While choosing the right bank for travel might not seem like a priority, it can save you more money than you’d expect.
After my first backpacking trip to Southeast Asia, I realised my high street bank had charged me for every cash withdrawal I’d made – I was hundreds of dollars out of pocket just for accessing my own money! 😱
Instead of making the same mistake again, I diligently researched travel banking and the best cards for backpacking. While it was a drag at the time, it more than paid off on my next trip.
To save you the emotional labour of having to trawl through the small print, I (along with our epic Facebook community) have done the hard work for you. Read on to see our top picks for travel banks, debit cards and our favourite money-saving tips for travellers.
Disclosure: Some links on this page are affiliate links. We always write our articles before checking if affiliate links are available.
The Best Travel Banks
Mobile Banks for Travellers
Gone are the days of carrying around wads of cash or traveller’s cheques. Today, thanks to mobile banks and travel banking, it’s easy to backpack with just a few cards and some emergency cash.
What are mobile banks and why are they so loved by travellers?
Mobile banks are the most stable and widely accepted FinTech creation so far. FinTech stands for Financial Technology. It’s a word used to describe businesses that use technology to make handling your money easier. These accounts are also called borderless accounts, travel banks or digital banks but they’re all the same: banks you can set up and have full control over from your smartphone!
Don’t get confused between travel money cards and mobile banks. Generally, travel cards need money loaded onto them whereas mobile banks do everything you’d expect from your high street bank — as well as much more. They give you full control of your account without needing to visit a branch, allow you to withdraw money abroad for less and give you the best exchange rate.
How Digital Banks for Travel Work
Mobile banks offer the same current accounts as your regular bank, with one exception — they don’t have any branches you can visit. Instead, everything is done via your smartphone. They actually give you more control than regular banks and have 24/7 support available in-app. You can even block, cancel and order a new debit card with just a few taps!
I’ve had fewer problems dealing with digital banks than the lumbering old-fashioned kind. All my issues have been resolved with speed and efficiency, without me having to leave the sofa — you don’t get that from HSBC!
Digital banks are ahead of the game when it comes to their apps. Although high street banks are slowly catching up, mobile banks still provide you with more control and usually a much more intuitive user interface — meaning, they’re easier to use and look prettier!
They allow you to check your PIN, decide where and how you want your card to be used (ATMs, online purchases, contactless, gambling, Magstripe, etc), track your spending, create saving goals and even set up new accounts within minutes!
Some of these FinTech companies allow you to set up different accounts in various currencies. For example, you could move money into your Thai Baht account to avoid incurring any conversion fees while travelling in Thailand!
Note: There’s usually a small fee involved with multi-currency accounts.
To be honest though, unless you’re a digital nomad and operating your business across a bunch of currencies, multi-currency accounts can become a bit of a pain to keep track of. It’s often easier to stick with a good travel bank that offers you a reliably competitive exchange rate rather than faff about transferring your money into different accounts every time you enter a new country.
Avoid ATM Withdrawal Fees From Your Bank
ATMs charging a fee to withdraw money is nothing new — especially if said ATMs are run by a private company and not a bank. This is often hard, if not impossible to avoid, the ATM firm has to make their money somewhere!
Check out 👉 Can You Avoid ATM Fees While Travelling?
However, when travelling, you may find your bank charges you for using a foreign ATM and withdrawing in a foreign currency. The travel banks on our list allow you to withdraw a set amount of money without said bank fees. Some even allow unlimited withdrawals! While these won’t help you avoid service charges from the ATM itself, they can save you a ton on bank fees.
Use Your Card for Direct Transactions Abroad
One of the key things to look for when researching travel banking is to ensure that you won’t be charged for using a debit card for transactions abroad. Most digital banks will allow you to use the card as normal without hitting you with a foreign use surcharge!
Better Exchange Rates
One of the biggest benefits of using a travel bank card is the favourable exchange rate you can take advantage of. Generally, they use the interbank currency conversion rates, so you get a much better deal than with your normal bank card.
A note on traveller’s cheques — We’re often asked by first-time backpackers whether traveller’s cheques are a good idea. The answer is generally no. Traveller’s cheques had a time and a place. It was 20 years ago. They’re pretty much a waste of time today. There are often fees involved and they’re not universally accepted like they once were. You’re better off hiding cash you can exchange in an emergency.
The Best Travel Banking Options for Backpackers
Members of the South East Asia Backpacker team have personally used some of the travel bank accounts on this list. The others we recommend because dozens of members of our South East Asia Backpacker Community have used them extensively and have been happy to share their experiences with us!
The Best Banks and Travel Cards for Backpackers
Revolut – European Economic Area (EEA) Residents
The #1 Recommended Option for Customers Outside the UK.
- Also available for citizens of Australia, Canada, Singapore, Switzerland, United States, UK and Japan.
- Free to create an account and have a debit card. Delivery fees may apply.
- Revolut partners with both Visa and Mastercard. Which you get depends on where you live.
- Fee-free cash withdrawals: The total amount you can withdraw fee-free while travelling depends on where you live. It’s around £200/$250USD/A$350 with a free account (or five withdrawals if the combined total of those transactions is below the limit). Paid accounts have higher withdrawal limits.
- After you reach your free withdrawal limit, there’s a 2% fee on each withdrawal.
- No fee when you use your card to pay for things: Revolut allows you to spend up to £1000/$1200USD on your card abroad fee-free. After this, there’s a 0.5% fee.
- Gives you better exchange rates than your average bank card: Revolut use the interbank exchange rate Monday-Friday. At weekends there is a 1%-2.5% mark up on the interbank rate.
- Revolut is only registered as an official bank in some European nations — you’ll need to check if yours is included. If it is, money stored in a Revolut Bank account is protected by the Lithuanian Deposit Guarantee Scheme up to €100,000.
- In the UK, the money in your account is protected by ‘Safeguarding’ laws. If your money is in a Revolut Savings Vault, it’s actually being stored in a Revolut partner bank and is protected by the FSCS up to £85,000.
- You can apply from your smartphone and the card will arrive in 7-8 working days.
- Premium Accounts: You can apply for either a Plus, Premium, or a Metal Account. The Premium and Metal accounts give excellent benefits such as overseas health insurance, delayed flight and delayed baggage insurance and access to cryptocurrencies! The Premium allows you to withdraw £400 per month without a fee, the Metal ups that limit to £800.
- Travel insurance with premium cards: The travel insurance cover with Revolut differs depending on the level of account you opt for. With the Premium and Metal accounts, you’re covered for 90 days as long as the trip starts and ends in your home country within said period. Check the policy wording for full details.
What our readers say about Revolut:
“I definitely recommend Revolut! Lower fees, better exchange rates and you have full control over the card via the app so if you lose it, you can immediately cancel it. I’ve used it throughout my trip the past few weeks and it’s great to be able to lock the card instantly on the app (I lost mine in Bangkok!)” – Lauren.
Starling Bank – UK Only
The #1 Recommended Mobile Bank for UK Travellers.
- Free to create a bank account and free to have a card*.
- No monthly limit on fee-free cash withdrawals (local charges may apply): The biggest advantage of the Starling Bank compared to other mobile banks is that they allow you to make unlimited cash withdrawals each month without charging a fee. This benefit makes Starling Bank the #1 recommended mobile bank for UK travellers.
- Withdraw up to £300 per day. This is the maximum withdrawal limit for a single day.
- The Starling Bank card works at all ATMs across Southeast Asia. (Unlike some other cards, we’ve heard no reports that the Starling card doesn’t work in foreign ATMs.)
- No fee when you use your card to pay for things: Starling Bank does not charge a fee when you use your card to pay for things abroad; hotels, restaurant meals, goods, and supermarkets.
- Starling is covered by the FSCS**.
- Starling gives you the Mastercard exchange rate which is more favourable than you’d get with a classic bank.
- The mobile app allows you to transfer money easily, track your spending and take action quickly if your card is lost or stolen.
- When you order the card online, it takes 3-5 days to arrive.
- They have 24-hour support if you have any problems whilst you are travelling.
- Starling pay interest on current accounts. Don’t get too excited, it’s super low. But you know, every little helps!
- Ethical banking: Starling have a very clear ethics page, in which they claim transparency, fairness and inclusion are at the centre of everything they do. As well as this, they’re open with their sustainability practices and their mission to reach net-zero emissions!
*As a UK-only bank, Starling only offers accounts to customers with a UK address. You do not need to be a UK tax resident.
**The FSCS (Financial Services Compensation Scheme) covers banks, with banking licenses, so if the bank were to fail, you could still get your money back. Up to £85,000.
What our readers say about Starling Bank:
“The phone app is super easy to use and has a lock/unlock feature if you lose your card. It also sends a notification to your phone each time you spend on it or withdraw money so you know if you have had it stolen/lost it/or someone has cloned your card!” – Georgie Watts.
“Best of all, it has location tracking on your mobile, so you are unlikely to get the fraud hits that happen so frequently with other banks. (i.e. they keep blocking your card as you move country.) I used Nationwide before and after they cancelled my card 20 times in one month, I got fed up!” – Gemma Louise Swan.
“Monzo has a free cash withdrawal limit of £200/month but Starling is unlimited! I’m a Monzo devotee back home but switched to Starling for travelling for this reason and it’s been great so far!” – Eleanor Metcalf.
Monzo – UK Only
- Only available to those who have a UK address.
- Fee-free cash withdrawals: You can withdraw £200 each month free of bank charges. After that, a 3% fee is charged on every withdrawal.
- No fee when you use your card to pay: Monzo does not charge a fee when you use your card to pay for things abroad; hotels, restaurant meals, goods and supermarkets.
- Monzo issues customers with a Mastercard. They use the Mastercard exchange rate for foreign transactions.
- The app is easy to use, allows you to track your spending and updates you with exchange rates when you arrive in a new country. It also allows you to separate money within your main account, so you don’t accidentally spend more than expected!
- You can apply online and the card takes 2-7 working days to arrive.
- Monzo is covered by the FSCS*.
- Monzo are clear in their mission to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030. They’re also working to make banking more inclusive with innovative social initiatives and a host of great blog posts on their website.
*The FSCS covers banks, with banking licenses, so if the bank were to fail, you could still get your money back. Up to £85,000.
What our readers say about Monzo:
“I have been using Monzo for 5 months in Asia and works perfectly out here. My Dad pays a fortune for his credit card and it wouldn’t work out in Vietnam or Cambodia, but my Monzo card always did.” -Maria.
“You can also use it to organise your spending as it splits up your food, hotels, flight tickets etc. so it is really handy for keeping track!” – Louise.
N26 – Available to Some EU and EEA Residents
- Only certain nationalities are eligible: You can open an account if you are from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden or Switzerland
- N26 supply a Mastercard. This costs €10 for delivery if you’re on the standard account.
- No fee when you use your card to pay for things: N26 does not charge a fee when you use your card to pay for things abroad.
- ATM withdrawal fees at 1.7%: If you have the standard free card, you will be charged a 1.7% fee per withdrawal when you take money out of an ATM abroad. Premium card users can withdraw money abroad fee-free.
- N26 offer four different levels of accounts: N26 Standard (Free), N26 Smart, N26 Metal and N26 You. You get unlimited free foreign withdrawals with the You and Metal accounts.
- These accounts also offer extra cards, medical insurance, trip insurance, flight insurance and luggage cover!
- Travel insurance is supplied by Allianz Assistance. Beware this insurance is only valid if your trip is less than 90 days. You need to fly from, and return to, your home address for the insurance to be valid.
- The mobile app allows you to track your spending, as well as enable and disable foreign payments.
- N26 use the Mastercard exchange rate.
- N26 is covered by the German Deposit Guarantee Scheme which protects your money up to €100,000.
- The N26 Blog features tons of useful posts about managing and understanding your finances, including an entire section dedicated to travel!
- Not taking on a lot of customers at the moment — you must join a waiting list.
What our readers say about N26:
“I’ve been using N26 for more than a year. It’s great!” – Tsareena.
“N26 all the way! We’d get the notification of withdrawal before the cash had even come out of the ATM. you can adjust your daily/weekly limits on the app, should you need to get a large amount of cash out. It’s now our everyday bank, and we’re super happy with it! The live chat is great also. You can chat with a real person and they answer very promptly!” – Franck.
Wise (Formerly TransferWise) – Worldwide
- A good choice for digital nomads but not as good for regular backpackers.
- A Wise account, with debit card, is available to residents in most nations. See the full list here. You may be charged delivery for the card.
- Wise provide a Visa or Mastercard depending on your country of residence.
- Fee-free cash withdrawals: The country your card was issued in determines how much you can withdraw without fees each month. It’s usually only a couple of transactions before fees kick in.
- A Wise card cannot be used in every country. See the list of exclusions here.
- Multi-currency accounts: You can hold more than 50 currencies in your Wise account. (There is a small conversion fee when you convert your money from one currency to another – between 0.35% and 1%.)
- There is no fee for using your card abroad. If you have the correct currency stored in your account, it will be used. If not, you’ll be charged a small conversion fee.
- Low fees for transferring money: The preferred bank of digital nomads as they allow you to get paid in various currencies.
What our readers say about Wise
“I am a digital nomad and I use Wise whilst currently living in Thailand. I receive my salary from my online teaching job into my Wise account and then I can take the money straight from there using my card. I can also convert it into other currencies too and can send out to other bank accounts easily.” – Stef.
Remember: These cards don’t help you avoid individual ATM fees. They only allow you to avoid bank fees and offer a better exchange rate than a normal debit card.
Bank recommendations depending on your country
If you cannot apply for any of the above borderless accounts, or you do not live in a country where these cards are available yet, your best bet is to look for a bank account that offers a good debit card or credit card that you can use when you travel. You should be looking for:
- One that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees when you use your card.
- One that doesn’t charge ATM fees.
- One that has favourable exchange rates.
- Note: Banks with global ATM networks like Citibank, allow you to withdraw money fee-free from their ATMs anywhere in the world. However, it can be difficult to find a bank that has ATMs across Southeast Asia.
USA – Charles Schwab
- Voted #1 bank for Americans when travelling.
- They have unlimited fee-free cash withdrawals no matter where you are in the world.
- Charles Schwab also reimburses any ATM fees incurred no matter where you are in the world.
- To be eligible for a Charles Schwab account, you have to be a US resident.
- Charles Schwab offer a Visa debit card as well as an Amex credit card.
A note on American Express — While Amex is commonplace in the US and accepted some of the time in Europe, it’s less popular in more far-flung destinations. Good luck trying to use your Amex in Southeast Asia or South America! If you insist on taking your Amex, ensure you have at least one Visa and one Mastercard as backup!
Australia – ING Bank
- Easy and free to sign up online for Australian citizens.
- ING provide a Visa debit card to their customers.
- ING offer zero international transaction fees when you use your debit card abroad but only if you meet the specified requirements. These involve depositing a certain amount and making a certain amount of card purchases each month.
Canada + US – TD Bank
- You can use international ATMs with no TD bank fee. Note: Not all TD Bank accounts support fee-free international withdrawals.
- They can get a new card to your very quickly if yours needs replacing.
Using Digital Bank Cards in ATMs in Southeast Asia – If you’re using a debit card from one of the challenger banks mentioned above, ensure you’ve turned on swipe payments or enabled the Magstripe. Otherwise, your card may be declined. Many of the ATMs in Southeast Asia still rely on the MagStrip instead of using the chip.
28 Money Tips for Travel in Southeast Asia!
- Maximum cash withdrawals — To avoid constantly paying fees, withdraw the maximum each time you use an ATM. Yeah, you’ll have a lot of money to stash away but if you withdraw smaller amounts, you’ll be using the ATM more often and paying fees every time!
- Check out different ATMs — Different ATMs will have different maximum limits, so try to look around for an ATM with a high limit. People actually rate ATMs in SE Asia so look out for the Google reviews! It’s not uncommon for some ATMs in the region to have withdrawal limits as low as £70/$90USD… We’re looking at you Vietnam!
- Keep money in different places —When you take out the maximum amount of cash from the ATM, store the money in different places. Hide some in your wallet or purse, some in your main backpack, some in your daypack and some in a money belt or alternative hiding place if that’s your thing. Keep your money split between as many spots as possible.
- Emergency money — Always have an emergency $100USD stashed somewhere secret. You never know when you might need it! Keeping this inside a book so it stays wrinkle-free is a good idea!
- Credit cards — Avoid using credit cards in ATMs. You’ll automatically be charged a small but not insignificant fee by your card company. This is on top of the ATM fee. Some credit card providers allow you to make foreign card purchases fee-free but check before travelling. You don’t want to be stung with a nasty bill when you get home!
- Take several cards — It’s worth applying for at least a couple of the above travel banks. That way you have backup cards, can balance withdrawal limits between accounts and find the most favourable exchange rates.
- Keep cards in separate places — Just as with cash, you should hide cards in different places among your gear. This ensures you still have access to money even if your daypack or purse is stolen!
- One Visa. One Mastercard — It’s a good idea to have one VISA and one MASTERCARD. Some ATMs may accept one and not the other.
- The most common backpacker mistake — Don’t leave your card in the machine! Most ATMs in Southeast Asia work differently to those at home. They tend to give you your cash before returning your card. Many a backpacker has walked away from the ATM with their cash but not their card! Don’t be that person.
- Take $US Dollars — In Southeast Asia, $US Dollars are the most valuable currency to have. They’re easy to exchange and you’ll get better exchange rates than converting other currencies. Dollars can also be used for big purchases in Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
- Spend local currency — Spend local currency while in the country. It can be difficult to exchange some Southeast Asian currencies after you’ve left.
- Keep cash handy — Many local restaurants, bars, transport and shops in Southeast Asia will not accept debit or credit cards, so always make sure that you have enough local currency for smaller purchases.
- Use Grab — Much like Uber, Grab provides access to cars, taxis and tuk-tuks. Prices are set and there’s no need to negotiate.
- Keep track with an app — There’s a travel app for everything and budgeting is no exception. While many of the digital banks provide budgeting tools within their apps, it’s worth using something like Trail Wallet to keep track of your spending too!
- Smart underwear — Some travellers swear by underwear with sneaky stash pockets. They’re not strictly necessary but if they give you peace of mind, they’re worth checking out!
- Notify your bank before you travel — If you opt to use your high street bank while travelling, let them know your plans so they don’t block your card for suspicious transactions! You may be able to do this online and list the countries you’ll be travelling to.
- At ATMs, always use your bank’s exchange rate — When withdrawing money from an ATM, always opt to use your bank’s exchange rate. ATMs charge a big mark-up on conversions!
- Pay by card when possible. If you’re travelling with any of the travel cards above, use them to pay whenever possible. Transactions should always be free while withdrawing money will almost always cost you something.
- Get local currency before you go — Even if it’s just enough for a taxi, having a small amount of the local currency is useful whenever you arrive at a new destination.
- Check travel insurance terms & conditions — If you get a card that offers travel insurance, be sure to check the terms and conditions. Most of the travel cards (even though they’re advertised to digital nomads) will only cover you for a certain length of trip.
- Delivery of travel cards — If travel banking is a last-minute job before you head off on your adventure, getting the debit card delivered on time might be a headache. It’s worth checking to see which banks will provide express delivery to your address!
- Travelling as a couple — If you’re travelling as a couple it’s worth you both setting up travel accounts with different banks. You may also be able to set up a joint account too! This maximises the number of free transactions you can make each month!
- Know the exchange rate — A currency converter like XE proves super useful when wrapping your head around a new currency!
- Haggle when changing money — When converting cash, search out small local shops rather than the big chains like Western Union. Not only will you likely get a better base rate but you can also try your hand at haggling. The more money you change, the better the exchange rate you’ll get.
- Leaving a country — When moving from one country to another, it’s worth talking to travellers near the border. See if anyone is going the other way and would like to trade currency with you. You can do this at the mid-market rate, so you both get a better deal than visiting a proper money changer!
- Turn on spending alerts — This way you get a notification every time you make a transaction. Not only does this help you keep track but it’s a great way to spot if your card has been cloned or stolen!
- Always choose to pay in the local currency — When using your card to pay for things, you may be asked if you’d like to pay in your home currency or the local one. Always choose the local one. This ensures you get the Mastercard or Interbank exchange rate rather than the exchange rate from the vendor — which will be heavily in their favour!
- Changing money in the airport — Rather than change money in the airport when you arrive, use an airport ATM to withdraw the local currency. You’ll get a better exchange rate.
Emergency Money in Southeast Asia
And finally, if you lose all access to your cards or accounts, you can still get money sent from home using Western Union.
If your card gets lost or stolen, leaving you with no money, a friend or family member can send you emergency funds via Western Union. You can pick the money up from any Western Union location across the region. There’s a fee to send the money and the exchange rate isn’t great, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.
Got an experience with a digital bank that you want to share? Talk to us in the comments!
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