Getting cash overseas can be either extremely easy or can present some serious issues. Having multiple options and knowing the exchange rate are probably two of the most important things you can do to create a cash safety net before you go.
The next two things?
Not/not carrying all your cash and cards with you all the time
Not/not keeping all your cash/cards/passport in the same pocket
Now that you’re primed, let’s tackle the main ways of transporting and getting cash overseas.
How to get it (the mainstays):
1. Take it with you (Cash)
How much? This really depends on the infrastructure that you’ll be dealing with. If you’re in Europe you can count on lots of safe ATMs. If not, plan on taking more cash and exchanging it as you go. I rolled into Djibouti a week after they installed their FIRST ATM EVER. Good timing too, cuz I ran out of cash.
This begs the question…
How do you carry it?
Squirrel it away. My travel clothes typically consist of anything that’s light, easily packed and has lots of pockets. Ex Officio, Mountain Hardware, and ScottEvest all have good options with PickPocketProof being designed specifically to avoid theft. I’ve also used money belts in areas with questionable ATMs or high rates of bank card fraud.
Where to change it:
Beware of money changers walking the streets – this is a scam, these are unlicensed exchanges/illegal and can get you in serious trouble in some countries. You may end up with counterfeit cash as well. Exchanging at the Airport / Hotel / Kiosks may not get the best exchange rate, but it can be a good option to save you time by just getting the issue over with. Keep your receipt. I will change $100 at the airport to have cash on hand for food or tipping until I can find a kiosk or change more at the hotel for a better rate.
2. Use ATMs (debit cards)
The best exchange rates are often had from ATMs. I look for large local banks, or use ATMs at the airport or in the hotel if they have one. Your ATM card might not work everywhere. I was stranded (fiscally speaking) in Japan when my ATM card was rejected by all the ATMs in country.
Other things to consider/watch out for:
- Liability: Check with your bank to verify that your card is secure if stolen. If your card is stolen, you’ll have to find another member of your bank in your location (good luck unless you’re traveling with others).
- Protect your bank account back home: Open an account that is separate from your others that you will use only for travel. If the card is stolen, the perp will only have access to the funds you put in that account, not all your checking + linked savings accounts.
- Skimming: Be aware if bank card fraud or ATM skimming is prevalent in the area.
- Lurkers: Always be aware of who’s watching as you approach an ATM- this is a good rule of thumb from Baltimore (especially Baltimore) to Bangladesh. Use the buddy system – you post up and watch around while your buddy withdraws cash and vice versa.
3. The plastic:
(credit cards – for hotels, purchases, transport, etc)
- Does your card offer free international transactions? These can get steep if you use the card a lot. Check with your issuer first.
- Does your card have a chip? Some are beginning to offer them, ask your bank. If not, don’t be surprised if the clerk overseas asks you for a pin code. See ‘Travelex’ below for a chip friendly alternative. I’ve never had a problem (except with AMEX) paying with a chipless card overseas.
- Let your issuer know you will be traveling. This will help eliminate any snafus while trying to make purchases overseas – gas, for example. Getting a call from the fraud department is infinitely more time consuming (and expensive) while overseas.
- If you lose your credit card, call the issuer immediately and cancel the card. If you’re in country for more than a week (maybe two depending on where) they could send you a new card. If less than that, might as well have them ship the new one back home – you’ll be back before it can get to you.
**If the card is already authorized by the hotel, you can continue to pay the hotel. Call your card. I’ve done this to charge breakfast and a hotel shuttle to the airport on my hotel bill so I could use my remaining cash to sight see in Tokyo.
Outside of these main options you should always take emergency options, you know, just in case. Stay tuned, in Part 2 of “Cash overseas” we’ll go more into your backup options:
- Travelers checks
- Travelex Money Card
- Mobile Wallet