Debit cards are easy to use and carry, fees are nominal, and it's easy to cancel one if it's lost or stolen while you're abroad. For those reasons alone, it's an absolute travel essential, and I've been traveling with mine (and no credit cards) for six years and counting. Let's get into the details of why I believe it to be a true travel essential.
What's a Debit Card?
A debit card differs from a credit card in that a debit card is tied directly to your checking account. The amount of money you can spend, therefore, is limited to the amount of money you have in your bank.
How Does a Debit Card Work?
When you use a debit card, the transaction debits (withdraws) the amount of the transaction from your checking account, usually on the same day. You can use a debit card to get cash from ATM machines or have it swiped like a credit card at shops or restaurants. Because you can only spend the amount of money you have in your account, there is no need for you to pay a bill at the end of each month.
How to Create a Travel Budget With a Debit Card
Naturally, you can't rely on your debit card for all your international transactions -- imagine haggling with a street vendor in rural Nepal, getting the price right, and then trying to give them plastic! In many developing countries, you'll quickly discover that cash is still king, especially for low-value transactions.
Remote hostels and many restaurants in developing countries don't accept credit cards (which is how debit cards are viewed in many places), so you'll need to make sure that you always carry cash in addition to your debit card. Even some more developed countries, like Japan, expect you to pay in cash for everything from accommodation to meals.
Here's how I travel: I always have my debit card on me, but I also have a stash of cash as well. I will usually head to an ATM in a new country and make a withdrawal as soon as I arrive -- typically of around $200-300. I carry both the cash and debit card around and use whichever makes most sense for the place I'm in. In developing countries, it'll be cash most of the time; for everywhere else, you'll be able to use your debit card in many places, such as the United States.
Additionally, it's wise to separate out your cash into multiple places as you travel. Keep some in your backpack, some in your daypack, some in your pocket, and some in your shoe. That way, if you happen to get mugged, you'll have back-up cash that you can use to get yourself some food and accommodation while you find a way to contact your bank or family for help.
How to Get a Debit Card
Chances are you were automatically offered a debit card when you opened your checking account. If you don't have a checking account, go open one now. Look for a bank that doesn't charge checking account fees and ask for a debit card.
It takes a few days to two weeks to get a debit card after you order it. When the card arrives, sign the back to validate it.
If possible, look for a debit card that doesn't charge fees for international withdrawals. If you're going to be traveling frequently, you'll be saving $5 per withdrawal in fees if you can find a bank that refunds you those amounts.
How to Choose a Debit Card PIN Number
Your debit card comes with a PIN (personal identification number), which can be changed to a number you can easily remember. Memorize it; if you have to write it down, keep that separate from your card. Don't choose an obvious number, like your birthday, in order to lessen the chances of someone else being able to guess your PIN if they come into possession of your card.
If You Lose Your Debit Card...
If your card is lost or stolen, call your bank as soon as you can (Skype's a good, cheap choice for international calls from anywhere you can find a computer) before someone else spends your money. Write down your bank's number before you leave home and keep it in a couple of places - your journal, your guidebook. Set up an international snail mail address before you leave home so your bank can send you a different card if yours does get lost or stolen, or simply carry multiple debit cards, so that if one is cancelled, you won't have to worry about getting it sent to you before you can continue traveling.
When to Use Your Debit Card
You can use a debit card in most places around the world -- and outside of the United States, they are usually accepted anywhere where you can pay with a credit card. I use mine in shopping malls abroad, at restaurants, cafes, and bars, to pay for accommodation and flights. The only time I don't use it is when I'm either trying to use up my cash, if I'm paying for street food, or buying something from a market.
About Debit Card Fees and Overseas Transaction Fees
International ATMs will charge a fee when you use your debit card; the amount is determined by the ATM owner. Most fees are under $5 -- a notice on the ATM machine will tell you what the fee is. More than $3 is too much, so look for another one to see if you can find a better deal.
The real fee problem with a debit card comes from your own bank -- the card issuer may charge you up to 3 percent for a foreign transaction, including an ATM withdrawal. Call your bank long before you go -- if you don't like the fee, call around and ask what other banks are charging for foreign transactions made with a debit card; be sure to ask what, if any, fees the bank will charge for an ATM withdrawal made on foreign soil, even at an international bank.
This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff.