A Frequently Asked Question by those planning a trip to Southeast Asia is – How do I avoid paying ATM fees and getting ripped off with exchange rates while I travel?
With the help of international travellers in the South East Asia Backpacker Community, we put together this comprehensive guide to the Most Recommended Travel Cards of 2019 that can help YOU to save money while travelling.
- We’ll look at the best mobile/digital banks for travellers, depending on which country you are from.
- We’ll look at the banks which have the best debit and credit cards for travel.
- We’ll check out essential money tips on how to manage your cash while travelling in Southeast Asia.
- We’ll give advice on the best ATMs to use while travelling in SE Asia to save on fees as much as possible.
Where possible, we have provided affiliate links to the banks/cards being discussed. If you open an account using one of these links, we will receive a small kickback from the company at no extra cost to you. No preferencial treatment has been given (as you will see) to cards/accounts that offer affiliate schemes.
Mobile/Digital Banks for Travellers
These days, the savviest of travellers get set up with a debit card from a ‘FinTech Company’ before they travel. FinTech stands for Financial Technology. It’s a word used to describe businesses that use technology to make handling finances easier.
The accounts that we will be looking at in this article are also called “Borderless Accounts”, “Mobile Banks” or “Digital Banks”.
Many people call the cards that are offered by these mobile banks ‘Travel Cards’ or ‘Travel Money Cards’, but actually they are just normal debit cards – with huge benefits for travellers and digital nomads. Most travellers find that these save them a lot of money compared to normal debit cards from their home banks.
We’ll look at some of the most recommended travel cards below, but first, let’s look at what these cards do and how these cards work…
How Digital Bank Cards Work
The cards that are provided by these types of companies function just like a normal debit card. You can use them to purchase things; restaurant meals, hotel stays and goods. And, you can use them to withdraw money out at ATMs all over the world. Just like a normal bank account, you transfer cash from your home bank account into your online account in order to spend.
One way that these companies are miles ahead of normal high street banks is with their mobile banking apps. From managing your money as you travel, to notifying your bank if there is a problem, to keeping track of your spending, travel and life is made so much easier with their handy apps. With the apps you can:
- Link your normal bank account and top up your travel funds as you go. Load as little or as much as you like.
Most of these companies allow you to set up bank accounts in various currencies and then load them with money. So, for example, you can have bank accounts in UK GBP, Thai Baht and Singapore Dollars. The advantage of this is that you can use the card in-country without incurring foreign exchange rate fees. You also get a better exchange rate with the online accounts than you would with your normal bank card as you are not relying on the bank’s exchange rate at the time of taking the money out.
Avoiding ATM Withdrawal Fees
Most of the cards allow you to withdraw a certain amount of money each month without paying a fee. After you have reached your limit, the withdrawal fees are lower than they would be with normal debit cards. Some of the cards (which we’ll look into in more detail below), allow you to take out 200 GBP each month without paying a fee, others allow 400 GBP, and some offer unlimited withdrawals that are free of charge, depending on your nationality.
ATM Withdrawal Fees in Southeast Asia
The cards below will allow you to avoid, or heavily reduce the charges that you get at your ‘bank’s end’ when withdrawing cash in Southeast Asia. However, unfortunately, you will still be charged a free from the particular ATM that you use when you withdraw cash in Southeast Asia. The fee depends on the particular machine. To give you an idea…
- ATM Machines in Thailand charge 220 THB per withdrawal.
- ATM Machines in Vietnam charge between 1-3%.
- ATM Machines in Cambodia charge approx. $5 US
- ATM machines in Malaysia and Singapore have no fees.
Using Your Card For Transactions Abroad
When using your card to make purchases; hotels, flight tickets, online purchase or restaurant meals abroad will not be charged extra.
Better Exchange Rates
One of the biggest benefits of using one of these travel cards is the favourable exchange rates that you can take advantage of. They use the interbank currency conversion rates so you get a much better deal than with your normal bank card.
The Best Travel Money Cards 2019 – Top 5
Voted By Our Readers!
Here’s a list (in order of most recommended) of the best mobile bank accounts and associated travel cards for travellers, expats and digital nomads. Some of the cards are only available for certain nationalities, so we have stated clearly at the top of the list which nationality is eligible for that particular card.
Reader’s Top Tip!
If you are eligible, many travellers suggest applying for ALL of the travel cards that you can. Most long-term backpackers travel with a mix of all of the cards below in order to take advantage of the benefits of each card. So why is this a good idea?
- The cards are free to apply for and do not charge a monthly fee.
- You can take advantage of the benefits of each card, using up to the limit of their fee-free cash withdrawals each month.
- If you take several cards with you and keep them in different places on your person/in your backpack/day pack/money-belt, you will always have a back up if you lose one or have a card stolen.
- You will also have a back up if you have a problem with a card and cannot use it in an ATM machine.
SEA Backpacker Community Member: I’ve got all three cards: Revolut, Monzo and Starling, LOL. I wasn’t taking any chances! Total arbitrage and great having spare cards! If you can, just get all of them, they’re all free! Then you can mix and match to make the most of the free limits etc. (Alex)
1. Starling Bank – UK Only
The Number #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*: 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. Both Monzo and Revolut cap the amount at 200 GBP per month before you have to pay a fee (of 1.7% per transaction). This benefit makes Starling Bank the Number #1 Recommended Mobile Bank for UK Travellers.
- *Maximum of 300 GBP withdrawal per day without bank fees.
- The Starling Bank Account Card works at all ATM machines across Southeast Asia. (Unlike some of the other cards, we have heard no reports from travellers that the card does not work in foreign ATM machines.)
- No fee when you use your card to pay for things: Monzo does not charge a fee when you use your card to pay for things abroad; hotels, restaurant meals, goods, supermarkets.
- The card gives you Mastercard Exchange Rates which are better than exchange rates that you would get with your normal 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.
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 by card 20 times in a 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)
2. Revolut – EU Residents
The Number #1 Recommended Option for EU Citizens.
- Free to create an account and free to have a card.
- Fee-free cash withdrawals: You can withdraw 200 GBP each month free of bank charges. After that, a fee of 2% of the amount is charged on every withdrawal.
- No fee when you use your card to pay for things: Revolut does not charge a fee when you use your card to pay for things abroad; hotels, restaurant meals, goods, supermarkets.
- You can have different accounts in different currencies.
- Gives you better exchange rates than your average bank card.
- You can apply online and the card takes up to 9 working days to arrive.
- Premium Accounts: You can apply for either a Premium Account (6.99 GBP per month) or a Metal Account (12.99 GBP per month) which give you extra benefits like overseas health insurance, delayed flight and delayed baggage insurance and access to crypto currencies! The Premium allows you to withdraw 400 GBP per month without a fee, and the Metal ups that limit to 600 GBP.
- Travel Insurance with premium cards: The travel insurance with Revolut is only valid for a 40 day trip starting and ending in your home country.
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 of you lose it you can immediately cancel it. I’ve used it throughout my trip the past few weeks and its great to be able to lock the card instantly on the app (I lost mine in Bangkok!)” (Lauren)
3. Monzo – UK Only
The Number #2 Recommended Mobile Bank for UK Travellers.
- Fee-free cash withdrawals: You can withdraw 200 GBP each month free of bank charges. After that, a fee of 3% of the amount (slightly higher than Revolut) is charged on every withdrawal.
- No fee when you use your card to pay for things: Monzo does not charge a fee when you use your card to pay for things abroad; hotels, restaurant meals, goods, supermarkets.
- Gives you better exchange rates than your average bank card.
- The mobile app is easy to use, allows you to track your spending and updates you with a balance every time you spend.
- You can apply online and the card takes 2-7 working days to arrive.
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)
4. N26 – EU Residents
The Number #2 Recommended Mobile Bank for EU Travellers.
- Only certain nationalities are eligible: You can open an account if you are from: Germany, Austria, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Finland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Estonia, Greece, Slovakia, the UK, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.
- 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; hotels, restaurant meals, goods, supermarkets.
- ATM withdrawal fees at 1.7%: If you have the standard free card, you will be charged 1.7% fee per withdrawal when you take money out of an ATM machine abroad.
- The ‘premium cards’ offer free ATM withdrawals. (The card costs 9.90 Euros a month for ‘Black’ and 16.90 Euros per month for ‘Metal’.) To put this into perspective, the ‘Black’ pays for itself if you withdraw more than 350 Euros in foreign currency each month.
- The advantage of the Premium Cards: The advantages of the Black and Metal cards are – FREE Travel Insurance (by Allianz travel insurance). (As well as Mobile phone theft protection, ATM theft protection, extended warranty and purchase protection on qualifying goods.)
- How good is the travel insurance? Says Forbes: “N26 Black comes with an impressive insurance package that rivals premium credit cards around the world. Medical expenses while traveling are covered without limit, flight and baggage delay expenses are covered up to €400 and travel cancellation insurance is provided up to €5,000 per trip… and if the cash you withdraw using your N26 card is stolen within 4 hours of withdrawing it, they’ll reimburse you up to €500.”
- Travel insurance 90-day rule: Be aware that the travel insurance is only valid if your trip is less than 90 days. You need to fly out and return to your country of residence (where you had the card sent to in the first place) in order to be able to claim with the N26 insurance.
- The Mobile app allows you to track what you’re spending, as well as able and disable foreign payments directly on your phone, so your account knows when and where you are travelling.
- Better exchange rate: N26 the Mastercard Exchange Rate which is much better than your bank. They use the technology of TransferWise which allows you to have bank accounts in up to 19 currencies – meaning that you get better exchange rates when you swap money from one currency to another.
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)
(This is an affiliate link. We will receive a small commission if you sign up)
5. TransferWise – Worldwide
The Number #1 Recommended Mobile Bank for International Travellers.
- Voted the #1 Mobile Bank for Digital Nomads.
- Fee-free cash withdrawals: You can withdraw 200 GBP (or $250 US) each month is free of bank charges. After that, a fee of 2% of the amount is charged on every withdrawal.
- No fee when you use your card to pay for things: The TransferWise card does not charge a fee when you use your card to pay for things abroad; hotels, restaurant meals, goods, supermarkets.
- Multi-currency accounts: You can have an account in up to 40 different currencies, meaning that you can use the card in-country without incurring foreign exchange rate charges. (There is a small conversion fee when you convert your money from one currency to another – between 0.35% and 1%.)
- Better exchange rates than normal banks: You get much better exchange rates for transferring money between countries as you are using the real exchange rate.
- Low fees for transferring money: The preferred bank of travel bloggers as they allow you to get your affiliate commissions paid in various currencies.
What our readers say about TransferWise
“I am a Digital Nomad and I use TransferWise whilst currently living in Thailand. I receive my salary from my online teaching job into my TransferWise 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: None of these cards DO NOT allow you to avoid the individual ATM fees within the country in which you are travelling. They only allow you to avoid the fees at their end, and get a better exchange rate than you would with a normal debit card.
Recommendations of banks depending on your country
If you cannot apply for any of the above borderless accounts for some reason, 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 (in your home country).
- One that has favourable exchange rates.
- Note: Banks with global ATM networks like Citibank for example, means that you won’t get charged ATM fees on either side! (However, it is difficult to find a bank that has ATMs all over SE Asia.)
USA – Charles Schwabb
- Voted #1 bank for Americans to use when travelling.
- They have unlimited fee-free cash withdrawals when you travel and use ATMs all over the world.
- Not only do the bank not charge you back home for these withdrawals, but they even reimburse you for the ATM fees that have been charged by foreign ATM machines worldwide (at the end of the month). The rebates are unlimited. (*We are not from the US and cannot prove that this is true (it seems incredible to us). However, we have read about it from American travellers on blogs like this one and the account is consistently recommended by travellers in our Facebook Group.
- To be eligible for a Charles Schwabb account, you have to be a US resident. The bank is used by many American digital nomads and long-term travellers, however the bank may get suspicious if you live abroad permanently as the benefits are meant only for travellers.
Australia – ING Bank
- Easy and free to sign up online for Australian citizens.
- ING offer zero international transaction fees when you use your debit card abroad.
- They offer zero ATM fees (from your home bank), although you will still have to pay the local foreign ATM fees which are unavoidable with most cards.
- The fee-free cash withdrawals are unlimited as long as you deposit at least $1000 AUD into your account and keep it there.
- The exchange rate is much better than other bank accounts when you withdraw cash at the ATM – basically on a par with xe.com.
- They also have very favourable interest rates for saving/every day banking too.
UK – Halifax Clarity Credit Card
- Free to apply for.
- Offers unlimited fee-free cash withdrawals at ATMs all over the world.
- Offers Mastercard exchange rates which are better than the average.
- Works like a normal credit card which you pay off (*with interest depending on your credit rating) at the end of the month.
- Mobile app available.
Canada + US – TD Bank
- You can use international ATM’s with no TD bank fee associated with it. So all you are charged is the amount per transaction at the foreign ATM machine.
- You have to have 2,500 USD in an account to be eligible for this.
- They can send you a card very quickly if you lose it and it needs replacing.
Worldwide – Citibank
- They do not charge transaction or withdrawal fees at their side when you withdraw money abroad.
- If you can take money out of their ATMs (which are all over the world), you will not be charged fees at either end.
21 Travel Money Tips for Travel in Southeast Asia!
- Maximum Cash Withdrawals. To avoid paying fees over and over again, take out the maximum amount allowed in each withdrawal that is reasonable. For example, 300 GBP or $400 US.
- 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!) ATMs in Vietnam are the worst! Some of them only allow to withdraw a max of 70 GBP.
- Keep Money in Different Places. When you take out the maximum amount of cash you can from the ATM, store the money in different places. Store some cash in your large backpack, some in your small backpack, some in your bra, some in your sock!
- Emergency Money. Always have an emergency $100 US stashed somewhere secret. You never know when you might need it!
- Avoid Credit Cards. Don’t use credit cards to make purchases or withdraw money at ATM machines as they will charge you an extra 3%.
- Take Several Cards. Take an extra debit card (or several) from different banks as a backup in case you lose your card or it gets stolen.
- Keep Cards in Separate Places. Keep your cards in separate places, so if you lose your purse you don’t lose them both at once!
- One Visa. One Mastercard. It’s a good idea to have one VISA and one MASTERCARD if possible as some ATMs will accept one and not the other.
- Most Common Backpacker Mistake. Don’t Forget Your Card at the ATM! Most of the ATM machines in SE Asia work differently in that they give you your cash first before you get your card. Many a backpacker has been confused by this change, wandering away from the ATM happy as Larry with their cash while their card remains in the machine! Don’t be that person.
- Take $US Dollars. In Southeast Asia, $US Dollars are the most valuable currency to have. They are easy to exchange and you will get the best exchange rates compared to other currencies. Take extra $US with you you when you travel. (They are also used as a second currency in Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.)
- Spend Your Local Currency. Spend all of the currency you can whilst in the country. It can be very difficult to exchange some Southeast Asian currencies once you have left the country. (I still have loads of Myanmar Kyat, Cambodian Riel, Nepalese Rupee and Sri Lankan Rupees, because no one will exchange them, not even at airports!)
- Keep Cash Handy. Many local restaurants, bars, transport and shops in Southeast Asia will not accept debit or credit card, so always make sure that you travel with local currency for smaller purchases.
- Use GRAB. Use the app for getting around so you can pay safely online and can avoid getting ripped off by taxis.
- Keep Track with an App. Use a money management app like Cash Passport to keep track of your money while travelling.
- Clever Underwear. Invest in some clever underwear to stash money!
- Notify Your Bank Before You Travel. If you do decide to travel with a normal bank card, rather than a travel card, make sure you notify your bank that you are travelling (usually, you can do this online and list the countries to which you will be travelling.)
- At ATMs, Always Use Your Bank’s Exchange Rate. When you are withdrawing money at an ATM, if it gives you the option of using your own bank’s exchange rate VS. the exchange rate of the ATM, always choose your own bank. You will always get the best exchange rate from your own bank! “Whatever you do, don’t accept the local conversion rate on the ATM. Your bank will always give you the better rate. Ended up costing my friend $15 US when we used the same ATM and he accepted the conversion but I didn’t” (Jaimee)
- Pay by Card When Possible. If you are travelling with any of the travel cards above always use them to pay for things as much as possible as transaction fees are always free, whereas you will have a limit on how much money you can withdraw free of charge.
- Get Local Currency Before You Go. When you arrive off the plane and find the ATM isn’t working and you have no cash on you for a taxi/bus – you’ll wish you’d have been more prepared with some local cash.
- Check Travel Insurance Terms & Conditions. If you get a card that offers Travel Insurance, be sure to check the travel insurance terms and conditions. Most of the travel cards (despite the fact that they are advertised to digital nomads) will only cover you for a certain length of trip. For example, the Premium Revolut Card only insures you for a trip of 40 days starting and ending in your home country. The Premium N26 Card only insures you for a trip of 90 days starting and ending in your home country.
- Express Delivery of Travel Cards. If you are reading this article just a week or a few days before you travel and are worried about getting the cards in time before you fly, ask them about ‘express delivery’. You can usually pay extra for a fast turnaround.
ATM Machines in Southeast Asia
Using Monzo, Starling + Revolut Cards in ATM machines in Southeast Asia
If you have a Monzo, Starling or Revolut card check on your mobile app see if you have the swipe payments enabled otherwise you may get your card declined. Sometimes you can have your card declined because lots of the ATMs in Southeast Asia use the magnetic strip instead of the chip.
ATM Machines with low fees / high limits
- Thailand – Most ATMs in Thailand charge you between 200 and 250 THB fee on top of your bank fees. However, look for AEON ATMs, they only charge 150 THB per transaction! They are often found ins hopping malls. (Zoltan)
- Thailand – In CIMB you can withdraw a max of 30,000 THB, so you only pay the fee once. (Jade)
- Vietnam – I found Military Bank in Vietnam to be the best as it allowed you to take out 300 GBP with no charges. (Dave)
- Vietnam – VPBank in Vietnam doesn’t charge withdrawal fees. They show up on Google Maps but there aren’t many around so take money out of one when you see it! (Alex)
- Vietnam – Sacombank gave me a really good exchange rate in Vietnam. (Ben)
- Vietnam – Citibank in Vietnam allowed me to withdraw the most (8 million at HCMC Airport, 6 million in Hanoi) for the cheapest rate (6,000 VND per withdrawal). (Sara)
- Vietnam – Agribank only charge you $1 US per transaction. (Tom)
- HSBC ATMs – Find them where you can across Southeast Asia! They have 0 withdrawal fees.
- Philippines – Some of the islands have no ATM machines so make sure that you take enough money before travelling there. For example, (at the time of writing) there are no ATMs in Malapascua or Port Barton.
- Myanmar – Don’t believe what you read about ATMs Myanmar. There are now ATMs pretty much everywhere!
- Airports – Avoid taking money out of ATMs at airports, apparently you will get a worse exchange rate. (Check)
In an emergency: Western Union
If you find yourself in a sticky situation (without any money!) while you are travelling, then Western Union is your saviour! If you get your card stolen or you lose it and you do not have any money, you can have a family member or a friend send you some money via Western Union and pick it up from any number of Western Union outlets across Asia and the world. There is a fee to send the money and the exchange rate isn’t great, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.