How to withdraw cash when travelling overseas

ATM covered in graffiti

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VISA / MasterCard have the best foreign exchange rates a traveller can get, so using your VISA / MasterCard debit or credit card to withdraw cash overseas would make more sense than exchanging cash at a foreign exchange bureau, right? Well, yes and no. If you don’t use the right card or you don’t use it in the right way, bank fees can still add up.

So, how to go about withdrawing cash overseas? As a general rule of thumb: Use the card that incurs the lowest foreign transaction fees (C) and cash advance fees (F). If you use a credit card for cash withdrawals make sure your credit card is topped up / in debt to avoid being charged interest on cash advances (G).

  • Make sure you can access your credit card account/s and your transaction account online so that you can check your card balance and top up your card (via online transfer from your transaction account) as needed.
  • Consider that money transfers (especially between banks) may take up to three days to clear, so always keep an eye on your card balance and top up a few days before withdrawal.
  • If your bank sends you an SMS whenever you transfer money online, check with your mobile provider if you can receive an SMS at your overseas destination (this will depend on your mobile contract). If not (or you are in doubt) speak to your bank about other means to facilitate two-factor authentication. Nowadays, many banks allow you to generate a one-time PIN offline (via their mobile banking app or a physical one-time PIN generation device).

The only way to avoid being charged withdrawal/ATM service fees (E) is by shopping around. If the overseas ATM provider charges the fee, the ATM will display the amount before you finalise the transaction. So if it’s exorbitant, and you are not in a hurry, press cancel and check an ATM from a different provider.

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As discussed in our debit/credit card guide, withdrawal limits are also an issue (per transaction and/or day). Some ATM providers only allow a very small amount to be withdrawn, which means you would have to withdraw more often, incurring all related charges. So again shop around.

  • The withdrawal limit is hardly ever displayed. If there is a bank clerk or security guard in the vicinity of the ATM they may know what the withdrawal limit is. So, ask them.
  • Otherwise, it’s trial and error: Start with the amount you want to withdraw (the ATM will not give you cash if you’re above the limit) and work your way backwards. If it’s too low CANCEL the withdrawal and try a different bank’s ATM.

Any safety tips?

First and foremost, ask yourself how much you would be prepared to lose in the event someone stole your cash. Only withdraw that amount each time you go to an ATM.

Preferably, withdraw your cash from ATMs inside banks (during opening hours) as you have more control over who looks over your shoulders, they have security cameras and if the ATM keeps your card you can walk straight into the branch (fortunately, this never happened to us but you never know). Always put the cash away before you leave the bank. Choose a time to withdraw when you know you can go straight to your accommodation afterwards.

Pick an ATM that is in a spot it can’t easily be tampered with. Airports and shopping centres usually have security cameras all over (and way too many people going through for tempering attempts to go unnoticed). Always check your surroundings (including when walking from the ATM to your accommodation), hide your PIN when you enter it and don’t put your card into an ATM that looks suspicious.

Want to see more tips like this to make your travel budget stretch further? Follow our handy guides below.

Top Travel Money Tips
Bank Fees Guide
Debit Credit Cards Guide
Cash Exchange Guide

What do we do?

We tend to withdraw no more than (the equivalent of) USD400 at any one time. This means we are prepared to lose USD200 per person in the event someone stole all our cash.

As we travelled around the Americas, we found huge differences in withdrawal / ATM service fees (from zero with Banco Pichincha in Ecuador to more than USD5 per transaction with RBC / Royal Bank of Canada in Trinidad and Tobago) and ATM withdrawal limits (from USD150 per transaction with Bank of St Lucia in St Lucia to more than USD600 with Banco Pichincha in Ecuador).

Foreign Pensions

Do you receive an overseas pension or pay tuition and living expenses for a child studying overseas? Money transfers between countries can be costly if you don’t use the right service provider.

We have bank accounts in New Zealand, Australia and Germany, and move money between countries to pay bills or alter our investments. Over the years, we have used a number of different services, and our best experience has been with OFX and XE Money Transfers. Both provide a comprehensive range of currency services for individuals and businesses, competitive FX rates, and fast and easy money transfers via their websites and mobile apps. We always check the rates for both and then choose the better one.

What has been your experience when using an ATM overseas?

I wrote this travel finance article based on my own personal experience. If you, like most people, travel overseas and withdraw cash from an ATM and have something to add, please feel free to contact me. If you liked the tips and found them helpful, I would appreciate if you could share them with your friends and family via the Share buttons below. Even better, link to the page from your personal blog or social media platforms.

Author: <a href="" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.