Debit cards are issued by many different financial institutions. Some are issued by banks, others by credit unions. Your debit card will work in most countries, but there are some exceptions.
To minimize problems, follow these steps before heading overseas with your debit card.
Research ATM Locations and Networks
Debit cards “talk” with your financial institution via a system of computer networks. Maestro and Cirrus, two of the largest automated teller machine (ATM) networks, belong to MasterCard.
Visa owns the Plus network.
Take out your debit card and look at the reverse side. You should see a group of ATM network logos. Write them down. You will need to check each foreign ATM before you use it to see if it is part of your financial institution’s network.
Before you leave home, research ATM availability. Both Visa and MasterCard offer online ATM locators. In some countries, ATMs are everywhere, but you won’t find Maestro or Cirrus ATMs in Turkmenistan, and Plus does not service the Democratic Republic of Congo. If you cannot find an ATM in the cities you plan to visit, you will need to find out about exchanging travelers checks or cash at local banks, or you will need to bring cash with you and carry it in a money belt.
Call Your Bank
At least two months before you plan to travel, call your bank or credit union. Tell the representative that you plan to use your debit card abroad. Ask if your Personal Information Number (PIN) will work overseas.
Four-digit PINs work in most countries.
If your PIN contains zeroes, ask if it will present problems in non-network ATMs. If your PIN has five digits, ask if you can exchange it for a four-digit number. Many foreign ATMs will not recognize a five-digit PIN. Calling ahead will give you plenty of time to request an alternate PIN and memorize it.
During your call, ask about overseas transaction and currency conversion fees. After you finish your call, compare these fees to those charged by your credit card company. Fees vary widely; be sure you are getting a deal you can live with.
Make a Backup Plan
Never travel abroad with only one form of travel money. Bring along a credit card or some travelers checks in case your ATM card is stolen or fails to work. Carry a list of telephone contact numbers in case you lose your ATM card. (Remember, you can’t dial toll-free or “800” numbers from outside the United States.) Your financial institution can give you an alternate telephone number to use when calling from overseas.
If possible, leave a list of telephone numbers and credit and debit card numbers with a family member or trusted friend. This person can help you make telephone calls quickly if you misplace your card.
Call Your Financial Institution – Again
Many banks, credit unions and credit card companies freeze customers’ cards if the cards are used outside of that customer’s normal range of travel. Call your financial institutions the week before you leave. Advise them of all of your destinations and tell them when you plan to return home.
Verify Your Balances
Make sure you have enough money in your account to cover your trip expenses, and then some. Running out of cash overseas is every traveler’s nightmare.
Know Your Limits
ATMs have daily withdrawal limits which may or may not match those imposed by your financial institution. Ask about your bank or credit union’s limits, but plan ahead in case you encounter lower withdrawal limits on your trip.
Stay Safe When Withdrawing Cash
To minimize risk, make as few trips as possible to ATMs. Memorize your PIN; never write it down in an obvious place. Avoid using ATMs at night if possible, especially if you are alone. Watch someone else use the ATM successfully before you insert your card. Criminals can insert a plastic sleeve into an ATM’s card slot, capture your card, and watch you type in your PIN.
When your card gets stuck, they can retrieve it and withdraw cash using your PIN. If you see another customer withdraw cash from an ATM, that machine is probably safe to use.
Always carry your cash in a concealed money belt. Keep your ATM and credit cards with your cash.
As you travel, tuck all ATM and transaction receipts into an envelope. Bring them home in your carry-on bag. Save your airline boarding pass to prove your return date. If you need to dispute a transaction, sending a copy of your receipt will speed up the resolution process.
Check Your Statements
After you return home, carefully examine your bank statements and continue to do so for several months. Identity theft is a fact of life, and it is not confined to your home country. If you notice any unusual charges on your statement, inform your financial institution right away.