The Best Credit Cards to Use Abroad

Update 1st January 2018 Breaking News Good News for Travellers

Update March 2024 Starling Account Best Buy for Travelling

Credit Cards : Halifax Clarity Card and Nationwide Select continue as best buys.

Debit Cards : The advice until recently was basically not to use debit cards abroad ,as all imposed heavy charges but the holy grail of finding fee free debit cards has arrived.

Metro Bank

offers a fee free debit card to include purchases and free ATM withdrawals but these are restricted to Europe only, so charges will apply if used outside of Europe. Their credit cards are also fee free for European use.

The downside was that until recently you had to go into a branch to open an account and branches are not particularly widespread but you can now open an account online 

Starling Bank

This is another newcomer but with a difference, as it is a mobile operated account only but for travellers the good news is that it offers fee free debit transactions and atm withdrawals worldwide.

It is pretty easy to set up,  all you need is some photo ID, such as a driving licence or passport which you take a photo off and send to them. You will also need to take a photo off yourself and record a simple message. They send an authorisation code and away you go. The whole process takes less than 5 minutes.

It offers all the normal facilities provided by a high street bank with the added bonus of 3.25% on balances up to £5000

In my opinion the big plus of this account is its security features, You can set the account to allow online transactions, chip and pin transactions to include contactless and also whether to allow ATM transactions. You can also lock the card.

Additional security features are that you get an almost instant text notification, if you make a transaction. Also it has a facility to detect any transactions geographically separate from your phone so if your phone is at home and a transaction is made elsewhere, it will flag it up.


This is another phone based app, which originally started life as a prepaid spending card but now offers full current account facilities.

This also allows fee free debit transactions and ATM withdrawals though the latter is restricted to £200 a month.                               

All of the above are fully protected by the FCSC compensation scheme.

In making any final decision you will need to read the smallprint which is often confusing; banks love smallprint, particularly in their terms and conditions.

I am always on the lookout for a good deal, particularly, since gone are the days of the friendly bank manager and personal service and the fact that loyalty counts for little these days.

Excuse my cynicism, but this is a result of working  so long in this industry. Also with internet banking it is relatively easy to set up and close accounts. Experience also shows that since it is you that is inputting the information, you are more likely to get this right than if you went into a branch.

Monzo now has a Plus and a Premium Account and for travellers the benefit of the Premium Account is that it provides worlwide travel insurance  but the account has a £15 monthly charge.

Debit Cards

There are a few debit cards that can be used fee free, otherwise you will pay a transaction charge similar to that charged on credit cards below and these can soon mount up. The good news, as highlighted there are providers which allow fee free transactions. The plus of this is that you need very little cash and you get much better exchange rates than what you would obtain by using cash,

A useful addition to fee free foreign use debit cards is   FIRST DIRECT The plus points of First Direct is that though it can be operated online it can also be operated over the telephone. The service levels are first class. It probably is not as slick as the Starling Account but if you do not want to use a mobile bank and prefer a more traditional bank account then First Direct ticks lots of boxes. There are also plans to provide instant notifications of your transactions en par with Starling but as yet this is not operational.

Credit Cards

These will typically charge 2.75 to 3% per transaction when used abroad  but they do use wholesale foreign exchange rates which will be better than that available on the high street.

The good news, however, is that there are a few providers which do not impose charges for foreign use.

In my opinion the best of these are offered by the Nationwide Building Society and the Halifax and the latter has the added advantage that it does not impose any ATM charges.

Nationwide Building Society

It has two offerings its Credit Card and its Select Credit Card which has a more competitive interest rate but is only available to its current account holders. It is a Visa card. There are no charges when the card is used for purchases.

Additionally Nationwide Plus Account (current a/c) customers benefit from free Worldwide Travel Insurance (conditions apply) i

It is possible to upgrade this cover,chargeable, to include cruises and over 70 insurance by telephoning Nationwide Travel Services.

Halifax Clarity Card

Is a Mastercard and has no charges for purchases and has the added advantage over the Nationwide in that there are no transaction charges either, if you use it in an ATM, though you will have to pay interest.

Halifax Clarity Card for Emergency Cash Withdrawals

The charge for this works out at approximately 1.5%, which represents the interest that is charged as soon as you withdraw the money

until you repay it in full. For this to work you must repay your credit card balance as soon as you receive your statement.

If you are lucky you may have one of the earlier issue cards, which charge a lower interest rate, equivalent to a much more reasonable charge of 1% a month for drawing out cash. With the earlier cards combined with wholesale currency rates you will probably find that this is better than taking cash.

This charges will be  offset by the fact that Mastercard gets better foreign exchange rates than you could get on the high street.

THe Halifax have increased their interst charge on this account so making it less attractive for foreign currency withdrawals

Nationwide Flex Plus Account

Updated March 2024


I am not a great fan of packaged bank accounts but the Flex Plus Account comes with an impressive range of benefits but banks do have a nasty habit of raising the monthly fee

For travellers the big pluses are:

Fee free cash withdrawals from ATM’s abroad and now fee free use of debit card abroad 

Worldwide Travel Insurance* and unlike many packaged insurances where the age limit is 65, the age limit for Nationwide is 70 & it is possible to purchase an extension.

The other big plus on their travel insurance is that though the trip limit is 31 days, it is unlike many competitor products, possible to buy an extension, which we recently did for our Scandinavian trip, by making a simple telephone call.

Car Breakdown insurance which also includes European cover and up to 2 cars if a joint account. Now if they only covered motorhomes then we would be onto a winner, well one can always dream.

Other goodies include mobile phone cover and a 3% gross interest on balances up to £2500.

This will cost you £13 a month & for the  travel benefits is worth a second look.

The travel insurance option is no longer  available on its Flex Account where there is no fee.

The other plus so far is that we find that Nationwide answer their phones promptly, no endless waits on premium lines.


Will allow fee free ATM withdrawals from Santander branches in Spain and certain South American countries.

Its credit cards are not competititive compared with the above for foreign use

Prepaid Currency  Cards ( If you must)

If you think that the smallprint is complex on credit cards then wait until you look into these. Charges for taking the card out,charges for taking your money out, charges if you do not use your card and you can see why I am not sold on these cards.

These work on the principle that you preload the card with a set amount of sterling which you then convert into foreign currency

at an ATM. You do not want to use these for purchases,the charges are on par with debit cards.

Their main selling point appears to be that of security i.e you are not carrying large amounts of cash on you.Then there are the stories

of travellers in South America being marched off to ATM's to withdraw money by certain unpleasant people. My daughter had the

solution when travelling in South America and when going into Venezuela, she hid her currency in her sock. Noone would go their.

What they do not tell you is that they are not covered by the FSA so you could say load your card with £1000, the card issuer goes bankrupt and you have lost £1000.

The best of these seems to be the Caxton Card as the charges are the most reasonable but you have to have the right card, one for the Eurozone, (bearing in mind that not all European countries are in the Eurozone) one for dollars and a Global card for the rest and with the latter the charges are higher. My head hurts.


1)     Do not use debit cards abroad, they typically charge 2.75 to 3% transaction charge (exceptions as listed)

2)     There is no such thing as commission free currency, they are simply giving you a poorer exchange rate

3)     Do not buy currency at the airport or port (unless preordered) or on the boat, the exchange rates are rubbish.

4)     If withdrawing from an ATM, check there are no charges by the ATM provider.

5)     If you have any spare money at the end of your trip, spend it, the exchange rates to change back are poor, banks are             not charities, beware of providers who offer free currency change back facilities.

6)     Online exchange rates are generally better and allow for pick up, if only ordering small amounts & you want to avoid             the delivery charge.           

7)     Always pay in the local currency. If the retailer offers to charge you in sterling then refuse, the exchange rates are


8)     Take more than one card with you, preferably one Visa and one Mastercard and tell your card provider where & when

         you are going.

         Make sure you provide a  mobile contact point.

9)    Finally pay for as much as you can with your credit card, more about this below, but check to see if there is a charge.


Keep your debit cards at the back of your wallet to avoid using them by mistake, particularly if they are of the same colour.


I tested the  Starling Account on a recent trip to Guatemala and Costa Rica. The only initial downside was that I was unable to withdraw cash from an ATM in Guatemala but in all fairness, most of my travelling companions had some problems in getting cash out of ATM's  here. So this does support the old adage of not relying on one source of foreign currency.

The conclusion, however, was that the Starling Account would now be my first choice account for the following reasons.

There are no charges for using it as a debit card, which is pretty unique

There are no charges for ATM cash withdrawals (the local bank may still impose charges)

You get an instant notification on your mobile of any transaction, a great security feature, so alerts you to any misuse. Also great for contactless payments.

You can set your own security features, to a total block or just limiting use such as no ATM transactions or no on line transactions.

As with all cards it uses wholesale currency rates which are far better than high street rates

It saves you having to carry too much cash

You do get  token interest on your balances

I would still take my Halifax Clarity Card as backup and as Starling is Mastercard, as is Halifax, I would also take my Nationwide Card which is Visa. Both credit cards have zero foreign currency fees.

I have not included Premier Bank Accounts which also in many cases provide fee free foreign use but these accounts are not mainstream accounts.