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Study Abroad Money Tips

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Each semester, thousands of college students will take to the skies and head to a foreign country to study abroad. It’s no secret that the study abroad experience can be one of the best activities a student can participate in, but minor financial details can cause a major headache in a strange new country. Things as simple as paying for a sandwich may become overwhelming if you don’t know what to expect.

That’s why we at NerdWallet suggest taking some time before departure to familiarize yourself with the banking landscape of your destination country. Read on to find out more about managing your money while studying abroad in the most popular destinations.

Table of contents

  1. Local banks and currencies
  2. Exchange rates
  3. Where and how to get cash
  4. Opening a foreign bank account
  5. Money & ID safety
  6. Other money tips from fellow travelers

Local banks and currencies

When you need to withdraw cash, make sure to do so at a trusted banking institution. This will help limit the possibility of identity theft as well as excessive fees.

United Kingdom

Symbol £
Names Pound Sterling (official); Pound (common); Quid (slang); Pence (coins)
Denominations £5, £10, £20, £50 (paper bills); 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1, £2 (coins)
Banks

European Union

Symbol
Name Euro
Denominations €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, €500 (paper bills); 1c, 2c, 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, €1, €2 (coins)
Banks Italy           
Spain           
France           
Germany
Ireland (Allied Irish Banks)         

China

Symbol ¥
Names Renminbi (currency); yuán 元,圓 (base unit); 0.1¥: jiǎo 角 (subunit); 0.01¥: fēn 分 (subunit)
Denominations ¥0.1, ¥0.5, ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50, ¥100 (paper bills); ¥0.1, ¥0.5, ¥1 (coins)
Banks                

Australia

Symbol $
Names Australian Dollar (official); Dollar (common)
Denominations $5, $10, $20, $50, $100 (paper bills); 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, $1, $2 (coins)
Banks       (Westpac)         

Costa Rica

Symbol
Names colón (currency); céntimo (subunit); Teja (slang – one hundred colones)
Denominations ₡1000, ₡2000, ₡5000, ₡10,000, ₡20,000, ₡50,000 (paper bills); ₡5, ₡10, ₡25, ₡50, ₡100, ₡500 (coins)
Banks      

Argentina

Symbol $
Names peso (currency), centavo (subunit)
Denominations $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100 (paper bills); 5c, 10c, 25c, 50c, $1 (coins)
Banks

Exchange rates

Exchange rates fluctuate frequently, so you’ll never be able to anticipate exactly how much in US dollars a foreign purchase will cost you. It also won’t be worth your precious little time abroad to constantly be checking the exchange rate and worrying about minor ups and downs.What you can do is to get familiar with the general concept of how much the local currency is worth in relation to the US dollar. Take the time to get a feel for approximately how much certain critical amounts (say $1, $10, $25, $50, $100) are worth in the local currency (or vice versa) before you leave. This way, you’ll be able to approximate the true value of a purchase when you first arrive. Sites like X-Rates can help with quick comparison calculations.

Tips

It’s tempting to convert every purchase into US dollars in your head, but once you
get the feel for prices, stop. It’s not worth it. Things are more expensive in general and comparing European prices to US prices rarely makes you feel better. What you need to consider is prices from place to place within your destination country.

–Joshua Howe, http://www.joshuahowe.com

Where and how to get cash – Check for buddy banks abroad

If you already bank with Citi or Bank of America here in the U.S. you may have an advantage.

Citibank has over 200 branches across more than 40 other countries, including 20+ branches in Buenos Aires, Argentina and a handful of branches across major cities in the U.K., Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland and China.  You’ll still get a foreign transaction fee of 3%, but you won’t get an added fee for using an out of network ATM.

Bank of America is a part of the Global ATM Alliance, which allows customers of participating banks to use their debit cards to withdraw money without fees. The alliance includes: BNP Paribas (France), BNL Banca Nazionale Del Lavoro (Italy), Barclays (U.K.), Deutsche Bank (Germany) and Westpac (Australia). Customers can use China Construction Bank in China with no ATM fees, however foreign transaction fees may still apply. ATM and credit card fees

Often times, ATMs in a foreign country may only allow withdrawals from a checking account, so make sure to keep a sufficient checking balance rather than leaving it all in a savings account. Also, keep in mind that ATM withdrawal limits will apply just as they do in the U.S. however the amount will vary based on the local currency and exchange rates.There are generally two types of transaction fees that may apply while you are in a foreign country:

  • International ATM Fee – a flat fee charged for each ATM withdrawal
  • Foreign transaction fee – a percentage of the transaction amount for using a debit or credit card to make a purchase/withdrawal

Our post on debit card foreign transaction fees investigates the fees that the top U.S. banks and credit unions charge for international ATM withdrawals and debit card point-of-sale transactions. In most cases, expect to pay 1%-3% of a transaction amount when making a debit card purchase and an additional fee of around $2 for using an ATM.  To avoid being charged a flat fee each time, it might be worth considering making a large withdrawal at once, rather than frequent withdrawals at smaller increments.If you choose to use a credit card for purchases, know that most will also involve a fee each time you use it. Try getting one with no foreign transaction fee, to avoid the extra cost.

Tips

Laws vary from country to country regarding what ATM charges they have to disclose to you especially in Latin and South America. I got charged more than $20 for several $100 withdrawals in Mexico. Talking with your bank to find the best places to get cash and/or getting cashiers checks is a very good idea.

–Brian Mueller

The best advice I can give is to bring at least 50 US dollars for the airport costs and to last you until you can find an ATM. Most places accept major credit cards so cash isn’t always necessary when paying for lodging, restaurants, etc.

–Paul Filo

Opening a foreign bank account

One option for students who expect a more extended stay in a foreign country is to open a new account at a local bank (bring your passport). This will allow you to make purchases more easily and without fees, however it’s not without drawbacks. Banking options vary from country to country, you’re likely to be unfamiliar with how the accounts work and what you might be charged for. Also, your parents will not be able to transfer money into your foreign account as easily as they could to your account in the U.S., which can be a major concern in case of an emergency. Online banks are a great option in many European countries. Like here in the U.S., they typically have much lower fees and can be opened without the need to visit a physical branch.

Tips

I always found it very helpful to open up bank account in the country where I was living, and to also use online banking for easy money management. In the UK Lloyds TSB offers accounts with online banking at no cost, all you need is the enrollment letter from university.

One of my favorite things that I have come across is a German Online Bank called comdirect. With their online account you can withdraw money for free worldwide at ATMs. The only downside is that you need to speak some German to open the account. Most German banks have a monthly account fee, so online baking is a great option to avoid this.

–Jenifer Haack, Waymate

If you’re going to be abroad in the UK for the entire year, setting up an international bank account is crucial! Debit cards are read differently on some UK machines, so an American one won’t necessarily work in every single stop you visit. Carrying around a British debit card really is a guarantee that you’ll never end up washing dishes in the pub to make up for the Fish and Chips you couldn’t pay for!

–Michael Restiano, American Student Assistance

Money & ID safety

One of the most important things you can do to plan for your trip is to let your bank know that you’ll be abroad. Include exact countries and dates where possible, to avoid having your card flagged for fraud. Unfortunately, incidents may still arise despite providing ample warnings to your bank. Bring a back-up card so you can still access some sort of money in case one is cancelled. Passports are also critical – not just for traveling from place to place, but also as identification for everyday purposes. Make two copies of your passport, give one to someone at home and keep another in a separate location, just in case your actual passport is lost or stolen.

Also, like in the U.S., you should not carry excessive amounts of cash around on a daily basis. If you take a lump sum out from the ATM (which is a smart way to avoid multiple ATM fees), then keep most of it in a safe place wherever you are staying and only carry as much as you need for the day/night.

Tips

While credit cards are useful when visiting any foreign destination, it is beneficial to have some of the local currency on hand. Don’t use an ATM machine if someone is standing around you. On Call International CEO Mike Kelly says, “make sure to watch out for small cameras meant to record you as you enter a PIN.” Don’t keep all your valuables in one place. In the event something gets stolen, you should have some extra cash or credit cards stored in the hotel safe or a secret, safe place. Credit card companies can provide travelers with a new card very quickly, be sure to check which cards have the best policies before heading abroad.

–Mike Kelly, CEO, On Call International

Other money tips from fellow travelers

If you’re still paying bills while you’re overseas, try to set up online payments to your providers, like insurance, telecommunications, medical or rentals. And if you do need to make a payment when you’re away, double check that the site you’re using is completely secure – and if using a shared computer, don’t save passwords! Good luck and bon voyage!

– Rishe, E-Complish

I recommend students take travel cards with them which are Pre loaded with money – makes it safer and easier to use.

–Nabeel Siddiqui

In the Far East/South America, cash is king; moreover, in some places small change is king. Argentina is the most extreme example – in downtown Buenos Aires a 1peso coin is sometimes worth more than a 5peso note, so when you’re traveling in the countryside where coins are relatively abundant – hoard them! And when you’re in the city where they are scarce, use them to haggle prices down (it feels really good to buy a 20peso item with 6 pesos of coins, trust me).

The general rule of thumb is that for the first 2/3s of your trip your wallet should be continuously swelling, and for the last 1/3 it should be deflating.

–Alex Fink, www.alexfink.net

While modern technology offers a nearly seamless transition, not all aspects of American financial life reach overseas. Credit scores and evidence of studies or employment can cause trouble when you return. Depending on how long you are overseas, you may not have a credit score and your credit cards could be cancelled. Without a credit score you won’t be able to get credit cards or buy a car or a home.

The solution is simple. Keep two US credit cards that you can pay online. Have two in case one is cancelled for some other reason. Then use them a few times each year. Either charge a holiday gift or just buy some songs for your iPod. Seniors and post-graduate students must pay much closer attention to these items as they are likely to be seeking a job or financing immediately upon their return.

–Todd Huettner, President, Huettner Capital

I used a three part approach to budget and manage my finances during the trip and I would recommend this for any student planning to travel abroad.

  1. I planned out a specific budget for fun spending and potential excursions.
  2. I brought a credit card, a debit card, some cash and travelers checks as an emergency backup and stored them in different places among my luggage.
  3. I made notes on what banks were in the area where I would be staying if I needed to visit them.

–LaTisha Styles, YoungFinances.com

Study abroad image via shutterstock

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