When I was preparing to head off as a long-term traveller and digital nomad, one of the top things on my to-do list was organising my finances to avoid exorbitant fees and high exchange rates every time I used my cards abroad.
I spent several hours trawling through reviews of bank accounts and credit cards to find the right ones for me. So I figured I’d share my knowledge with you to save you some time.
This is everything I’ve learned about the best debit and credit cards for travellers and digital nomads. Please note that, as a Brit, this post is mostly geared towards those with a permanent UK address.
My Travel Card Goals
My criterion was to find debit and credit cards that had no monthly fee, 0% on foreign transactions and ATM withdrawals, and 0% currency exchange rate fees.
I wanted multiple cards for security reasons. I recommend travelling with at least two debit cards and two credit cards. When I’m on the road, I keep one of each with me and leave one of each safely stored at my accommodation. That way, should my purse be lost or stolen I would still have access to money.
I also wanted a mixture of Visa and Mastercard, as I’ve occasionally come across places where one or the other isn’t accepted.
Debit Cards for Travellers and Digital Nomads
Bank accounts have changed a lot since I set off as a nomad in January 2015, with a raft of superb challenger and mobile-only banks appearing on the scene. These are the bank accounts I currently use.
Nationwide FlexAccount (Visa Debit)
My main bank account is a Nationwide FlexAccount. This isn’t the best debit card to use abroad as it does incur charges (though less than most high street banks). But I’m a loyal Nationwide customer for several reasons. They offer excellent customer service, which extends to knowing customers by name in my hometown, and their accounts are easy to manage online with the option of telephoning your branch, calling a central customer services centre or contacting a messaging service in case of problems.
They also offer excellent perks. Although no longer offered to new FlexAccount holders, existing customers get free travel insurance if they pay in at least £750 each month. This isn’t eligible for my nomad travels, but it’s useful if I take a short break. I also receive preferential rates on my ISA and savings account, which are tied to the amount of time I’ve been a customer.
Best of all for travellers, being a Nationwide account holder means you can get your mitts on a Nationwide Select Credit Card, which is one of the best travel credit cards around. More of this below…
I don’t use my debit card abroad; this is the one I keep safely stashed away in case of emergencies. But I can’t see myself moving my main banking away from Nationwide any time soon.
Nationwide has a variety of different bank accounts, depending on your needs. If you’d like to swap to Nationwide and have a friend who banks with them, you can share £200 using their Recommend a Friend scheme. (If you don’t know anybody, drop me an email and I can recommend you.)
Monzo (Mastercard Debit)
In my early nomad days I had a Norwich & Peterborough bank account with a debit card that enabled free use abroad. They’ve long since stopped offering bank accounts, but I would’ve swapped anyway because the new challenger banks are amazing.
I joined Monzo in February 2017, when it was still relatively new, and I was blown away. Monzo is a branchless, mobile-only bank that’s controlled entirely through your smartphone and protected by the FSCS.
The funky coral card offers free foreign transactions with no currency mark-up exchange rate, and initially it offered unlimited free ATM withdrawals too. You can save money in pots, and there’s a useful ‘rainy day’ feature that rounds up your transaction to the nearest £ and deposits the change in a pot. If you think you’ve lost your card, you can freeze it in the app and simply unfreeze it if it turns up in a pocket or down the back of the sofa.
However, Monzo has since started charging for some cash withdrawals. In typical Monzo style, it was a decision that every member of the Monzo community was invited to vote on. Sadly I was outnumbered. Monzo now offers only £200 free cash withdrawal every 30 days, with a 3% fee thereafter. This is great if you travel occasionally, but is a prime pain in the backside for me – while I never carry loads of cash, I do bargain for long-term accommodation by paying cash. So I went looking elsewhere (though I’ve kept Monzo as a back-up card).
Readers from the US will be excited to learn that Monzo is heading stateside. Join the waitlist now.
Starling (Mastercard Debit)
Starling is a multiple award-winning bank account and my absolute favourite travel debit card. Like Monzo, it’s a digital, mobile-only bank that’s protected by the FSCS. And it offers everything Monzo does, and more…
There’s no charge for foreign transactions or ATM withdrawals, and a 0% currency exchange rate. Like Monzo, you receive a notification for every transaction made (so it’s easy to see if your card has wandered into the wrong hands), you can see your spending breakdown, and it also has savings spaces and a rainy day function (which I love – I’ve had a tight couple of months while I work on my new website, but was delighted to find a total of £60 in my Monzo and Starling rainy day pots). And you can freeze your card in-app if you’ve misplaced it.
However, Starling offers unlimited fee-free cash withdrawals every month (subject to the usual daily limits), it pays interest on every penny in your accounts (0.5% AER on balances up to £2,000), and you can deposit cash into any UK Post Office. I also got my hands on one of its new Euro accounts, which will be handy for working with clients based in mainland Europe, though there is a small fee for exchanging the currency.
Opening a Starling bank account is quick and easy, and I highly recommend it.
There are a few other options available though I don’t use them myself. These include:
- N26: This German challenger bank now offers UK accounts too. It’s a fully functioning bank account though it’s protected under a German deposit scheme rather than the FSCS. I can’t see an advantage over Starling or Monzo for UK-based customers, especially with the current Brexit uncertainty, as money isn’t protected under a UK scheme.
- TransferWise Borderless Account: This isn’t a traditional bank account, but an electronic money account, which means you can’t get an overdraft or loan and your money isn’t guaranteed under the FSCS. However, you can send money, get paid, spend money abroad and hold money in over 40 different currencies.
- Revolut: Revolut started life as a pre-paid debit card, though it’s now secured an EU banking licence and is aiming to secure a full UK banking licence. You can hold money in 29 different currencies and withdraw up to £200 per month without incurring fees. At the moment it doesn’t offer protection under the FSCS.
Credit Cards for Travellers and Digital Nomads
Unlike US credit cards, our cards generally don’t offer travel reward points, unless you’re willing to fork out on a hefty annual fee. The credit cards I’ve chosen are among the best for fee-free usage abroad.
Nationwide Select Credit Card (Visa)
Only available to Nationwide current account holders, the Nationwide Select Credit Card is a fantastic card to take on your travels. It offers commission-free purchases abroad, and a low APR of 15.9% with no interest charged if you pay in full each month. It also offers cashback on all UK purchases, as long as you took out the card before January 2018 (which I did – hurrah!). And of course you benefit from Nationwide’s excellent customer service, which outranks most UK high street banks and comes highly recommended by Which?
Halifax Clarity Credit Card (Mastercard)
My second credit card is the Halifax Clarity Credit Card. Cardholders benefit from commission-free purchases abroad with a variable APR of 19.9% and no fees if paid off in full. It’s also free to withdraw cash abroad, although you do incur interest from day one, so whenever I’ve used this I’ve always paid it off immediately using online banking. There are no rewards or cashback offers with this card.
There are various other travel credit cards available to UK-based travellers, including:
- Barclaycard Platinum Cashback Plus: With zero fees on spending or cash withdrawals overseas, along with 0.5% cashback for the first three months and 0.25% thereafter, this Visa card is great for travel. APR is 21.9%, but if you pay off your balance in full, there’s no interest for cash withdrawals abroad.
- Tandem: A British challenger bank that offers a fee-free cashback credit card. There are no fees on purchases abroad and all purchases benefit from 0.5% cashback and a variable APR of 18.9%. There are no fees for cash withdrawals abroad, though like the Halifax Clarity Card you pay interest from day one so it’s best to pay this off immediately.
- The NatWest Credit Card: This low-rate credit card offers commission-free purchases abroad with a variable APR of 9.9%. However, you do have to deal with NatWest customer service…
- The Royal Bank Credit Card: As part of the same group, the Royal Bank credit card mirrors the NatWest one with commission-free purchases abroad and a variable low APR of 9.9%. Having been a customer of both NatWest and The Royal Bank in the past, I couldn’t be tempted.
- Virgin Money Travel Credit Card: This card offers fee-free purchases abroad with 0% interest on purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months and 21.9% variable APR thereafter. There is a fee for withdrawing money abroad, but there are a few perks including money off Virgin holidays and travel insurance (less useful for long-term independent travellers).
Before I sign off, a quick note about cash withdrawals abroad. Always request cash in the local currency, otherwise you will pay the withdrawing bank’s exchange rate (which is usually much higher than that charged by your card provider). And watch for additional fees at the ATM. Even when you use a card that offers free withdrawals, like Starling, the ATM might add on a fee, which is nothing to do with your card provider.
This is true of many independent ATMs operating in tourist areas, though I was disappointed to discover that most Greek banks now charge a fee of between €2 and €3 Euros for all withdrawals as a way of raising extra money. I found myself walking all over Greek cities looking for Attica Bank, the only one I could find that doesn’t (yet) charge foreign cardholders (according to some forums, Attica now also charges – I’ll double-check this when I return to Greece this autumn).
If you have any questions about finding the best travel debit and credit cards or want to add to the conversation, drop a note in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you.