Foreign Transaction Fee: Definition, How They Work, and Example

What Is a Foreign Transaction Fee?

A foreign transaction fee is a charge assessed by a financial institution to a consumer who uses an electronic payment card to make a purchase in a foreign currency. Foreign transaction fees usually apply to card purchases made in foreign countries while traveling, but they can also apply to purchases made online from your home country where the vendor is foreign and processes the transaction in its local currency.

Foreign transaction fees are also called “foreign purchase transaction fees” or “foreign currency transaction fees.”

Key Takeaways

  • A foreign transaction fee is imposed by a credit card issuer on a transaction that takes place overseas or with a foreign merchant.
  • These fees are typically 1%–3% of the value of the transaction and are paid by U.S. travelers in dollars.
  • Online purchases that take place with overseas vendors may also be subject to such a fee.
  • Several banks or credit card issuers now offer certain customers waivers on these fees, or fee-free cards.
  • Foreign transaction fees are not always the same as currency conversion fees and may be tacked on to foreign transaction charges.

Understanding Foreign Transaction Fees

Many banks and credit card issuers will charge domestic customers with foreign transaction fees if they make a transaction abroad, or online from an overseas website. Originally, these fees were intended to defray the costs to banks for settling and clearing these international payments and minimizing their exchange rate risk between currencies. Today, however, many of these concerns have been alleviated through the modernization of the global banking system. Still, several cards available today do carry foreign transaction fees.

Foreign transaction fees are an important consideration when paying for a purchase in a foreign currency with any type of electronic payment card. Consumers will encounter foreign transaction fees from most issuers of both debit and credit cards.

Withdrawals from foreign ATMs may also incur a foreign transaction fee in addition to any fees imposed directly by the ATM machine itself. One thing to consider is whether your card will reimburse you for foreign ATM fees.

How a Foreign Transaction Fee Works

Foreign transaction fees are typically around 3% of each transaction in U.S. dollars. This fee might consist of a 1% fee charged by the payment processor, such as MasterCard or Visa, plus another 2% fee charged by the card issuer, such as Bank of America or Wells Fargo.

While 3% may not sound like a whole lot, these fees can really add up over the course of an extended trip. For every $1,000 you spend, you’ll be paying $30 in foreign transaction fees.

Some foreign merchants will offer consumers the option of paying in their own home currency, which is called “dynamic currency conversion (DCC)” at the point of sale. However, it is usually more cost-effective to actually pay in the foreign currency because DCC rates do not tend to favor the consumer.

Note that foreign transaction fees differ from, and may be incurred in addition to, currency conversion fees.

No Foreign Transaction Fee Cards

If a card charges a foreign transaction fee, it will be listed in the card’s terms and conditions. Some cards do not charge any foreign transaction fees. MasterCard, for instance, lists several credit cards with no foreign transaction fees on its website, from a number of bank issuers including Citibank and Capital One.

Discover, Charles Schwab Checking, and Capital One 360 are three global financial institutions that do not charge foreign transaction fees for debit or credit card purchases.

If you are planning a trip abroad and all of your existing cards do charge foreign transaction fees, it can be a good idea to apply for a new account that has no foreign transaction fees a couple of months before your trip.

Make sure to apply far enough in advance to allow for approval, account setup, and the distribution of your new card in the mail. Also, it is a good idea to let the issuer know about your travel plans ahead of time so they will not flag your foreign purchases as fraudulent activity and freeze your account by mistake.

Special Considerations

Travel experts often recommend using an electronic payment card for all your purchases when traveling abroad because the exchange rate you get from your card issuer will probably be more favorable than the exchange rate you would get from a currency exchange kiosk.

In addition, you avoid the risk of losing cash or having it stolen and if your credit card is lost or stolen, you won’t be responsible for unauthorized transactions.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you avoid foreign transaction fees?

Signing up for a debit or credit card that does not charge fees on foreign transactions or ATM withdrawals is the best way for travelers to avoid these fees.

Do debit cards have high foreign transaction fees?

Debit cards typically carry foreign transaction fees that are commensurate with credit cards. Each issuer has a different fee structure. There are several options for debit cards that have no foreign transaction fees.

Are foreign transaction fees refunded?

If your card has such a fee, it will likely not be refunded if you use it overseas. Cards that have no foreign fee may or may not refund fees charged by foreign ATMs.

Can you use your credit card internationally?

Yes. Most major credit card issuers that are branded with Visa, Mastercard, Discover, or American Express are accepted by merchants around the world. Note that you may need to inform your card issuer of your intended travel ahead of time so that they do not lock the account due to suspected fraudulent activity.

Article Sources
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  1. Nerd Wallet. "Foreign Transaction Fees: What to Know and How to Avoid Them." Accessed August 9, 2021.

  2. MasterCard. "No Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Cards." Accessed August 9, 2021.

  3. Charles Schwab. "Checking." Accessed August 9, 2021.

  4. Capital One. "Is there a fee when I use my debit card abroad?" Accessed August 9, 2021.

  5. Discover. "Does Discover Have Foreign Transaction Fees?" Accessed August 9, 2021.