Travelling overseas means you pick a destination, book hotels, flights, perhaps some activities. Then, while there, you visit attractions, go shopping. Spend money on food, drinks, souvenirs and other things. How your money gets converted to the local currency to pay for all of this is probably the last thing you want on your mind. And yet it can mean the difference between paying $100 and paying $110 for the same thing.
There are several ways banks will charge you for the privilege of using their services overseas.
- Foreign currency transaction fees: A fee charged when you purchase something at an overseas-based merchant. Even if the transaction was charged in Australian dollar. Usually a percentage of the transaction amount. Can be in excess of 3%.
- Spread: An invisible fee when paying in a foreign currency. Basically the difference between the exchange rate the bank gets and the exchange rate they give you. Can be several percentage points.
- Overseas ATM withdrawal fees: A fee for withdrawing money at an ATM overseas. Usually a fixed amount. Often around $5. But to add insult to injury you’ll often also pay the foreign currency transaction fee for the withdrawal as well. In addition, the ATM operator will often charge their own fee.
It’s embarrassing how long it took us to start paying attention to those fees and do something about it. Like most people, we banked just with one of the big four, had one account, a ‘low fee’ credit card (which was anything but) and hardly ever looked at our statements. But seeing the amounts we wasted gave me a strong kick to do something about it. So I did some research trying to find accounts that didn’t have any of those fees. Interestingly, I found the products best suited for our needs weren’t actually marketed as traveller cards at all.
When picking an account/cards we were looking for the following:
- No annual or account keeping fees. There are some cards that offer extra perks for a fee (usually several hundred dollars). We wanted free.
- No foreign currency transaction fees. Ever.
- No spread. Spread is a “hidden” fee. While it’s unavoidable, we wanted it as low as possible.
We also had some nice to have goals.
- More than one account, from independent banks, so that if one bank’s system goes down we have another option available.
- More than one card type. Visa and Mastercard, so that if one system goes down we have another option available. Also sometimes in some countries, you can get a discount paying with a specific card type, but that’s just a bonus.
- Support for mobile payments. We’re both Android users so we care about Google Pay and Samsung Pay, but we mention Apple Pay in the descriptions below as it’s also very popular. Mobile app functionality/quality also matters.
So here’s the list of the cards/accounts we personally use in our travels. For brevity, I’m going to use acronyms: FCTF for foreign currency transaction fees and OAWF for overseas ATM withdrawal fees.
We don’t necessarily recommend you get all of those. We’ve had most of those accounts for other reasons well before they changed the rules that make them viable for travelling. Especially getting a credit card is less relevant these days as debit cards offer most of the same features and can be used pretty much everywhere credit cards are requested.
ING Orange Everyday Visa debit card
- ✅ No FCTF*, ✅ No OAWF*, ✅ Uses Visa rates, ATM operator fees refunded*
- ✅ Google Pay, ✅ Apple Pay, 🚫 Samsung Pay
* Provided you deposit $1000 into the account and make at least 5 payments with it in the previous month.
ING Visa is our primary card for ATM withdrawals and everyday payments. All foreign currency transaction and ATM withdrawal fees are refunded*. They also use Visa rates when converting currencies which has minimal spread.
What makes this card unique is that ING will not only refund the fees they themselves charge you but also the ATM operator fees. That means you can withdraw money from literally any ATM in any country without ever worrying about paying fees.
The Android app is quite good. Works fast and reliably, you can view your balance at a glance without logging in, log in with a fingerprint and, if your card gets lost/stolen, disable it right in the app.
Citibank Plus MasterCard debit card
- ✅ No FCTF, ✅ No OAWF, ✅ Uses MasterCard rates
- 🚫 Google Pay, 🚫 Apple Pay, ✅ Samsung Pay
Citibank Plus everyday account used to be our primary travel debit card before the ING removed their fees in late 2017. It comes with a MasterCard card (used to be a Visa until early 2017) that met our no-fees criteria. The currency conversion happens using MasterCard rates and there are no extra fees or sneaky surcharges involved. Citibank has a worldwide presence, and in most countries (although not all) when using local Citibank ATM the withdrawal will be fee-free.
Having no fees (other than possible ATM operator fees), unconditionally (unlike ING) this is a great card to have, which is why we keep it as a backup when travelling.
It doesn’t support Apple Pay or Google Pay, but it does support Samsung Pay.
The Android app is functional but the slowest and clunkiest of all. You can view your balance at a glance without logging in, log in with a fingerprint and, if your card gets lost/stolen, disable it right in the app.
Macquarie Platinum Mastercard debit card
- ✅ No FCTF, ✅ No OAWF, ✅ Uses MasterCard rates
- ✅ Google Pay, ✅ Apple Pay, 🚫 Samsung Pay
Macquarie Bank used to charge foreign transaction fees and ATM fees on their transaction account with MasterCard but those were removed a few years ago so now we take the card (mainly as backup) when travelling.
It works with Google Pay and Apple Pay, and their Android app is excellent. It has all the features mentioned above and then some. Based on your location it will show you current exchange rate and send you push notifications immediately after you pay showing amounts in both local currency and Australian dollar.
UBank USaver Ultra Visa debit card
- ✅ No FCTF, ✅ No OAWF, ✅ Uses Visa rates
- ✅ Google Pay, 🚫 Apple Pay, ✅ Samsung Pay
We’ve been using UBank for its great interest rate on savings account but they also removed foreign transaction fees and ATM fees on their transaction account with Visa so now we take the card when travelling.
It works with Google Pay and Samsung Pay (Apple Pay support is supposedly coming at some point) as well as some more esoteric options: FitBit Pay and Garmin Pay as well as their own mobile payments through the UBank app.
The Android app is very barebone. It doesn’t offer fingerprint login (you can set up a four-digit PIN to log in quickly). You must log in to view your balance and it will only show you the AUD amount for overseas transactions. You have to visit their website to see the foreign currency amount. It doesn’t seem to have any option to disable a lost/stolen card so you’d have to call them if that happens.
Bankwest Zero Platinum MasterCard credit card
- ✅ No FCTF, 🚫 No OAWF (it’s a credit card), ✅ Uses MasterCard rates
- ✅ Google Pay, 🚫 Apple Pay, 🚫 Samsung Pay
There are two credit cards meeting our criteria: Zero Platinum MasterCard from Bankwest and 28 Degrees Platinum MasterCard. Both have no yearly or transaction fees and both use MasterCard rates. We went with Bankwest as it offered extra insurance but the 28 Degrees card may be easier to get.
We also set up a direct debit to automatically pay the card off in full every month and avoid late payment fees or being hit with interest. Adding extra cardholders is also free but requires a visit to a branch.
In terms of mobile payments, it only works with Android Pay and Bankwest’s own $40 Halo payment ring.
The Android app is very basic. It has fingerprint login but none of the other useful options I mentioned earlier.
Some tips and random thoughts
Sometimes the merchant will ask you if you want to pay in local currency or AUD. Always pick the local currency. Otherwise, the merchant’s bank will convert the local price to Australian dollar, adding their bank’s spread and fees on top of that, effectively wiping the benefit of your no fees card.
All our cards use either Visa or MasterCard rates for currency conversion. We didn’t find any consistent differences between them as they both tend to be fairly close to each other and the official exchange rate. So it shouldn’t make much difference which one you use.
Samsung Pay has a unique feature not available in Google Pay or Apple Pay called MST which allows it to be used with older payment terminals that don’t have tap & go support. This makes it useful in countries like Vietnam where the terminals which work with Apple Pay or Google Pay are rare.
While it’s easy to keep those accounts fee-free it bears repeating that they can cost you for some things. Most notably make sure you never overdraw your debit card and pay your credit card in full each month.
Finally, the accounts and cards described are ones that we personally use when travelling and we don’t get compensated by any of the banks for mentioning them. It’s all our honest, independent opinion and facts.
Disclaimer: I’m not a financial advisor and this is not financial advice. It is important you seek the independent advice of an appropriately qualified professional before making a decision on a product from the information you have obtained from this website and associated sources.