Saturday, March 05, 2011

Banking while Traveling in Europe

When things cost more than we expect or we get assessed strange fees, we often have to remind each other, "That's the cost of living abroad."

Many expats, including us, continue to bank in the US while living abroad. We, just like short-term tourists, live and die by our ATM access (I would be happy to rant on about why traveler's checks are a horrible idea, but I'll assume we're all on the same page on that one). Fees for using foreign ATMs can be painful.

If you haven't found the most economical way to bank, simply recite "That's one of the costs of traveling abroad" several times before reviewing any bank statement with foreign transactions. If you have some time before you leave home, though, you may be able to find a less expensive and less painful way to get money from international ATMs. After many years of less-than-ideal solutions, we're really happy with our ATM solution this year.

Here are my suggestions:
Click to view Website

Not good: Use your home bank (or at least our home bank).  When we have been forced to use our local bank ATM card, we are staggered by the fees they impose for international usage and for money exchange. Not a good deal at all.

Better: A specialty credit union. We're members of the United Nations Federal Credit Union. In the ten years we have been members, we have considered  withdrawing all our money from it maybe about 70 times. Their website is clumsy and confusing, their policies and procedures senseless, and their call center staff grumpy (though to be fair, I'd be grumpy too if I had to spend all day helping annoyed customers make sense of senseless policies and procedures). But they don't charge you anything for using your ATM card at a non-UNFCU ATM, even internationally. We still have to pay the fees of the bank that owns the ATM, but when we're going to be in one spot for a while, we can figure out which ATMs have the cheapest fees and limit ourselves to them.

charles schwab bank rates Charles Schwab CD & Savings RatesBest: After being burned by fees her local bank charged on one of her trips, our daughter did some research and discovered the ideal solution to banking while traveling: a Charles Schwab Bank account. They charge no fees for using non-Schwab ATMs and they automatically refund you any fees the bank owning the ATM charges you, even internationally. And just today I discovered that they have a much higher daily withdrawal limit than UNFCU, which minimizes my number of treks to the ATM.

 Schwab requires you to open a brokerage account as well as a checking account, but there are no minimums for either account (in other words, your brokerage account can have a balance of 0).  Their website has been straightforward to use and the few times I've needed to call someone they have always been helpful and friendly.

For us, even when we haven't found the best solutions, the cost of living abroad really is worth it.

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