prepaid travel cards

Prepaid Travel Cards

Lock in a top rate before you go

Prepaid travel cards, also known as currency cards, allow you to load them before you go abroad then use them as you would a debit card to spend or withdraw cash as you wish. And because they're pre-loaded, it allows you to keep tight control of your spending. Most also allow you to lock in a rate in advance.

The seven prepaid card need-to-knows

If rate certainty or tight control of your budget is what you want, then prepaid cards work well as once loaded, you know how much you have to spend and can't go over that unless you reload. Here's what you need to know...

  • Before you consider a prepaid card, check out travel credit or debit cards. They're often less of a faff than loading before you go and the top picks consistently offer near-perfect rates every day of the week. Plus, if you're using a travel credit card for a purchase costing £100-£30,000 (even abroad) you'll also get section 75 protection.

  • money is safe if card issuer goes bust

    All prepaid cards listed below deposit customers' cash in a bank or building society in a ring-fenced account, separate from the 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 goes bust, because your cash is NOT protected in this case. Therefore, think of your prepaid card as one that you'll keep cash on for immediate spending requirements, rather than as a place to store heaps of it. Also be aware that not all of the cards below are FCA regulated – so you may be reliant on another country's regulations to protect you. 

  • As long as you contact the provider of your prepaid card and get it blocked, you shouldn't lose out on any money, though you may have to pay up to £10 for a replacement card. 

    Pay special attention if your prepaid card is contactless as it could be used for a series of small, fraudulent transactions, so always alert your card provider as soon as possible. It's also worth alerting local police or security services if there's been a theft – you may need an incident number to claim losses back on your travel insurance.

  • exchange rates

    Prepaid cards providers offer different rates to each other. Some use the 'interbank rate' (the perfect exchange rate), some use Mastercard's or Visa's exchange rates, others still set theirs by picking one of these rates, then taking a certain percentage as their exchange fee, usually between 1% and 2.5%. 

    To choose the cards in this guide, we do a comparison between the rates offered and the cards' fees and charges, then we list the ones with the best rates and lowest fees. Compare our top picks with the best you'd get for cash by using TravelMoneyMax.

  • Unlike debit and credit cards, which always calculate your exchange when you spend, with prepaid cards, some give you the ability to lock in a rate on the day you load them – good if you need certainty over budgets. If the pound weakens after you load the card, you'll gain, though conversely, if the pound strengthens, you'll lose.

    There are also prepaid cards which allow you to load them in pounds. These ones will give you the rate when the transaction's processed by the card provider, which can take up to a week.

  • 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 with bog-standard prepaid cards:

    • Some cards cost £5 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, which works out hideously expensive.

    • Some 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. Some prepaid cards charge for using ATMs, usually £1.50 to £2.50 per withdrawal. 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.

    • 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, typically £2/month if you haven't used the card in 12 months.

      So use it frequently enough on small transactions to avoid this charge. Similarly, don't overload funds onto the card; most charge a fee to refund the money.

    • 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 of 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.

  • While these cards say they're accepted anywhere you see the Mastercard or Visa symbol, there are some notable exceptions. 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 back-up 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 prepaid travel cards

With these cards, you can lock in a rate days, months or even years before you go on your hols, so you know the rate you'll get before spending – or you can just spend on them in pounds and you'll get the rate on the day you spend.

Perfect interbank rates on most currencies on weekdays, though limited free ATM withdrawals

Revolut gives perfect interbank rates on most currencies from Mon to Fri UK time when you spend abroad or exchange pounds in advance in the app (1%-2.5% fee at weekends).

You get a free virtual card which you can use with digital wallets (eg, Apple Pay/Google Pay) but physical cards cost £4.99 for delivery.

Application fee: £4.99 for delivery of physical card
Exchange rate: Perfect interbank rates except at weekends, and for Thai baht and Ukrainian hryvnia (see FAQs)
ATM withdrawal fee: None up to £200 per rolling month, then 2% after
Currencies you can exchange in advance (locking in the rate): 30 incl euros and US dollars (see FAQs for list)
Spendable currencies: 140+ currencies incl euros and US dollars
Is my cash protected? Revolut is authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority. Any money you deposit is ring-fenced in a Barclays account, so if there are problems with Revolut, the money's safe (as long as Barclays still exists).

  • You need a smartphone to use Revolut as it's managed via an app, meaning you can load, exchange and withdraw funds with the touch of a few buttons. In order to get the Revolut card, you'll need to request it in the app. It can take up to nine working days to arrive.
  • Revolut applies a small markup on its rates at weekends (Saturday and Sunday UK time) – 1% for major currencies and 2% for other currencies (plus an additional 0.5% if you've exchanged £1,000+ in the last month). It says this is to protect it against currency fluctuations while the markets are closed.
     
    You can avoid the weekend markup by exchanging your money on a weekday. To do this, load the card with pounds and then use the app to exchange them to the currency you need. You can exchange up to £1,000 every month for free – there's an additional fee of 0.5% for exchanges above this amount. 
  • In addition to other fees, Revolut adds a 1% markup on Thai baht and Ukrainian hryvnia. If you'll be travelling to these places, a specialist debit or credit card will beat Revolut's rates. See Travel Credit Cards.

  • Once you've loaded your account with pounds, you can exchange in the app to euro, US dollar, UAE dirham, Australian dollar, Bulgarian lev, Canadian dollar, Swiss franc, Czech koruna, Danish krone, Hong Kong dollar, Croatian kuna, Hungarian forint, Israeli new sheqel, Icelandic krona, Japanese yen, Moroccan dirham, Mexican peso, Norwegian krone, New Zealand dollar, Polish zloty, Qatari riyal, Romanian leu, Serbian dinar, Russian ruble, Saudi Arabian riyal, Swedish krona, Singapore dollar, Thai baht, Turkish lira and South African rand.

    You can spend in 140+ currencies.

  • Nothing up to £200 in a rolling month (or equivalent), 2% above that. Providing you stick to the limits, you won't be charged fees anywhere in the world (unless the machine itself charges a fee).

  • Revolut's exchange rate is the best you can get for the majority of currencies, as it uses interbank rates, which tend to be slightly higher than Mastercard's or Visa's rates.

    However, you don't get the interbank rate on Thai baht and Ukrainian hryvnia, or at the weekend.

    At weekends (Saturday and Sunday UK time), Revolut charges a markup on its rates. It adds 1% for major currencies and 2% for other currencies. For major currencies, you can beat the weekend fee by exchanging your money on a weekday – you can exchange up to £1,000 every month fee-free (there's a 0.5% fee above this).

  • If you lose your card, Revolut charges £5 to replace it, plus a £4.99 delivery fee.

  • You'll either get a Visa or a Mastercard, though this won't affect the rate you'll get.

Perfect interbank rates, but small fees apply

Transferwise's* multi-currency account allows you to spend abroad or exchange pounds at the perfect interbank rate – though it does charge small fees of around 0.3% to 1%. For example, exchanging pounds to US dollars or Euros will cost you a 0.35% fee.

Cash withdrawals are fee-free up to £200 in any 30 day period (2% fee above).

Application fee: £5 for delivery of physical card
Exchange rate: Perfect interbank rates, but small fees apply (see Transferwise's cost calculator)
ATM withdrawal fee: None up to £200 per month, then 2% after
Currencies you can exchange in advance (locking in the rate): 50 incl euros and US dollars (see full list)
Spendable currencies: 150+ incl euros and US dollars
Is my cash protected? Transferwise is authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority. Any money you deposit is ring-fenced in a Barclays account, so if there are problems with Transferwise, the money's safe (as long as Barclays still exists).

Prepaid travel cards Q&A

  • 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. 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. The good news is that from Friday 12 April, if you've a Mastercard prepaid card, you'll no longer be given the option to pay in pounds.

    Even if you're using a normal card, as you've no idea of the relative exchange rates, it's usually best to stick with paying in the foreign currency. For a great example of this, read Martin's blog.

    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 specialist cards featured here, they're usually unbeatable, so select the foreign currency.

  • If you're going to get the cash out on a specialist overseas prepaid card that you've loaded in the currency of the place you're going, 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.

  • This is less common with prepaid cards than with normal credit or debit cards, as prepaid cards are designed for use abroad, so it's unlikely a transaction will be blocked because of this. However, if it is, you can call the provider and ask it to remove the block.