Prepaid travel cards are like travellers cheques but without the hassle. You load them before you go then just use them as you would a debit card to spend or withdraw cash as you wish. You can also use them to lock in a rate, plus, because they're pre-loaded, it allows you to keep tight control of your spending.
The likes of FairFX, Travelex and Post Office are well-known prepaid card providers. But which are the best value? We've analysed rates and fees to work out our top picks.
Best buy prepaid travel cards
The six prepaid card need-to-knows
Before you pick a prepaid card, it's worth checking out the other options. Travel credit cards give you better rates than you'll get on these cards.
But if rate certainty or tight control of your budget is what you want, then prepaid cards work very well, as once you've loaded them, you know how much you have to spend and can't go over that unless you reload. Here's what you need to know...
Your money's safe if the card issuer goes bust
All prepaid cards listed below are backed by a bank or building society. When you load cash onto a prepaid card, your cash goes into a ring-fenced account, separate from the prepaid card provider's account.
So, if the prepaid card company goes bust, the bank or building society where your money's resting will still retain your cash.
The slight risk comes if the bank or building society backing the prepaid card goes bust, as your cash is NOT protected.
Sadly, with prepaid cards, the cash is counted as 'electronic money' rather than as a normal current account or savings deposit, so it's not covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.
Therefore, think of your prepaid card as one that you'll keep cash on only for immediate spending requirements, rather than as a place to store heaps of it.
If you lose the card or it's stolen, you need to report it
As long as you contact the provider of your prepaid card and get it blocked, you shouldn't lose out on any money. But you may have to pay for a replacement card – this can often cost up to £10.
Pay special attention if your prepaid card is contactless. If it's stolen, it could be used for a series of small, fraudulent transactions. Always alert your card provider as soon as you're aware you no longer have the card.
It's also worth alerting local police or security services if there's been a theft. You may need an incident number if you want to claim losses back on your travel insurance.
Providers use their own exchange rates, which can vary, so be careful
Unlike the specialist credit cards, which use Mastercard's or Visa's exchange rates, many prepaid cards tend to use their own rates. Typically this is set by taking a certain percentage as their exchange fee, usually between 1% and 2.5%.
To choose the cards that feature in this guide, we do a comparison between the 'spot rate' (the perfect exchange rate) and the prepaid cards' own rates. We use this, along with the cards' fees and charges, to work out which are best to use abroad, then we list the ones with the best rates and lowest fees.
You lock in a rate when you load, which means you can win (or lose) if there are currency fluctuations
Unlike debit and credit cards, which calculate your exchange on the day you spend, with prepaid cards, it's the rate on the day you load that's important. If the pound weakens after you load the card, you'll gain, so it can be good to have that certainty. Conversely, though, if the pound strengthens, you'll lose.
Watch out for global prepaid cards. Here, you load them with pounds, and then the conversion happens on the day you spend.
Beware fees – some cards even charge you for not using them
Prepaid cards have more fees than credit or debit cards. We take all these into consideration when picking our best buys, deliberately picking cards with low – or no – fees, but these are the charges you need to watch out for:
Application and replacement fees
Many cards cost £8 to £10 to open and display that fee prominently on their websites. However, many also charge a sneaky ‘replacement fee’, and set the expiry date to one year after opening. After 12 months, you’ll have to pay around £5 to keep using the card (and any funds already on it).
A few cards also charge a monthly fee of a few quid simply for holding it; these very rarely work out as anything other than hideously expensive.
Many cards charge you for retail purchases (just buying something in a shop), or withdrawing money from an ATM. Both fees usually jump when you're abroad.
Spending. Some cards levy a fee every time you spend, either a percentage of the amount or a flat fee per transaction. If you make a high number of small purchases, go for a percentage fee. If you make fewer and higher-value purchases, go for a set fee.
Withdrawing. Most prepaid cards charge for using ATMs, usually £1.50 to £2.50 per withdrawal. You’d be better off just keeping the cash in a current account – or a basic bank account if you struggle being accepted for credit – than paying for this 'privilege'.
Prepaid providers want you to regularly use the card, racking up charges and boosting their profit. Therefore, you’re often penalised if the card goes unused. A typical charge for this would be £2 per month if you haven't used the card in 12 months.
So use it frequently enough to avoid this charge, even just to buy a packet of crisps (or one of your five daily fruit and veg!). Similarly, don't overload funds onto the card; most charge a fee to refund the money.
Paying for the prepaid card
There’s a hidden charge you could fall foul of if you're using a credit card to pay for and to top up your prepaid card.
Buying currency on a prepaid card is counted as a cash withdrawal, so you could face a myriad fees, including cash withdrawal fees, interest, or even a fee for using a credit card charged by the money changer.
Therefore, if you're buying and topping up currency on a prepaid card, ALWAYS use a debit card, which isn't allowed to charge this fee.
If you’ve picked a card to use abroad, the rate of exchange is a sneaky hidden cost, governing how much spending power you get for your pounds. It used to be that most used the Mastercard rate, unbeatable by any bureau de change. Some use Visa, and this is a decent rate too, though tends to lose out to Mastercard.
But, currently, we have a couple of cards in the guide that use the perfect 'spot' exchange rate, meaning it's unbeatable.
Compare our top picks with the best you’d get for cash by using TravelMoneyMax.
It's also worth checking the cards for loading and transaction limits. If you're likely to want to withdraw lots of cash, it's no good picking a card with a £50 or £100 per day limit for cash withdrawals. Check fees and limits so you get a card that suits your needs.
You can't use these cards for car hire, or at many petrol stations
While these cards say they're accepted anywhere you see the Mastercard or Visa symbol, there are some notable exceptions. Car hire is the main one. Most car hire places won't accept prepaid cards, or if they do, they're likely to also require a credit card for the excess deposit authorisation, so make sure you have backup cards.
We've also heard from MoneySavers that prepaid cards aren't accepted at many petrol stations or motorway toll booths.
Please let us know in the Prepaid Travel Cards forum if you've had a prepaid card declined in other places.
Best Buys: Euro/Dollar prepaid cards
These are our top picks. We've deliberately picked cards with good exchange rates and low fees, plus none of these cards has a fee for spending. We regularly compare cards to ensure the ones listed are still top deals.
Perfect exchange rates for 12mths, plus £10 currency bonus
This card from WeSwap* works in euros, dollars, pounds and 15 other currencies and is managed via a smartphone app. Apply via our link and you'll get an extra £10 of currency when loading £50 or more.
You get the perfect interbank rate with no fees if you can wait seven days from loading your currency to accessing it by using the link above. The fees normally charged depend on when you access your money.
If you can wait seven days it’s 1% (waived via our link). If you need it sooner, you can’t escape a fee – it’s 1.3% fee to get it in three days, or 1.4% if you need it immediately.
- Apply via our link and you'll get an extra £10 when you load £50+, plus you'll pay no fees on seven day swaps for a year.
- The card works along with an associated app that you will need to download to make exchanges. You load pounds onto it, then tell it whether you want a same-day conversion to your chosen currency, or whether you're happy to wait for the no-fee option.
- WeSwap technically works as a peer-to-peer exchange site. It 'matches' you with people in other countries who want pounds for their euros, dollars or more – in practice though you'll notice no difference.
- If you withdraw less than €200/$200 on the card, you'll be charged a €1.75/$2.25 fee, so try to minimise the number of withdrawals you make. Withdrawals above this amount are free.
- As well as euros, US dollars and pounds, you can also swap cash into 15 other currencies (see key questions). But, oddly, the card won't work in countries that don't use one of the 18 currencies as their official currency, so don't try.
- If you don't use the card for more than 12 months, WeSwap has the right to charge a £2 per month inactivity fee, though it says it doesn't intend to. There's no fee to cancel.
- You'll receive the card within 10 working days, though WeSwap says it should arrive in 3-5.
- To be safe, only load cash on the cards if you'll use them soon.
- WeSwap's card provider ringfences customer funds, and deposits these with Barclays and NatWest. But unlike the others, WeSwap isn't UK-regulated, the card's issued by IDT, regulated in Gibraltar - so you're ultimately reliant on its regulations to protect you (a lot must go wrong though before this matters - our key questions has more).
- Application fee: None
- Monthly fee: None
- ATM withdrawal fee: €1.75/$2.25 under €200/$200, free above
- Loadable currencies: pounds, euros, Norwegian kroner, Swedish kronor, Danish kroner
- Spendable currencies: pounds, euros, dollars & 15 others
- Top up: Free via debit card online/bank transfer
- Replacement charge: £5
- Fee for spending in different currency (eg, in dollars on a card loaded with euros): N/A (can only spend on currencies held on the card)
- Any freebies? £10 of currency added when you load £50+
It's registered in Gibraltar. Is it safe? We asked WeSwap this same question. Like all other prepaid cards, it ringfences its customers' cash in a bank account separate to its own funds. In this case, WeSwap puts funds with Barclays and NatWest (depending on currency).
If WeSwap went bust, IDT (the card issuer) would contact you to return your funds. If IDT went bust, WeSwap would look for a card issuer to transfer its business to - so there'd be a disruption in your service but your funds would be fine. If both went bust, your funds are still ringfenced, so the administrators of the companies' bankruptcy would contact you to return your funds.
Finally, if Barclays and/or NatWest went bust, your money's lost as it's not protected by the savings safety guarantee. But, this is the minor risk all prepaid cards carry.
How good is WeSwap's exchange rate? It comes up trumps when compared with the other specialist prepaid travel cards. Usually, WeSwap charges 1% on the spot exchange rate if you can wait seven days for your cash, 1.3% if you can wait three days or 1.4% if you want an instant transfer.
MoneySavingExpert users applying during this offer will get perfect exchange rates for a year, after which the card reverts to its usual charging structure.
What am I charged for cash withdrawals? You're charged €1.75 if you withdraw under €200, but nothing above that. In the UK, you'll pay £1.50 for withdrawals below £200, but nothing above. Other currencies attract an equivalent charge in that currency, eg, the dollar withdrawal charge is $2.25 under $200.
So, if you can, try to get larger amounts out if you're making cash withdrawals, though be mindful of safety. Otherwise, try to minimise the number of withdrawals you make.
What currencies can I hold on the WeSwap card? Pounds, euros, US dollars, Swedish krona, Norwegian krona, Danish krone, Australian dollars, Canadian dollars, Swiss francs, Hong Kong dollars, Japanese yen, Singapore dollars, New Zealand dollars, South African rand, Polish zloty, Turkish lira, Israeli Shekel and Hungarian forint.
Good card for spending, plus £20 bonus when you load £600+
They have decent rates, plus if you're a new customer and apply via the link above, it'll give you an extra £8-worth of currency as a credit when you load £300-£599 or extra £20-worth if you load £600+. You'll also get the cards for free (usually there's a £9.95 application fee if you load less than £200).
- You get FairFX's own exchange rate, which changes daily but generally beats that of most other prepaid cards.
- You're charged €1.50/$2 to use overseas ATMs, so try to spend rather than withdrawing cash. You can make up to three withdrawals a day, and 10 over a four-day period.
- The cards take seven to 10 working days to arrive.
- You must load the card with at least €60/$75.
- If you have cash left over, you can spend it for free in the UK. But don't use the card at cash machines here as the fee will still apply.
- FairFX is FCA regulated, meaning money you deposit is ring-fenced, so in the event there are problems with FairFX, the money is safe.
- Application fee: Free if you use the links above and top up £50+ currency. If not, £9.95
- Monthly fee: None | ATM withdrawal fee: €1.50/$2
- Loadable currencies: euros/dollars only depending on card | Spendable currencies: pounds & euros/dollars respectively (free); all others (1.4% fee)
- Top up: Free via debit card online/bank transfer | Replacement charge: €9
- Fee for spending in different currency (eg, in dollars on a card loaded with euros): 1.4% (free if spending in the UK)
- Any freebies? £8 credit when you load £300-£599, £20 if you load £600+
How good is FairFX's exchange rate? It's always among the top currency cards in terms of rate. If you spend in a currency other than euros on the euro card or dollars on the dollar card, you'll be charged a currency conversion fee of 1.4%.
What are the ATM withdrawal charges? The only cost is €1.50/$2 to withdraw cash from an ATM whether overseas or in the UK. But it's one of the few specialist overseas cards to charge an ATM fee.
Try to minimise the number of withdrawals you make, but strike a balance between that and carrying around wads of cash, which could be a safety risk.
Best Buys: Global currency cards
With the global cards, you usually load them in pounds. Then, when you're overseas, the card does the conversion when you actually use it to buy something. You're more open to currency fluctuations as you don't lock a rate in, but it also means you could win.
It's best to use these cards if you're planning a trip to several countries and just want one bit of plastic. Or, they're useful in countries where there isn't a specific prepaid card that carries that currency.
We've picked the cards that have the lowest exchange loading when they make the currency conversion.
Good card for spending & a free £20 when you load £500
If you're going on a world tour, and you just want a sterling card that will transfer into almost any currency in any country, the FairFX sterling* prepaid card has a low exchange rate loading.
Plus, new customers applying via these links will get an extra £20 credit when loading £500+. You'll also get the card for free (there's usually a £9.95 application fee if you load less than £200).
- You get FairFX's own exchange rate, which is charged at 1.4% off the near-perfect Mastercard exchange rates.
- You're charged £1 to withdraw cash from overseas ATMs, so try to spend rather than withdrawing cash. You can make up to three withdrawals a day, and 10 over a four-day period.
- The card takes seven to 10 working days to arrive.
- You must load the card with at least £50.
- Bizarrely, you're charged to spend in the UK with this card, even though it's in pounds, so keep it only for overseas travel.
- FairFX is FCA regulated, meaning money you deposit is ring-fenced, so in the event there are problems with FairFX, the money is safe.
- Application fee: Free if you use the link above and top up £50+ currency. If not, £9.95
- Monthly fee: None | Exchange rate: Mastercard's, minus FairFX's 1.4% load
- ATM withdrawal fee: £1
- Loadable currencies: Pounds | Spendable currencies: any world currency (1.4% fee)
- Top up: Free via debit card online/bank transfer | Replacement charge: £6
- Any freebies? A bonus of £20 when you load £500+
How good is FairFX's exchange rate? It's always among the top currency cards in terms of rate. Use this card, and you're charged a conversion rate of 1.4%, one of the lowest transaction fees we've found for a sterling conversion card.
What are the ATM withdrawal charges? The only cost is £1 to withdraw cash from an ATM overseas (£1.50 for UK ATM withdrawals), less than most credit or debit cards. But it's one of the few specialist overseas cards to charge an ATM fee.
Try to minimise the number of withdrawals that you make, but strike a balance between that, and carrying around wads of cash – which could be a safety risk.
Another card offering low loading fees for worldwide spending
Travelex Globe Cash Passport
Exchange giant Travelex offers its Globe Cash Passport, which allows you to load it with pounds, then charges you a 2.49% load every time you make a transaction in a different currency. It's a higher exchange fee than the others, but you're not charged an extra fee to withdraw cash, so this could be worth it if you'll be using ATMs a lot.
- You get the near-perfect Mastercard exchange rate, but this card charges a 2.49% exchange fee for each cash withdrawal and purchase made overseas.
- The card costs £9.99 to get, but it does come with a free additional card, ideal if you need one for a backpacking child.
- The card will be sent by first class post, meaning it could take a 3-5 working days to arrive (you can collect in a branch, if there's one close)
- You'll need to activate the card by calling the number on it.
- Travelex is FCA regulated, meaning the money you deposit is ring-fenced, so in the event there are problems with Travelex, the money is safe.
- Application fee: £9.99 | Monthly fee: None
- Exchange rate: Mastercard's, minus Travelex's 2.49% load
- Cash withdrawals: Free | Top up: Free
- Loadable currencies: Pounds | Spendable currencies: any world currency (2.49% fee)
- Replacement cost: Free
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Prepaid travel cards Q&A
When’s the best time to buy currency?
There’s no right answer to this, which is why this guide focuses on how to get the best rate at any moment. If the pound is strong and the euro or dollar weak, many people think, "I’m not going away for a few months, but I’ll grab my cash now." If the pound's weak, many want to hold off.
There’s nothing wrong with doing this, but you need to understand it's currency speculation and you’re effectively gambling on exchange rate moves.
The fact the pound is strong at any given time doesn’t mean it won’t get stronger, and therefore buying your currency early can lose you money. Conversely, the fact it's weak doesn't mean it won't get weaker. Playing the currency market is something highly-paid traders can’t always get right. Those who do make a fortune. Those who don’t lose a fortune.
For more on this, read Martin's "Should I buy euros now?" blog.
Do the same rules apply when buying off overseas websites?
Absolutely. You’ll tend to pay the same costs on foreign websites as if you were actually abroad and spending there. If you’re paying in a foreign currency, all the usual charges apply – the same cheap cards are cheap, the same expensive ones costly.
If I spend abroad and they let me pay in pounds, is it worth it?
This is called dynamic currency conversion and usually should be avoided. Often the rate you get will be appalling, and someone will be making big money out of it.
If you’ve got one of the specialist overseas prepaid cards, you’ll get a much better rate paying in the foreign currency rather than pounds.
Even if you’re using a normal card, as you’ve no idea of the relative exchange rates, they could be playing you for a fool, so it's usually best to stick with paying in the foreign currency. For a great example of this, read Martin's blog.
If you're travelling to Spain, watch out for this when withdrawing money from cash machines too. You'll often be asked if you want to have your money converted into sterling when withdrawing euros from ATMs. The general rule is to say no, as you could get a worse rate than the one you’d be given by your own plastic provider.
A few machines now tell you the commission/load they add to the currency. If this is less than your card's own load (eg, it's 2.5% and your card is 2.75%) opt to pay in pounds. But if you have one of the specalist cards featured here, they’re usually unbeatable, so select the foreign currency.
Should I get my travel money out in the UK or overseas?
If you’re going to get the cash out on a specialist overseas prepaid card, then it's better to wait until you’re there.
However, if you’re just planning to use a normal debit or credit card or convert pounds when you’re out there, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a better rate – and certainly changing in most hotels is normally a bad idea as they give poor rates.
My card was blocked while I was abroad, can I prevent this?
This is less common with prepaid cards than with normal credit or debit cards, as prepaid card firms don't routinely watch for odd transactions.
These cards are designed for use abroad, so it's unlikely a transaction will be blocked because of this. However, if you are overseas and a transaction on your prepaid card is blocked, then you can call the provider and ask it to remove the block.