If you’re going abroad, or spending on foreign websites, getting the right plastic could save you a small fortune. Pick up a specialist travel credit or debit card and enjoy peace of mind knowing that you’re getting the best exchange rate possible for any currency in the world. Here’s our guide to the best credit cards, debit, and prepay cards for foreign travel.
Before we get started though, just a little reminder that up to 5m EHIC cards expire every year. The European Health insurance card is free and entitles the holder to free or discounted medical care in 28 EU countries, plus a few others. Despite Brexit current EHIC cards are still valid. New applications will be given UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC). To get a new or replacement card visit the EHIC website.
The best debit cards and bank accounts to use abroad
- Starling Bank – The best bank account and debit card for overseas travel
- Chase Bank UK* – Generous ATM withdrawal limits and 1% cashback on card spending even aboard
- Monzo – Digital bank good for everyday spending in the UK and abroad. Free £5 with our link
The best credit cards for international travel
- Barclaycard Rewards – The best credit card to use abroad
- Halifax Clarity – Former top pick and still one of the best
The best prepaid smart cards for foreign spending
- Wise – The best for transfers to US
- Revolut – The most versatile multi-currency card and account
- Currensea – Generous ATM limits, works with your existing bank plus £10 cashback
*Due to a recent offer that has now ended there is a 5 week waiting list to join Chase.
We’ve spoken about travel credit cards before, but the industry moves fast, and many of the current crop of cards only launched in the past few years. While the Halifax Clarity, still remains a top pick, Barclaycard Rewards has leap frogged it to earn the title of the best traditional credit card for foreign spending.
Typically the best time to use credit cards when travelling abroad is when buying single items over £100. This could be anything from train or airline tickets to events, or hotels. This is because when buying items of over £100 and up to £30,000 you have additional protection under Section 75 of the consumer credit act, meaning the credit card provider is jointly liable for the goods/services.
Bank account debit cards are best used on items below £100 where Section 75 wouldn’t come into play anyway, so are great for day to day spending abroad, and ATM withdrawals.
Ideally you’d have both a specialist credit card and a debit card, that way you’re covered for most eventualities and can be sure you’re getting the most for your money.
Of course not everyone can get a specialist credit card or even bank account. So we’ve also rounded up a few of the top debit pre-pay cards for travel and foreign spending. These are most useful for day-to-day spending whilst abroad, and especially for cash withdrawals from foreign ATMs. Jump to pre-paid and other cards
The top debit cards and bank accounts for foreign travel
The rise of the mobile-first challenger bank could spell the end for prepay cards as free currency withdrawals and foreign spending become the norm. At Money Saving Answers we’re championing Starling Bank as one of the best bank accounts and debit cards for foreign travel. Check out the video below by broadcast journalist and travel vlogger/blogger, Pommie Travels.
Starling really stole a march on the competition by being the first digital challenger bank to launch its current account nationwide, and continues to impress with its well developed app and current account features. What’s more, the company is committed to fee-less foreign currency. Here’s what it says:
When we say zero fees, we mean exactly that.
We won’t charge you to use your debit card abroad – and we won’t add ATM fees. Just so you’re aware: some ATM providers may charge their own fee.
Great exchange rates.
You’ll benefit from Mastercard’s globally accepted exchange rate…and no, we won’t add anything on top.
You shouldn’t have to pay to access your money.
Unlike some other travel cards, we don’t charge you to deliver your card or to top it up.
Another great feature of the Starling account is that by integrating round-ups and saving spaces you can save whilst you travel, by rounding up transactions in realtime and setting the sum aside in a savings space.
Sounds great to us, and it’s not put a foot wrong in our tests. Whilst the new Chase account (see below) wins out slightly on features, Starling is the more mature product and tops our comparison as the best card to use abroad.
To open a Starling Bank account or to find out more visit Starling Bank
Chase Bank (UK)
JP Morgan’s Chase bank account might be a newcomer to the UK, but is one of the oldest and largest banks in the US, with a customer base of over 50m households. This digital only account follows on the footsteps of Starling and Monzo. It is still very early days yet, but all signs point to it being a top choice when it comes debit card spending abroad, and the best card to use in America.
The key features that make this account a winner are 1% cashback on spending, 5% interest on rounded up savings, Mastercard exchange rates, and fee free ATM withdrawals.
Understanding the features
Some of the features need a little qualifying. Firstly the 1% cashback comes with a long list of exclusions, few of these are relevant for holiday makers though, so you’d be able to enjoy money back on hotels, flights, travel, restaurants, and most other day to day spending. Unfortunately this offer is an incentive to draw in new customers. As such it is only valid for 12 months.
The 5% interest on savings, needs to be enabled in the app. This then rounds up your spending to the nearest pound, and deposits the difference in a virtual pot, where it earns interest which is calculated daily and applied monthly. After 12 months, or sooner if you wish to withdraw it. The money in this pot is moved back to your main account.
Chase customers will also benefit from fee free foreign ATM withdrawals. Unlike Monzo and Revolut that impose tight restrictions on ATM use abroad in order to up sell the customer to their paid accounts, Chase allows up to £700 per month to be withdrawn at ATMs whilst abroad. It also goes one further in allowing customers to use Chase ATMs in the US for free, a great way to avoid ATM fees over there which can often be up to $5 a time and otherwise difficult to avoid.
To open a Chase account you will need to be over 18, a UK resident, and provide proof of ID. There should be any credit checks.
UPDATE: Due to the popularity of the recent £20 bonus offer (now ended) The waiting list to join to Chase is up to 5 weeks. If you are travelling sooner a Starling account would be a better bet.
Unlike it’s digital competitor Starling, Monzo started life as a pre-pay travel. At the time it was a breath of fresh air and was considered the best prepay option. The prepay card was always just a beta trial until the bank could roll out its current account. Now that it has done so, and new cards have been issued to those who’ve upgraded, Monzo has taken the disappointing decision to start charging for foreign ATM withdrawals.
Fee free ATM withdrawals are limited to just £200 per 30 days, after which a 3% free is charged. Point of sale spending is still free. The ATM fees had seen Monzo drop down our pecking order a little, but with most purchases now being made via contactless or mobile, it’s unlikely you’ll need to withdraw more than £200 (equivalent) from an ATM abroad.
Monzo also has a number of paid accounts, such as Plus, and Premium. Premium in particular might be worthwhile for some travellers, as for a price, it includes family travel insurance, mobile insurance, and increased ATM limits. See our full breakdown of Monzo Premium for more information.
In our opinion it’s a good but not exceptional travel card. It’s still great for everyday banking in the UK and occasional travel abroad, but is beaten by Chase and Starling on ATM withdrawal limits.
If you open a Monzo account using our link you’ll get a £5 bonus so long as you sign up and use your Monzo card at home or abroad within 30 days.
One of the pre-digital challenger banks, Metro has always faired kindly when it comes to foreign spending. The standard current account doesn’t have any fees at all for using the debit card at the point of sale or for ATM withdrawals whilst in Europe (EU).
The account can now be opened online via the Metro Bank app (previously is was only available in-store), but you’ll need smartphone or tablet with a camera in order to take a self-portrait during the application process.
Outside of Europe Metro charges You’ll pay a hefty 2.5% non-sterling transaction fee, and a £1.50 fee for using ATMs.
The best credit cards for travel
The absolute cheapest credit card for overseas spending
The Barclaycard Rewards credit card is our new top pick for spending abroad in this category thanks to its 0.25% cashback on spending, and no fees on spending online, at the point of sale, or for ATM withdrawals.
Also it doesn’t charge any interest on overseas spending or withdrawals as long as the balance is paid off in full. This makes it the absolute cheapest way to spend abroad, and being a credit card rather than debit card you benefit from Section 75 protection on purchases.
22.9% APR Representative (variable). Based on an assumed credit limit of £1,200 and a purchase rate of 22.9% p.a. (variable)
Still one of the best around
A top pick for years, the Halifax Clarity is probably the most well known specialist travel credit card, and our choice as the best credit card for foreign travel. There’s no commission nor fees for spending or cash withdrawals. What’s more, you get the Mastercard wholesale exchange rate, which tends to be ever-so-slightly better than VISA’s rates.
The card does charge interest on cash withdrawn abroad at 19.9% (21.9%-25.9% for poorer credit scorers), but this amounts to just £1.50 per £100 spent. This is only charged until you’ve repaid the balance, so you can minimise this paying it off as you go along.
Interest isn’t charged on point of sale purchases abroad provided you clear the balance by the end of the statement date.
Halifax are currently running a promotion (for applications before 29th August) offering £20 cashback on your first purchase with the card.
19.9% APR Representative (variable). Based on an assumed credit limit of £1,200 and a purchase rate of 19.95% p.a. (variable)
The top pre-paid and smart cards for travel
Specialist travel credit cards, and bank accounts are all well and good, but what if you’re happy with your current bank, and don’t want the hassle of opening a new account. That’s where prepaid travel cards and accounts come in. These are quick to open, there’s no credit checks, yet still offer great rates for international spending.
Wise (formerly Transferwise)
Wise is a multi-currency account specifically aimed at travellers, digital nomads and those needing to transfer money across borders.
Founded in East London, it grew to prominence as a money transfer service previously known as Transferwise, but it’s the Wise Multi-currency account that will be of interest to holidaymakers and travellers.
The account is free open, and comes with account numbers, sort codes, IBANs, and routing numbers for UK, Eurozone, US, Australia, New Zealand and a number of other countries. Unfortunately it costs £5 to order the debit card which immediately wipes out some of the advantage of using the account over the short term. And while spending online or at the point of sale is free if your account holds that currency. If you need to exchange currencies for example Sterling to Euros there is small fee. Up to two ATM withdrawals are free up to £200 after that fees kick in similar to Monzo and Revolut.
Despite offering many of the same features as Revolut above, the Wise account can be a little more complicated to use and its fee structure makes it a more expensive option. Probably why Wise is more popular with US travellers and those in countries that can’t open a Revolut account. That being said it never hurts to have a back up.
- £5 ordering first debit card
- 0.35% conversion fee on popular currencies e.g. Euro, USD, (higher on less popular ones)
- 1.75% fee card fee if withdrawing more than £200/month
- 50p card fee if making more than two ATM withdrawals a month
There’s no fee to open the account and no credit checks, but you will need to be over 18 and have proof of address and ID.
The Revolut card is a mobile app based account, that came hot on the heals of the ill-fated Travelex Supercard. It was slicker and more user friendly than the competition, and is still adding new features and functionality. You can use the Revolut account to pay for online purchases without the actual card, but best to order a physical card and test it a little before your travel.
Like traditional prepay cards the Revolut account first needs loading with currency. You can do this via ApplePay/Android pay, bank transfer or credit/debit card. Loading is done in pounds, dollars, and euros and you are able to convert between the three instantly from within the app. Spending is not limited to these currencies though. All in all there are 90 currencies you can spend in, and receive the Mastercard exchange rate.
Speaking of rates, when using the card on a trip to Ireland, I noticed that the exchange rate listed in the Revolut app, was actually better than those shown on XE.com. Additionally, Revolut is one of the few accounts that continued to allow its customers to trade during the volatility and currency fluctuations caused by the Brexit vote.
ATM fees kick in
It almost sounds too good to be true right?
Revolut changed its terms and conditions since the original launch, and now only allows £200 per month free from ATM, and charges a 2% fee for any withdrawals over that. that’s £20 per every £1000 withdrawn over and above the first £200. Customers have the option of signing up for Premium £6.99 per month, and Metal, £9.99 per month. These allow fee-free ATM withdrawals up to £400, and £600 respectively, as well as host of other benefits, such as medical/travel insurance, priority support, and even cashback (Metal only).
Overall the standard offer is still a great card, but due to the low fee-free ATM limits we prefer Starling. Your usage of course might vary though and it’s a great card as a backup.
Currensea (smart card)
Unlike standard prepaid cards, or credit cards, Currensea works as a layer on top of your existing bank card to offer you great rates on foreign spending. That means if you’re happy with your current bank account you don’t need to change it.
Simply add your card to the Currensea app and start spending with the Currensea card. The foreign payment is charged to your Currensea account which then in turn charges your UK bank card in pounds, thus avoiding any fees from your bank.
It currently works with most popular UK bank accounts including Barclays, Lloyds, Natwest, TSB, Santander, HSBC, RBS which are some of the worst offenders for charges on foreign card use.
Opening an account is free. In our tests it took less than 5 mins, and a card was delivered within 4 days.
Currensea uses the interbank exchange rate for currency conversions, and earns its money by adding a 0.5% load onto this rate. That makes it ever-so-slightly more expensive than a bank account such as Starling, but cheaper some specialist credit cards, and miles cheaper than using a standard debit card from a high street bank.
What pushes Currensea to the number one spot in this category though is the generous £500 a month fee free ATM withdrawals. Whilst Monzo and Revolut have steadily tighten up on ATM withdrawals over the years, this remains up there with Starling, and Chase as one of the best cards to withdraw cash from foreign ATMs.
If you sign up for a Currensea account using our link you’ll also get £10 cashback when you spend £150, essentially wiping out the 0.5% loading, and meaning there are zero fees or loading on your first £2,000.
The best credit cards for business travel and overseas spending
Revolut for business
There aren’t many accounts that balance the needs of small business with freedom offered by enjoying fee-free foreign exchange and spending. The Revolut for business card does just that. It picks up where the personal account left off and offers a fully fledged business bank account, with fee-free currency and the ability to hold money in any one of 24 different currencies.
The account also comes with a myriad of other features, as this article is mainly concerned with travel and foreign currency, these will have to covered in a separate post.
One drawback of the Revolut for business is account, is the cost. Unlike Tide below, the Revolut business account carries a cover charge of between £6.99 – £25 for small businesses depending on their structure and requirement.
If you run a small business and regularly need to travel abroad, or pay for goods and services in a foreign currency, then Tide might be worth considering.
Tide is a new mobile-first account aimed at small business, freelancers, contractors and other self-employed professionals. Although not specifically a currency card (it is a fully fledged account in its own right), Tide, is following the ‘challenger’ norm and does not charge commission, fees, or loading on foreign purchases, and users benefit from the MasterCard exchange rate.
How to maximise your spending power abroad
Whether it’s a relaxing two week holiday, or a city break, it’s all too easy to be a bit too frivolous with your cash aboard. If you already have one our ‘top pick’ specialist travel cards listed above, then you’re are to a winner, but there are few other little tricks that can help you stretch for holiday money a little further.
Never change money at the airport – Sometimes you just need/want to carry cash. If so be sure not to change it at the airport. You’ve left it too late, they’ve got you over a barrel and they know it. You’ll be lumbered with the worst rate, and that’s no way to start a holiday. If you absolutely must change money at the airport, ferry terminal, or train station, always pre-order. You can usually do this up to four hours in advance and you’ll enjoy a better rate. Instead try to leave yourself plenty of time to change money. That way you shop around for the best rate.
Get the right credit card and enjoy the cheapest rates – most credit card providers add roughly 3% to the exchange rate they get when changing money themselves, this is called loading. None of the cards above load so any of those listed above are a safe bet.
Highstreet Debit cards are the worst offenders – While many credit cards load, nearly all debit cards load and charge a £1.50 per transaction. The worst offenders are: Barclays, Lloyds TSB, Halifax, RBS, Co-op, Santander and NatWest. Avoid using these cards abroad.
Always pay in the local currency – Many overseas ATMs, restaurants, and shops will ask you if you’d like to pay (or withdraw) in pounds, when using your credit/debit card. If you pay in pounds, what happens is that the retailer does the currency conversion for you. Rates are almost always worse than letting your own lender do the conversion. ALWAYS always pay in the local currency. This trick is used extensively in Spain and can be a nice little earner the banks/retailer.
Don’t ‘buy’ cash on a credit card – Almost all credit cards charge a fee for withdrawing cash (Halifax Clarity, and Creation excluded), even if you repay in full. Buying foreign currency from a bureaux de change, even if it’s online, will count as a cash withdrawal. Use one of our top recommended debit cards instead, or a smart card such as Currensea.
Spain and Portugal – In some countries ATMs charge for withdrawals. This is nothing to do with your bank, but solely down the owner of the ATM. Machines in Spain and Portugal are terrible for this. In Spain always look for a ING or Deutsche Bank machines these are free. In Portugal, use the MB ATMs outside Post Offices. Never use Euro ATM, or Santander. These have some of the highest chargers around.