Our Favorite Bank Account for International Travel
This post is part of a series about how we handled the logistics of moving to a different country every 30 days. You can find the others under the category "Logistics" on the right. There are lots of things to think about when preparing to leave the country for 6 months. Some of the major issues are: what to take with us, what to do with the stuff we're leaving behind, what happens with our postal mail, how will we communicate with people back home, how will we handle our banking, what credit cards will we take, and what will we do about health insurance. In this post, I’m going to talk about how we’ll handle our bank accounts for travel abroad.
Three issues to be concerned with in regards to banking:
- Cash: getting it at the best possible exchange rate while avoiding costly ATM fees
- Theft: protecting our money if the debit card is stolen
- Paper checks: making deposits without mailing back and forth for endorsement
We were first concerned with how we would get cash throughout our travels. We did learn on previous trips that withdrawing money from an ATM usually results in the most favorable exchange rate. However, ATM fees for international withdrawals can add up quickly. Fortunately, Charles Schwab offers a “High Yield Investor Checking Account” that does not charge any ATM fees anywhere in the world. Even better, at the end of the month they’ll refund any ATM fees we were charged by others banks’ ATMs.
Don’t be fooled by the name of the account. It sounds like something only rich investor types would be able to take advantage of. On the contrary, there is no minimum amount required to open or maintain the account. You are actually opening a brokerage account with an attached checking account, but money can be transferred freely between them and there is overdraft protection on the checking account from the brokerage account. In addition, Schwab’s customer service has been fantastic.
After setting up the joint account in both mine and Deanna’s names, I went online to schwab.com and attached our existing Chase bank accounts. Our plan is to keep only a small amount in the Schwab account and transfer more to it periodically as needed. Since it is the only ATM/debit card we’ll need to carry around, a thief wouldn’t have access to our entire reserve if the card were to be stolen.
Paper Check Deposits
Next, we wondered how we would get paid by our freelance clients who are unable to make payment online. We'll also have security deposit refunds and checks from settling up with the utility companies to deposit as well. Normally, that is done the old fashioned way: a paper check in the mail. Unfortunately, mobile phone deposit amount limits prevent that from being an option, so after talking with both Chase and Charles Schwab, I was afraid the process would involve having my mother send the check to wherever we are, endorsing it and mailing it to the bank for deposit stateside. That could get costly, both in time and money.
What we decided to do was to open (another) bank account at my mother's local bank so that she could deposit the checks on our behalf. We were assured the bank will allow her to do so without her name on the account. They will just mark the check "For Deposit Only" and no endorsement is necessary. We then attached this account online to our Schwab account and can make transfers as needed.
We were given one of those aluminum wallets by a friend of ours before we left. Credit and debit cards often come with embedded RFID chips in them that can be read electronically by thieves at airport baggage claims and tourist spots. The aluminum wallet protects the cards so they can’t be read. Carrying it around feels a bit like wearing aluminum foil on my head so the aliens can’t read my thoughts, but our friend told us that this had actually happened to her and that she had money stolen from her account. In addition, we received our Global Entry cards from the government encased in sleeves lined with aluminum, so we decided it was a good idea to use the wallet. Thanks Claire!
So, to sum up our bank account setup for traveling:
- Personal checking accounts with Chase bank that we have had for years. We’ll still use these accounts for receiving electronic payments and for online bill payment.
- Charles Schwab brokerage and checking account with no ATM fee debit card. This is the account we’ll be using primarily for access to cash. We'll keep a small amount in this account and then top it up as needed. If the card is stolen, the thief will only have access to the amount we put in there.
- Local credit union account to be used by family for depositing checks on our behalf. The same could be setup with any local bank near someone in the U.S. acting on your behalf. This wouldn't be necessary if our main bank had a branch where my mother lives.