Accessing Money When Traveling | Become A Cruiser
Accessing Money When Traveling

Accessing Money When Traveling

I frequently hear wanna be cruisers asking about accessing money when traveling around the world. Questions range from simply being able to get cash out of an ATM, to bank fees on international cash withdrawals, to carrying around a stash of money when traveling.

Accessing Money Around The World

To start with, much the same as people everywhere in the world eat, and that you don’t need to worry about leaving home with a five-year stash of food for a circumnavigation. People also use money all over the world, be it in the form of cash, credit, or increasingly frequently these days electronically.

ATM Deshaies Guadaloupe
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Bank machine on a side street in Deshaies, Guadaloupe in the Eastern Caribbean

ATM Availability When Traveling

The number of places around the world where you will be unable to draw cash from an ATM when traveling are very few and far between. Sure there may not be an ATM on every street corner. There may not even be an ATM on every island, but most likely, there will be one in every island chain.

In reality, the place that you will first stop when entering a new country is most likely a port of entry. Ports of entry are normally located in cities or larger towns. And that means there will probably be a bank with an ATM.

This is a good time to find out the cost of living in these countries first hand, by taking a quick precursory walk around a local supermarket. Take a look at the price of the things you will buy. Find out the exchange rate if you have not done so already. Observe how the locals are paying for their shopping. Are people paying with cash or using cards?

Accessing Money When Traveling
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How Much Cash do You Need When Traveling

It is pointless drawing a large sum of money from the ATM which charges anywhere from $5-10 per transaction in local fees, when you could use your credit card for the majority of your purchases. To put this into perspective, many banks in French Polynesia will only dispense $300 at a time with a $10 fee (Banque Socredito being the general exception that will often let you take out $1,000 at a time, but more of that in a future article). This equates to an effective fee of 3.33% over and above the normal +/-2% spread that most banks convert currency at.

Find out from local cruisers if cash is available on all islands. Then withdraw what you feel is appropriate. Be warned that many banks have daily withdrawal limits that may exceed your bank’s daily withdrawal limits, so don’t leave withdrawing all of your cash until the day of departure.

Small Bills

One of the great paradoxes when traveling with cash is that local merchants, especially street-side merchants, will be reluctant or unable to give change for large bills. Ironically in many remote parts of the world, to keep the volume of cash required to stock ATMs down, ATMs only dispense the largest available banknote denomination.

If you will be traveling away from a larger center to a smaller island, I would suggest you go inside the bank after withdrawing money from the ATM and ask them to break up your cash into smaller denominations. If a bank is unavailable, try making a series of small purchases at a larger grocery store to break down your cash into smaller denominations.

When traveling to locations, including some larger cities in Africa, and Central America, where the US Dollar is widely used, ensure that you do not arrive with any notes larger than $20. Merchants, including some global hotel chains and banks, will refuse to take any notes larger than a twenty. Larger notes have a history of being forged.

Bequia Pizza Restaurant
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Small merchants often don’t have the resources to take US Dollar cash when the US Dollar is not the national currency.

Banking

Account Transactions Not Available on Foreign ATMs

Remember, outside of your own bank’s network, you won’t have access to account-level information and won’t be able to perform account transactions other than withdrawing cash. That means you won’t be able to use the ATM to transfer money between accounts, pay bills, or even reset your PIN.

Before leaving home or a location with internet, make sure you know which account number is for your checking, savings, and/or credit cards and investments. These accounts will most likely not be listed on the ATM by name. The ATM will instead show hashed out account numbers with only the last 3 or 4 digits visible.

4 Digit PIN

Make sure before leaving home that your bank cards and credit cards are set up to use a 4 digit PIN. ATMs and credit card machines outside of the USA do not use 5 digit PINs.

Get Your Banks Phone Number

Toll-Free numbers do not work outside of your national calling area. Make sure you get your bank and credit card companies’ call center, branch, and fraud department’s direct dialing number. As a bonus, it’s worth noting that most banks will accept collect calls from anywhere in the world. This is especially useful to know if your bank has a history of exceptionally long call wait times.

Accessing Money When Traveling
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Make sure you have all your banks phone numbers

Know Your Account Limits

When we first started cruising and went to do our first big provisioning run in Martinique. Which any new cruiser will tell you is an expensive affair. I knew I had exceeded my daily limit on my credit card. As I had bought a nice expensive Rochna anchor and a bunch of other expensive items at various chandleries that morning.

While my husband was putting the six carts of groceries through the checkout, I went to the ATM to withdraw money and kept getting declined. I checked the available balance on internet banking on my phone multiple times. I called my bank, and after an agonizing wait, my call was answered. I had money in my account, I was under my daily limit, but had exceeded my weekly cash withdrawal limit! I got the issue corrected but not before we endured an embarrassingly long wait, with the cashier waiting to get access to our money.

Before leaving home, make sure you know how to reset your ATM and credit card limits to prevent being caught short of money at the most inopportune moment. Know what each of these limits is.

Set-Up Telephone Banking

Even if you think you will never use telephone banking. Set-up telephone banking for each of your accounts. We have frequently been in locations including some not so remote, that for whatever reason, the internet goes down, just as we needed to make a bill payment or account transfer. Having set-up our telephone banking PIN before leaving has saved the day on more than one occasion.

Getting a New Credit Card When Travelling

It isn’t always possible to get a fresh new debit card or credit card before leaving to go cruising. It defies logic. I called both of our banks and our credit card company and asked them to renew my cards early as the cards would be expiring within about a year of our departure date.

Both banks and credit card companies refused and said they could reissue cards, but they would have the existing expiry date on them!

About a month before the expiry date of my first debit card, I called my bank, I explained that I was traveling and my card would expire while I was still overseas.

It took speaking to a supervisor, but the bank agreed to immediately FedEx me a new card. It wasn’t even a question. The bank said the service was complimentary, and they would pay for the shipping. We gave them a yacht agent’s address, and they were happy to send the new card.

When our next card, with a different bank, expired. The bank agreed to ship us a card however they would only ship to a hotel or partner bank. The catch was the local bank had to agree to accept the card first. We were in Panama and found a helpful bank manager who was happy to help us out. Again, there was no charge, even though we were told we may incur a $60 service fee.

In both cases once we had given the bank shipping instructions we had our cards within a week!

Accessing Money When Traveling
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Admitting to Leaving the Country

A word of caution. When calling your bank for whatever reason, do not volunteer that you are cruising for several years and cannot get to a branch. We know of several cruisers who have had their accounts shut down as their banks required them to be residents to receive banking services.

Many banks have a six-month residency rule. If you leave the country for more than six months you risk having your account canceled or downgraded to a non-resident account. As a non-resident, you may become eligible for withholding taxes or have your credit cards canceled. Check on your bank’s rules and skirt carefully around the requirements.

When the topic of being out of the country comes up, for reasons such as needing to physically go into a branch to complete some transaction or another, I always say I am out of the country and will not be back for at least five months. This seems to appease the operator, who then looks for an alternative solution.

Notifying Your Bank Before Changing Countries

We bank with two different banks. One bank requires a call before changing countries, as well as every three months, to keep our cards working. When we first started cruising, our other bank needed us to log in to a web page, to manage the countries we would be visiting. That requirement has since been canceled, they now need no travel notifications at all.

Bank Cards Locked when Cruising

From time to time, one of our bank cards ends up being be locked. I used to joke with my husband that out of our four bank cards there was always one card the needed a call to the bank to unlock. Fortunately, as we’ve got into a cruising banking routine over the years, we seem to have our cards flagged by the fraud department less and less.

One thing I’ve figured out is that the fraud algorithms seem to get triggered when our cards are used in multiple countries on the same day. Every August, we manage to lock my debit card. Our boat insurance comes off in the UK on the 17th, then we make an online purchase or bill payment in the US. And then still on the same calendar day, we use our card locally. Bang, card locked! Guaranteed! Every single year we forget, and get caught out!

In the past, I’d wait on the phone for a half-hour then have to explain the situation to an agent, then a supervisor, before getting the cards unlocked. Now I know all that is required is a call directly to the bank’s fraud department. They answer almost immediately, and because they deal with these kinds of situations every day, they understand what happened. In less than 10 minutes we’re back up and running.

Accessing Money When Traveling
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In French Polynesia ATM’s are often found at the Post Office

Global ATM Alliances

Look at the back of your bank card and credit cards to see which networks your bank cards will be accepted on, Cirrus, Maestro, or Plus. These are the networks that show which ATMs your card will work in.

An alliance is a grouping of banks who have formed an alliance to offer no-fee or reduced fee banking for clients of each of the members when withdrawals are made at one of their ATMs.

ATM fees add up quickly when accessing your money when traveling. Finding a local bank in a city may make a short walk worthwhile to save $10. Over dozens of transactions a year, this adds up to a very real amount of money you can save while traveling.

One such alliance is the Global ATM Alliance members include Bank of America, Barclays Bank, BNP Paribas, WestPac, and Scotiabank. Plus a host of others.

The last three members are the most interesting BNP Paribas the large French banking group gives you access to banks in many french departments around the world. Australian Westpac gives you access to ATMs across Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. Canadian based Scotiabank gives you access to ATMs throughout the Caribbean, Central, and South America!

I highly recommend getting a bank account at a Global ATM alliance bank before leaving home. Before arriving in each new country, research who the local partner is.

ATMs Running Out of Cash

It is also worth noting that in many places the amount of cash in circulation on an island may be limited. The bank starts with a cash float, people withdraw money from the ATM, spending it at local merchants who eventually redeposit it at the bank before it finds it’s way back into the ATM. This means that at times local ATMs may not have cash.

In a few more remote Caribbean islands such as Bequia, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, this was the case, starting every morning after about 10 am each time we visited a few years ago. So be sure to get to the ATM early before people start withdrawing money or immediately after the bank has closed for the day and refilled the ATM.

Some far off islands in the Pacific may also experience this phenomenon, except that it may last for two to three days at a time. Or more, should a cruise ship anchor off of a village that is not used to seeing cruise ships more than a few times a year. Cruise ship passengers withdraw large sums of money and then depart the island holding onto most of the cash. This interrupts the island’s money supply system which may take a week or more to restore. You may have to wait until the next supply ship comes to town with a fresh supply of money.

My advice is that if you are thinking about withdrawing money from the ATM and wake up and see a cruise ship dropping anchor in a bay where you wouldn’t expect a cruise ship. Drop your dinghy and get to the ATM immediately before the bank runs out of money.

Accessing Money When Traveling
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The Market Lady In Bequia did not accept US$

Paying with US Dollars

In countries where the US Dollar is not the national currency, merchants may accept US Dollars as payment. As much as the merchants love the business, taking US Dollars is a real inconvenience for them, especially if the majority of their customers pay in local currency by credit card.

The merchants will require a subset of records in their accounting system to record US Dollar transactions, they will need to separate their bank deposits. The local bank will normally charge them a cash handling fee and a foreign transaction fee. They may even need to open a separate US dollar bank account.

I’ve seen tourists fight with fruit sellers on the side of the road. Getting upset that the lady with less than thirty dollars in total inventory on her table will not take US Dollars. The simple fact is that as much as the US Dollar is currency, it isn’t her currency. While larger businesses catering to tourists or cruisers may be forced to take US Dollars by the nature of their businesses. Small subsistence businesses normally don’t have the means to swap out US Dollars without great cost and stress to the vendor.

Even where businesses do have the means to take US Dollars, expect to pay a 10 -40% premium for the privilege.

We have also found, particularly during Covid times, local banks won’t accept cash from non-account holders which makes it difficult or impossible to exchange US Dollars or Euros for local currency while traveling to more remote parts of the world.

Money Laundering or Proceeds of Crime

In most parts of the world, it is a serious crime to carry more than $10,000 or the local equivalent in cash or convertible instruments such as gold coins, without declaring it. If you plan on carrying large amounts of cash, don’t trust the officials, and don’t want to declare how much money you have on board. I would strongly suggest staying under $10,000. The penalties are severe, not only will they confiscate the money, but they may also include jail time and seizure of your boat!

Accessing Money When Traveling
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Risk of Robbery

Be aware that ATMs in many parts of the world are watched by criminals. Cruisers that are seen withdrawing large sums of cash become a target for being mugged on their way back to the dinghy dock. Criminals have also been known to follow cruisers from the ATM to watch which boat they return to, to rob them later that evening when they are off the boat onshore.

Common sense needs to be used when withdrawing from an ATM money when traveling. Do not count your money as it comes out of the ATM. Take the bundle as is and put it into your pocket in one swift movement.

If there is a bank or hotel nearby, walk into it, if you can find a private enough location you can count your cash. Better yet, count it back on the boat. The chances of getting mugged when traveling after withdrawing cash far exceed the possibility of the ATM having given you the incorrect sum of money. While in the bank or hotel, split the cash into two or three bundles, place these into separate pockets or divide the money with your partner.

If you are withdrawing a large sum of money or are in an area known to be frequented by criminals, walk to your destination with purpose. Making certain not to be distracted by what may be a ruse to make you give up your guard, allowing you to be pick-pocketed.

Spread Out Your Cash

I’m a firm believer in never carrying money in a handbag when traveling. I split my cash into various pockets and my backpack. In my left pocket, I put bigger denomination notes and my debit card. In my right pocket, I put ones, fives, and a maximum of 10 dollar equivalent sized notes. I memorize what I’m spending and know how much is in each pocket. So I don’t have to ever take my cash out to count to see what I have left.

When I’m given change, I drop it into a pickpocket safe backpack, to deal with it at a later time. By using this system, every cash transaction is quick, and there’s no fumbling for money, which is the time that you are most vulnerable to being mugged or for thieves to take note of how much cash you have on you.

We go to some pretty sketchy places when cruising. We love eating like locals and shopping where the locals’ shop. In the two months we were in Cartagena, Colombia we did all our vegetable shopping at the Market Buzurto. This market is enormous, often described as overwhelming by ex-pats and middle-class Colombians who are afraid to set foot in it.

We even took multiple other cruisers to the market who wanted to experience the thrill themselves. Before leaving for the market, I always gave them my dressing down and cash advice. Not once were we ever pickpocketed or felt close to being mugged.

Bazurto Market Scene Cartegena Colombia
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Bazurto Market Cartagena Colombia. Once inside it gets pretty crazy!

Pickpocket Safe Backpacks

There are several pickpocket safe Backpack manufacturers. These backpacks have steel cables sewn into the straps to prevent thieves from being able to cut the straps and run away with your backpack. Pickpocket safe backpacks also have pickpocket resistant locking zippers and cut resistant material to stop thieves from cutting a slit in your backpack and removing the contents while you’re in a crowded place, where you wouldn’t notice the theft occurring.

ATM Integrity

Before using the ATM, take a look at the card slot. Does it look to be original and unmodified? Criminals often attach a card skimming device over the lip of the ATM card slot to read the magnetic stripes on all cards, then via a modified keyboard or utilizing a camera, they pick up the user’s PIN code. Wiggle the card reader slot if it is loose or comes off in your hand, it has a skimmer attached.

Bottom line, if the ATM looks to be modified in any way, walk away and do not use the machine.

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Using Credit Cards When Traveling

Many cruisers are paranoid about using their credit cards when traveling. I feel that this is totally unnecessary provided some common-sense precautions are taken.

Chip and Pin

In 2021 this shouldn’t be an issue, most banks should have upgraded to chip and pin technology. This is a far more secure way of preventing credit card fraud, than with ID and a signature. If you haven’t been issued a Chip and Pin card, ask your bank to give you one. If Chip and Pin aren’t available from your bank, switch banks.

You will reduce your risk of fraud. Without Chip and Pin technology, you probably won’t be able to use your card while traveling.

Multiple Credit Cards

Make sure you have two credit cards each. With one of the cards being issued from a different bank. Not a different account, a completely separate bank. That way, if your account is compromised, you aren’t at risk of losing all the funds in your account or having your only source of funds shut down.

Get a Visa or Master Card debit card. Use the debit card for smaller daily purchases. Before each day’s outing or once a week, in the case of poor internet, top up the debit card with the funds you think you’ll need. This way, if the card is compromised, the most you stand to lose is what you’ve loaded into the card. It’s fine for a husband and wife to have one of each card from the same bank, a credit card from bank A and a debit card from bank B.

Use the credit card for big purchases such as emergency boat repairs. Better yet, sign up for a service like Transferwise, where you can make a bank transfer securely from your bank to most local banks in the world within minutes.

Transferwise

Transferwise holds bank accounts at various banks all around the world. Say, for example, you need to pay for a new sail in Greece, you simply get the vendor’s local bank account details and set up a payment. Transferwise withdraws the money from your bank account and puts it into their account in your home country. Almost immediately, Transferwise then pays the vendor in Greece from their local account.

We’ve used this system hundreds of times and it’s fantastic for two reasons. In many parts of the world, the transfer is almost instant. You don’t need to get cumbersome international bank transfer details from the person you are trying to pay, only a local bank account. And finally, for the best part, it’s much cheaper than traditional banks, which not only charge a $40-50 international wire transfer fee but they offer you a much less attractive exchange rate fee.

When foreign currency transactions are made, there is a buy rate and the sell rate. The buy rate is the rate the bank will buy currency from you at, and the sell rate is the rate that banks will sell you the same currency at.

This difference is called the spread, it’s normally around 2-3%. That’s why no matter if you are buying or selling, the rate you get from your bank is always different from what you may have seen online from services such as XE.com. This rate is the mid-market rate, the rate between buying and selling.

Transferwise does not use the spread, instead, they give you the mid-market rate. The Transferwise business model is doing millions of high volume transactions charging $2-5 in fees vs traditional banks who do much fewer transfers but charge high fees as well as making their money on the spread.

As an example of one of the times, we have used Transferwise. We were in Rangiroa in the Tuamotus, French Polynesia, and had an outboard we were not using. Friends on another boat were having outboard issues, so they asked us if we would consider selling the engine. We agreed upon a price, and I gave our Transferwise account number to our friends. Right there over beers, we introduced them to Transferwise they made the transfer, and within minutes the money was in my account.

Wifi Snooping

Wi-Fi snooping is real, and many cruisers fall victim to having their accounts compromised while traveling. Be it a coffee shop, bar, or paid wifi service you are using, the information you send over the air via wifi can be read by anyone on the network.

Always use a VPN service. For a few dollars a month, a VPN is worthwhile insurance to keep your sensitive data safe. We have tried a few VPNs over the years, and the one that works best for us for security as well as giving us a localization service that actually works is Private Internet Access. Many VPN providers say they have a localization service the truth is very few of them actually work. For more info see my article on How to keep your data safe while cruising.

Conclusion

With proper planning before you leave home. Banking and access to money while traveling really isn’t a reason for concern. Be smart when withdrawing and carrying cash or doing internet banking online. Use separate bank accounts and use common sense when handing over your credit card. And you won’t have any problems other than the occasional frustration with your bank’s fraud prevention department locking your cards. That is until you call them to let them know your plans.

Accessing Money When Traveling
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Nic

Hi, I’m Nic! Our Family of four have been out cruising since 2016. We have sailed about 15,000nm, almost halfway around the world. We sold everything, took the leap of faith, and bought a 10-year-old Lagoon 380 ex-charter catamaran. We’ve fixed every system on the boat, often more than once. Cruising has been such a wonderful, positive experience for our family that I want to share my tips to help you Become a Cruiser.


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4 thoughts on “Accessing Money When Traveling”

  1. Love this article, really covered all questions as it relates to banking when traveling. Since I am not American, I am not able to access American banks so appreciate that the article was not focused on specific banks which is often the case on other blogs I have read. I like the more high level knowledge you shared of what you need to consider when exploring a bank within your home country.

    1. Thanks, Janet. I’m glad it was helpful. I tried to keep the post more globally focused. I appreciate your feedback.

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