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Over the past month most Americans with credit cards have received a notice that Visa and MasterCard are changing the way that they charge concurrency conversion fees. Notices about Visa/MasterCard included with credit card bills don't address the main problem.
The changes to the Visa and MasterCard are minor. They will both continue to charge a one percent transaction fee for foreign currency conversions. However, now that one percent fee will apply to any Philippine transaction, even if no currency transaction takes place. That goes for all overseas locations not just for the Philippines.
However, this one percent charge benefits the consumer with simplicity and, normally, a favorable interbank currency conversion rate.
The big problem for consumers is the pernicious "foreign transaction fees.” Virtually every major credit card company now tacks this two to three percent fee onto any charge made overseas. The fee is buried deep in the fine print of credit card agreements.
Worse, your bank does nothing for this fee. It provides absolutely no service for the fee that they extract. Visa and MasterCard have already done all the work and your bank card issuer is simply layering another fee on unsuspecting consumers. Not a single bank spokesperson could suggest what service a bank provided for the fee.
Many have suggested using bank ATM cards overseas in order to avoid these fees. About half of the major banks are now charging their customers the same fees (and in some cases more) whenever they use a debit card overseas. With many major banks, there is no easy escape from the foreign transaction fee in the Philippines.
Added, in many cases, to the indignity of this transaction fee that applies in the Philippines is another additional fee - the cash advanced fee. Consumers get hit with this fee, in most cases, whenever they use a credit card to take money from an ATM whether in the USA or overseas.
These cash advance fees might be as much as 3 percent. Sometimes they are simply a flat charge of $1 to $10 to use a foreign ATM.
Even those using ATM cards which access their own money are faced with ATM fees. These fees according to my research range from $1 to $10. For small withdrawals, these fees can be very expensive.
Here are basic rules:
1. Find a bank card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees. Capital One credit cards do not charge the foreign transaction fee. If planning on using your debit card, make sure your bank does not charge a foreign transaction fee. Over half do. Smaller banks, regional banks, credit unions and online banks which issue credit cards often do not charge foreign transaction fees.
2. Avoid expensive ATM/cash advance fees. Read the fine print before deciding which card to use overseas. If planning to use an ATM card, make sure your bank does not charge overseas transaction fees. With a debit card, online banks (and some smaller banks) often have provisions to refund ATM charges. With a credit card, find a credit union that has a low ATM or cash advance charge. If you have an ATM/check card, know what charges are assessed for using foreign ATMs. Sometimes the ATM fee can be more than a credit card cash advance fee if not used wisely.
3. Ask banks and credit card issuers whether fees are additive. There is much confusion, even within the banks, about how fees are charged. Ask your bank whether the fees are additive. If so, your real cost for getting money from an ATM overseas will be one percent conversion fee, plus two to three percent bank foreign transaction fee, plus the three percent cash advance fee (or a fixed ATM charge). That can add up to a seven percent or more fee to take money from a cash machine overseas.
4. Ask your bank card issuer whether their foreign transaction charge includes the Visa/MasterCard currency conversion fee. Some do. Some don't.
5. Ask your bank whether they charge foreign transactions fees on cash advances from foreign ATM. Some do. Some don't.
6. Ask your bank to waive the ATM fee. Some will. Some won't. If your bank won't, ask around and try to find another bank that will.
7. Look for global alliances that reduce transaction fees. Some banks are members of international ATM alliances, which provide no-fee access to bank card holders when using certain bank machines. Ask your bank if they are a member of such an alliance. Some banks with these alliances do not even charge foreign transaction fees.
For instance, Bank of America has a no-fee ATM agreement with the following banks: Barclays (United Kingdom), BNP Paribas (France), Deutsche Bank (Germany), Santander Serfin (Mexico), Scotia bank (Canada), Westpac (Australia and New Zealand). Withdrawing money with a Bank of America debit card from one of these banks’ ATMs is fee-free.
Even with these fees, using credit cards and debit cards overseas is the most economical way to convert currencies. The bank card rates, even with these fees are almost always better than exchanging money at an exchange booth at an airport of with the front desk of a hotel.
Some banks overseas have more reasonable transaction fees, but finding banks with the best exchange rates is difficult. But not as much here as some places. Because you have the List you can join to get the latest bank rates.
Credit and debit cards are still the easiest and safest way to get money overseas. But be smart about it and be aware what foreign transactions are really costing.
Before traveling overseas, do your homework with your bank to figure out which credit card or debit card works best for you. The best deals seem to be with credit cards issued by smaller banks and credit unions, which charge no overseas transaction fees and $1 ATM withdrawal fees. Or find a bank with an ATM alliance that eliminates fees when withdrawing money with a debit card.
If you are going to stay here, just open up a bank account. You can deposit your check from your bank in the States or other country. It takes 21 working days to clear. But then when you get that going, no problem. Every time you remove money, put more in.
(Charles Leocha with Philippine specific additions from Don Herrington)