Taking your holiday money: using cash cards

Cash cards are much more limited in function than credit and debit cards but they have one really big advantage abroad: without the PIN, they’re useless and therefore they’re of much less interest to thieves.

Cash cards for international use come in only two versions which are Cirrus and Plus. Both are linked to your bank account although you can also get prepaid versions of both.

These cards can’t be used in shops to make purchases and are limited to withdrawing cash from ATMs. Some banks put these symbols on their cards without considering that it means the cards can be used overseas so the charging for overseas transactions is sometimes less than clear. Once or twice I’ve found banks who were so sure that their card couldn’t be used abroad that they had no provision for making additional charges in their terms and conditions (and didn’t in my case, but don’t rely on that).

Although it’s not always clear, you can use Cirrus cards in all Mastercard branded ATMs and Plus cards in all Visa branded ones. You need to check that the country you’re going to has ATMs (not all do!) as these cards can’t be used over the counter in banks. Also, check that it will be practical to use them eg in India I found that ATMs were not widely available and Rarotonga didn’t have any ATMs until quite recently.

Charges on these are made up of a transaction charge of around 2% with a minimum of £2/$2 plus a foreign currency conversion fee of around 3%. It’s therefore best to make withdrawals of £100/$100 at a time to minimise these charges.

Downsides are basically those charges and the fact that you can only use these cards in an ATM. For those living in the UK, some pre-paid cards eliminate all charges and if you’re in the American military a USAA card works in much the same way. If your bank is a member of the Global Alliance (Bank of America, Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays, BNP, Deutschebank and Westpac) then you can withdraw cash from one of the other member banks ATMs without the transaction charge (you still get charged the foreign exchange fee).

I’m going to work my way through the various ways you can take money abroad over the next week or two in the travel money series. I’ve already covered cash, travellers cheques, credit cards/charge cards and debit cards and will be covering prepaid cards in the next episode.

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