I sat in my best friend’s room yesterday as she was packing to leave for Florence, Italy for a semester abroad. I left a little bit scared for her. She was planning on leaving California with 50 Euros, an ATM card from a small bank, and a credit card that has foreign transaction fees. Talking to her made me realize that so many college students haven’t been able to travel around the world and do not know how to avoid fees and dangerous situations while traveling abroad. This is my open letter to my best friend and so many college students just like her.
Luckily it was still 2pm when I was saying goodbye to Sarah. We hopped in the car and drove over to the local Chase bank with $200 and exchanged it for Euros. She wasn’t sure why she needed all of this money.
Tip #1: Never arrive in a foreign country without at least $150 of cash in the local currency. What if you get in a cab in Germany (substitute any country) and they only take cash? You have none and you are now stuck with an angry cab driver yelling at you in German. When arriving in a new country where you are unaware of typical customs and especially if you do not know the language always carry cash. You could get stopped for not having a subway ticket and have to pay a fine, a credit card machine could be broken, and so forth. Make sure you have enough money to cover all of your bases, which I believe to be about $150.
Back at Sarah’s house I asked to see what ATM card she was bringing. Her parents have not had the opportunity to travel much so they did not realize that banking with a big institution was an easy way to avoid unnecessary fees abroad. Luckily we were able to get her a new debit card while we were at the bank.
Tip #2: Open a checking account at a large bank (i.e., Chase, Bank of America, etc.). Many of these large institutions have international partners and if you do your research you can figure out which banks abroad work with your bank to allow you to take money out of their ATMs with no foreign transaction fees. If you take money out of an ATM that is not preapproved by your bank you can face fees between about $2 and $8 each time you take out any cash.
After I helped her take care of these two tasks I asked about her credit card situation. It is not always ideal to carry wads of cash around a foreign country. With higher probabilities of pickpocketing – when I was abroad people attempted to pickpocket both me and my friend – and higher exchange rates at kiosks, once familiar with an area, people enjoy just carrying a credit card they can cancel and a smaller amount of cash.
Tip #3: Get a card with no transaction fees from a company accepted where you are studying or plan to spend most of your time. Personally, I thought studying abroad was expensive enough. If I had to tack on $1-$3 (on average) every time I swiped my credit card it would have added up to a lot more. Make sure to avoid this foreign transaction fee and find a card that does not have one and is taken at the majority of vendors in your home country. For example, most places do not take Discover cards in Italy so maybe try for a Visa. Additionally, credit cards often offer the best exchange rates (about 5% better), so you might prefer to use a credit card whenever you can. Lastly, although you might get a funny look if your card does not have the usual European chip in the card, they can still swipe it on their machine, so do not worry!
If you are planning on studying abroad, make sure to think of finances in advance. It is much harder to call banks from abroad and you probably would rather be off having fun. If you stick to these three basic rules you should be pretty covered, but my last piece of advice: have fun, be safe, and live in the moment!
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