

This bank doesn’t play games with you like many others I’ve dealt with in the past. Customer service is great, there are no minimum balances, online banking is easy, and everything is free.

A new account with them includes a Schwab One Brokerage Account, but there are no problems (or fees) if you decide not to use it. It’s possible to set up free online transfers with other banks too.

Not From The United States?

If you don’t live in the USA, you can’t open an account with Schwab. But I know many travelers who use an HSBC Checking Account. It’s an international bank, and they have ATMs all over the world.

Unlike Schwab they will charge you a fee for using another bank’s ATM (remember the 2nd bank may also charge you).

Travel Banking Advice

Multiple Sources for Redundancy

Use 3 Accounts For Safety

International financial fraud is on the rise, and plenty of travel horror stories involve drained bank accounts. For example here is one about a compromised ATM machine in Mexico. Planning for worst-case scenarios is a smart thing to do.

UPDATE: My checking account was recently drained of $680 via ATM withdrawals in South Korea while I was hitchhiking across the United States. I’ve never been to South Korea, and my card was never stolen.

That’s why I always recommend having 3 bank accounts while you travel.

#1: Personal Checking Account This account is used for personal reasons, like paying bills, and anything not travel related. It can also be used as an emergency backup should your Travel Checking Account get compromised on the road. This ATM card is locked in a hostel/hotel safe or hidden within my backpack at all times.

#2: Travel Checking Account This account is used for travel expenses, including withdrawing money out of ATMs. I never keep more than about $1000 in this account at any one time. If your ATM card details are stolen, or you happen to be the victim of an Express Kidnapping, it shouldn’t completely halt your travels. The thieves may get some money, but losses are minimized, and you’ll often be refunded by your bank soon.

#3: Savings Account An Capital One 360 Savings Account is where the bulk of my travel money resides. There are no ATM cards to steal, and my account balance earns interest. When my Travel Account gets low, I can easily go online and replenish it. This account is also linked to my Personal Checking Account, should I need to transfer funds if my Travel Account is compromised or I’m waiting for a replacement ATM card.

The redundancy built into this system keeps me prepared for many different scenarios while traveling — including bank fraud and lost or malfunctioning ATM cards.

Travel Rewards Credit Card

Another way to save money and provide some security while you travel is to carry a credit card. International exchange rates are cheapest when paying with a credit card, and it’s a great backup to have in case of an emergency.

Many cards also include basic travel, theft, and auto rental insurance.

Not to mention the possibility of snagging free flights & hotel stays with airline miles if you use your card often. Personally I use a Captial One VentureOne Card for travel, but I’m definately not a credit card expert.

To learn more about finding the perfect travel credit card, check out this great guide by Nomadic Matt.

Protect Your Cash

My Secret Pocket! Shhhh…

Protect Your Cash

Cash is what I use most while traveling internationally because it’s accepted everywhere. But the problem with cash is that it’s not traceable, so if it’s stolen you’ll never see it again. Taking proper precautions when carrying cash is a must.

Many travelers hide extra cash inside money belts that are worn under their clothing, but I’ve never been a big fan. These removable pouches are uncomfortable and it’s easy to forget them somewhere.

Instead I have secret pockets sewn into my pants & shorts. They are a lot cheaper to make ($3-$7) then buying fancy travel pants with a similar feature built in.

It’s also wise to hide a stash of emergency cash in your luggage somewhere.

My favorite places include:

  • Dirty Socks
  • Toiletry Kits
  • Under Shoe Inserts
  • Sewn Behind Patch (on your bag)

Dummy Wallet

In particularly risky locations, you can also carry a dummy or mugger’s wallet. This is a cheap 2nd wallet that’s filled with about $20 in local currency, an old driver’s license, some receipts, and an expired credit card. It’s used as a decoy, so if you’re ever mugged, you can throw it at the thieves and run away. Helpful against pickpockets too.

The tactic is best used in cities with high crime rates — I’ve carried one before in Guatemala City, Managua, and Tegucigalpa. Luckily I’ve never had my wallet stolen though.

Best Exchange Rates

Anytime you exchange foreign currency, you are paying a small premium to the people providing the service. How much you pay depends on the method you use to exchange it. Some are a lot cheaper than others.

Exchange with Travelers: While this is definately the cheapest way to exchange foreign currency, it’s not something you’ll be able to do all the time. Usually when leaving or entering a new country, you’ll find fellow travelers heading in the opposite direction. This is a great opportunity to trade currencies with each other. There are zero fees involved, unless one of you can’t provide exact change…

Use a Credit Card: Credit cards will give you the best exchange rates — slightly better than using an ATM. The problem is you can’t use them everywhere. Depending on where you’re traveling, many businesses only except cash.

ATM Machines: Using your debit card to withdraw cash from an ATM is the next best thing to a credit card. Exchange rates are very competitive, and ATMs are available all over the world. Insert the card from your home bank, and instantly receive local currency to use as cash. Exchanging money using an ATM is both super convenient, and relatively cheap. Plus if your bank refunds any ATM fees (like mine does) it’s the best option out there!

Currency Exchange Booth: This is one of the worst options for exchanging your money. You’ll often see these places at airports or bus terminals. They offer terrible rates, and there is always a commission of some sort tacked on. Even if their sign says “No Commissions”, the exchange rate they give is padded to make a tidy profit off your ignorance.

Money Changers: If you thought currency booths were bad, these guys can be even worse. You’ll find them hanging out around international land borders. Sometimes it’s an outright scam. Taxi drivers will take you to the country’s border, where you’ll need to get out and jump into another taxi, but this 2nd taxi won’t take the last country’s currency. If you’re not prepared, this can force you to use the local money changer who just happens to be waiting with an absolutely horrible deal. If you find yourself in this situation, make sure to count the money you receive twice, and check for counterfeit bills before you hand over your cash.

Always know the exchange rate for the country you are traveling to. Check online before you go at or if you use a smartphone, download this free currency exchange app:

Tips for Fraud Prevention

Credit & ATM card fraud is a reality. Following a few simple rules will help protect you from disaster.

Avoid Public Computers: All over the world you’ll find internet cafes where you can rent a public computer to manage your online banking. It’s relatively easy to instal a key logger on these machines, which will track every keystroke you make, giving a hacker all of your login details. If you must, make sure to use a secure password manager like Last Pass.

Call Your Bank Before You Travel: Let your bank & credit card issuer know what dates you’ll be in certain countries. This will help them identify & block any fraudulent activity on your account. It’s also important if you want your cards to work when you get there!

Keep Eyes on Your Credit Card: When paying by credit card overseas (especially at restaurants & bars), never lose sight of it. Don’t let anyone “take it out back” to swipe the card. If the machine is not near you, ask to accompany the cashier to avoid card skimming scams.

Don’t let all of this scare you too much though. International travel is a relatively safe activity, despite what you watch on the evening news. The key to having a great time is to be prepared for all of these possible scenarios. Chances are you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Stay smart, protect your hard-earned money, and travel longer. ★

Do you have any travel banking tips?


  1. I’ve learned that there are no free meals so the “zero withdraw fees” sounds good but it must have some undecovered charges.
    Perhaps they use a higher exchange rate ?

  2. We just got back from Shanghai China and I have to say I love love love the Schwab card. Worked everywhere, no currency exchange fees and no atm fees. Our daughter who is studying in Asia this term has used it in Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong without any problems. Since it’s a joint account we can monitor her withdrawals and add money to the account on-line with ease. Great option for travelers. Can’t say enough positives about this card. I’ve traveled overseas for the last 40 years and this is the best option ever.

  3. I just got a Schwab checking account in preparation for a trip to Asia. I haven’t tried using my card abroad yet, but it seems like they would not trying to screw me over with fee after fee. I am just a student who would not be maintaining very high balances, thus I am glad I found out about that account.

    Having experienced debit card fraud before, I advise observing your usage habits and adjusting your daily limits accordingly. Schwab’s default daily limits are $1000 for ATM withdrawals and $15000 for purchases. If your usage habits do not warrant such high limits, then lower them. For example, if I do not under normal circumstances withdraw over $100 at an ATM, then I would set my daily withdrawal limit to be $100. I chose to set my daily purchase limit to $100 as well, since I typically do my non-cash purchases using a credit card. That way, if my debit card does get compromised, the most a thief can get access to is $200 (and hopefully I notice the fraud in time to shut the card down before the next day). If I do occasionally need a higher limit, I can call Schwab when I need my limit raised to ask that they authorize it for one day only. I have not tried this yet, but according to their representative, once I call, the authorization takes effect immediately as long as your request does not exceed their default limits.

    By default, Schwab does link your checking to your brokerage account. That is, if you do not have enough funds in your checking account to cover a transaction, funds will be drawn from your checking account. This service does not have any fees associated with it, but you run the risk that a thief can potentially drain both accounts if they get access to your checking account. If you wish to de-link the two accounts, you need to call Schwab to specifically request it.

    The only disadvantage of Schwab may be that you cannot deposit cash. However, you should have an account with a brick and mortar bank in your area. You can deposit the cash there and then make external transfers.

  4. My bank offers currency exchange for a $10 fee. Does that seem reasonable? If I withdraw from an ATM internationally, they charge 2% and only reimburse $10 of ATM fees a month. I leave in 5 days so the Schwab card is not an option for me as it takes 7-10 business days to get the debit card.

    1. You can ask Schwab to rush deliver your card for $15. But in my experience, their turnaround times are often quicker than they say. They send out your card and a set of free checks after you fund your checking account, and I received my debit card 5 business days after I did so. The checks came a bit later, and yeah you don’t want your checks to be sitting in your mailbox for a long time once they arrive.

      The Schwab checking account is subject to an application review, thus the account is not opened the moment you hit submit. They say that the process can take 1-3 business days, but the turnaround time in my case happened to be only a few hours (and I applied outside of normal business hours). The rumor that Schwab does a credit pull on your Equifax report is true. Even though you are not applying for a line of credit, they (for some unknown reason) still do a hard pull, which can temporarily ding your credit score. I can confirm that I have an inquiry on my Equifax report from the day I submitted the online application, and that stays on my report for 24 months.

  5. BECAREFUL when you try to take money from atm in GUATEMALA!!!!
    While traveling in Guatemala (Flores) I tryed to take money with my ING card in atm machines. Atm machines in Flores took money from my account in France but the machine didt give me money! The only safe atm in Flores is in a hostel in front of ramada hotel.
    If you try one machine in Flores and it dont give you money, DONT try taking from all others atm.

  6. Matthew,
    I had some issues with Schwab when pulling out 100 Euros
    in a few European countries, the ATM fee was not itemized,
    so on the ATM receipt, it just said, 105 Euros, and Schwab
    never refunded the 5 Euro ATM fee, i had to call Schwab
    and bitch about it, until they gave in.

    1. I had a similar issue in Turkey. Since I no longer had my receipt, they wouldn’t refund the fee (something like $2.50). I started taking a picture of the ATM screen when the fee notice came up, and kept all my receipts until the end of the month when the refund came.

  7. Thanks a lot Matt!

    So basically if I am not a Resident or Citizen of The US I can still open and maintain the Charles Schwab Bank?

    Just keep a US registered address and buy something from a US located biz every 6 months?

    I will research the Charles Schwab Bank account information.

    One question someone might give me a tip for is, what if I have a lump sum of cash no bank account and then leaving a foreign country for another foreigner country??
    (I do not have a home country bank account open)

  8. I hate to burst ya’lls bubble but when the economy goes belly up as were are already witnessing, no one will be able to withdraw $$$ from an ATM because there won’t be any.
    :-/ Look at Greece! :-/

    1. When people freak out and pull all their money out when the economy goes downhill, they’re the ones who make the matter worse. So we can only blame ourselves. Taking out all the money from the banks CAUSES these flops to happen.

  9. Great article! I also LOVE my Paypal account for travel. A Paypal debit card gives me instant ATM access to my account, and it’s so easy to transfer money in and out of the account. Sometimes I can use Paypal to buy train/plane tickets online when my US credit card doesn’t work.

    I’m disappointed with my Capital One card. It gives cashback and has no foreign transaction fees, but it always locks up for fraud the first time I use it in a new country — even though I’ve notified them that I’ll be using it in that country. Right now I’m in Indonesia and this has happened twice.

  10. The section on the SCHWAB ATM card is misleading. If you use an ATM that does not itemize the $5-$7 charge on the receipt you WILL NOT receive a rebate. To receive a rebate the receipt has to separate the amount you withdrew and the amount being charge from the bank. If it doesn’t do this, you don’t receive the rebate. Anyone experience this??!!

    1. Absolutely, no Charles Schwab ATM fee refunds while traveling in Europe, where there is a varying fee taken but not itemized. Looking at the FX rates, I seem to incur just under 1% embedded ATM fee in Europe.

      In other parts of the world, such as SE Asia, I got most of the fees, which were itemized, automatically refunded at the end of the month.

  11. Hi,
    great info.

    I will consider a Charles Schwab account. What do you think of their savings account option?

    ING has been bought by Capital One. Do you have the same savings account.

    I assume you transfer money between your accounts via the banks’ websites on your computer.

    Did you have any issues about your bank accounts information when your Macbook was stolen in Panama? Did you end up changing all your passwords?

    1. Yeah my savings account is part of Capital One now too. The brokerage account you get with Charles Schwab is also a good place to save money. And yes, I changed all my passwords after my computer was stolen. No issues though — they never got into my user account, rather they found a way to create a new one.

      1. Thanks, great info. Maybe you could update the post with the new Capital One savings account?

        I have a PayPal Mastercard debit card, which would be great too, but it automatically draws from my regular checking account as a backup funding option. But at least it sends me an email immediately after each transaction with the amount I paid.

        I can get the same alerts with my JetBlue Amex, but only for transactions above 10 USD, which seems good enough.

        I love my Amex as I get JetBlue points. But also it doubles the 1 year warranty on my cameras and everything else. The program works great. Also I believe they cover against accidental damage and theft for 3 months from purchase.

        Another bonus of Amex, once I lost my wallet on a friday in NYC where I live and their office gave me a temporary card within an hour without need to produce an ID (as I lost that as well) by asking really many security questions.

        Also I was curious about the inner security pockets. if you have them on your butt, i wonder if it could be easily felt by a pat down or something.

  12. Matt,

    Thanks for this article! I have just a local Maryland bank at the moment, and every ATM visit here in Australia sets me back at least $5 (and that’s before the outside ATM fees.) Definitely going to consider the Charles Schwab account now!

  13. I am a US resident alien in a working visa and I plan to leave the US to travel for a year. While I can open a Charles Schwab account now, when I start traveling I won’t be a US resident anymore and I’m afraid they’ll close my account, even if I keep an address here in the US. I wonder if somebody in a similar situation has had a Charles Schwab account while traveling for long periods (more than 6 months) and would like to share the experiences.

    1. I am a US born citizen and tried to open a Charles Schwab account last week. I was told that if I was out of the USA for more than 6 months at a time, that the “fraud team” would freeze my account. The representative stated that the accounts at Charles Schwab require being physically present in the USA for at least 6 months per year and that that fact was clearly stated in the fine print that I didn’t read. So, long-term travelers be aware and have a back up if you are planning to use Charles Schwab.

  14. When I opened up this post I mistakenly read “Travel BAKING 101”, and yet was not disappointed by the actual content :D

  15. Matt, were you able to link your ING & Schwab accounts online or did you have to fill out a form and mail it to do that? I’ve never had a problem linking accounts with ING/Capital One 360 before. I just need to call customer service but was curious if you remembered.

  16. Hey Matt!
    Sorry to hear you were “robbed”. I work in finance as my “day job” and have sadly heard it all! Card skimmers are so small now its hard to detect. We recently had one on our ATM (at work) and didnt know it was there until we had some card fraud investigated!
    Its best to card cash at all time if you can and try not to use your card very often. Sadly its not just ATMs but eftpos machines

  17. Where was this advice last week when I sent my daughter overseas to study abroad? I will tell you what…the local banks up here in Campton had no advice and looked at us like our heads were on backwards when we asked simple questions. Think I will switch to Chuck…

  18. Hey Matt, I saw a comment thread on the same subject on a different blog (that you had participated in) that mentioned that these Schwab accounts are deleted after 6 months of international-only use. Have you noticed this at all with your Schwab ATM card? Would you suggest coming back to the US and using it every few months? Thanks, man!

    1. I’ve had my Schwab account for about 2 years now with no issue… maybe this is a new development? I guess you could always jump onto Amazon and buy a gift for someone in the US every 6 months just to be safe.

  19. Hey Matt,
    Thanks for the great advice. Just opened an ING savings account and waiting a little to get on that Charles Schwab!

    My question is how many of these cards do you carry with you at any given time? I dont think the ING has cards but do you carry your personal checking, charles schwab checking, and the credit card with you and then leave one or two in your room or do they all stay on you at all times and you have the back up wallet?

    I’d be kind of scared to leave some in the room just because I think that has a better chance of getting robbed! I’m no expert yet tho haha!

    1. Hi George! I usually take one card with me, the rest stay hidden in my bag (within the frame), or in a safe at the hostel/hotel. On travel days they go in my “secret pocket” that I have sewn into all my pants/shorts. I only use a dummy wallet in cities with notorious reputations for crime, and just pick up a cheap one from a street vendor.

  20. Thanks so much for this info Matthew. I’m taking my first big trip alone to Southeast Asia and have had some anxiety around how the manage the money end of things. Thanks to your post, I’ve just opened a Schwab Account today!

  21. I know you use Charles Schwab for one of your debit cards but what is your other one? I’m looking for a good second debit card with the same perks of the charles schwab ie atm reimbursement and no high minimums.

  22. I also have the Schwab account but while I was in Guatemala I used a compromised atm machine so they canceled my card. I didn’t realize this at the time. So I proceeded to use my back up card which was a credit card to geta cash advance on that machine so I could afford to call Schwab and straighten it all out.

    Ended up with two cards canceled. Had to call mommy and daddy for western union.

    Made the big mistake of spending all my money down to the last quetzale and THEN going to the atm machine

    1. Thanks for sharing Nick. Yes, it’s good to keep a couple hundred dollars of cash hidden somewhere for emergencies.
      Another reason why I have 3 cards: 2 different debits, and 1 credit. This stuff happens sometimes, and it really sucks when it does!

  23. Very usefull tip! When you are travelling for a while like you said, you will pay a lot about withdraw money! It’s nice to do like you say then we can save some money!

  24. Schwab is awesome. I have used them for years. They also do not charge foreign transaction fees is you use the card to make a purchase which I did several times recently for petrol in NZ. Other banks (like Citi) typically add on $15 or even more when you make a purchase in foreign currency. And their customer service is legendary.

  25. Hey Matthew,

    just stumbled upon your website!

    I must say this is the most complete guide on how to protect your money while traveling I’ve seen so far.

    I do have several bank accounts but they all charge me some kind of fees. Gotta check HSBC as I heard you can open an account in different currencies

  26. Great tips, thank you very much. I’m about to get on the road also and love every piece of advice I can get. These are great.

    Gotta set a few things with my bank and I’ll be pretty much ready to go.


  27. What great tips and how easy to understand! I thought I knew most of this, but you’ve given me new information I didn’t have. Just wish I was American so I could have a Schwab account!

    The dummy wallet worked a treat for me when in York England earlier this year. I’d taken out my wallet at a bus stop to have the fare ready, and later in the day realized I didn’t have it. I have to say I’m in awe of how these guys do it. Despite it being a dummy (10pounds sterling, an old credit card & a couple of store loyalty cards in it) I thought I was aware all the time. It seemed to be a dodgy neighborhood so my antennae were out, but I have no idea how & when it happened.

  28. I also recommend carrying bank cards from two different banks. There were a few times in remote areas in Central America that one bank would work but not the other. It also means if one account is frozen for some reason you always have the other.

  29. One of my friends has that Charles Schwab account and he loves it. I have a similar one with Ally Bank (another online bank) that also refunds atm fees. This was particularly helpful in Thailand where all the ATMs seem to want to charge you 150baht (~5USD) every time you take out cash. Got all my fees back at the end of the month!

  30. A truly informative article. Japan is a very cash-based society so the Schwab tip is priceless when visiting there!

    Thanks for posting.

  31. I love Schwab. I remember getting back from Belize, fully expecting to see at least some fees, and being SHOCKED that there weren’t any. I even called, just to make sure. I felt like I was getting away with something! I can’t believe I like a bank this much! Haha.

    I’ve heard of the dummy wallet idea before (from you, I think, in a comment or another blog mention), and am realizing what an excellent idea it is…maybe even just around LA!

  32. If you have an account with Fidelity, they offer a no-fee ATM card too for the cash account, similar to the Schwab one. A lot of people have Fidelity 401Ks so they’re already in.

    Sometimes it’s worth it to pay a fee though, like with a Paypal card. Instant access to cash from your business without having to wait 4-5 days (or a week+ with Fidelity) for the transfer to go through. If you might not see an ATM again for a while, time is money.

  33. Some really useful tips in here…I love the Charles Schwab card and used it before I started traveling extensively. It’s even better now that I do. For credit cards, I really like the Chase Sapphire. No foreign transaction fees and a good/flexible points earning structure make it worthwhile.

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