When you’re traveling it makes sense to have several different ways to access your money, to make sure you never get stuck without funds. So if carrying cash, or using a regular debit or credit card is your familiar plan A, you’ll want a solid alternative as a plan B.
A prepaid travel card can be a great option. In fact, international prepaid cards are increasing in popularity all the time, thanks to their unique advantages, and the range of options available.
This guide will walk through the types of prepaid debit cards which are suited to international travelers - what they are, how to get one, and which cards offer the best deals.
In many ways, prepaid cards work similarly to your regular debit card. You’ll be able to use a prepaid card to make ATM withdrawals or payments in stores, and you’ll avoid overdraft fees because you can’t spend more than you’ve topped up. Carrying a card is convenient, and safer than having a lot of cash on you.
So far, so familiar. But prepaid cards can be especially useful if you’re planning on going overseas, as long as you choose one specifically designed for travelers.
You’ll find prepaid cards you can pick up before you leave home, and top up online in dollars. You then select the currency you need when you’re abroad, and switch your balance, so you know exactly how much you have in the foreign currency.
This can make it easier to budget for a trip, as you know exactly what’s available, and there should be no surprise fees or costs associated with exchange rate fluctuations. It also means you don’t have to spend time searching for a currency exchange office in an unfamiliar place - leaving you free to get on with enjoying your trip.
There are also travel cards which don’t switch your dollars in advance of your trip, but do so as and when you use your card for spending. These are rather more like using a regular debit card, but do mean you won’t be able to see the exchange rates used until after the transaction has been processed.
There’s one final security bonus for travel cards, too. Your prepaid card isn’t linked to any of your other accounts, so even in the unlikely event that you’re a victim of fraud or lose your card and PIN, the thieves wouldn’t be able to get to your regular bank balance. This gives you extra peace of mind, no matter where you are in the world.
You’ll have a good range of options available if you’re thinking of getting a travel card for your next trip. Each comes with its own set of fees and features, so reading the small print is essential to make sure you get the best possible deal.
We’ll start with an overview of availability by destination country/currency. Some of these cards come with a linked account which lets you hold foreign currency balances, some are specifically prepaid travel cards which will automatically convert your US dollar balance to the currency you need when you need it, and some are more traditional accounts which come with favourable terms for overseas spending.
Read on for more details and a look at the pros and cons of each featured card. There’s also a handy table at the end showing which of the cards can be used to convert a balance and lock in the exchange rate before you travel to some of the most popular destinations from the US.
If you’re based in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, or in a broad range of countries in Europe and beyond, you can open a free TransferWise multi-currency account online, and get a linked Mastercard debit card.
Hold 40+ currencies in your account, and you’ll also get your own local bank details for major currencies like US, Australian and New Zealand dollars, British pounds and euros, so you can receive payments for free from these regions.
Convert currencies as needed, using the mid-market exchange rate and for just a low, transparent fee. Then you can spend any currency you hold for free, and withdraw up to the equivalent of $250 a month without charge. There’s a small fee for ATM withdrawals after that.
Get a Revolut card and account if you’re a legal resident in the US, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Switzerland, UK, or the EEA (European Economic Area).¹ ² Hold and exchange 28 currencies, and spend in over 150 currencies using your linked card.
You’ll be able to exchange currencies using the mid-market rate in most cases. However, there is a currency markup for Thai baht and Ukranian hryvnia, and you’ll pay a fee for exchanging large amounts over the course of a month, or at a weekend.
That means 0.5% extra if you exchange more than $6,500 a month on a rolling basis, and an additional 0.5%-1% for weekend transactions. You may also pay a fee for ATM withdrawals over $300 a month.³ ⁴
At the time of research, only the basic - free - Revolut account is available to US residents, but premium packages are available elsewhere, and due to arrive shortly here too.
In the US, Travelex offers a prepaid currency card for local customers, which can be used with 6 foreign currencies. If you’re not based in the US, there are equivalent products offered by many regional Travelex brands, so check out the details for your region.
Travelex Money Cards can be used for spending in stores and restaurants and ATM withdrawals. The card has contactless technology so you can tap and go where contactless is available.
You may need to pay a fee to get the card, and there’s an exchange fee of 5.5% added to currency exchange. There are also other fees and limits you’ll want to know about, including an inactivity fee of $3 a month, and a $20 refund fee. Make sure you read all the small print before you apply.⁵
If you live in Europe, the UK or US, you can open an account with N26, a German online bank which offers a smart card option for international spending.⁶
This is a little different to some of the other options above, in that you won’t necessarily be switching your money to hold a balance in a foreign currency. But instead, N26 allow spending which uses the Visa exchange rate with no markup or fee, making it good value for some travelers who don’t want to switch their dollars in advance.⁷
It’s worth knowing that there can be fees to pay, such as ATM charges, which are not levied by N26 but by other service providers.
You can buy a Western Union Netspend card in the US, and in other eligible countries, and use it to spend where you see the Mastercard symbol.
You’ll be able to send or receive payments to the card using Western Union, although there are fees and an exchange rate markup you’ll want to know about. Log in to your account online to check the specific costs for your transaction.⁸
You’ll be able to get a prepaid card from PayPal, which can be used overseas as well as at home. You can fund the card with PayPal balance if you have it, or top up at a retail location, or online.⁹
It’s worth noting that this card is convenient but does come with fees. There’s a monthly charge of $4.95, and fees for using your card when you travel. You’ll pay a 2.5% foreign transaction fee, for example, and there are costs for using an ATM abroad, too.¹⁰ You may also find the exchange rates offered aren't the best available.
There are a few popular cards from Netspend which offer prepaid spending at home and abroad. You can either choose a card with a monthly fee, or a pay as you go option which doesn’t cost a fixed service charge but which does involve per transaction charges. This brings flexibility but fees for international spending are fairly high so you will want to make sure you’re clear on the terms if you opt for this card type.
The foreign transaction surcharge is 4%, which is added to purchases and ATM withdrawals. However there’s no specific extra international ATM fee to cover which is a bonus, although you’ll need to check for charges levied by the ATM operator.¹¹
Card offers MasterCard and Visa network prepaid cards to US customers. There are different fees and features, but being able to choose means you can get a card on a different network to your regular card, as a backup. If you ever find the card you normally use isn’t working, this one could be a good plan B.
There are fees which vary by card type, including costs for using your card overseas. For the prepaid MasterCard for example, there’s a 2.95% foreign transaction fee, and extra charges of $2.95 in addition to this when you are an ATM or over the counter withdrawal in a foreign currency.¹²
Ally is an online bank. While the cards and accounts offered from Ally are not strictly speaking the same as the prepaid travel cards featured elsewhere on this list, you could open and use an Ally account in a similar way. Accounts are opened online, so you could top up only what you intend to spend while you travel, and use your linked card for convenience. This gives the security of a prepaid card, as your Ally account won’t link to any of your regular bank accounts.
Ally charges a 1% fee for ATM use overseas, and there may be additional charges levied by the ATM operators. Check the full terms and conditions online. ¹³ ¹⁴
One handy feature of some prepaid travel cards is that you can convert your dollars to the currency you need before you go on a trip, locking in the exchange rate. You’re then sure what you have to spend, and should be able to avoid any surprise fees.
Here are the cards which give that option, by destination country.
|Destination country||Travel cards offering the local currency|
|Mexico||TransferWise, Revolut, Travelex, Western Union Netspend|
|Canada||TransferWise, Revolut, Travelex, Western Union Netspend|
|UK||TransferWise, Revolut, Travelex, Western Union Netspend|
|Dominican Republic||Revolut, Western Union Netspend|
|Europe ( Euro area countries such as France, Italy, Germany, Spain )||TransferWise, Revolut, Travelex, Western Union Netspend|
|Jamaica||Revolut, Western Union Netspend|
|Japan||TransferWise, Revolut, Travelex, Western Union Netspend|
|India||TransferWise, Revolut, Western Union Netspend|
|Hong Kong||TransferWise, Revolut, Western Union Netspend|
|People’s Republic of China||TransferWise, Revolut, Western Union Netspend|
Before you head off on your trip, here are another few top tips to make sure you can make the most of your money.
When you’re using a card abroad in a store or ATM, you may be asked if you’d like to pay in your home currency - dollars - instead of the local currency in your destination. ATM and payment providers claim this is a service which lets you easily see the cost of your purchase in a familiar currency. However, it’s also a good way to hit unnecessary fees, and inflated exchange rates. This process is called dynamic currency conversion - DCC - and should be avoided.
Always choose to pay in the local currency wherever you are, to get the best exchange rates available.
Not all ATMs are made equal. Some charge higher fees than others, and while you’re usually notified of the charges before you get started, you could end up paying more than you expect if you’re in a hurry to get cash.
Research your destination online using resources like Tripadvisor and Reddit to see which ATM will charge you the least, especially in popular tourist destinations. Do not take out cash too often to avoid excessive fees.
Being stuck without funds will ruin your trip pretty quickly. Carry cash and a second card which operates on a different network to your main payment method. That way you’ll be covered for most eventualities.
Know your exchange rates before you go. You want to find the mid-market exchange rate for your currency, which is the best benchmark to use when comparing the rates available from card providers and currency services.
Comparing the rate you’ve been offered with the mid-market rate will show up any markup or margin added by the provider. Choose a smart alternative like the TransferWise multi-currency account to get the mid-market rate every time, and top up your account or card in advance to lock in rates and avoid surprises.
There’s a lot to think about before you head overseas. But getting your foreign currency arranged is one travel essential you can’t ignore. Choose a prepaid card as a primary or back-up method of spending, to benefit from relatively simple and safe access to your money while overseas. You won’t regret it.
- Revolut - A better way to handle your money
- Revolut - What countries are supported?
- Revolut - What foreign exchange rate will I get?
- Revolut - What currencies are supported for spending?
- Travelex Money Card | Prepaid Currency Card
- N26 - Mobile Banking the World Loves — N26 United States
- N26 - Is there a fee if I make a purchase while I am abroad?
- Western Union® NetSpend® prepaid MasterCard®
- PayPal - How It Works
- List of all fees associated with your PayPal Prepaid Mastercard® Details of All Fees To Get Started Card Purchase Fee $0 No fee
- List of all fees associated with your Netspend®Visa®Prepaid Card Details of All Fees To Get Started Card Purchase Fee $0 No fe
- CARD.com Prepaid Mastercard® Fee Schedule
- Ally - Online Checking Account: High Interest Checking
- Ally Help Center
All sources checked on 19th March 2020
This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.
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