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Debit Cards for Travel

Debit Cards for Travel The following is a question from Byron about the benefits of using debit cards while traveling in foreign countries: Hey Wade, Byron here with another travel question. Do you carry a debit/card with you when you travel, or do you even have a bank account at all? I have been told [...]

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Debit Cards for Travel

The following is a question from Byron about the benefits of using debit cards while traveling in foreign countries:

Hey Wade, Byron here with another travel question. Do you carry a debit/card with you when you travel, or do you even have a bank account at all? I have been told it is a smart idea to have a debit card, that way you don’t have to carry all of your cash on you. And some people even say you should have 2 bank accounts.

But are there some banks that are better for travelers? Because I don’t see how you can manage a bank account(deposit money) if there is no bank nearby. At least I’m pretty sure there are no Bank of Americas in Mexico, hahaha.

Hello Byron,

Yeah, unfortunately my name, number, and soul are tied up into the spider webs of the global-banking leviathan. I have a bank account and I use debit cards as one of my methods of storing and retrieving my travel funds. My debit card draws from a USA based bank, and I am of the unhappy opinion that this is probably the most secure way to acquire travel funds in foreign countries. I feel that traveler’s checks are just about as useless as the paper they are printed on and cash is losable, stealable, ruinable, befuddling, and occasionally leads me into many annoying experiences while converting it into local currencies – I have found that the less monetary interactions I have with people of a country the more I am able to enjoy myself. In point, ATM machines are now well positioned around the globe and allow for the easy withdraw of funds in local currencies. The benefits that I receive from carrying around plastic cards is that I can walk into any country and suck out my dollars from a machine pre-transformed into Euro, Yen, RMB, rocks, rubble, sticks, stones, metal, or whatever else passes as money.
Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
in Philadelphia, PA, USA- August 31, 2008
Travelogue Travel Photos

ATM use strategy:

This may be a leap of faith, but it is my impression that most moderately sized cities in the world have a Visa compatible ATM somewhere. But, as this is a leap of faith and not a fool proof claim, if I am in a country with hit and miss ATM facilities I make sure that I withdraw enough money to last for a long time once finding a money machine. But this precaution is quickly being made unnecessary by the army of ATMs that popping up all over the world. If I am in a country with readily available money machines I do not have to really think about money, as I just stroll into the nearest town when I go broke and reprovision myself.

Credit card security when traveling

Debit cards without Visa logos are useless:

I cannot emphasize this point enough: I have found that if a debit card does not have a Visa logo on it it is virtually useless. Simply put, it is my experience that Mastercard, American Express etc . . . are not travel worthy. I can remember telling Erik the Pilot to make sure his ATM card was Visa compatible before he moved to Costa Rica in 2006. He did not heed my warnings: “Mastercard will work there, my bank told me so,” he said. I just nodded my head knowing that he and his stupid bank were perilously wrong. On our next meeting he admitted to many tales of woe about how he was stuck without money numerous times and hassled because he could not find ATMs that accepted Mastercard.

I just laughed at him.

Bank account and card arrangement:

I use a small credit union from the USA as my bank. I have two accounts that I use for travel: a savings and a checking. I keep the bulk of my money in my savings account (from which I cannot withdraw funds with a debit card) and transfer money to my checking account (which is the account that my debit card withdraws from) as needed. I make these transfers online. In this way, even if I were to have my debit card stolen, the thief would only be able to use a small portion of my total funds (only what is in my checking account). I usually keep around $500 in my checking account unless I know that I will soon purchase a plane ticket.

[adsense]I am fortunate enough to have parents in the USA that deposit funds into my account for me. Both of their names are on all my accounts so they can do what I wish them to with my money while out of the country. The scraps of money that I get paid to me in checks are sent to my folk’s home and they deposit them into my savings account. From here I put money into my checking account and make withdraws when I need to. Money that I make in cash while traveling I carry with me and try to spend before withdrawing more money or I change it into dollars or euros to stash.

Diversify money carrying methods:

At one time I use to carry American dollars, American Express traveler checks, and two copies of my debit card with me. But I have now shed reliance on travelers checks after I carried the same $500 bundle with me for two years without using it once. I have found that traveler checks are useful only as toilet paper or fire starter, and I therefore do not waste my mind with trying to obtain or use them. Most places on the globe do not accept them and I no longer wish trying to make stern faced bank androids understand that American Express traveler checks are as good as cash and can be used anywhere. They are not as good as cash and cannot be used everywhere.

But I still carry a good wad of cash on me – at least $500 USD. Cash can usually be easily changed into local currency anywhere in the world except for France. The French bank clerk seems to delight in being an asshole. Someday – probably when the loan sharks catch my scent and having a bank account will be more of a liability than an asset – I will surely carry most of my travel funds hidden on my person. In nine years of travel I have not yet been penetrated by thieves to the point that they would have been able to dig out money sewn into my clothing (where I keep my cash) and I do not think that many people would be so destitute as to strip me naked and claim my ragged garments as their own. I think traveling with only cash is 90% safe, and I use debit cards only because they allow me to make use of checks that need to be sent to a steady address.


I tend to carry two identical debit cards hidden on me in a location that I rarely access in public – either in a money belt or in a hidden pocket sewn into the inside of my trousers. I carry two cards to allow me a backup if I happen to break or damage one of them. If I loose one ATM card while traveling I would have to cancel it, and its twin would be equally canceled. I suppose it could be prudent to have two checking accounts with different debit cards and keep one as a backup in case one account becomes compromised. But I have never felt the need to go to this length of security.

So here it is: the methods by which I carry and access money on the Road. I have found that what I outlined above is a popular way of keeping and utilizing travel funds, as most travelers seem to rely on debit cards.

If a traveler is looking for a good bank to get keep their money in that has plenty of overseas branches, I would recommend HSBC – although I have not yet ever NEEDED to physically go to the bank while traveling and it never mattered to me that my bank is only located around Rochester, New York. So I have never found it to be pertinent to have my money in a bank that I can access overseas.

So that is about it. If you have anymore questions please do not hesitate to ask.

As always, take this travel tip and use it, or leave it to rot in the gutters of bad advice.

But either way Walk Slow,


Links to previous travelogue entries:

  • Traveling New York City
  • Back in Budapest from Balaton
  • Vacation to Lake Balaton

Debit Cards for Travel
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Filed under: Money, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • JAMES LINDZEY July 23, 2011, 1:41 pm

    great info on the international banking. when i take money out with CHASE BANK it kills me, they charge fees, and additionally on the back end i’m loosing 3 percent. i miss Washington Mutual. I finally got my new social security card so i can open a new account online from the states since i live over seas. In colombia bank to bank transfers from overseas is terrible. CHASE hasta BANCOLOMBIA I LOOSE 5 PERCENT on a wire plus fees. no more of that trash.

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