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Money Abroad — A Guide for Travelers

More and more Americans are traveling internationally — whether for business or pleasure — and many ask for advice about foreign currency. Some common questions:
  • How much cash should I take?
  • Should I exchange U.S. dollars for foreign cash before I leave home?
  • How can I get the best exchange rate?
  • With so much worldwide technology, are travelers cheques still needed?
  • Can I use my ATM debit card and credit cards in foreign countries?
  • How can I keep my money safe?

While each traveler has unique needs, it's generally a good idea to carry some foreign currency cash. However, to limit your dependency on any one form of funds, a better, safer approach is to use a portfolio of payment products to cover your travel expenses. Those products include credit/debit cards, travelers cheques and some US and foreign currency cash. Here are some guidelines on using those products — as well as safety and other travel finance concerns — for business and vacation travelers.

Cash — Take at least $100 to $300 worth of currency for the first country you plan to visit, so when you arrive you can pay for a taxi, tips and grab a quick meal, especially if on your way to a business meeting. When you're jet-lagged, the last thing you need is to stand in a long line and pay high commissions at an airport exchange window. Some countries also have exit fees and many of them require cash payment, so remember to keep some for your departure. Ask for some currency in small denominations, the equivalent of $1 to $10, cab drivers and food vendors might not accept large bills.

There are several ways to obtain this cash. Most banks — including all Wells Fargo locations — can buy and sell foreign currency with a few days' notice. Some banking locations have foreign currency on hand, and tellers with expertise in international currency exchange. Ask your banker for the location nearest you.

Also, Wells Fargo allows the purchase of foreign currency cash over the Internet at Wells Fargo customers can pay for purchases through their Wells Fargo checking account, and non-Wells Fargo customers can pay for the currency with a Visa® or MasterCard®. Both Wells Fargo and non-Wells Fargo customers can also order foreign currency cash by calling 1-800-626-9430.

Credit/Debit cards — Prior to traveling domestically or internationally, you should notify your bank about your plans. If you bank at Wells Fargo, you can easily add a travel plan online or with your mobile device. Simply sign on and let us know when, where, and which credit and debit cards you’re taking with you. This will help you avoid issues when you use your cards.

Be sure to check the terms of your credit and debit card accounts to determine if a foreign currency conversion fee applies. Paying with credit or debit cards allows you to minimize cash needs. You'll normally get a favorable conversion rate because card issuers use a single exchange rate — usually close to wholesale — to process transactions.

Keep in mind that while you may get a more favorable exchange rate when using a credit or debit card, many card service providers charge an additional percentage fee of one to three percent. A three percent fee may make a difference on large ticket items.

If you plan to make cash advances with the credit cards or use your debit card to make ATM withdrawals, contact the issuer to ascertain if your Personal Identification Number (PIN) is in the proper format for the countries you are visiting. Four-digit numeric PINs are standard in most countries. If you have an alphabetic PIN, change it into numbers before leaving home. The exchange rate for credit card purchases is set on the day the purchase is processed, not the day the purchase is made.

Finally, to minimize risk of theft or loss, take only the cards you will need during your trip.

Travelers cheques — These cheques are insured and can be replaced if they're lost or stolen. How much should you bring? It depends on where you're going. Major cities have extensive networks of ATMs where cash can easily be obtained. In less-developed countries, you may need to rely more heavily on travelers cheques and cash.

To protect against fluctuations in exchange rates, purchase travelers cheques denominated in the country's currency. These are available in a number of major currencies and can be spent just like cash in the country you are visiting. This allows you to avoid exchange line hassles and save valuable travel time since the cheques are already denominated in local currency. Your bank may need a few day's notice to fill the order, so it's wise to plan ahead.

For the best rate when exchanging travelers cheques in U.S. dollars, cash the cheques at a bank rather than a hotel, airport or train station. Also, many banks or exchange houses charge a fee for each U.S. dollar travelers check converted, so it can be to your advantage to use cheques in high denominations. Be sure to write down the amount and payee of each check. You'll need that information if the cheques are lost or stolen. One of the most valuable features of travelers cheques is that they can easily be replaced if lost or stolen so they remain a highly secure way to handle your travel expenses.

ATMs — Today, ATMs circle the globe, making it much easier for travelers to obtain cash. The MasterCard/Cirrus network and the Visa/Plus Network each have approximately 530,000 ATMs worldwide, and major networks have Internet sites that list ATM locations by region. Both networks have machines in more than 100 countries. Cash at foreign ATMs is dispensed in the local currency and debited from your account in dollars.

Some international ATMs are available only during normal business hours, which vary from country to country. Also, most international ATMs do not permit transactions involving multiple accounts, so your transaction will be routed to your primary account. Be sure to test ATM cards before leaving the country and make sure you have a four-digit PIN for your card. Many ATMs outside the U.S. do not have letters on the keypad or the letters appear in a different order.

Also, find out what kind of fees your bank charges for using ATMs outside the country. They usually range from $2 to $5 per transaction — To reduce transaction charges, make larger withdrawals.

Safety — Before you leave home, make a list of account numbers for each card you plan to take, numbers of travelers cheques, and international telephone numbers for reporting cards and cheques lost or stolen. Keep a copy of the list with you, and give one to a traveling companion and to someone at home whom you can call in case of trouble.

Keep cards in a safe place, where they won't bend or scratch. Never write a PIN on the card or on a piece of paper in your wallet or purse. Divide your money and travelers cheques with a companion, if possible. That way, if yours are lost or stolen, your companion still has access to cash. When using ATMs, use the same caution you would when you're at home. Store your passport, airline tickets, extra travelers cheques and other must-haves in a secure place, and carry only the cash you need for each day's outing.

Heading home — Once you return, you can exchange leftover paper currency. However, use up foreign coins because U.S. banks won't buy them. Keep your exchange receipts until you get home — some countries require visitors to produce an exchange receipt if they wish to convert local currency when they depart the country.
Learn more about Wells Fargo's currency solutions for sending money internationally and international small business solutions.
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