travel credit cards

Travel Credit Cards

One of the cheapest ways to spend abroad

Overseas travel is seriously disrupted right now. But if you are headed abroad, a specialist travel credit or debit card is the cheapest way to spend, giving near-perfect exchange rates worldwide. This guide includes best-buy cards, the cards to avoid, and how to check what your card's charging you when you use it overseas. 

Cheap travel money alternatives:

Not sure which method's right for you? See Cheap Travel Money Tips.

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How do travel cards work?

Specialist travel cards are so good for spending abroad because they don't charge fees. Use your everyday plastic while on holiday and you could be hit by a host of hidden charges (for full details, read the hidden holiday spending charges note). These include adding a non-sterling transaction fee of around 3%, cash withdrawal fees and interest charges even if you pay off in full (on credit cards).

But there are credit and debit cards that don't charge these fees, making them ideal to use when you're on holiday or buying from overseas websites. Use this checker to find out what you'll pay when using your existing card and check out our best buy cards below to find cards that don't charge.

Important. We're in the process of updating the tool below. In the meantime, it's worth double checking the info with your card provider directly. 

The 7 need-to-knows when spending abroad

Before you go on holiday, there are some things you need to know about how credit and debit cards work overseas. Get this wrong and it can cost you large, so please read the following (even if you only have time to read and remember the headlines, it should help protect your pocket).

  • When abroad you want to pay for only what you buy, yet using any bog-standard card means you're paying to pay, too. Here's how much spending €1,000 actually cost, in pounds, when we made comparisons in July 2019 using our Travel Money Comparison tool (we assumed five €100 cash withdrawals and 20 transactions on the cards).

    • On a specialist credit card repaid in full: £912 
    • Cash, via UK's cheapest bureau (pick up in London): £923 
    • Cash from M&S (non-cardholder): £933
    • Top prepaid card: £923
    • Using a debit card from hell: £972 
    • Change at airport (Gatwick South Terminal, ICE Travel Money, not pre-ordered): £1,030

    As you can see, the differences can be massive, yet the winners are simple. Apply for a specialist overseas credit card, then use it every time you go.

  • Specialist overseas credit cards can be the best way to spend when you're on holiday, but can turn into one of the worst ways if you're not disciplined enough to pay them off. Always follow the golden rule: 

    "Set up a direct debit to repay in full every month, or the interest charges dwarf the cheap-currency gains."

    Direct debits may be marked 'inactive' if a card hasn't been used in a 13 month period – so if your hols have more than a year between them, check the direct debit is still in place. 

  • Many overseas hotels, shops and ATMs ask this when you pay by card. If you choose pounds, the retailer does the currency conversion – but rates can often be poor compared with letting your card do it (choosing euros) – see Martin's euro analysis.

    If you've got a top overseas card, always choose the local currency, as your card does the exchange and it's unbeatable.

    If you're using a bog-standard credit or debit card, it's touch and go. Sometimes the card machine will show you the 'non-sterling cash fee'. If this is under 2.5%, go with pounds. If it's over, pick the local currency.

  • Let's make this plain: do not use the following cards for spending, particularly outside Europe. Following new European regulations, they're not quite as diabolical as they once were – but any of the methods in this guide still beat them handily.

    This is because the debit cards below have nightmarish charges when you use them the wrong way. With most debit cards, you pay a non-sterling transaction fee for spending, typically around 3% of the transaction, and a charge if you withdraw cash abroad.

    But these cards have another sneaky charge for spending: a fee of 50p-£1.50 each time you use your card. Imagine you buy something for £5 in a shop. With the worst of these cards, it can end up costing £6.60 with the fee and charges.

    Thankfully, new regulations mean spending fees now CAN'T be charged for purchases made in euros in the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (the European Economic Area/EEA). But the cards below continue to charge 50p-£1.50 for transactions in other countries and currencies – meaning it's still best to avoid them.

    The cards from hell

    IF Debit Card (existing custs only)

    Spending penalty: £1.50 (except on payments in euros within EEA) | Load fee: 2.25% | Cash withdrawal fee: £1.50

    Bank of Scotland Debit Card

    Spending penalty: £0.50 (except on payments in euros within EEA) | Load fee: 2.99% | Cash withdrawal fee: 2.99% + £1.50

    Lloyds Debit Card

    Spending penalty: £0.50 (except on payments in euros within EEA) | Load fee: 2.99% | Cash withdrawal fee: 2.99% + £1.50

    Halifax Debit Card

    Spending penalty: £0.50 (except on payments in euros within EEA) | Load fee: 2.99% | Cash withdrawal fee: 2.99% + £1.50

    The cards below don't have a specific spending penalty, but instead charge a minimum exchange fee, meaning these are hell for small spends. Without this, a £5 spend on these cards would cost £5.14, but this minimum exchange fee bumps it up to £6.50...

    Clydesdale/Yorkshire Debit Cards (existing custs only)

    Spending penalty: none | Load fee: 2.75%, min £1.50 | Cash withdrawal: 3.75%, min £1.50 (except on transactions in euros, Swedish krona and Romanian leu within the EEA)

    Full list of charges for major UK credit and debit cards.

  • If you've a top overseas credit card, spending is almost always cheaper. Even on cards with no cash withdrawal fees, you'll usually still pay interest on the withdrawal until you pay it off.

    This goes double for non-specialist credit cards. You'll pay the non-sterling transaction fee on all transactions overseas, but you'll also pay a fee and interest on cash withdrawals.

    On debit cards, spending is still cheaper as while there's no interest on a cash withdrawal, there's often still a fee (as well as the non-sterling transaction fee) when you use a cash machine.

  • When you spend abroad, your bank gets an almost perfect rate when it does the exchange for you. It exchanges at Mastercard's, Visa's or Amex's wholesale rate, all of which are pretty close to the spot rate that the currency markets suggest (the perfect rate).

    When we last compared exchange rates, Mastercard's tended to be slightly better, though there's really not much in it.

    Most banks then charge you for having them make the exchange for you, and this is where the up-to-3% non-sterling exchange fee comes in. That's why you should always get one of the specialist cards in this guide, which don't add fees on top.

  • With travel credit (or debit) cards, you get the rate when you spend or withdraw on the card – or to be completely accurate, the day the spend or withdrawal is processed, which could be a couple of days later. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this, if you're worried about currency swings a Prepaid Travel Card might be a better option.

    Some prepaid cards allow you to lock in a rate ahead of time for certain currencies  so you can effectively convert your sterling into euros/dollars before you head away. While there's no way of knowing if buying currency in advance will work out cheaper than getting the rate on the day, it may give you peace of mind.

Top travel credit cards

These specialist cards have near-perfect spending rates abroad but tend to charge fees or interest on cash withdrawals. We've picked out the top credit cards that allow you to spend for free and withdraw cash cheaply overseas.

No fees or interest on spending and cash withdrawals overseas, plus 0.25% cashback on spending worldwide

The Barclaycard Rewards card (apply – sadly not in our eligibility calculator) has no fees on spending or cash withdrawals overseas. Unusually, it also doesn't charge interest on spending OR overseas cash withdrawals as long as you repay IN FULL.

Plus, it pays 0.25% cashback on spending worldwide – a small extra boost.

You can use Barclaycard's eligibility checker to check your chances of acceptance before applying.

Exchange rate fee: Europe: 0% | Worldwide: 0%
Cash withdrawal fee: None
Important: Repay IN FULL every month to avoid interest on spending and non-sterling cash withdrawals
Interest on overseas cash withdrawals? No, if repaid in full every month
Representative APR (variable): 22.9% (see Official APR Examples)
Interest rate on ATM withdrawals: 22.9%
Card issuer: Visa (see Mastercard vs Visa vs Amex rates)

  • There are no fees for cash withdrawals in the UK or abroad.
     
    While cash withdrawals overseas don't attract interest if paid off in full, any cash withdrawals in pounds will be charged interest from the day you make them at 27.9%, so it's best to avoid sterling cash withdrawals.
     
    Remember, while abroad, always ensure you opt to pay in the local currency (and decline any conversion offered by an overseas retailer and/or ATM as this will count as a sterling withdrawal).
  • Any cash withdrawals you make on a credit card will be recorded at the credit reference agencies. On their own, they shouldn't matter too much, but if you have a history of poor credit, or you're looking to make an important credit application soon, they're best avoided.

    Because it's usually quite expensive to withdraw cash on a credit card, lenders may see it as you being desperate for cash, and will count it against you if you apply to them.

    For more information on the pros and cons, read our guide to withdrawing cash on a credit card

Fee-free overseas spending, and low ATM withdrawal interest

The Santander Zero card (apply – sadly not in our eligibility calculator) offers near-perfect rates and fee-free spending overseas. You don't get charged interest on spending abroad as long as you repay IN FULL, but do for cash withdrawals until they're paid off (5p-ish per £100 per day) – so try to minimise these.

You can use Santander's eligibility checker to check your chances of acceptance before applying.

Exchange rate fee: Europe: 0% | Worldwide: 0%
Cash withdrawal fee: None
Important: Repay IN FULL every month to avoid interest on spending
Interest on overseas cash withdrawals? Yes, until it's repaid in full
Representative APR (variable)18.9% (see Official APR Examples)
Interest rate on ATM withdrawals: 18.9%
Card issuer: Mastercard (see Mastercard vs Visa vs Amex rates)

  • Any cash withdrawals you make on a credit card will be recorded at the credit reference agencies. On their own, they shouldn't matter too much, but if you have a history of poor credit, or you're looking to make an important credit application soon, they're best avoided.

    Because it's usually quite expensive to withdraw cash on a credit card, lenders may see it as you being desperate for cash, and will count it against you if you apply to them.

    For more information on the pros and cons, read our guide to withdrawing cash on a credit card.

Good long-term track record for cheap overseas spending

The Halifax Clarity card (check eligibility / apply*) has been one of our top picks for years due to its great feedback, near-perfect rates and that it doesn't charge exchange fees on spending or withdrawing cash abroad.

You don't get charged interest on spending abroad as long as you repay IN FULL, but do for cash withdrawals (5p-ish per £100 per day) – so try to minimise these.

Exchange rate fee: Europe: 0% | Worldwide: 0%
Cash withdrawal fee: None  
Important: Repay IN FULL every month to avoid interest on spending
Interest on overseas cash withdrawals? Yes, until it's repaid in full
Representative APR (variable)19.9% (see Official APR Examples)
Interest rate on ATM withdrawals: 19.95% or 27.95%
Card issuer: Mastercard (see Mastercard vs Visa vs Amex rates)

  • If you're making a lot of ATM withdrawals, be aware that you can only withdraw a total of 50% of your credit limit as cash. So if your credit limit is £1,000, you'll only be able to withdraw the equivalent of £500 as cash. And of course, you'll be charged interest on the lot. Therefore, it's best to prioritise spending where you can.

  • Any cash withdrawals you make on a credit card will be recorded at the credit reference agencies. On their own, they shouldn't matter too much, but if you have a history of poor credit, or you're looking to make an important credit application soon, they're best avoided.

    Because it's usually quite expensive to withdraw cash on a credit card, lenders may see it as you being desperate for cash, and will count it against you if you apply to them.

    For more information on the pros and cons, read our guide to withdrawing cash on a credit card

  • Yes – you can get this card even if you already have a Halifax credit card.

  • This rate is only for the Clarity credit card, not Halifax's own travel money bureau, which generally offers lower exchange rates.
Check if you'll get this card:
Or just go straight to the lender:

Best of the rest

There are a few other cards that don't charge non-sterling exchange fees when you use them to spend overseas. If you're choosing a card, remember that Mastercard's exchange rate tends to beat Visa's rate, so factor this in when making your decision.

The cards above are our top picks but if you already have one of the cards below, it's usually not worth switching as the gains are small. Here are the 'best of the rest' of the cheapest overseas spending cards.

Top travel cards that charge no fees on purchases

CARD ATM FEE + CASH W/D INTEREST REP APR (IF NOT REPAID)
118 118 Money - for poorer credit scorers
Apply via eligibility calculator (i)
No fee
None if paid off IN FULL
34%
NatWest Credit Card
Apply direct to lender (not in eligibility calc)
3% fee (min £3)
16.9% to 25.9% interest (ii)
9.9%
Post Office
Apply direct to lender (not in eligibility calc)
3% fee (min £3)
24.93% interest
24.9%

(i) 118 118 Money has told us you have a better chance of getting its card if you go via our eligibility calculator, but if you prefer you can go direct to 118 118 Money* instead. (ii) You could be accepted and offered the higher rate. 

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Top overseas debit cards

It's also possible to get non-sterling transaction fee-free debit cards, but you'll usually need to open a bank account. It's questionable whether it's worth switching bank for this (as you're forgoing other bank account perks – see Best Bank Accounts), which is why we favour opening an account separately so you can use it alongside your existing account.

Fee-free spending and cash withdrawals anywhere in the world

App-based Starling Bank's* debit card has no non-sterling transaction or cash withdrawal fees worldwide. Plus, Starling will only do a 'soft' credit check to see if it wants you as a customer (unless you also apply for an overdraft). This is helpful as it won't count as an application on your credit report - though if you do go on to open an account, that will appear on your credit report. 

Exchange rate fee: Europe: 0% | Worldwide: 0%
Cash withdrawal fee: None
In-credit interest: 0.05% AER variable on up to £85,000
Card issuer: Mastercard (see Mastercard vs Visa vs Amex rates)

Arranged overdraft cost: 15%, 25% or 35% EAR variable. The rate you get depends on your credit history.
Unarranged overdraft cost: None

Go straight to Starling

APPLY*

Fee-free spending and cash withdrawals worldwide, but requires 'hard' credit check

Virgin Money's* debit card doesn't charge fees on spending or cash withdrawals overseas, but Virgin Money does do a 'hard' credit check when you apply, which will appear as an application search on your credit report (unlike Starling above).

As an added boon, it also pays a decent 2.02% interest on credit balances up to £1,000.

Exchange rate fee: Europe: 0% | Worldwide: 0%
Cash withdrawal fee: None
In-credit interest: 2.02% AER variable on up to £1,000
Card issuer: Mastercard (see Mastercard vs Visa vs Amex rates)

Arranged overdraft cost: 19.9%, 29.9% or 39.9% EAR variable. The rate you get depends on your credit history.
Unarranged overdraft cost: The same interest rate as above, plus a £4 fee each time Virgin Money refuses a payment due to lack of funds (max £40/mth).

Go straight to Virgin Money

APPLY*

Fee-free and links to your existing bank account, but slightly worse rates than cards above

Currensea* is a free debit card which connects to your existing high street bank account via open banking. Spend or withdraw on it instead of your normal debit card and it'll take the payments out of your linked current account – without charging any currency exchange or ATM fees.

While it doesn't charge fees on its free plan, it adds a flat 0.5% markup on the interbank/Mastercard exchange rates it uses. This means the rates you get aren’t quite as good as those you can get from Starling or Virgin Money above – but it’s a good option if you don’t want to open a separate bank account for travelling.

Exchange rates: Interbank/Mastercard rates + 0.5% markup (see FAQs)
Cash withdrawal fee: None
ATM limits: £500/mth, £300/day
Card issuer: Mastercard (see Mastercard vs Visa vs Amex rates)

  • Currensea is a debit card which connects to your existing bank account via open banking. You can order the card online and it should arrive in 3-5 working days.

    Once you've got the card, just spend and withdraw cash on it abroad as normal and it'll collect the transaction amounts from your bank via direct debit – bypassing the non-sterling transaction fees and ATM fees that most big banks charge.

  • To get a Currensea card, you need to be aged 18 or over, have a permanent UK home address, a valid mobile phone number and a current account registered for online banking from a supported UK bank (see below).

    You can't get a Currensea card if you have a history of bad debt or poor account management (eg, where you've had repeated bounced direct debits).

  • Currensea supports the following banks: Bank of Scotland, Barclays, First Direct, Halifax, HSBC, Lloyds, Nationwide, NatWest, RBS, Santander, TSB and Ulster Bank.

    You won't be able to use Currensea if you've got a basic bank account (these are generally designed for poorer credit scorers and lack things like overdrafts, interest and other perks).

    Note: If you have a joint current account both you and the other account holder may need to enable 'third party data sharing' in your online banking or mobile app settings before you can connect to Currensea.

     

  • For Euros, US dollars and Swiss francs, Currensea uses the perfect interbank rates and adds a flat 0.5% markup on top.

    For all other currencies, it uses the near-perfect Mastercard rates and adds the same 0.5% markup. 

    Note: Starling and Virgin Money (above) use the Mastercard rates without adding a markup – so they're better options if you're happy to open and manage a separate app-based bank account.

  • There are no limits on spending but ATM withdrawals are limited to £500/mth and £300/day.

  • Currensea is authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority and is on the Open Banking directory – so you're protected by your bank if something goes wrong. For more info see our Open Banking guide.

Go straight to Currensea

APPLY*

While the cards above are our top picks, here are some other options to consider:

  • Monzo: With its current account, Monzo charges no foreign transaction fees for spending, and ATM withdrawals are currently totally fee-free in the UK, EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (but it's introducing some fees on these from 31 October for some users). Elsewhere, cash withdrawals are fee-free up to £200 in any 30-day period (3% fee above). You'll need to operate the account via the app – it's available on iOS and Android. 

  • Nationwide Building Society: The Nationwide FlexPlus debit card charges no fees on overseas purchases or cash withdrawals. However, FlexPlus is a packaged bank account and charges a £13/mth fee - so unless you'll use the travel insurance, breakdown and mobile phone insurance, it's not worth getting just for free overseas spending. Read more on Nationwide FlexPlus to see if it's the right account for you. 

  • Cumberland Building Society: If you have a Cumberland Plus current account with Cumberland Building Society, it charges no foreign exchange fees or cash withdrawal fees on the debit card that comes with the account. However, you need to live in its operating area – it covers Cumbria, south west Scotland, West Northumberland and North Lancashire.

Coronavirus help if you're struggling

If you're struggling to pay an existing credit card due to coronavirus, your provider should give you a payment holiday of up to three months, or offer an alternative way to help. 

DON'T just stop paying – you must arrange a break with your lender first (you've until 31 October to request it). Provided you've agreed it with your lender, these payment holidays then can't hurt your creditworthiness and won't come with any penalties or charges.

You'll still be charged interest during the payment holiday though, so will likely pay more overall. It's therefore best to only do this if you need to – if you can afford to pay, it's better to keep doing so. 

See our full lender-by-lender credit card help for the latest updates, full information and how to apply.

Currency & credit cards Q&A

  • No. On all of these cards, there is a processing time. So, you actually get the rate on the day the transaction is processed by your card provider, which is usually a day or two after you used the card, but could be up to a week later.

    This is important, as if there are movements in the currency markets between you making the purchase and your card provider processing it, then you could end up paying more (or less) for what you bought than you thought you were going to.

  • 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.

  • The best thing to do, unless you're a regular traveller who frequently spends overseas, is to call up the card company to let it know you're going abroad. Usually, though sadly not always, this stops any problems. If it happens to you while you're away, call the card company as soon as possible.

  • 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.

  • If you're going to get the cash out on a specialist overseas card, then it's better to wait until you're there.

    However, if you're just planning to use a normal 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. Overall it's safer to use TravelMoneyMax and get the cheapest rate while you're here.

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