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Money & Communication Abroad

Managing Money Abroad

Determining the best way to send, receive, and protect your money while in a foreign country can be confusing. Since there is no correct approach, students typically end up managing their financial transactions in ways that suit their own personal needs.

While abroad, it is important to remember to plan for independent travel expenses as well as costs for anything that is not covered in the program price. Note that 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. The following sections could help guide your thinking.

ATM/Debit Cards

Many students use this method of accessing their money. You should make sure that you have a four-digit PIN number that does not start with a zero. If you are planning on using a card, make sure you know your PIN number. Check with your financial institution to see what ATM machines are available to you worldwide and consult them for advice on the availability of machines such as CIRRUS, PLUS and VISA. Make sure you notify your bank with all of your travel plans to ensure that your card does not get cancelled while abroad. Bank cards are debited in local currency so keep an eye on the exchange rate. In addition, many times your home bank may not charge a bank fee, but banks abroad might charge a fee each time you use their ATM which can add up quickly. Taking a larger amount of money out at one time might be more economical.

A newer alternative to traditional ATM/Debit cards are prepaid debit cards. With these types of cards you or anyone you designate can add money to the card online or by phone. Before purchasing look if the card has any fees attached.

University of Wisconsin Credit Union

Many students have used the University of Wisconsin Credit Union (UWCU) while studying abroad. Although the Center for International Education (CIE) is not affiliated with the UWCU, many students from UWM have found the UWCU to be a convenient banking option. UWCU 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.

Cash/Foreign Currency

Before you leave the U.S., it is strongly recommended that you get $50-$150 in foreign currency for food, drinks, taxis, or any other immediate needs that arise upon 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. In addition to the UWCU on campus and around Wisconsin, many other banks sell international currency.

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

Credit Cards

VISA is one of the most widely used and accepted credit cards worldwide. MasterCard and American Express may also be accepted, but Discover Card is generally not. American Express cards can be used to purchase Traveler's Checks. 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. Also check the interest rate on cash advances, which are, in many cases, very high and applied immediately to your statement.

Most 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 the duration of your trip so that they do not deactivate your card when they see numerous purchases and transactions abroad. Remember, if you visit other places 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 now become outdated, as they are becoming less commonly accepted (American Express traveler's checks are still accepted in most places) and you may be charged a higher rate for using them. They should be purchased in U.S. dollars and may be cashed at banks or exchange offices. Such facilities are conveniently located in larger cities. The advantage is they can be replaced in the event that they are lost or stolen. Be sure to make two copies of the check numbers. You should give one copy to a family member or friend and keep the other for yourself but separate from the actual check. Should you lose your checks, you will need to provide these numbers in order to obtain replacements. AAA members can obtain American Express Checks at no cost. This option should be researched based on the country which you are traveling to and is not an available 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 U.S. side, but occasionally can be charged in the U.S. as well as the city where you are studying. Beware: This can be very 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 U.S. State Department and then wired to the nearest consulate or American Embassy. Your passport is your general ID while abroad and you will need to show it. The cost is $15 and takes three to four days from the time the State Department receives the check. Call the Citizen's Emergency Center at (202) 647-5225 or check out the website ( ) for more information.

Communicating While Abroad

Electronic Communication

Unlike at home, direct communication by cell phone can be very costly. Before making this the primary method of communication, check the rates with your service provider. You may also need to use a different SIM card for the region you are going to in order for the device to work.

The internet has made communication easier and much more cost effective.You can always use e-mail, social networking sites, and instant messenger to communicate. While it is not as personable, it is an easy (and less expensive) way to keep in touch with anyone back home.

Skype is a great tool to use for direct communication. It has many features such as instant messaging and international calling. If the people you want to communicate with have accounts with Skype, you are able to call each other using microphones, or even video chat using a web camera for free! If you would like to call a normal phone, such as a landline at home, you are able to do so for just cents per minute. For more information see

Snail Mail

While it is a less direct method of communication, many still appreciate physical mail. A postcard or a letter can be a great way to let those back home know that you are thinking of them. See for more details on international mailing.


Because taking a cellular device from home would be very costly, many students choose to purchase a device in-country (such as a pay-as-you-go phone) when they arrive. This may present problems. For example, it may be difficult to navigate through a contract (if there is one), especially if it is in another language. It also goes without saying that if you are required to sign a contract, this could last for far longer than you will be abroad. In addition, depending on how much traveling you intend to do around the surrounding areas or countries, the rates may change. It is advised to look into various options before making a decision. 

PicCell Wireless is one option that offers international wireless phone packages specifically designed for use by international students. These are great for those who would like to be able to make calls in-country as well as reach their family at home, i.e. upon arrival to let their family know that they arrived safely. PicCell will provide you with the appropriate equipment, SIM card, and offer services and plans geared toward students on long as well as short-term programs. See their website on rates and how to get set up: