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Credit Cards

Plastic Rules

Use credit and debit cards overseas.

Deciding whether to use a credit, debit or travel card on a trip abroad this summer? We'll make it easy for you: Use your credit or debit card to make purchases and your debit card to get cash when you need it.

Both Visa and MasterCard charge currency-conversion fees on credit-card purchases, and issuing banks often pass along those fees -- and tack on a surcharge. But using plastic gets you the wholesale exchange rate, which is more favorable than the retail rate you'd get if you converted currency on your own or let a foreign merchant convert your purchase into dollars immediately. In the case of a credit card, you're also protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act if you end up in a dispute with a merchant.

You can minimize fees by using the right card. HSBC, Washington Mutual and most credit unions don't add a surcharge, and some brokerages, such as UBS, waive fees for certain clients. Capital One doesn't pass on any fees nor does it add a surcharge for purchases made abroad.

Withdrawing cash from an overseas ATM could cost $5 or more on top of the conversion fee if you use a machine that's not part of your bank's network. However, Citibank customers can withdraw cash without charge at branches in 38 countries. HSBC offers free ATM access in 69 nations.


If you have an account at Bank of America, withdrawals are free at more than 23,000 ATMs operated by members of its Global ATM Alliance. Other banks, such as Washington Mutual and Commerce Bank, don't charge for out-of-network withdrawals, although the overseas bank may impose a fee. In the U.S., account numbers are not printed on ATM receipts. But that is not necessarily true abroad, so don't discard your receipts.

Prepaid travel cards that you can load with cash offer the security of guaranteed replacement if they are lost or stolen, but the fees can add up. The American Express Travelers Cheque card costs $14.95; Visa's TravelMoney card is $4.95 for AAA members, and $9.95 for everyone else. Both companies charge fees to reload the card or reissue a lost card.