Monday, February 16, 2009

Money Matters: Before (or while) you go

Photo by Piazza del Popolo

I cannot overstate the importance of notifying your bank of your travels abroad and having multiple ways to access money.

Three stories:

I have a friend who came to Turkey with her credit card. Turns out, her credit card company stopped accepting charges from Turkey a month into her three month stay. She didn’t bring another card and didn’t have access to another account. She ended up having to pay exorbitant fees to get money wired to her and was incredibly lucky she had all the documentation required to access the transferred funds.

My second friend had her card here in Istanbul, and after using it for a year discovered that her charges were suddenly being denied. Neglecting to tell the bank she was abroad, they allowed the charges go through until she bought a large-ticket item from abroad.

I have another friend who brought his card to Barcelona but attempted to enter the PIN too many times. The third try, the card locked up and there was no way to resolve the issue without him presenting the card to the bank. It turned out the machine he was entering the PIN into was reading the card as a credit card – so his entering the unnecessary PIN ended up putting the ancient machine on the fritz and blocked his card. His bank could have mailed a new card to him, which is useful while in the States – not so useful when abroad.

What is the theme of these three?

All situations could have been better, or were better, by planning ahead. The first could have brought multiple credit cards, opened an account domestically, or have brought enough cash with her to cover her costs. While it feels risky – at least to me – to carry huge sums of cash, if she had brought multiple credit cards, she could have stored them in different locations. This goes for anyone, regardless of time spent in a country. It’s better to be overprepared than caught in a terrible situation. It’s also a hassle, but well worth it, to set up a savings account if staying in a country for any period of time. Local laws will differ in their requirements for a bank account: in Turkey, all that is required is a Passport and a Turkish tax card which may be obtained with a US Passport (though many banks will tell you different requirements, if you persist, that is all that’s needed). Also, make sure to check with your bank before you go to ensure you can use your ATM card or credit card abroad – there are a surprising number of countries that have restricted use policies; some block all use.

My second friend’s experience highlights an incredibly important thing to do before – or while – you go abroad. Notify your bank! It is amazing how many people fail to notify their bank and come to find, after a week or two of use, that their card has been blocked. Notice alone may not be enough: though I notified my bank, sure enough, a week after I got here, I had a message on my cell phone requesting that I call the bank regarding ‘suspicious activity’ on my card. An emailed message to them requesting they review my travel notifications cleared that up and took less than 30 second of my time. My friend had to spend nearly 30 minutes on the phone to clear something up that would have taken only a few minutes had she done it herself. What is scarier, though, is that the bank didn’t put a stop on her account after the first few charges in a foreign country. For all she knew, the card was being used by another person. An explicit notice to the bank of your travel plans will help to stop any unauthorized use; my friend was lucky, though I know others who have had worse luck.

The third was prudent – he brought multiple forms of payment. With a spare credit card and adequate cash, he continued to have access to money as he needed it and had no problem continuing his trip. He was also able to use a credit card and ATM card whenever he needed (or wanted) to. He did still have to deal with the locked card when he went home – but it never interfered with his trip.

What's lessons can be taken from their stories?
• Check with your bank before you go to any country to make sure your card will be accepted at all parts of the trip.
• If you have not done so already, notify your bank you will be travelling, including which countries and which dates.
• Bring multiple forms of payment! Try to at least bring a credit card and an ATM card, and bring them from different banks, if possible. Store them in separate locations.
• Bring other forms of payments that you feel comfortable with - cash is accepted pretty much anywere (apparently, not Russia, but pretty much anywhere else).
• If you are going to be in a country for any length of time - say, over a few weeks - see what it takes to set up an account there before you go. When you get there, set one up and deposit your cash or transfer funds from the US. Dealing with pretty much any problem involving frozen cards or accounts is going to be easier from within the country.

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