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Studying and Spending Abroad: What to Know Before You Go

Studying abroad requires smart planning in terms of finances. You need to think about how you’ll access money while you’re gone and what forms of money you’ll want on hand. At minimum, you should have an account with a bank at home. And in some situations – depending on where you plan to study and the duration of your stay – you may want to open a bank account in your host country as well.

The benefits of using a bank account while studying abroad include:

  • Security. It’s infinitely safer than carrying a lot of cash or keeping it in a suitcase or drawer.
  • Accountability. It’s easier to track your spending with a bank account.
  • Accessibility. Family or friends can deposit money into your account if funds run low or there’s an emergency. (You’ll want to make sure that your parents or other trusted individuals are on the account or have the account number.)

Before You Go: A Checklist

Notify your bank of your travel plans. If you don’t, unfamiliar spending patterns may raise suspicions that the card is being used fraudulently, which could cause a suspension of your account until you call and verify the charges – and in a foreign country, this can be a major inconvenience.

Sign up for online banking and paperless bank statements so you can access your account information wherever you are.

Lighten up: Carry only the plastic you’ll actually use. Leave all your other debit/ATM cards and credit cards at home in a safe place.

Get some cash in the currency of your first destination. That way, you’ll have money for that very first taxi or train ride to your ultimate destination – without having to stop or pay the excessive exchange rates often charged at airports.

Find out if your bank has branches and/or ATMs where you’re going, or if it has affiliations with foreign banks. In both instances, you’ll save money by avoiding ATM fees.

When You Go: Carry a Mix of Cash and Cards

It’s common knowledge that travelers should never carry all their money in a single wallet or purse – and for safety and convenience, you’ll want to carry multiple types of money as well. Here’s the basic menu.

  • Cash. Carrying a moderate amount of cash is always a good idea while traveling. It’s easy to exchange into local currency, and the exchange rates for cash are usually a little better than for old-school traveler’s checks.
  • ATM/debit cards. These cards provide an ideal way to withdraw cash while abroad. If your card is lost or stolen, you can call to have it canceled and replaced, usually at no cost to you. (U.S. Bank will replace one ATM/debit card per year at no cost.) What’s more, cash withdrawn with an ATM or debit card will get a better exchange rate than cash or traveler’s checks in most instances, and you won’t have to exchange money each time you visit a new country.
  • Visa® and MasterCard® prepaid cards. These familiar cards offer several benefits, chief among them easy access to the funds that are safely stored on the card. They’re acceptable anywhere Visa and MasterCard debit cards are accepted, and they’re safer than cash because they can be replaced if lost or stolen.
  • Prepaid “travel cards.” These prepaid plastic cards offer the convenience of an ATM/debit card and the security of traveler’s checks. You can make ATM withdrawals and/or spend up to the card value anywhere American Express®, MasterCard or Visa debit cards are accepted, be it in a store, online or over the phone. They can be purchased at many bank branches, through the travel division of local AAA offices, and at many store locations.
  • Visa and MasterCard credit cards. Credit cards ensure spending power, favorable exchange rates and peace of mind in case of emergency. But there are two caveats to consider: First, cash advances made with regular credit cards often carry higher fees and/or interest rates than other card transactions. Second, many foreign merchants require positive identification to use a credit card – so be prepared to show your passport.

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