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Debit Card - Don't Travel Without it

Why You Should Use a Debit Card for Travel


NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 16: A man uses an ATM at a Bank of America branch on April 16, 2014 in New York City. As the nation's second-largest bank continues to struggle with fallout from the financia..
Spencer Platt /Getty Images News
Debit cards are easy to use and carry, fees are nominal and it's easy to cancel a debit card if it's lost or stolen while you're traveling, keeping your money safe. I've been in countries where I couldn't cash a traveler's check (which are practically obsolete, anyway), and you shouldn't travel with wads of cash, which is irreplaceable if lost or stolen.

What's a Debit Card?

A debit card differs from a credit card in that a debit card is tied directly to your checking account and the amount of money you can spend with it is limited to the amount of money you have in the bank.

How Does a Debit Card Work?

When you use a debit card, the transaction debits (withdraws) the amount of the transaction from your checking account, usually on the same day. You can use a debit card to get cash from ATM machines or have it swiped like a credit card at shops or restaurants or swipe it through a pay phone to make a call.

Making a Travel Budget With a Debit Card

Naturally, you can't rely on your debit card for all your international transactions - imagine haggling with a street vendor, getting the price right and then trying to give him/her plastic! Remote hostels and many restaurants in third world countries don't accept credit cards (which is how debit cards are viewed in the business world). Thus, you'll need to make budget plans before you leave home so that you have traveler's checks and cash and some money in your checking account for use on your debit card.

Let's assume you have a budget of $2000 for your trip. Decide how you're comfortable splitting that into the way you'll use it; $100 in traveler's checks (although travelers' checks are dead as disco, because carrying them is a pain on several levels -- we've had banks in other countries refuse to cash them, we've lost them, etc. and so on), $400 in cash and $1500 left in your checking account, for example -- that's $1500 on your debit card.

If that $2000 represents your entire cash portfolio, consider setting up emergency precautions before you leave home. If someone, like Dad, is willing to loan you money, leave deposit slips with him so that if you spend all your money abroad, you can dial for dollars (using your debit card) and he can get some money into your account. If your debit card (your checking account) is almost empty, ask him to tell the bank to "memo post" the deposit so that the cash is immediately available and your debit card is quickly back in business.

How to Get a Debit Card

Chances are you were automatically offered a debit card when you opened your checking account. If you don't have a checking account, go open one now. Look for a bank that doesn't charge checking account fees, and ask for a debit card.

It takes a few days to two weeks to get a debit card after you order it. When the card arrives, sign the back; have photo id with your signature handy when you use the card - merchants may want to compare your face and your signatures to protect themselves from fraud.

How to Choose a Debit Card PIN Number

Your debit card comes with a PIN (personal identification number) which can be changed to a number you can easily remember. Memorize it; if you have to write it down, keep that separate from your card. Don't choose an obvious number, like your birthday, in order to lessen the chances of someone else being able to guess your PIN number if they come into possession of your card.

If You Lose Your Debit Card...

If your card is lost or stolen, call your bank asap (Skype's a good, cheap choice for international calls from anywhere you can find a computer) before someone else spends your money. Write down your bank's number before you leave home and keep it in a couple of places - your journal, your guidebook. Set up an international snail mail address before you leave home so your bank can send you a different card if yours does get lost or stolen.

When to Use Your Debit Card

Debit cards are handy when making a long distance room reservation or any internet reservation, including plane tickets. You can't use a debit card just like a credit card when renting a car - the companies require a major credit card, which offer a certain amount of insurance in case you have a fender bender.

About Debit Card Fees and Overseas Transaction Fees

International ATM machines will charge a fee when you use your debit card; the amount is determined by the ATM owner. Most fees are under $5 -- a notice on the ATM machine will tell you what the fee is. More than $3 is too much -- look for another ATM machine.

The real fee problem with a debit card comes from your own bank -- the card issuer may charge you up to 3 percent for a foreign transaction, including an ATM withdrawal. Call your bank long before you go -- if you don't like the fee, call around and ask what other banks are charging for foreign transactions made with a debit card; be sure to ask what, if any, fees the bank will charge for an ATM withdrawal made on foreign soil, even at an "international bank."

Debit and ATM Card Research Resources

Weird tip - if your debit card is swiped and rejected, wipe saliva onto the magnetic strip on the back of the card and ask the vendor to try again. It works!

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