Saturday, May 12, 2012

Banks and Credit Cards

I thought I'd write up my personal feelings on banks and credit cards when you're living abroad. It's certainly easier to get this stuff figured out before you head off to your new post.

It's not very easy (maybe impossible?) to get a personal check from the US cashed in another country. The embassy here does have a bank that can do it, however, I find it much easier to just get money from ATMs. ATMs are everywhere, and most of them will allow you to withdraw funds from your US bank, at the day's current exchange rate, making it super-easy. However, some ATMs may charge a fee and some banks charge a fee when you use an ATM that isn't owned by the bank, so you could get double charged. You may think "hey, I have Citibank in the States, and I'm at a Citi ATM in San Salvador, so they won't charge me a fee since I'm using their ATM." You would be wrong, though...  On top of that, some banks will charge an 'international' fee. What a crock.

In El Salvador, there seem to be a lot of ATMs that don't charge a fee, which is great, but I haven't been able to figure out which ones do and which ones don't. For instance, a Citi ATM at one location may charge a fee, while another at another location won't. So, it's better to go with a bank that will pay these fees if you incur them. I highly recommend Charles Schwab for your bank while abroad. They don't charge an international fee, they will reimburse you at the end of the month for any ATM fees you incur, and you can deposit checks using your Android or iOS device. Furthermore, they have excellent customer service - always an American, always within 30 seconds of calling, and always very nice!

Credit Cards
We use credit cards here quite frequently. By and large, El Salvador is a cash economy, but for purchases larger than $50, we typically charge it. Most credit cards will charge you an international fee for using your credit card internationally, even if the country you're in uses the dollar (like El Salvador). This is partly because Visa/MasterCard charges the fee to them and they pass it on, but it's also because the banks add their own fees. I highly recommend getting a Capital One credit card. They pay these international fees so you don't have to. Also, they have this handy feature where you can have Capital One email you whenever your card is used internationally. This feature is a bit scary because I know when my wife is at the grocery store because I see the charge before she gets home, but it makes it very easy to know when an unauthorized charge was made, giving you some piece of mind. So far, we've had no problems.

Anyone else have a favorite US bank or credit card for expats?


  1. We bank with USAA - they also reimburse ATM transaction fees and have excellent customer service and insurance plans. We're not current/former military, but USAA is also available to Foreign Service which is nice. That said, unfortunately, there are a lot of ATM scams in Nairobi so we use the Embassy bank and pay for everything in cash. After everything that has happened with banks in the States, we actually closed our BoA and Citi accounts.

    I also love Capital One, having used them for the past 11 years. Their fraud protection department is great and their exchange rate is usually better than the local rates. They're the only credit card I've ever really used and I haven't had reason to look elsewhere.

  2. Hah, same here! I had BofA and Citi and closed them both. USAA isn't available for USAID FSOs... only State.

    1. This is really helpful! I have heard good things about Capital One and fortunately already have a credit card with them. But we were unsure what to do about regular banking/where to get cash and how often to use credit cards (I had assumed that we would never be using them except for like flights other big purchases). Thanks for the other El Salvador blog recommendations -- I've subscribed to their feeds and will start reading!

  3. We use Capital one here in NZ. We buy as much as we can on it to get the airline miles. We have a BOA account for cash & wire transfers. They never charge us a fee if we use their NZ partner, Westpac. I also know that our next post, New Delhi, has a BOA in the embassy.