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Money Management While Abroad

Determining the best way to send, receive, and safeguard money while in a foreign country can be confusing. Since there is no "perfect" approach, students typically end up managing their financial transactions in ways appropriate for their own circumstances.

While abroad, it is important to remember to plan for independent travel expenses as well as for experiences not covered in the program price. Foreign transfers take time to process before being available and can be quite expensive. It is recommended, that you spend some time thinking about money management options in advance before departing. The following sections could help guide your thinking.

ATM/Debit Cards

This method of accessing money is the preference for many students who have traveled abroad. You should make sure that you have a four-digit PIN number that does not start with a zero.  Consult your bank for advice on the availability of these machines such as CIRRUS, PLUS, and VISA.   You should make sure that you notify your bank with all of your travel plans to ensure that your card does not get cancelled while you are abroad.  Bank cards are debited in local currency so keep an eye on the exchange rate. Many times your home bank might not charge a bank fee, but the bank abroad might charge a fee each time their ATM is used. These fees can add up quickly, at times taking a large amount of money out at one time might be more reasonable.

A newer alternative to traditional ATM/Debit cards are prepaid debit cards.  With these types of cards, you or anyone you designate are able to add money to the card online or by phone. These cards sometimes have a fee attached to them, it is important to look at this before purchasing.

If you are planning on using credit card, know your PIN number. Also, check with your financial institution to see what ATM machines are available to you worldwide. 

University of Wisconsin Credit Union

Many students have found the UWCU to be a great banking option for while they are studying abroad. UW Credit Union does not charge any additional fees when you use your ATM or Visa debit card internationally. However, Visa will charge a processing fee. In addition, the financial institution that owns the ATM may charge a separate fee. These fees add up quickly and withdrawing a large lump sum of money might be beneficial.

UWCU also allows the option to add an external account. Many parents and students found this option helpful.

The UWCU also sells foreign currency online and at their branch locations. Please see their website,, or visit a branch for more information. The Center for International Education is not affiliated with the UW Credit Union, however, many students at UWM have found the UWCU a convenient banking option.


Cash/Foreign Currency

Before you leave the U.S., it is strongly recommended that you purchase $50-$150 in foreign currency for food, drinks, taxis or any other immediate needs upon your arrival. Do not carry any more than that unless you are willing to risk losing it. Some foreign currency will be necessary initially and it may not be possible to exchange it at the airport upon arrival. University of Wisconsin Credit Union on campus and around Wisconsin now sells international currency, along with many banks around Milwaukee.

Credit Cards

VISA is one of the most widely used and accepted credit cards worldwide. MasterCard and American Express may also be used. American Express cards can be used to purchase Traveler’s Checks. The Discover Card is not generally accepted abroad. If you plan to use cash advances, check with the issuing bank to make sure that it will be accepted by overseas banks in the country you intend to visit, and check the interest rate on cash advances, which are in many cases very high and applied immediately to your statement.

Many banks and credit card companies have initiated anti-fraud measures for your benefit. It is good practice to notify your bank and credit card company of your destination and duration abroad so they do not deactivate your card when they see a variety of purchases abroad. Remember if you vacation while abroad it is important to notify your bank of all of your travel destinations.

Traveler’s Checks

You have the option to bring money for incidentals in the form of traveler’s checks. While these were widely used in the past, traveler's checks have become outdated. They can be replaced in case of loss or theft. They should be purchased in U.S. dollars. Be sure to make two copies of the check numbers, and give one copy to a family member or friend. Keep the other copy for yourself and separate them from the actual check. Should you lose your checks, you will need to provide these numbers in order to obtain replacements. American Express Traveler’s Checks are accepted in most places. They may be cashed at banks, or at exchange offices. Such facilities are conveniently located in larger cities.  Traveler's checks are becoming less commonly accepted and you may be charged a higher exchange rate for using them.  AAA members can purchase American Express Checks at no cost. This option should be researched based on the country which you are traveling and is not an option for everyone.

Wiring Money

Funds may be wired to you from the U.S. through any U.S. bank that has a corresponding bank in the city where you are staying. Funds will be received within 2 to 10 business days from the time the wire is processed. Wiring fees are generally paid on the US side, but occasionally can be charged in the US and the city where you are studying. BEWARE! This can be expensive.

Money Orders

AmEx money orders are available at most convenience stores throughout the U.S. for a nominal fee.  Relying on this system requires planning ahead and knowing your needs some time in advance. Allow two weeks for the money to reach you via airmail. Upon receiving it, take it to the AmEx office and present it with your passport.

Personal Checks

These cannot be cashed outside of the United States.

Other Suggestions

In a genuine emergency, use the U.S. State Department. A cashier's check or money order may be sent to the US State Department, and then then wired to the nearest consulate or American Embassy. Your passport is your general I.D while abroad. This costs about $15 and is supposed to take 3-4 days from the time the State Department receives the check. Call Citizen’s Emergency Center (202) 647-5225 or check out the website at for more information.

For the most up-to-date exchange rates, please visit one of the following currency conversion websites: