Banking as a Full-Time Traveler

ATM on Ice - Banking as a Full-Time Traveler
You never know when you are going to need to pull some money out of an ATM inside of an ice cave. New Zealand’s Fox Glacier.

Like so many aspects of being a modern-day nomad, banking is easier by the fact that we live in the digital age. Some of the best banks in the world have no brick-and-mortar locations. One of the best checking accounts has no ATM fees anywhere in the world. Depositing checks and sending money via a phone app have become standard practices. The beauty of banking as a full-time traveler in the digital age is that you can get some of the best interest rates on your savings and also pay no foreign transaction fees. This is true if you are roaming around North America or the world.

Disclaimer: This article is for citizens of the United States as most of these banks are based in the U.S. and require you to be a resident of the U.S. to take advantage of their banking solutions.

Disclaimer 2: None of the ATM photos in this article are real.

History

ATM-Moraine
Moraine Lake used to be the scene on the back of Canada’s 20 dollar bill.

I can remember a time not so long ago that I had to go to my local bank and get a travelers check when planning to leave the country. Just saying that makes me feel like an old man. Those checks cost me money to get printed and they were subject to transaction fees in the country where I cashed them. That all seems crazy to me now. In the digital age, we just click a button on our various bank’s websites to let them know that we are traveling and our debit and credit cards allow us to travel freely. We barely even have to think about it.

Banking as a Full-Time Traveler Quick Links

Checking Account for Travelers

Interest rates on checking accounts are always low as that is fundamental to how they work. The bank can’t really invest money sitting in a checking account as it is usually accessed too often. For this reason you will never get much return from the bank with money sitting in a checking account. Instead a good checking account will have perks like free checks (not much use for those these days) and free ATM use nation wide or even worldwide. This is an especially useful way of banking as a full-time traveler. International ATM fees as well as foreign transaction fees can cost you a bundle.

Debit Card

ATM -New Zealand
Jake overlooking Mount Ngauruhoe on New Zealand’s Northern Circuit.

When it comes to spending money with a piece of plastic I prefer to use a credit card. The money on a debit card is mine and if it gets overcharged or there is fraudulent activity, I’m out the moola until it gets worked out. On a credit card I can dispute charges and not have to pay them until they are worked out. It is a preference thing. Debit cards have usefulness in being able to pull cash out of ATMs. This is especially useful when banking as a full-time traveler. However, if you aren’t using an ATM that is owned by your bank you might be charged fees to withdraw your money which is stupid.

Who is the Best?

There are many banks that have worldwide branches and partnerships where you can access your money from a variety of ATMs without having to pay fees. You still have to know who is in the partnership and where you can get your money. Charles Schwab is the only one that as of early 2021 makes getting your money easy. They reimburse your account for any ATM fees that you might incur anywhere in the world. The only catch is that your investor checking account must be attached to a Schwab brokerage account.

Savings Account for Travelers

ATM-Philippines
This is what I call mobile banking. Philippine Sea.

Savings accounts are first and for most for savings. So why wouldn’t you put that money into a High Yield Savings Account? High Yield Savings accounts are what they sound like. They have a higher annual percentage yield (APY) than a traditional savings account. Typically the difference is that they limit the number of withdraws you are allowed to make from the account per month. The higher APY banks also tend to not have branches but rather operate entirely online. Not to worry, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation high yield savings accounts are safe as they are insured up to $250,000.

What to Look for in a Bank

What makes a bank best for high yield savings accounts is a two-fold consideration. The most important being the annual percentage yield which can change often as they aren’t locked in. The second consideration is the minimum account balance. Honestly, this is a savings account so the minimum shouldn’t matter as much but it is something to be aware of especially when moving money around.

Who is the Best?

Like we stated above the best savings bank can easily change as the APY changes at each bank. In January of 2021, Vio Bank has the highest APY of 0.66% on their savings accounts with a low $100 minimum. While Vio has only been around since 2018 it is the online division of MidFirst Bank. Another great online bank is Ally Bank which is consistently ranked as one of the best high yield savings accounts. As of January 2021, Ally offers a 0.5% rate on their accounts. They are typically very competitive and have had APY’s as high as 2.2% in recent years.

Credit Cards for Travelers

ATM-Mayan
An ancient Mayan ATM at Uxmal.

Too much emphasis is placed on the annual percentage rate (APR) for credit cards. The APR only comes into play if you don’t pay off your credit card every month. That being said, you need to pay off your credit card every month otherwise you are throwing money away. Getting control of your debt is the second step in preparing for a life of full-time travel. So when I list a credit card here it is a tool for spending money you already have. Every time we pull out a credit card we think of it as cash. If we don’t have the cash, we don’t spend the money.

What to Look For

I’m going to get off my soapbox now and tell you what to look for in a credit card when banking as a full-time traveler because it isn’t APR. There are four things that set good cards apart from bad cards for nomads: annual fees, rewards programs, foreign transaction fees, & where it is accepted. You will also need to have a good credit score to get a good credit card for full-time travel.

Where is it Accepted?

ATM-Cambodia - Banking as a Full-Time Traveler
Jennifer checking out some Cambodian ruins in Siem Reap.

I don’t care how many times American Express and Discover say they are accepted worldwide. It just isn’t true or at least as true as when VISA and Master Card say it. I have never visited a store in any country where credit cards were accepted that VISA wasn’t welcomed. There are plenty of places that I’ve been to that didn’t accept American Express or Discover. For this reason, when banking as a full-time traveler you need a VISA credit card even if it is only for emergency purchases.

Annual Fees

Annual fees are easy to avoid. Don’t apply for a credit card with an annual fee associated with it unless you are very intentional in doing so. Some annual fee cards are worth the price as they bring membership rewards for flights and hotel stays or bigger reward bonuses than a traditional card. If you prefer certain airlines or certain hotels and you travel enough then one of these might be right for you.

Rewards Program

ATM-Africa
Banking with the local wildlife in Tanzania.

Rewards programs can vary greatly on what percentage is accrued on every dollar spent and depending on what kind of item is purchased. Many credit cards focus on airline miles. I prefer something a bit more universal for my rewards. I tend to choose a credit card that has high reward points and where fewer reward points are needed to reap a valuable reward. A 100 to 1 value seems to be the industry standard; meaning $1 for every 100 points earned. There is ample opportunity to use more points for less value by acquiring products directly by purchasing with points.

Airline Points or Cash Back Percentages?

Points and percentages tend to be the same. If you get 1% cashback for $100 spent then that is $1. If 100 airline points are worth $1 then each point is equivalent to 1% cashback. In some cases, you can use airline points to get a slightly better rate if you are using them with the correct partnership like hotels and airlines. Airline points can also often be used for cashback on travel purchases.

Foreign Transaction Fees

Foreign transaction fees can be murderous to your travel budget. Use your credit card internationally and you could get hit with typically a 1-3% transaction fee. This can really wreck your banking as a full-time traveler. If you plan to do any traveling outside the United States make sure you have a VISA credit card that has no foreign transaction fees.

A Good Choice for International Travel

We really like the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for traveling internationally. The 1.5 points for every dollar spent isn’t the best rewards program but it applies to every purchase. The real reason to get this card is that it has no annual fee and no transaction fees worldwide. That alone will save you plenty as you travel the globe.

More Options When Traveling the United States

ATM-Great Sand Dunes
Jennifer checking out an old abandoned ATM machine in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

When traveling through the United States you have a lot of financial options. As of early 2021, we like the Citi Double Cash Card because it is a VISA and it is simple with a 2% cashback on every single item bought and paid for. (1% when you charge it and 1% when you pay the card off.)

There are a bunch of variable reward rate credit cards with rotating categories. They are all pretty similar. The top percentage rate is based on a rotating category that usually changes every three months. In early 2021, the Discover It Cash Back Card stands out in the crowd. The top end of the rewards being in the 5% range (on rolling categories) and 1% on all other purchases. The real benefit of this card is found at the end of the first year when all the reward points you’ve earned get doubled automatically.

The Only Annual Fee Card We Like

The only annual fee credit card we’ve found to be enticing for our nomadic lifestyle is the Blue Cash Preferred from American Express. The fee is $95/year but if you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months you get a $250 credit. You can also rake in reward points with 6% cashback on U.S. supermarket purchases. There is a $6000 limit/year so that is essentially worth $360 in points if you max it out. This card also has 3% cashback at U.S. gas stations and other transit-related purchases, making it very appealing when banking as a full-time traveler in the United States.

Conclusion for Banking as a Full-Time Traveler

Banking as a Full-Time Traveler
Pin this post to your Pinterest board to easily return to it later.

When traveling in the digital age it is important to have a checking and savings account that works for you and not against you with high ATM fees and international transaction fees. It is equally important to have a credit card that is targeted to travelers making the most of the way you spend your money and avoiding expensive transaction fees. Banking as a full-time traveler from anywhere in the world during the digital age is easier than it has ever been. Just don’t forget to let your bank know where and when you are traveling internationally so that your cards work when you get there.

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