The Best Credit Cards for Studying Abroad: Stay Safe and Save Money

Brendan Harkness

Brendan Harkness | Blog

May 16, 2019 | Updated Jun 12, 2019

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Studying abroad is a unique experience, an opportunity to travel and immerse yourself in a new culture.

New customs, new people, new food — and a new set of financial responsibilities. It can be hard to spend smart, especially with an entirely different currency and the burden of an exchange rate.

A credit card can be a free and convenient way to safely carry spending power without the same risks as cash or a debit card. However, if not used responsibly, a credit card can quickly become very expensive.

Best Credit Cards for College Students Studying Abroad

The cards below are picked for students with limited or no credit history — i.e., they don’t require a lot of credit experience for approval. But if you’ve built up average, good, or excellent credit you have many other options, from basic rewards to premium travel cards.

Browse these cards if you have some established credit history:

Credit cards are convenient when traveling abroad, but you don’t have to apply for your own. Instead, you can become an authorized user on someone else’s card (like a parent’s) and just use a copy of that.

Being an authorized user would be a great strategy if your parents have a premium travel card, like The Platinum Card® from American Express (Review) or Chase Sapphire Reserve® (Review), because you’d get perks like airport lounge access and hotel status. But make sure the person has managed the account responsibly and will continue to do so, because that activity will affect your credit scores.

Now without further ado, let’s get to the card picks.

 

The Bank of America Travel Rewards® Credit Card for Students hits all the right notes: Visa, no annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, Chip-and-PIN capability — and even rewards!

All on a card designed for students without significant credit history. We think this should be the number one pick for most itinerant academics.

Rewards

Spending Rewards
  • 3X points per dollar at the Bank of America Travel Center
  • 1.5X points per dollar on every other purchase
Redemption Bonus Offer
  • 10–75% redemption bonus for redeeming into an eligible Bank of America or Merrill Lynch bank account
Introductory Bonus Offer
  • 25,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 in the first 90 days after account opening
    • Value: $250
    • Return on spend: 25%

Key Features

  • Free FICO Score 8: Based on your TransUnion credit report.
  • Visa Shopping and Travel Protections: This card may come with additional protections from Visa.
  • Purchase APR: 0% for 12 months, then 17.24%–25.24% Variable
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Annual fee: $0
All Bank of America cards are Chip-and-PIN, but most of them have foreign transaction fees. Despite that, here’s a strategy you can consider: The Bank of America Cash Rewards™ Credit Card for Students (Review) has a 3% foreign transaction fee, but offers 3% cash back in your choice of one category per month, which could be travel, gas, dining, or drugstores — so if you earn 3% back it will negate the fee. (3% and 2% rewards are limited to $2,500 in spending per quarter).

 

The Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® (Review) is made for college students, but in this case you don’t actually have to be a student to qualify.

This is a Mastercard with no foreign transaction fees and minor rewards, but it doesn’t have Chip-and-PIN capability. So it’s a good option (and could give you a higher credit line than most student cards) but you might want a backup PIN card too.

Rewards

Spending Rewards
  • 1% cash back on every purchase
    • 1.25% cash back when you pay on time

Key Features

  • Higher Credit Line: Access a higher credit line after making your first five monthly payments on time.
  • CreditWise: Monitor your VantageScore 3.0 based on your TransUnion credit report.
  • Mastercard Shopping and Travel Protections: Including Extended Warranties, Travel and Emergency Assistance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waivers, and more.
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Annual fee: $0

Read more in our Review of the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®.

Discover cards aren’t accepted too widely around the world, but some countries have well-established payment networks that do accept Discover — particularly in big cities. For instance, an agreement between Discover and UnionPay, the world’s largest card payment network, means you can use Discover cards anywhere you see the UnionPay logo in China. And look for the JCB logo in Japan and the RuPay logo in India, where the same rule applies.

All Discover cards have no foreign transaction fees, but they don’t have Chip-and-PIN capability either; check out the student options here:

The Deserve Edu Mastercard (Review) is a bit like the Journey Student card above: It’s a Mastercard designed for students with limited credit history, with no annual fee and lacking Chip-and-PIN capability.

But the Deserve Edu may be easier to qualify for, especially for anyone with a thin credit file, because it will consider more than the typical factors when you apply. Beyond just your credit scores and finances, Deserve will also look into your education, future employability, and earnings potential.

Not only that, Deserve doesn’t require an SSN for international students — a rare feature that could be a deciding factor.

Take note that Deserve will need to connect to your bank account to verify your balance. If you have privacy or security concerns this might worry you, but it seems logical because Deserve bases its decision on more than just an applicant’s credit history.

Rewards

Spending Rewards
  • 1% cash back on every purchase

Key Features

  • One Free Year of Amazon Prime Student: A $59 statement credit for an Amazon Prime Student membership.
  • Lemonade Insurance Rebate: A $10 statement credit after making three consecutive payments for Lemonade Renters and Home Insurance.
  • Feather Furniture Rental Rebate: A $100 statement credit for your first month’s payment to Feather, when using code “DESERVE100”.
  • Mint Mobile Rebate: Sign up and pay for any Mint Mobile wireless plan with your Deserve card to get a $45 statement credit (through 11/28/19).
  • Mastercard Shopping and Travel Protections: Including Cell Phone Insurance up to $600, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waivers, Price Protection, and more.
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Annual fee: $0

Read more in our Review of the Deserve Edu Mastercard.

Why Bring a Credit Card to Study Abroad?

Bringing a credit card (or two) when studying abroad can smooth things over and help you get more out of the experience.

Compared to cash and debit cards, credit cards can be:

  • More convenient
  • Cheaper
  • Safer

You’ll need cash sometimes, of course, but credit cards will help you save time and money.

You won’t have to make as many trips to the ATM, paying international withdrawal fees every time. Out-of-service ATMs can send you scrambling if you rely on cash, but, armed with one or two credit cards, you’ll be ready for most situations. Avoid the fees at currency exchange counters and for cashing travelers checks by paying with credit cards — there are even cards without foreign transaction fees, which should be at the top of your list.

Maybe you’ll be out on the town, and you want to splurge on an interesting experience or a delicacy you’ve never tried before (credit card concierge services can help you find fun stuff to do). But carrying a lot of cash isn’t usually a great idea, even at home.

If a pickpocket snags your wallet and the $300 inside, you can probably bid it all a fond farewell — but if he only gets your credit card, you can simply call and have it canceled and replaced. Most cards offer $0 fraud liability policies, so you wouldn’t be on the hook if he goes on a spending spree before you cancel (just be sure to contact your card issuer as soon as you realize the card’s gone).

You shouldn’t be without your card for too long. There’s usually no fee for card replacement, though it may take ten business days or longer. In an emergency you can often get a new card very quickly, in as little as one to three business days, but there may be a fee for expedited card delivery (those fees may sometimes be waived, like in cases of fraud or if you ask a sympathetic rep).

Image credit: Visa

Everyday problems are bigger headaches when you’re away from home. But credit cards can get your back, with a surprising number of lesser-known protections. If something goes wrong, like a new camera breaks or your bags are lost by the airline, you could be fully reimbursed for any eligible expenses. Depending on your specific card, you may have access to a host of benefits that typically don’t come with debit cards.

Emergencies are easier to handle with credit cards, too. You could charge a hospital bill or last-minute flight to a credit card, and deal with it when you have more time on your hands. You can often get an emergency cash advance if you’re really in a pinch. Some cards even offer emergency medical evacuation. And if someone steals your identity while you’re vulnerable in an unfamiliar country, many cards offer ID theft resolution services to help you straighten things out.

If you’re traveling outside the U.S. it’s a good idea to carry a credit card with Chip-and-PIN capability — like our first pick above. Some unattended terminals may require a PIN, rather than a signature, and you’ll likely have an easier time in general with a PIN card.

Credit Card Tips for Studying Abroad

Keep these tips in mind, whether you’re looking to get a new card or already have one that you’ll be using abroad.

Selecting a new card

  • Network acceptance: Choose a credit card that’s widely accepted — that usually means a Visa or Mastercard, if possible. But research the card acceptance rates wherever you’ll be traveling. Discover, for example, has fairly broad acceptance in China, Japan, and some other countries. If you’re looking for your first credit card, choose one that will be good in the U.S. as well as abroad.
  • Foreign transaction fees: A card with no foreign transaction fees would be best, like most of the options on this page. Many credit cards charge a 3% fee on top of every purchase made in a foreign currency, but there are also plenty with no fees.
  • Travel protections: Lost your bags? Flight’s late? Some credit cards have benefits to reimburse expenses when your travel plans go awry, which could save you thousands of dollars and some big headaches.
  • Chip-and-PIN: To maximize compatibility abroad, pick a card with Chip-and-PIN capability. Many cards in the U.S. only use Chip-and-Signature, which is not accepted everywhere abroad (some unattended self-service terminals may require a PIN because there’s nobody there to check your signature).
  • Explore your options: If you don’t have credit established already, you could ask someone you trust with good credit history, like a parent, to add you as an authorized user. Then you’d get your own copy of a card for traveling.
  • Use credit cards responsibly: If you’re new to credit cards and building credit, read our guide to building credit with credit cards and ask us any questions you have.

Using a credit card abroad

  • Set a travel notice: Contact your card issuer in advance to let it know you’ll be abroad, and provide a list of your potential travel destinations. Setting a travel notice or alert will help prevent your card from being declined for possible fraud.
  • Be prepared: Sign the back of your credit card and carry photo identification. European countries take theft seriously, and merchants may refuse your card if they think it’s stolen. Signing for credit card transactions is not normal in other parts of the world (where they use PINs), so expect merchants to examine your signature closely — they probably won’t have the same lackadaisical attitude toward credit card signatures as merchants in the United States.
  • Have a backup: Having more than one payment method can be useful if one of your cards doesn’t work or is stolen. That could be a couple credit cards and a debit card, spanning two or three networks (like one Visa, one Mastercard, and one American Express card).
  • Exchange rates: Make sure you understand how exchange rates work, and the cost in U.S. Dollars for anything you’re buying. For example, if the current exchange rate of USD to Euros is $1 to €0.89, you’ll be paying $1.12 for every Euro you spend. At that rate, if you buy something on your credit card for €200 you’ll owe your credit card company $223.59.
  • Get help when you need it: If your parents are helping fund your study abroad adventure, they can make direct payments to your credit card from home without having to send you money.
  • Avoid cash advances: Don’t borrow cash from your credit card issuer, unless it’s an extreme emergency. Cash advances are very expensive, and can show the lender you’re being irresponsible — not the kind of signal you want to give when you’re building credit.
We hope you found a new traveling companion to apply for in this post, but if not that’s OK. Check out our picks for the Best Travel Rewards Cards, the Best No Foreign Transaction Fee Cards, and, if you don’t see what you need, the Best Credit Cards in general.
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