Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees: How to Avoid Them
There is no credit card fee that I've found to be more misunderstood than the so-called foreign transaction fee. (And few that are as completely unnecessary.)
In fact, the more I've learned about this fee, the more adamant I've become informing credit card users about it. Why? To help them to avoid it.
What are Foreign Transaction Fees?
A foreign transaction fee is charge imposed on any transaction that is processed outside of the United States.
Note the part of the definition that says, "any transaction that is processed outside of the United States."
This means you can be charged a foreign transaction fee even from the comfort of your own home. Think about when you're buying something online.
If you make the purchase from a foreign company, you could be charged this fee.
This is not a commonly understood fact. Most people think of currency conversion charges when they think of foreign transaction fees.
But these two things are not the same. You pay a currency conversion charge when you convert your money to another country's money.
But a foreign transaction fee, charged at the time of a purchase, could even come up if the foreign country you're in accepts US currency.
Put simply, if you buy something outside of the U.S. (online or in person), your credit card issuer could charge a foreign transaction fee.
How Much Do these Fees Cost?
Most credit card issuers charge a 3% foreign transaction fee. That's 3% of the purchase you made, so the amount of the fee will vary. This 3% may not sound like a lot of money, but it can add up quickly.
Imagine if you're traveling to another country. In one day you may buy breakfast, lunch, and dinner out.
Then you might grab a cup of coffee or some drinks. Add in a museum ticket or some other cultural event.
In one day, that's 5 fees. And that doesn't even include transportation or souvenirs.
Furthermore, this 3% fee is going to be greater than the value of rewards you're earning on your credit card.
Whether it's cash back, points, or miles, you're not likely earning up to this 3% value.
So, if you have a credit card that offers 1.5% cash back, you might actually be paying 1.5% thanks to this 3% fee!
And that's every single time you use your card on a foreign transaction.
Does the Cost Make Any Sense?
When a bank imposes a 3% charge on everything you buy, it must be because it incurs serious costs for running these foreign transactions, right?
You might picture a credit card issuer having to open an offices in exotic places all over the world like Burkina Faso and Papua New Guinea just to process your foreign credit card transactions.
In reality, the process is much more mundane than that. It doesn't cost credit card issuers anymore to process transactions outside of the U.S. than it does at home.
Banks use computers to daily process billions between U.S. and foreign currencies. And they do so at something called interbank rates. Interbank rates are the most favorable exchange rates you can get.
So there isn't a significant cost of doing this conversion. In the end, nobody has to go to Nepal to process your credit card bill for lunch in Katmandu.
If you're still convinced that there must be some rationale behind these charges, consider this.
These same banks charge their customers from other countries additional fees to process transactions here in the US.!
Yet somehow, they still manage to make healthy profits from their credit cards that don't have foreign transaction fees.
By now, you might be thinking that these fees are an outrageous scam that's worthy of a lawsuit. You would be correct.
There have been numerous court cases and lawsuits questioning the concept of foreign transaction fees.
In fact, one judge examining the cost of credit card foreign transactions wrote that Visa and MasterCard “merely act as a clearinghouse, performing arithmetical calculations at insignificant cost.” Not exactly work that justifies the cost of this fee.
How Will You Know if Your Card Issuer Charges Foreign Transaction Fees?
Here's the good news. There are a growing number of credit cards that no longer have foreign transaction fees.
Most of the time they're premium travel rewards cards, but there are some no annual fee credit card options as well.
In fact, some card issuers are eliminating foreign transaction fees from all their cards.
Before I leave the country, I always remove the cards from my wallet that have a foreign transaction fee.
So how can you tell if your card has foreign transaction fees? It's easy to do if the card you have is available to new applicants.
Go to your issuer's website and click on "terms and conditions" or "rates and fees."
All credit card issuers are required to list each card's interest rates and fees. Find the fees for your card and look to see if foreign transaction fees are on the list.
This isn't so easy to do online if your card isn't available to new applicants anymore.
In that case, call the customer service number on the back of your card. Then simply ask the representative if this card has a foreign transaction fee.
Best Credit Cards with No Foreign Transaction Fees
There's no reason you have to get a credit card that doesn't offer anything other than the lack of foreign transaction fees.
Below is a list of the best cards for foreign travel that don't charge useless foreign transaction fees.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
The is a premium travel rewards credit card that's loaded with benefits designed for the frequent traveler.
So, it's no surprise that it also waives foreign transaction fees.
Among the long list of perks are a $300 annual travel credit, complimentary Priority Pass Select airport lounge membership, Global Entry/TSA Precheck application fee statement credit, and more.
The card has a $550 annual fee.
Read the Chase Sapphire Reserve editor's review.
The Platinum Card® from American Express
The is another top-tier travel credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Benefits include a $200 airline fee credit, Global Entry/TSA Precheck application fee statement credit, airport lounge membership and more.
The card has a $695 annual fee (see Rates & Fees; terms apply).
*See Rates & Fees. Terms apply.
Read the American Express Platinum Card editor's review.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
The is a simple travel rewards credit card that doesn't charge any foreign transaction fees (in fact, foreign transaction fees are waived with all Capital One credit cards).
The card also offers 2x miles per dollar spent and receive up to $100 statement credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck membership.
There is a $95 annual fee.
Read the Capital One Venture Rewards editor's review.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is one of the leading travel rewards cards and a favorite among award travel enthusiasts.
The rewards program is ideal for those who travel and dine out frequently.
Points are earned in Chase's Ultimate Rewards program. This program offers cash back, gift cards, merchandise or travel reservations. But its best feature is the ability to transfer points to frequent flyer miles or hotel rewards.
Like many premium travel rewards, this card doesn't charge foreign transaction fees. It does have a $95 annual fee.
Read the Chase Sapphire Preferred editor's review.
What Should You Do on Your Next Overseas Trip?
If you haven't figured it out yet, I hate foreign transaction fees.
I don't mind paying for the services I need, and I'm even willing to pay a lot for something that's valuable.
But I just can't stand paying a fee for something when I receive nothing in return. And I despise being charged a percentage of everything I buy.
But is this worth getting a specific credit card just for traveling overseas?
If you regularly travel abroad, keep at least one card with no foreign transaction fees.
If you're planning an extended trip abroad, you could avoid wasting your money on this fee by having just a single credit card without it.
But if my only foreign travel plans were only a day trip to Canada or Mexico, I wouldn't bother to get a new credit card just for a day of sightseeing.
Are there other options besides using a credit card? Sure.
You could pay cash for everything. But, you'd likely incur ATM fees or foreign conversion fees.
This isn't much better than the foreign transaction fees charged by your credit card. And besides, many debit cards also have foreign transaction fees.
More importantly, credit cards are by far the safest and most convenient method of payment for international travel.
I never carry much cash because I'm paranoid about being pickpocketed or robbed in some other way.
I also know that it's almost essential that you have a major credit card in order to rent a car or check into a hotel.
Plus, credit cards offer other travel benefits such as rental car insurance and global assistance hotlines.
Finally, the right travel rewards credit card with no foreign transaction fees may also be ideal for your daily use at home.
Pick one without the foreign transaction fees to keep your rewards high and your spending on useless fees low. This is the first step in becoming a real travel pro.
More: MyBankTracker's Best Travel Credit Cards
See the rates & fees for the mentioned American Express cards: The Platinum Card from American Express (Rates & Fees; terms apply).