Traveling abroad? Find out about fees

Traveling abroad? Find out about fees

A friend of mine just got back from a nice vacation in France, and in addition to discovering the beauty of Paris, the wines of Burgundy, and the best mustard she’s had in her life, she became intimately familiar with an ugly financial truth: foreign transaction fees.

In a nutshell, it’s expensive to access your own money when you’re overseas. Each time my friend wanted to make a purchase (often! She was in France!), she had to live with the fact that Bank of America, the issuer of her debit card, would pocket 3% of the transaction. And ATM withdrawals? It was a flat fee of $5, plus 1% of the withdrawal amount. That means an €800 ($1,129) stay for four nights at a Paris hotel would cost an additional $34 when charged to her debit card, and withdrawing €800 ($1,129) for the purchase would cost $13. Steep.

If it makes my friend feel better, her bank-fee situation was typical. For debit cards, a 2-3% foreign transaction fee is standard. And credit cards are no better: According to a 2010 Pew study, 91% of credit cards charge a fee for each swipe you make in a foreign country, and the median charge is 3% of the transaction amount.

How to avoid these fees? The Pew study finds that only 57% of credit union cards charge a foreign transaction fee—so that might be a place to look if you’re planning to cross the ocean this summer. has a roundup of credit cards with no foreign fee—perhaps worth looking into if you travel overseas on a regular basis. And according to, a few issuers have recently removed the charge from their roster of fees, so there’s a chance that the card in your wallet is vacation-friendly after all.

If you can’t avoid paying the fee, at least be informed of what you’ll be charged before you go abroad. That means no surprises when you pay, and more croissants for you, naturellement!

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