Planning to take a trip abroad in the near future? Even if travel expenses are already covered, you’ll need to start thinking about how you’re going to pay for incidentals while you’re there. And if a credit card is at the top of the list, it’s a good idea to learn more about foreign transaction fees and how they’ll impact your wallet.

traveling couple

What are foreign transaction fees?

Foreign transaction fees apply to most purchases made with retailers outside of the U.S. So if you’re planning to use your credit cards abroad, you should expect to see them on your statement with each transaction unless your credit card issuer covers the cost.

Keep in mind that these fees may apply to any withdrawals (or cash advances) made from your credit card when using an international ATM.

You may also be assessed foreign transaction fees for online purchases when shopping with a non-U.S. retailer if the transaction has to go through a foreign bank for processing.

How are foreign transaction fees calculated?

In most instances, you will be charged three percent per transaction. This may not seem like much, but if you spend an extensive amount of time abroad, these fees can add up rather quickly. A few scenarios to illustrate assuming the foreign transaction fee is the standard three percent:


Total Purchases

Foreign Transaction Fees

$3,000

$90

$4,500

$135

$6,000

$180

And if you don’t pay the balance in full before the grace period ends, the fees will be rolled into what you already owe. This also means interest will accrue.

To locate the applicable foreign transaction fee for your credit card, refer to the “Fees” section of your cardholder agreement. If you’re unable to find or access this information, contact the credit card issuer for further assistance.

Currency Conversion Fees

Another expense to keep in mind when using your credit card abroad is the currency conversion fee. When you’re using your credit card abroad or online with international retailers, the form of payment is the US dollar. So, it must be converted into the proper currency in order for the payment to be processed.

Although the entire conversion process takes place electronically, there’s a cost associated with the transaction and it is passed on to the user in the form of a currency conversion fee. You won’t see it as a separate line item on your credit card statement as it is rolled into the final purchase price of the product or service.

Wondering how much these fees are? Credit card issuers don’t always clearly specify an amount in the cardholder agreement, so you’ll need to call the customer service department to inquire.

You can also inform the cashier at the point of sale that you’d like to pay the fee, and they can roll it into your total using the conversion rate provided by their Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) service provider.

But, you may be better off paying the fee once it appears on your statement as credit card issuers tend to charge less and merchants make additional income when you use the DCC, notes Forbes.

How do foreign transaction fees affect my credit card rewards?

If you currently earn cash back or rewards points from your credit cards, the costs incurred for foreign transaction fees will not be counted towards your total purchases. In other words, if you’re receiving cash back of three percent on all transactions and are assessed a foreign transaction fee for the same amount, you can kiss this rewards points or cash back goodbye.

But let’s say you’re earning a higher cash back percentage of five percent and hoping to rack up points by using your card on all purchases while abroad. If the foreign transaction fee is three percent and the currency conversion fee is for the same amount, it would be to your detriment to use the card as you’d come out on the losing side of the equation.

What if I use my debit card abroad?

Some debit cards, particularly those from major issuers, like Visa and MasterCard, are also accompanied by foreign transaction fees. They range from one to three percent, plus the cost of any applicable currency conversion fees.

Should you decide to use your debit card abroad to withdraw cash, you’ll also be assessed a foreign transaction fee and an out-of-network withdrawal fee, usually between $1 and $5, per transaction. Balance inquiry fees may also apply.

If you’d preferred to use your debit card when traveling abroad, it’s best to contact your bank before departure to learn more about their foreign transaction fee schedule. You may also want to search for financial institutions that waive these fees for customers. This list is a good place to start.

Will the foreign transaction fee be refunded if I return an item?

It depends on your card issuer. If you return an item you either brought while out of the country or online from a retailer, it’s up to the bank to determine if you’ll receive a refund for any accompanying fees.

But keep in mind that they’ll first have to calculate the value of the item to determine the proper amount to refund for currency conversion fees (if applicable).

How to Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees

You always have the option to travel with cash and exchange it for currency on arrival. Most airports and banks also offer currency exchange services. But if you choose any of these options, you have to keep the cost of currency exchange in mind.

Another way to avoid foreign transaction fees is by obtaining a credit card that does not assess foreign transaction fees. (In most instances, these credit card issuers will also cover the currency conversion fees for you).

Start by browsing cards offered from Capital One and Discover as none of their credit card products assess foreign transaction fees. Here’s are some other options.

Bottom Line

Traveling abroad with a credit card may be convenient, but it may be worth finding the right card if your credit card issuer charges foreign transaction and currency conversion fees. You should also weigh the costs of fees against those of currency exchange services to determine which option is most cost-efficient.