Studying abroad is a unique experience that allows you to travel and immerse yourself in a new culture. With these new opportunities come the responsibility of financial planning. Allocating your limited funds as a student can be difficult, especially with an entirely new 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.
This page covers our top credit card picks for students going abroad, and we also cover credit card tips for studying abroad.
Best Credit Cards for College Students Studying Abroad
We’ve selected these three cards as some top prospects you might want to consider if you’re looking for a good card to use while studying abroad. Here’s why:
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® (Review) is more expensive than the other cards here, but it also offers better rewards and is one of the few student cards that supports Chip-and-PIN technology, for better accessibility in foreign countries.
The Arrival Plus has no foreign transaction fees, which also makes it a good fit for use outside the United States. But it does have an annual fee of $89, so this card is typically only meant for people who travel regularly, or if you really need a card with PIN capability
This card also has a rewards program offering 2X miles for every purchase you make, with no limits. That will provide the equivalent of 2% cash back when redeemed for travel statement credits. You can also earn a decent signup bonus of 60,000 miles for spending $5,000 in the first 90 days, which is a bit of a high spend requirement.
There are also some nice travel perks, like a personal concierge, access to a travel advisor, and discounts and upgrades at select airlines and hotels. There are additional World Elite Mastercard travel services that can make your trips much more comfortable and a bit cheaper too.
The Arrival Plus is designed for people with good credit, so it might not be available to many students, who typically have limited credit. If you don’t have credit established you still may be able to use this card. If someone you trust has good credit, and they also trust you, they could apply for this card and then add you as an authorized user so you can get this card, bring it on your travels, and use it to build your own credit history.
The Bank of America Travel Rewards® Credit Card for Students is designed for college students who want to establish a credit history, so it doesn’t require that you already have significant credit already.
This card, and other Bank of America cards, have Chip-and-PIN technology, making them good picks for traveling abroad.
It has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees, so it can be completely free to use as long as you avoid interest and other fees by paying your statement balance in full each month.
You’ll earn 3X points per dollar at the Bank of America Travel Center, with 1.5X points per dollar for every other purchase. If you have an eligible Bank of America bank account you can get a 10% bonus on the points you earn.
There’s also a good introductory bonus for a student card, with 25,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 in the first 90 days.
You’ll be able to redeem those rewards for up to one cent per point, so this is basically like getting 1.5–3% cash back on purchases.
It earns 1.25% cash back as long as you’re paying your bills on time, and has no annual fee. If you’re new to credit cards and can’t get anyone to add you as an authorized user, this could be a great all-around choice. It’s a good card to start building credit that’s also a good choice for use while studying abroad.
Like most Visa cards issued in the U.S., this card has Chip-and-Signature technology, but not Chip-and-PIN — it will work many places abroad, but not as many as a card that support Chip-and-PIN.
Credit Card Tips for Studying Abroad
Keep these tips in mind, whether you’re looking to get a card or already have one that you’ll be using abroad.
Selecting a new card
- Choose a credit card that’s widely accepted. If you’re looking for your first credit card, choose one that will be good in the U.S. as well as abroad. Keep in mind credit cards on the Visa and Mastercard networks tend to be more widely accepted abroad than American Express and Discover cards.
- Find a card with no foreign transaction fees. Many credit cards charge a 3% fee on top of every purchase made in a foreign currency.
- To maximize compatibility abroad, pick a card with Chip-and-PIN technology. Many cards in the U.S. use Chip-and-Signature, which is not accepted everywhere abroad. For example, at an unmanned train ticket machine there is no person to check your signature, so the machine may accept cards with Chip-and-PIN, but not cards that only support Chip-and-Signature. See our guide to Chip-and-PIN credit cards in the U.S. for more options.
- If you don’t have credit established already, you may be able to get someone you trust with good credit history, like a parent, to apply for a card and add you as an authorized user.
- 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
- Contact your bank or issuer in advance to let them know you will be abroad and provide a list of your potential travel destinations. This travel alert will help prevent your card from being declined for possible fraud.
- Sign the back of your credit card and carry photo identification. European countries take theft seriously and may refuse your card if they think it’s stolen. Since signing for a credit card transaction is not normal in other parts of the world, 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 do.
- 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 €0.84, you’ll be paying $1.19 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 $238.61.
- Don’t borrow cash from your credit card issuer, unless it’s an extreme emergency. Cash advances are very expensive, and can show your lender you’re being irresponsible.