Banking for Travelers
Whether you’re a backpacker in Southeast Asia or a freelancer in Europe, you’re going to need to figure out your banking situation. Luckily, banks and financial institutions are starting to catch up by catering to travelers and digital nomads alike.
Depending on type and length of travel, your needs and priorities will vary. But in most cases, banking smarter abroad will entail:
reducing ATM withdrawal fees
reducing currency exchange fees (both on cash exchanges and transactions)
reducing monthly/annual fees for cards and accounts
reducing transfer fees between your accounts or when getting paid by clients
Here’s a range of useful services that cover the above essentials!
Make sure you’re getting the most out of your credit card. Most banks offer special travel cards, which not only help you earn air miles faster but also offer things like free travel insurance and access to airport lounges (free food and drinks and a quiet place to recharge can be a lifesaver on long travel days). Depending on your lifestyle, the perks (especially insurance) can be well worth any annual fees, which many cards offer to waive the first year.
These elite cards are often listed with specific household income requirements but from experience, it’s worth popping into a bank and speaking to someone about your options (remember, the key word is household).
Although it doesn’t allow you to rack up travel points, the Travelex prepaid card may also be a good alternative for your trip.
This German online bank is one of the best options for nomads based in Europe. While paid plans offer certain perks including travel insurance (not to mention a shiny black card), the basic free plan is more than enough for most. Features include:
free plan available (debit MasterCard included)
no set-up cost
no ATM fees worldwide*
no foreign transaction fees
currency exchanges are made at the official and competitive MasterCard rate
excellent user-friendly app and web interface
create up to 3 ‘spaces’ within your chequing account to organize your finances (ie. disposable, savings, and money set aside for taxes)
accounts can be opened remotely from anywhere in the world (European address required) and the entire account opening process takes place online (smartphone, internet connection, and government ID required)
*A low exchange fee of 1.7% applies to non-EU currencies on the free plan.
This UK-based online bank is quickly growing to be N26’s leading rival. Similarly, it offers a free chequing account and debit card, a user-friendly Smartphone app with budgeting features, lower fees, online setup, and easy integration with Transferwise.
This UK-based bank offers UK and EU accounts. Perks include free ATM withdrawals worldwide up to £400/€400 per month, Visa and MasterCard, transfer in 26 currencies, peer to peer lending and payments, and a free basic account. Unlike most of its competitors, residency is not required, making it an option for travelers visiting Europe but residing elsewhere.
Stack is technically a prepaid MasterCard rather than a bank, but it is still a great option for nomadic Canadians. Plus, the requirement to pre-load the card can help you manage your spending.
no monthly/annual usage fees
no ATM fees
no foreign exchange fees
rewards and discounts for things you’re probably already buying
For Nomads in the US, little beats Charles Schwab. If you are a US resident with a social security number and local address, this bank and its mediocre user interface are worth it for:
no setup or usage costs
no ATM fees worldwide (they will even refund imposed fees)
no foreign transaction fees
online account setup
As far as traditional banks go, HSBC is a reliable and international option. They assist those moving abroad by allowing them to open an account before departing. It’s easy to move money between HSBC accounts in various countries. They also have various plans, many of which offer traveler-oriented services and free ATM withdrawals. For example, the Everyday Global Account allows Australians to open an account online and take advantage of free usage, free ATM withdrawals worldwide, no transaction fees, and holding up to 10 currencies on the card.
If you hold multiple bank accounts, chances are you’ll need to transfer money from one to the other. One of the best ways to do this is by using TransferWise.
By setting up a free account on Transferwise, you can gain an e-wallet with account in multiple currencies that work like a local bank (each account will have a unique IBAN or SWIFT). Send money in 25+ currencies and avoid the high fees and long waits that come with international bank wires. For one low and transparent flat fee + fixed percentage of the transfer amount, you can transfer funds at the real-time mid-market currency exchange rate.
All you need to set up a free account on their website or app is an email, Google, or Facebook account. You will also need to input the details of your various bank accounts or the recipient’s name and bank details.
I use Transferwise over competitors such as OFX, WorldFirst, CurrencyFair, WorldRemit, and XE but you should always do your due diligence and check out the competition.
For those who are setting up businesses or charging internationally for services, you may need an electronic payment and money transfer system.
This is perhaps the most well-known digital currency company. They make money exchanges online transfers accessible to customers in over 200 countries. They also tailor their services to individuals, companies, and merchants. They make money by charging $0.30 + 2.9% on the total amount of each payment or transfer (may be higher for foreign transactions) to the person receiving the money.
To reduce PayPal charges, withdraw money from PayPal by transferring it into your bank account (or request a free debit Mastercard if you’re in the US). Otherwise, request to be paid as a Friend or Family. You can also use PayPal fees as an expense on your tax return!
The company has 36 million customers and 150,000 merchants over 200 countries and is one of the best-known PayPal alternatives, although it can be pricey. Unlike PayPal, it also offers debit cards to all customers (and not just US customers). Be aware that Skrill charges a 3.99% currency conversion fee (higher than most other services), a 1.9% transaction fee (capped at $20) and up to 7.5% withdrawal fees, not to mention inactivity fees after 12 months.
This London-based company offers a very similar experience to PayPal and are priced similarly. With access in over 190 countries, it is nearly as universal as PayPal.
If you rely on Google for your business, you might enjoy the ability to attach payments to Gmail messages. But depending on your personal preferences, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or Amazon Payments may be a better fit.
Note: I use N26 and Transferwise in tandem with my Canadian bank (BMO). So far, I have had no issues receiving payment to N26 from UpWork, or receiving payments to Transferwise and PayPal from various clients.