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Planning to study outside the U.S.? The right credit card can help make foreign purchases simpler and more secure. Consider a student-focused rewards card with no foreign transaction fees, or ask your parents to add you as an authorized user on their account if they use a card with strong travel benefits.
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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.
We’ll talk about what makes a credit card great for studying abroad in a moment. But first, here’s a quick glance at our three top picks:
|Card||Rewards and Perks|
|Bank of America Travel Rewards® Credit Card for Students||
|Journey Student Rewards from Capital One (Review)||
|Deserve Edu Mastercard (Review)||
With a limited credit history, your card options will also be limited to certain cards for students. But if you’ve built up average, good, or excellent credit you have many other options, from basic rewards to premium travel credit cards.
Browse these cards if you have some established credit history:
Credit cards are convenient when traveling abroad, but you don’t necessarily 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.
Here are our three top choices for students spending their semesters abroad:
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 there’s even a decent rewards program!
All on a card designed for students without significant credit history. We think this should be the number one pick for most itinerant academics.
|Redemption Bonus Offer|
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).
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 limit than most student credit cards) but you might want a backup PIN card too.
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.
Read more in our Review: Deserve Edu Mastercard® – Helping Students Build Credit.
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.
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:
You’ll need cash sometimes, of course, but credit cards for studying abroad can 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).
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.
Keep these tips in mind, whether you’re looking to get a new card or already have one that you’ll be using abroad.
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.
Brendan has been writing about personal finance for over eight years, and is now taking on the challenge of bringing high quality credit education to the masses. He makes sure that Credit Card Insider is covering the most important credit topics transparently and precisely, and that we have up-to-date reviews of credit cards so you can find cards that are right for you.
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