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The Best Banks for International Travelers

Business Travel
by Tim Wenger Aug 1, 2019

It’s important to have easy access to your money when traveling abroad. While the days of traveler’s checks and long bank queues are mostly gone, ATM and foreign transaction fees can still cost a pretty penny. Fortunately, as more and more banking is done online, managing your money while traveling is getting easier. Helpful technology means less wasted time at airport money exchange kiosks and fewer hefty fees — at least if you choose the right bank.

There are four key factors that play a role in which bank regular travelers should use:

  • International transaction or ATM fees. While international fees are typically low — often less than 50 cents per transaction — they can add up over the course of a long trip.
  • Wire transfer fees. Being charged for a wire transfer is the last thing you want when you’re stuck without money and in need of emergency help.
  • Ease of contact in case your card is flagged or another issue arises.
  • Ability to link your account to online payment methods like Apple Pay and Google Pay.

Another thing to keep in mind is the currency exchange markup. Currency exchange markup is a term frequent international travelers absolutely loathe. The best banks for international travel take this into consideration and eliminate it from the company’s vocabulary. Whether you’re applying for a travel rewards credit card or opening a new bank account, identify options that use the Mastercard Currency Converter to determine the transaction conversion from USD to the local currency. The Mastercard rate is generally the most favorable for travelers.

Keep these points in mind when searching for where to keep your money. A better bank means more time looking at your travel photos and less time staring in disbelief at all those fees on your bank statement. These are the best banks for travelers.

For travelers from the US: Charles Schwab

Charles Schawb in NYC

Photo: rblfmr/Shutterstock

The High Yield Investor Checking Account from Charles Schwab is the best checking account a frequent international traveler from the United States can have, hands down. While some other checking accounts ditch international fees, Chuck Schwab also ditches the minimum balance requirement often required to receive the perk. The account also links with most online payment platforms.

What you get

  • No ATM fees or foreign transaction fees. Charles Schwab issues a rebate for any fees incurred from other banks as well.
  • No monthly fee.
  • An annual yield of .37 percent. This is significantly more than the .1 percent offered by standard checking accounts, but still isn’t much unless you keep at least a $5,000 balance. At that point, you essentially offset one overpriced airport meal each year.

You can apply if

You’re a US citizen or permanent resident and have a US mailing address.

The catch

The High Yield Investor Checking account is paired with a Charles Schwab brokerage account, and the application requires a dive deep into your financial records. This can be a positive, however, if long-term investing is part of your financial plan. Many dedicated investors aren’t keen on linking accounts, but for the frequent traveler who prioritizes the ease of automation, this can be a serious time-saver. There’s also no minimum balance for the brokerage account.

For international travelers and those who prefer going to a physical bank: HSBC

HSBC in Paris

Photo: Serge Cornu/Shutterstock

HSBC is a British bank with nearly 4,000 locations in 67 countries. You’d be hard pressed to walk more than a few blocks in a major European, Asian, or Latin-American city center without passing an HSBC ATM. The basic checking accounts allow you to move money between accounts in multiple countries, though you’ll need an account in your home country. Thanks to a global presence ATM fees are all but nonexistent, but HSBC does charge foreign transaction fees on debit card purchases unless you have the Premier checking account.

What you get

  • No wire fees, foreign transaction fees, or ATM fees with the Premier account.
  • International banking and in-person customer service.
  • Peace of mind of knowing you can easily withdraw money just about anywhere.

You can apply if

You live in one of the 67 countries where the bank operates, including the US.

The catch

In 2012, HSBC paid a nearly $2 billion fine after being accused of money laundering in the US, so you’d have to live with the fact that your bank helped Mexican and Colombian drug cartels — and potentially other shady operations — do business.

For the modern nomad: N26

N26 card

Photo: N26/Facebook

N26 does business a little differently. It’s not tied to the old way of doing things, meaning no in-person visits, no lines, no free lollipops at the drive-thru, and no weird calls from an 800 number trying to get you to upgrade. It’s contemporary in every sense of the word. Everything can be done online, and the basic checking account is designed for people who regularly country hop, particularly in Europe.

Similar to mobile apps like Qapital, N26 has features like automated savings toward designated goals and dates. N26 opened to US travelers in July. Unless you signed up months ago you’ll be added to the waiting list for an account, which N26 claims shouldn’t take longer than a few days.

What you get

  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • No minimum balance or monthly fees.
  • All bank interactions are done online, from deposits to customer service to account opening.
  • A debit card intended for international use, meaning it won’t be flagged the second you stick it in a foreign ATM.

You can apply if

You’re a European or US resident with a European or US mailing address.

The catch:

The US rollout isn’t complete yet, so there may be a wait. It also costs $2 plus 2 percent of the total withdrawal when taking money out of an ATM. Also, there aren’t any physical bank locations, so you’re out of luck should you need to stop by for a chat.

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