9 Tips for Using a Credit Card in a Foreign Country

Depending on where you're going, you may need a backup credit card and some cash. It pays to plan ahead.

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The days of relying solely on cash or travelers checks when traveling outside the U.S. are long gone. In the 21st century, the same credit cards you use at home will work for you abroad, but there are still a few things you need to know.

Even in some common destinations for U.S. travelers, cash or debit cards may be king. That’s why it’s helpful to carry a variety of ways to pay whenever you’re far from home.

Here are nine tips for getting maximum utility from your credit cards while traveling abroad.

1. Bring a widely accepted credit card

Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted worldwide. If an establishment takes credit cards, it’s a good bet that your Visa or Mastercard will work.

American Express and Discover have an international presence, too, but they are accepted by fewer merchants. Both are working to increase their overseas acceptance rates through partnerships with banks and payment networks, but just in case, bring a Visa or Mastercard as a backup.

2. Tell your issuer you’re going

If your credit card account suddenly shows purchases thousands of miles from your home, your card issuer might decline them as suspicious. To avoid confusion, let your issuer know your travel itinerary in advance so it doesn’t freeze your account. You can do this online or through the card issuer’s app, or by calling the number on the back of your card.

3. Bring more than one card

If your card is declined, you’ll be glad you have a backup. Consider bringing cards that offer extra rewards for travel spending categories, such as restaurants, hotels and transportation costs. Make sure those bonus rewards apply outside the U.S.

4. Have some cash

Just as in the U.S., some merchants overseas don’t take credit cards, even if they’re located in popular tourist destinations. In many European countries, for example, cash is still the most popular way to pay. A December 2020 study by the European Central Bank found that 73% of all transactions were carried out in cash.

A bit of local currency can also be a lifesaver if your cards get compromised and become unusable. Keep your cash, as well as a photocopy of your passport, separate from your cards in case your wallet is stolen.

5. Avoid foreign transaction fees

Some credit cards charge a fee on every purchase you make outside the U.S.; 3% is a typical rate. That’s an extra $30 on a $1,000 in spending. Bring a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, and save yourself the expense.

You’re not limited to fancy, high-annual-fee travel cards if you want to skip foreign transaction fees. There are $0 annual fee cards that charge no foreign transaction fees, too.

6. Understand dipping, tapping and digital wallets

Though credit cards are widely used in the U.S., cards issued to American consumers have been slower to adopt new technology — namely, EMV chips and contactless capabilities. But we’ve caught up, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the less shoppers touched when paying, the happier they were.

If you have a contactless card, tap away (assuming the merchant accepts cards at all). If you don’t have a contactless card, you can dip the card into the chip reader, but you still must verify the transaction with a signature. Chip-and-PIN cards, in which you enter a code to verify your identity, are more common outside the U.S.

Digital wallets like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay can also be used overseas, provided you’re shopping at a merchant that accepts them.

7. Say no to dynamic currency conversion

Dynamic currency conversion allows you to have a transaction conducted in U.S. dollars rather than the local currency, so you have a better idea what it’s costing you. This may seem convenient, but it’s expensive. The exchange rates for dynamic currency conversion are typically much worse than what your card issuer will use when it converts the purchase for your statement.

When offered the chance to have your transaction conducted in U.S. dollars, opt for the local currency instead. And if the merchant tries to make the choice for you, speak up.

8. Research your card’s travel protections

Some credit cards — especially those designed for travel — offer protections for delayed flights, lost luggage, trip cancellation, accident insurance and more. Book with the right card and enjoy peace of mind.

9. Use your card to access airport lounges

If you have a luxury travel credit card, there’s a good chance you have access to some airport lounges. Many cards include access to the Priority Pass network. Priority Pass lounges are plentiful overseas and can be a welcome respite during a long international journey. Many offer complimentary drinks, refreshments and food, and some even offer preflight spa treatments.

Whether you’re jetting off to London, Tokyo, or anywhere in between, use these tips to smooth the way.

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