Top 5 Tips for Using Credit Cards for Study Abroad

Study abroad takes a great deal of planning and careful thought regarding finances.  Here is Melibee’s top 5 list on using credit cards overseas.

1)  Read the credit card agreement. Most people never bother to do this, so have no idea what policies apply to using your card, domestically OR abroad. The agreement will cover transaction fees, late fees, APR (annual percentage rate), credit limits and more.  You should also visit your local bank to know if  you can use your debit card abroad and if there are associated fees. In my experience, this can often be the most cost effective way to pay for services abroad and to obtain cash. However, read on, as there can be issues with these too!

2) Have a plan for when you will and won’t use the credit card. Will it be for emergencies only?  Will it be for specific purchases such as souvenirs or hotels?  Know the cost/benefit of using the card in these cases. For example, if your credit card comes with a rewards program and you plan to use the card to obtain airline miles (or that “gift” electronic gadget that you’re only 1000 points away from scoring), realize that it could easily cost you the same amount, or more, in transaction fees to reach these reward program goals. It is necessary to take the time to understand the consequences of purchases abroad.  You will need a strategy!  For example, what service fee will be charged?  (It is often a % of the purchase amount vs a flat fee.)  Charging purchases in the adrenaline rush of international travel and study can quickly snowball into a staggering bill and years of payments when not managed properly. Not managing the budget can result in issues with credit scores (in the US) – which is a lifeline for future credit.  Take it seriously!

3) Notify the credit card company of your upcoming study abroad and tell them where you plan to study and travel. Your card can and often will be frozen if there is an unusual pattern of purchases.  Carrying a 2nd, back up, card can help if this does happen even after calling your card company.  You can ask for a back up copy of your main credit card, but don’t activate it abroad unless your first card is frozen.  And have a back up plan in case the card isn’t available – keep a reasonable supply of cash on you.  A reasonable amount will depend on where you are studying and traveling.  Ask whether you’ll need to show ID (such as your passport) when using the card abroad.  This is often the case in some locations or venues.

4) Chip cards with a PIN (personal identification number) cards can often be more efficient abroad. Many other countries will not be able to process credit (or debit) cards that only have a magnetic strip, which is the type of card that the US likes to issue.  The US is very behind in this area and it has caused many woes for travelers abroad.  In these cases, there is often no ability to manually punch the card number into the machine either.  And be forewarned that some establishments (in the US and abroad) will not accept the American Express card (chip or no chip) simply because their processing fees are higher than Mastercard and Visa.

5) Sign up for on-line bill payment.  This will allow you to quickly see your purchases and associated fees, as well as receive emails with the due date of your payments. This will help you to avoid any late fees and allow time to adjust your budget, based on your spending patterns, if needed.

And here is a bonus tip for program administrators and faculty:

6)  Study Abroad programs should include a policy/plan regarding students who, despite all of these tips, still are unsuccessful using their cards abroad. I have worked with many faculty who are asked, in a moment of student desperation, to foot the bill when a student’s credit card does not work abroad and they have no funds for something as basic as meals. (It does happen – and you’ll often hear about it from other students who notice that another student hasn’t eaten in 2 days!)  All students should be asked to sign a document (pre-departure) that confirms that they will need to reimburse the program (within “x” number of days) for any funds that were spent due to an emergency.

I hope these tips are useful.  Be sure to comment if you have other advice to share on the subject!


  1. Elizabeth says:

    Make sure your PIN is no more than 4 digits! Most foreign ATMs only accept 4 digit PINs, and if yours is longer, you won’t get any money. If you do get in trouble with a longer PIN, try an ATM from a German or Swiss bank- it’s your only hope, since you can’t change your PIN until you get home.

    • Thanks for the tip Elizabeth! One other reader emailed me to say that it is important to check the fees for using your debit card abroad also – sometimes, although it hasn’t been the case with my particular bank, the fee can be HIGHER than credit cards. It is critical that you make the calls to the bank/credit card provider to know the policy before you go!

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