It took us many more years than I’d like to admit before we finally stumbled on the best debit card option to suit our needs for international travel.
In the meantime, we wasted a ton of money in foreign transaction fees (and fees, in general) simply accessing our own money across the globe (and down the street at out-of-network ATMs).
We’re happy to report that it’s been four years since we stumbled upon the best solution for us for banking while traveling, and we’re hoping our experience will help other travelers save time, effort, and money as well.
How We Stumbled on the Best Debit Card For International Travel
When I started traveling overseas back in the 1990s, travelers left their debit cards at home and carried around these crazy slips of paper called traveler’s checks, instead.
The idea behind traveler’s checks was being able to travel far and wide with enough money on you to cover expenses, without carrying…well…all, that money on you.
When funds ran low, you’d visit a bank branch, go through the often tedious and drawn-out process of getting access to your own money in a foreign country, and leave with your wallet replenished.
Traveler’s checks were neither convenient nor reliable (banks were often few and far between or closed at odd hours), but were the best thing going at the time.
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By the mid-90s ATMs were well-established, but foreign withdrawals were not, making traveler’s checks a go-to for long-term travelers.
Over the next decade, all of that changed.
By the mid-2000s, debit-Visa and debit-MasterCard machines were available throughout most provincial capitals of the world, even in the least industrialized countries.
Though, as many regular travelers to developing countries know, the presence of a machine and being able to successfully withdraw cash from said machine, are two entirely different things.
In general, the propagation of debit Visa and MasterCard-compatible ATMs across the globe has made international travel much easier and more secure.
But the fees. Those bloody fees.
Still today, most banks tack on hefty transaction fees if you don’t withdraw from their branded ATMs, and even more fees to withdraw money overseas.
If you happen to be banking with a bank that doesn’t have such fees, don’t worry—the ATM most certainly has you covered in that respect.
Expect to pay between $2.00 and $10.00 per transaction overseas, and there’s nothing your bank can do about.
Well…there actually is something your bank can do, but we’ll get to that.
Some months we were paying upwards of US$100 a month in ATM fees, just to access our own money overseas!
Thus began the hunt for a new debit card (i.e. new issuing bank) for our international travel exploits, and what we ultimately discovered surprised us.
So, What is the Best Debit Card For International Travel?
On the recommendation of my sister and brother-in-law, we decided to give Charles Schwab a whirl. That was four years ago and we haven’t looked back since.
Schwab’s services are predominately online-based, so you won’t find branches on every corner like B of A.
What you will find is that Schwab reimburses 100% of your ATM fees—ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD.
At first I thought, big deal, they don’t charge transaction fees on their end. But, no—they credit your account at the end of each month for ANY transaction fee charged ANYWHERE at ANY ATM.
Four years on, and I’ve never not been reimbursed the full amount of my ATM transaction fees.
What that means is that I can effortlessly withdraw funds just as easily from a Bank of America ATM in Portland, Oregon, as a Barclay’s ATM in rural Uganda, and all of my fees are reimbursed at the end of the month.
Truly 100% No ATM Transaction Fees, at Home or Abroad!!!
I can’t even begin to emphasize how much of a biggie this is for us as travelers and expats.
As I said, there were some months overseas where we were racking up $100 in ATM fees alone—not pleasant for anybody’s situation, but particularly hard to swallow for long-term budget backpackers living and traveling 100% off of savings.
That’s TWO-WEEKS accommodation in India! Or ONE HUNDRED half-liter beers across Asia.
Now, we don’t even worry about ATM fees.
While Lori does get her per diem paid out in local currency here in Laos every month, there are months when per diem doesn’t cover everything.
Medical care expenses, regional travel, and daycare expenses all end up being paid out from our U.S.-based checking account where both our paychecks are deposited, which is easily accessible from any Visa or MasterCard compatible ATM in town, at no additional cost to us.
Sensible, Travel-Friendly Security
I’ve also been really happy with what I perceive as sensible security measures on the part of Schwab.
It’s been a few years since I’ve had to submit a “travel note” regarding the countries we plan to travel to.
With the smart chip upgrade on all their debit cards, travel notes are largely obsolete, as Schwab is able to better track potentially fraudulent use without the need for a travel note.
Obviously, no system is perfect and the bank can’t protect against criminals using skimming devices at ATMs.
But it’s nice to be able to roam freely without worrying about submitting travel notes and/or getting my debit card locked every other month due to fraud concerns while traveling internationally.
Awesome Customer Service
Every time I’ve ever had to contact customer service at Schwab, I’ve gotten through to a real person quicker than any other bank I’ve used, and on the whole, I’ve found their reps to be not only friendly but more knowledgeable.
And, if they are not confident in the answer they’re giving you, they’ll quickly switch you to a specialist in a matter of seconds.
We’ve been able to get ahold of reps at all hours in a matter of minutes, and some have even helped us over multiple hours, days, or even weeks to troubleshoot a complex issue we were having with Lori’s Belgian salary payment in Euro to our Schwab account.
Turns out, it was an issue on the employer’s accounting side, but the Schwab reps were exceedingly patient and even contacted Lori’s employer in Belgium directly to walk them through the process.
The Bottom Line
Based on four years of experience using my Schwab debit card across a multitude of countries and circumstances, Charles Schwab’s debit card, in my view, is the best debit card for international travel.
With ZERO ATM fees worldwide, sensible, travel-friendly security measures, and their awesome 24-hour customer service, Schwab would be hard to beat for international travelers or expats.
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