Whether you need euros, shekels, pesos or pounds, making a withdrawal from an ATM is generally the easiest and cheapest way to get cash abroad. The biggest advantage of exchanging money with your ATM card is that all cash withdrawals, regardless of size, are exchanged based on the wholesale exchange rate, which is usually reserved only for very large interbank exchanges.
This rate is often 2 - 5 percent better than what you can get from exchanging traveler's checks at a local exchange counter. In addition, local banks or money change bureaus will add on transaction fees, which can easily eat up another 2 percent of your money.
That's not to say there aren't any fees associated with international ATM withdrawals -- see below -- but if you need cash, you will still almost always get the best exchange rate at the lowest possible cost by using your ATM card.
Finding an ATM
If your ATM card is linked to the PLUS or Cirrus networks, you have the option of using it to obtain cash virtually anywhere in the U.S. and in over 210 countries worldwide. Each network has over a million ATM's. The PLUS network is associated with Visa, so your Visa card will usually work at those ATM's. Likewise, the Cirrus network is associated with MasterCard, and Cirrus ATM's usually accept MasterCard for cash advances.
Before you leave home with just your ATM card, however, make sure that the Cirrus or PLUS networks are readily available where you're going. While PLUS and Cirrus ATM's are increasingly common overseas, they are still only available at a limited number of banks in selected countries. Each network has an online ATM locator:
Cirrus users can also call (800) 424-7787 for a current list of locations worldwide. Results are available on the phone, or you can choose to have them sent to your cell phone as a text message. The PLUS system has a toll-free ATM locator as well at (800) THE-PLUS, but it currently lists only ATM's in the U.S.
Using Your Card Abroad
Slideshow: Around the World If you want to use your ATM card overseas, keep in mind that many ATM's abroad, particularly in Europe, do not accept PIN's longer than four digits. If your PIN is longer, contact your bank to have it changed. Also, if your PIN is based on letters rather than numbers, translate the letters into numbers before leaving the country. Many ATM's only have numbers on the keypad. One more thing to keep in mind: Most ATM's abroad will only let you access the primary account on your ATM card.
Sudden changes in your account activity, such as frequent withdrawals in a foreign country using your ATM card, can sometimes trigger a fraud alert and cause your bank to freeze your account. To prevent being stranded overseas without a functioning ATM card, be sure to call your bank before you leave to let them know where and when you will be traveling.
Don't miss our tips for keeping your ATM card safe.
What Fees to Expect
At the very least you will probably be charged the same transaction fee, if any, that your bank charges you when using other bank ATM's. However, many banks now charge higher fees for international ATM withdrawals -- either a flat rate (typically $1 - $5) or a set percentage of your total withdrawal (usually 1 - 2 percent). Check with your bank before each trip abroad, as these fees can change often and without warning. To add insult to injury, you may also be charged a fee by the owner of the foreign ATM.
Because these small fees can add up quickly, you will probably want to withdraw larger amounts than you might normally do at home -- so be sure you have a safe, well-concealed place to keep your cash. (See Money Safety for more.) When deciding how much to withdraw, try to choose an uneven amount (90 euros rather than 100, for instance) so that you don't wind up with huge bills that you'll have trouble breaking.
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