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5 tips for using your credit card abroad

Ready for a holiday? In this article we explain everything you need to know about using your credit card when you travel overseas.


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Updated 3 December 2021 by Leif Kendall

Your choice of credit card makes a big difference to the charges you pay when you spend money on holiday.

There's a huge variety of fees and charges, but credit cards broadly fit into three buckets when it comes to foreign travel:

  1. Poor. Some credit cards have high transaction charges on all foreign spending and cash withdrawals. These cards do not deserve a holiday.

  2. Average. Some credit cards have reasonable charges for foreign spending. If these cards were at school, their report would say: ‘could do better’.

  3. Good. Some credit cards are designed for foreign travel and offer better exchange rates when you spend money on holiday. These cards have earned their place in the sun.

Wondering if you can use your credit card abroad - and how much it will cost? Check with your credit card provider, and look at these four factors:

  1. Exchange load - a fee that some banks charge when converting your foreign spending.

  2. ATM charge - a fee charged when you withdraw cash from a bank machine.

  3. Spending charge - a percentage fee that some banks charge on foreign spending.

  4. Cash withdrawal interest - interest charged on foreign cash withdrawals.

These are the kind of rates you might find in the wild:

Exchange load

ATM charge

Spending charge

Cash withdrawal interest

The good

0%

NONE

NONE

NONE (if balance paid in full)

The bad

2.75%

3%

NONE

27.9% (even if paid in full)

The ugly

2.95%

3%

2.95%

29.9%

The best travel credit cards are usually those advertised as travel cards. If your credit card has 'travel' in the name, it's likely to be one of the best-performing when it comes to foreign travel charges. Do check with your provider, but if you've got a standard credit card, consider getting a travel-specific card before your next trip - it could save you enough for an extra holiday excursion or dinner somewhere fancy.

Check your personalised credit card offers on ClearScore

That's right - let them know before you go. This isn't because your credit card company is nosy or wants holiday ideas, it's because foreign spending can make lenders suspicious. And the last thing you want is a frozen credit card when you're trying to get to your hotel at two in the morning, or trying to buy a round of ice creams for a toddler on the verge of a tantrum.

Give your credit card provider a call and let them know where you're going and the dates you'll be there. It takes five minutes and could save you a load of hassle.

A travel credit card is usually the best way to spend money abroad. But it's important to have a little cash for small purchases, and for shops that don't accept cards.

But be warned: cash can be costly.

The difference between the best and worst ways to get cash can be £100+ on a £1,000 withdrawal. And we're guessing you don't want to spend £100 of your holiday money on bank charges.

Shop around for the best exchange rates so you can get the cheapest cash possible.

Here's a very simple rule.

If you ever have the choice to pay in the local currency, or pay in pounds, always choose the local currency option.

Pounds may seem better because that's your local currency, but it works out more expensive, because of the way foreign currencies are converted. The Travel Magazine explains why it makes sense to pay in the local currency.

In most situations, your credit card is the best way to spend money abroad. And your debit card is the more expensive, and less safe, way to spend money on holiday.

There are a few debit cards that do not charge for foreign spending, but most debit cards charge a premium for use abroad.

The other downside to using debit cards is that they don't offer Section 75 protection the way that credit cards do.

If your credit card doesn't offer a great deal on foreign spending, you can use ClearScore to browse the best deals, all tailored to you.

Just sign in to your ClearScore account and visit the Offers section.

Because ClearScore works with your credit score, we can show you the best offers - as well as how likely you are to get approved at the advertised rate.

Compare your credit offers on ClearScore

And next time you plan a holiday, you might like our tips on How to save big on package holidays

  1. Get the right credit card (a travel credit card could save you £100s)
  2. Let your credit card provider know that you're travelling
  3. Get cash in advance (not from an ATM)
  4. Pay in the local currency
  5. Avoid using debit cards abroad

Andre is a former lawyer turned award-winning finance writer.