5 Top Tips for Using Your Credit Card Abroad

by Deborah Ziff Soriano |March 31, 2023

A credit card is convenient and less cumbersome than cash when you're in a foreign country, but it has the potential to incur fees or cause other issues without a little know-how or pre-planning.

That's what We3travel.com blogger Tamara Gruber discovered on a trip to Spain with her husband and then 8-year-old daughter. She had forgotten to alert her credit card issuer that she was going to be traveling internationally, Gruber says, and when she tried to purchase a SIM card in Barcelona to use her cell phone, her card was declined.

"It was a true Catch-22 situation in that we couldn't buy the SIM card without our credit card, and we couldn't make a call to get the charge approved without a SIM card," she says. "I'll never make that mistake again."

That's one of five mistakes international travelers commonly make, and fortunately, there's an easy way to avoid each. Read on for helpful tips on using your credit card abroad.

Two woman explore the streets of Barcelona

1. Set up a travel notification

Card issuers typically monitor your account for fraudulent use, so making a charge in a destination that you do not typically transact in can trigger a freeze on your account. When this happened to Gruber, she was eventually able to take out cash at an ATM, purchase the SIM card and call the credit card company to unlock the account. Having your card declined "can be very distressing in another country, especially when the card is your only access to money," says Caroline Makepeace, who founded the travel site y Travel Blog with her husband, Craig.

The fix, according to experts like Keryn Means, founder of the family travel website Twist Travel Magazine, is to let your card issuer know which cities you plan to visit and the dates of your trip. "I usually put a little buffer at the end of our travel dates, just in case we get delayed somewhere," Means says. "I will also include any countries and cities our flights are connecting through in case we're delayed there."

2. Watch for foreign transaction fees

With some credit cards, customers need to pay a foreign transaction fee for credit card purchases abroad to cover the cost of converting the money into U.S. dollars. Foreign transaction fees are typically 3% of the purchase amount, which can quickly add up. That's why it's helpful to check first; you can strategize before you go and consider getting a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees.

3. Anticipate your need for cash

Not every merchant accepts credit cards, so consider taking at least some cash with you when you travel. The amount of cash you bring along depends on your comfort and needs, but keep in mind that ATM usage while traveling internationally can incur fees.

4. Have a backup credit card

Consider traveling with more than one credit card so you have an alternative if your other one is lost, stolen or declined. You may want to keep them in separate locations. “Generally, I’ll leave one in the safe at the hotel,” Means says. “If I’m traveling with a friend or spouse, I usually make sure they have one too.”

5. Take advantage of travel benefits

Your credit card may offer travel benefits or perks. Some cards offer accelerated rewards you can earn on travel purchases. Others offer free checked bags or early boarding, and some credit cards may even include car rental coverage. It's useful to look into this before your trip, says Makepeace, because earning rewards like these can be worthwhile.

 

— With additional reporting from the Life and Money by Citi editors

Deborah Ziff Soriano

is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area who writes about a range of topics, including higher education, personal finance and business.

The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Citi or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article.