‘Dear J, I’m sorry not to have written before, I didn’t have money for a stamp…’
This is how I wrote to a friend on my first trip abroad as a teenage expat. I’d just moved to Osnabrück, Germany, to study for a couple of semesters and the bad news was that none of my bank cards were working. The good news was that someone called Nina Robson was no doubt having the time of her life with all the money my dad was transferring to her. (My name is Nina Hobson).
Although I do tend to favour Whatsapp, thankfully I can now afford my own stamp.
Expaters, we’ve all been caught out though, haven’t we? Who is ever organised enough to call the bank in advance to let them know you’re going away? I even forget to tell my mum.
Or perhaps only one card works among your group of friends, so you have to plead with your sugar daddy buddy for breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks… ‘Oh please can I have another Mojito, I promise to pay you back…’
I might not be the best at saving, but I sure know how to spend. Here are my tips for doing it abroad:
- Avoid using ATMs at the airport, or exchanging cash at your hotel as they tend to offer a poor exchange rate. Sure, you may need some cash for your first taxi ride, but don’t stock up. Your best bet is a regular ATM, preferably at a bank partnered with your own bank back home. But beware, even if you spot your own bank abroad, remember that they may still offer a measly exchange rate and don’t rely on them offering the best deal.
- Take a debit card. Credit cards are rarely accepted by smaller retailers or in developing countries for smaller transactions. From my experience debit cards are much more useful in developing countries. Across all my travels in India, Africa and the Middle East, my debit card has never been declined at any ATM.
- If you’re going to use your regular card at an ATM or in a transaction, always opt for the charge to be debited in the local currency. Otherwise the foreign bank or retailer will decide the exchange rate which, chances are, will leave you short changed.
- For more off beat destinations, take local currency and US dollars. Having got into trouble on a couple of occasions, it’s a green (dollar) flag that has got me out of trouble. And let’s face it, turning up to a really remote beach shack with a flashy credit card is just a bit silly.
- Get an account with Monzo. A new app based banking system, Monzo updates your balance instantly, is actually easy to use, and best of all, there are no charges for using it abroad. Kerching!
- Consider a prepaid card such as WeSwap. The exchange company swaps your travel money with other travellers, so you avoid fees abroad. Load the card, swap your money into the currency you want (choose from 18) and away you go with your topped up Mastercard.
- If you’re staying any length of time, consider opening an additional account with a local bank. Ask around locals and colleagues and research through social media which are the best, check what documents you need to open and close an account. (Some French and Belgian banks are notoriously complicated to close). I’m honestly not sure but I reckon I still have some dusty notes stashed away in a Brussels vault somewhere…
- If you haven’t already, sign up for internet, telephone and app based banking for your home bank account. If you’re going off the beaten track, it’s good to have a range of options. Also request an extra card reader – mine broke when I was abroad just as I needed it most.
- Always count your cash at ATMs. On several occasions I’ve been short changed. I argued about this with a manager from an Angolan bank, who seemed to think that based on my shoes I could afford to be short changed by $40. That’s not the point, it’s my 40$ (and I’ll put it towards more shoes, thank you very much).
- Beware of ATM scams. Sticky plastic films over card slots which prevent your card being returned, fake card slots glued over the real one, machines adjacent to ATMs which ask you to swipe your card for pre-authorisation or the like, bogus surveillance cameras snooping as you enter your PIN – they’re all ways to steal your cash (and stop me spending on shoes).