How to save money and use credit cards while studying abroad

Learn to budget and use credit cards wisely while abroad so you can spend less time worrying—and more time enjoying the journey.

With unforgettable views, vibrant cultures and new adventures at every turn, it’s not hard to understand the allure of studying abroad. And as more students seek out opportunities, new programs continue to pop up to support interest. Studying in a historic European village? Yes, please.

While it’s easy to focus on only the fun of the upcoming semester, it’s still important to plan and budget for your trip so you don’t return home with empty pockets.

Ready for a fun semester abroad? Here are six tips to help you plan a budget, figure out whether to use a credit or debit card and find ways to trim costs.

1. How credit cards work abroad

How does using a credit card abroad work? In many ways, the same as here in the U.S. Simply swipe, insert or tap, and voilà. But if you’re traveling abroad, using a credit card can offer benefits to help you keep your account secure and avoid fees. 

And a credit card may be more secure than carrying around a wad of cash—especially if your card has $0 liability for unauthorized charges, which means if your card is lost or stolen, you will not be responsible for charges you did not authorize.

What to look for in a credit card when studying abroad 

When you’re looking for a credit card to take abroad with you, consider some of the benefits it can provide. Here are a few features to look for:

  • No foreign transaction fees: These can add up quickly if you’re being charged a percentage of the purchase every time you swipe. More on this below. 
  • 24-hour travel assistance: If your card gets lost or stolen, getting a quick replacement can make a huge difference. Companies like Visa® or Mastercard® can connect you directly to a live agent. They may be able to help you quickly get a new card. And, in some cases, you may be able to get an emergency cash advance, too.
  • Account lock: This is another helpful option if your card goes missing. Depending on your card’s issuer, you may be able to temporarily disable your card in a few easy steps. Just remember, transactions like automatic bill payments or other scheduled transfers may still go through.
  • Travel insurance: Depending on your card and the type of travel insurance you’re looking for, you might not need to buy separate travel coverage. Some cards come with coverage for trip delays and cancellations, lost baggage, and emergency medical situations.
  • Car rental insurance: When you rent a car with your credit card, you could be covered for damage that’s due to either collision or theft. This can vary depending on your card. You’ll also want to double check that coverage applies to countries where you’ll be traveling.
  • Rewards: Don’t forget to seek out a card that offers rewards, if possible. The cash back or miles you can earn on every purchase can add up. And rewards can be a handy way to help offset an expense or two. Or even be applied to lower your balance.

Using a debit card while studying abroad

Another option to consider—even as a backup—is a debit card. For students studying abroad, a debit card can be a great way to withdraw cash when needed. You never know when you’ll encounter a smaller shop or family restaurant that only accepts cash. And if there’s an unexpected emergency while you’re abroad, a friend or relative may be able to deposit money into your debit card account for quick access.

2. Understand the cost of foreign transaction fees and where to get cash

Whether you’re using a credit card or a debit card, it will be helpful to familiarize yourself with foreign transaction fees, exchange rates and currency conversion fees. It will help you know what to expect when you reach your destination.

Foreign transaction fees and currency fees can be tacked on to your bill whenever a transaction goes through a foreign bank or is made in a currency that’s not the U.S. dollar. While not every travel card charges these fees, make sure you understand the ins and outs of yours before you pack your bags.

Catherine Wright, the director of a study abroad program at a college in Northern Virginia, warns from personal experience against airport kiosk fees.

“Not only will you pay significantly more in the exchange rate, but you may get charged a processing fee,” she says. “Once, when I did it, I ended up only getting about 65% of what I originally would have. It was a hard lesson learned.”

Instead, Wright recommends going to your local bank and exchanging enough currency to get through your first day of travel. Once you’ve reached your destination, then you might choose to go to a local ATM to withdraw more.

Save yourself some worry, and consider planning how you’ll get cash before you get to your gate. It may save you from unnecessary ATM fees.

3. Examine your program costs and scholarship opportunities

By knowing what’s included in the total cost—and which scholarships are available—you could avoid surprise expenses and find a program that provides more bang for your buck. On average, it can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $20,000 per semester to study abroad. Prices vary based on program, location and school, so it’s important to know what’s included.

Kate Casa, the communications director at a study abroad provider, recommends asking your program coordinator for the details. You might be surprised about what’s included.

“For our programs, the price includes all courses, excursions, health insurance and full room and board for each student,” she says. “Students are also provided daily stipends to cover the costs of some meals and other incidentals.”

Scholarships and financial aid may also be available to help ease the financial burden—and bring you one step closer to studying on Rome’s famed Spanish Steps.

4. Plan meals, and follow the locals

With plenty of new restaurants to try and local sips ’n’ sweets to sample, it’s tempting to go out every night. But that may add up pretty quickly.

College senior Rachel Astheimer studied abroad in Ireland. She suggests getting to know your local grocery shop during the week—and saving the splurge for the weekends.

“The best way that I saved money was to plan out my meals for the week,” she says. “I would go to the local grocery store and buy refrigerated meals for lunch and dinner.”

Astheimer put the money she saved toward things like dinner at the local dives or souvenirs for her friends back home.

When you do choose to go out to eat, opt for spots filled with locals—not tourists. Casa says admissions counselors warn that tourist attractions, while flashy and fun, may come with a higher bill. 

5. Cash in on student discounts

Who doesn’t love a good discount? Many retail stores, tour groups and travel sites offer discounts if you show your student ID. Checking company websites saved Astheimer and her group some cash while going on daytrips in Ireland.

“Tickets were always a couple of euros cheaper for students—including international students,” she says. “It was definitely helpful, and those savings added up quickly.”

Planning for purchases like train tickets or museum visits may also be helpful. You can scout potential discounts before getting to the checkout line.

6. Look for free events

Depending on where you are abroad, dinner and drinks alone may have your nightly budget feeling a little tight. While not every city features free events, you’d be surprised how much there is to do for little to no money.

Paul Dierksheide, a senior at a liberal arts college in South Carolina, studied abroad in the United Kingdom. He recommends checking the campus bulletin boards or websites for events. 

“Our campus had a lot of free events that they would put on to keep us entertained,” he said. “When we traveled—since we were only in these countries for just a few days—we did a lot of sightseeing, which was mostly free.”

 He adds that planning for your upcoming trip abroad may help you save some cash in the long run. 

Many cities are taking their marketing to the web through tourism websites and social media accounts. A quick internet search may help you find upcoming events, free attractions and grand openings.

Studying abroad can be a great way to experience new cultures and create memories that last a lifetime. By creating a budget and planning ahead, you can say adiós to hefty conversion fees and unnecessary expenses during your time abroad.

Safe travels—and don’t forget to study.

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