I decided to do an overhaul of our digital wallets to reduce the amount of fees we will be charged while we are traveling. Also, all of the research that I have done mentions that long term travelers should carry 2 credit cards and 2 debit/ATM cards. The reasons behind this are that it is not uncommon for a bank to suspend a card due to potentially fraudulent activity, or to have a card lost or stolen. In either of these cases it may take a while to reinstate your card, or ship out a new one, and you need to be able to keep paying for things in the mean time. It is also good to know the toll or non-800 number for your bank as toll-free numbers may not work outside of the US and Canada. Depending on where you are traveling, it is good to have a mix or cards on different networks (VISA, MasterCard, Discover, AMEX). For Latin America all of my research shows that it is good to have at least one VISA and one MasterCard. Unlike the US, in some countries merchants only take one or the other and not both. In latin America AMEX and Discover are not commonly accepted.
I found that the new Costco Citi card that we have charges a 3% international transaction fee for all transactions made outside the US. We also have a First Technology Choice Rewards World MasterCard which offers 0% international transaction fees. So, we will take the First Technology card, but we would still like another card that offers 0% international transaction fees. After doing a ton of research on different options I settled on the Barclay Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard. This card offers 0% international transaction fees, and gives 2% rewards on all purchases that can be redeemed on your statement towards travel purchases. Both the Barclay card and the First Tech cards have Chip & PIN technology. The PIN part is important if you want to be able to use kiosks while outside of the US. Most unattended kiosks, and some retail merchants, will require Chip & PIN cards. The plan will be to use the Barclay card as the primary because it has better benefits, and use the First Technology card as the backup.
The only Debit/ATM cards we have are tied to all of our First Technology Federal Credit Union accounts. For instance when used at an ATM, you can see and access the balances of all our accounts. This is something that other travelers advise against carrying. There are a couple of issues. First, if someone steals or clones your card, and has your PIN, they can drain all of your accounts. If they run it as a debit card, they don’t even need your PIN. Second, you may become a victim of a express kidnapping. If the ATM card you carry is tied to an account that only has $1,000 or less, you will not be held very long. If you follow this plan, you can just do an electronic funds transfer from your account at your primary bank into a separate account at another bank. Another issue is that ATMs, and your bank, may both charge fees if the ATM is not part of your banks network. These fees can be over $5 for each transaction. This encourages travelers to pull out more money at one time which is not advisable for theft reasons.
Again, after a ton of research I found the Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account. This account offers a debit/ATM card that does not charge any ATM fess and will refund any fees that are charged by the ATM company. It also does not charge any international transaction fees. This means that you can pull small amounts of money out at a time and not go broke doing it. There is no limit to the amount of fees they will refund and no limit to the number of transactions you can make per month. This account has to be tied to a brokerage account with Charles Schwab. Both accounts require no minimum balance and have $0 monthly or annual fees. By doing a quick google search I was able to find a referral code of “REFER” that will give me an extra $100 deposited into my checking account once the account has been funded with a $1,000. Since that was the amount I was planning on funding the account with already this just gives me a free $100. When setting this account up online you can only set it up as an individual account at first. If you want it to be a joint account then you will have to fill out a paper form and email or snail mail it into them. Keep in mind that you do not want to fund the account until you have setup the account to be a joint account. The reason for this is that once the account is funded they will ship out checks and debit cards. If you have not setup the account to be joint then they will have to reissue those checks and cards once it is. I was able to setup the account, change it to joint tenant, fund it, and get the checks and Debit cards all in 7 business days. I was not able to find the form to fill out to add a joint tenant to the account online and had to call in to their customer service team and ask for it to be emailed to me. They will explain where online to upload it, or what address to snail mail it to when you call them.
NOTE: When you open a Charles Schwab account they will do a credit check on you, even though you are not opening up a line of credit. This will show up as an inquiry on your credit report.
For a 2nd card, to use as a backup, I opted to get ATM cards for both of us from First Technology that are only tied to Summer’s savings account. We will only keep $100 in this account, and will transfer more in from one of our other accounts on an as needed basis. This is not something that the local branches can issue, but can be issued by calling into to the customer service line. This is an ATM card only that can not be run as a debit card. The only way to use this card is at an ATM machine. I opted for this because if this card is lost or stolen it can not be used without the PIN. This card also has no access to any of our other First Technology accounts. The other benefit of having an ATM only card is that it will not get suspended by the bank for international use. This means you do not need to tell the bank you are traveling.
The best way to exchange your currency is to just pull money out from an ATM in the country you are visiting. This will give you the local currency for the country you are in and will give the best exchange rate possible. If you are using a card like the Charles Schwab one mentioned above, you will not be charged any fees on these transactions no matter what ATM you use, or what country you are in. Exchanging currency at any bank or money exchange counter will not be as good of an exchange rate as using an ATM card or credit card, and you will get charged fees for the transaction.
Make sure that your PIN is exactly 4 digits long. Some banks will now let you set PINs that are more than 4 digits, but this is not a good idea while traveling. There are still a lot of old merchant terminals and ATMs out there that will only accept a 4 digit PIN. If yours is longer, it will decline the transaction. Make sure you notify all of the banks, who’s cards you are carrying, when and where you will be traveling. This will help keep your card from being frozen for suspected fraud. If you have the Barclay Card mentioned above, you just enter your travel dates and countries in their app on your smartphone, or through their website.