International cards: what are they and are they worth it? 
While most credit and debit cards can be used globally anywhere your network is accepted, some cards - sometimes called international debit cards, or international travel cards - are optimised for overseas use. These cards may have better rewards for international spending, good exchange rates, or specific travel perks to help you do more when you’re overseas.
But how much do these cards cost? What are the fees applied when making transactions with them? And are they worth getting? In this article we will show you all this and some of the best alternatives, like Wise or Revolut - so you can pick the perfect fit for your travel needs.
Table of content
- International card: what is it and what is it for?
- Advantages and disadvantages of international cards
- Types of international card
- Which banks offer international cards?
- How to get an international card?
- International card fees
What is an international card?
Most payment cards can be used around the world wherever you see the logo of your network - like Mastercard or Visa. However, some cards have more of a focus on travel and overseas spending in person or online - these may offer foreign currency payments with no non-sterling transaction fee, give better cashback or rewards when you spend overseas, or come with perks like travel insurance or airport lounge access for example.
Having an international card for spending when you travel or shop online with international merchants can be convenient - and depending on the card you pick may also mean you save money.
Who are international cards for?
International and travel focused cards can suit a variety of people. We’ll dive into some of the different card types out there, plus some of the pros and cons of getting an international card, a little later. But they’re worth considering if you’re:
A traveller who needs to spend and withdraw around the world
An online shopper spending in foreign currencies
Looking to maximise card benefits and rewards available when overseas
Budgeting for an upcoming trip and looking to buy foreign currencies ahead of time
A business owner making business travel arrangements or paying online for supplies
Advantages and disadvantages of international cards
Before you get a new travel card, it’s worth thinking through the pros and cons to make sure you’ll really benefit. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of international cards which you’ll need to consider.
International cards are more likely to be accepted overseas as they’ll be issued on popular networks with global coverage
Some international cards offer better exchange rates - or lower foreign transaction fees - compared to regular cards
International cards may give better rewards or cashback when you spend on travel or transact internationally
Having a travel card can be a smart way to keep your international spending separate from you day to day finances, making budgeting a breeze
Some international travel cards have higher annual and transaction fees compared to regular cards
Depending on the card you pick you may still need to pay non-sterling transaction fees when overseas
International credit cards will usually incur interest and risk penalty charges, and come with particularly high fees when withdrawing cash
Are international cards a good option?
International cards do have some great benefits, as long as you check over all of the features and fees before you pick one for your needs.
Some cards have relatively costly annual fees - but may also offer great rewards or cashback. These may be useful to people who have high annual overseas spending, and would maximise the reward options. Other cards have low or no annual fees, and could be great for travellers who don’t want to commit to ongoing fees.
By weighing up the options for different international card types, and picking the provider which best suits your needs, you may well be able to find a travel card which provides benefits compared to your normal card.
Types of international card
There’s no single perfect card for travel. International cards come with a broad variety of features and fees, which means you can pick the right one for you. Here are some of the common options which are worth considering.
International debit cards
An international debit card may be linked to a bank account or a specialist multi-currency account from an online or mobile provider. With a debit card you can only spend funds you have in the linked account - which means you can’t accidentally blow your budget when you’re away.
Depending on the provider and card you select you may also be able to access currency conversion which uses the Google exchange rate, or specific travel perks and benefits.
As an example, Wise is one of our picks for the best international debit cards in the UK. Open a Wise Account online or in the Wise app, to hold and exchange 50+ currencies and get a linked debit card for spending in 170+ countries. Top up your Wise Account in pounds, and switch to the currency you need using the mid-market rate with no hidden fees - or let the card do the heavy lifting for you, with automatic currency conversion which guarantees the lowest fees every time.
International credit cards
Credit cards can be a good option if you prefer to spread the cost of your travels out over a few instalments - although there may be a fee or interest to pay to benefit from this service. Using a travel credit card may also mean you get extra cashback or rewards when you spend on travel or use a foreign currency - although some international credit cards do still have a foreign transaction fee you’ll need to consider.
International prepaid cards
With a prepaid card you’ll need to create an account with a specialist provider, and add funds to your card online or in cash at an agent or branch. You can then spend this loaded value as you travel, and in some cases, make cash withdrawals. The way international prepaid cards work can vary between providers - some allow you to view transactions and top up via an app, which can be handy when you’re overseas.
The UK's Post Office prepaid travel card UK is a popular choice, which can be convenient as you’ll be able to get help and advice in person by calling into a Post Office branch.
Which banks offer international cards?
Not all UK banks offer international cards or credit cards which are optimised for travel use. However, one good option is a Starling Bank card which doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee, and which has euro denominated accounts for personal customers. Starling is a digital bank, but has a full UK banking licence, and a good range of products available.
International credit cards are an alternative option - but these may come with high annual fees to pay. Most UK banks offer credit cards which can be used internationally - many of which offer rewards or cashback for international spending.
For customers looking for an international card which offers great features and doesn’t have ongoing fees, banks may not be the best option. Instead, there are several specialist providers which can help. Wise or Revolut both offer digital multi-currency accounts with linked cards, which can offer currency exchange with the mid-market rate and great international payment options.
How to get an international card
Applying for an international card from a specialist provider is usually easy, and can often be done online or via an ap
Eligibility requirements for international cards can vary between providers. If you want to open an international credit card you’ll usually have to pass a credit check, and there may be income requirements to fulfil too.
For international debit cards from alternative providers the eligibility requirements are usually a little more straightforward. Often all you’ll need is:
Proof of your identity - like a passport
Proof of your address - such as a utility bill in your name
How to activate an international card
Depending on the card you pick, you may need to activate your international card before you can use it. Some providers require you to call them to confirm receipt of the card, or to enter a code from the card onto their app.
Others like the Wise debit card just need you to make a purchase using your PIN number - or you can choose to make a cash withdrawal or check your balance in an ATM. This shows that the Wise card is in safe hands, and the card holder knows the secure PIN.
How can I know if my card will work overseas?
If your card is issued on a popular global network like Visa or Mastercard, the chances are that it’ll work overseas without any problem. However, some networks are more popular in some regions than others - so it’s worth checking the network coverage and carrying an alternative method of payment just in case.
Some banks also ask you to confirm your travel plans in advance, to avoid your card being blocked for security reasons when overseas transactions show up.
International card fees
International card fees can vary widely between providers, with international credit cards often involving a fairly high annual fee, and other costs like cash advance charges when you make ATM withdrawals. International debit and prepaid cards may have slightly lower costs - and no risk of running into interest or penalty fees - which can mean you have more money for your trip.
Here’s a quick summary of some of the key charges for 3 popular international debit and prepaid cards as an example - we’ll dive into more detail about each fee type, next.
|Provider/fee||Withdrawals||Annual fees||Other fees|
Up to 2 withdrawals a month, to the value of 200 GBP fee free
1.75% + 0.5 GBP after that
|No ongoing fee to pay||Currency exchange from 0.41%, with no exchange rate markup|
|Revolut||Up to 800 GBP/month fee free, depending on plan||Up to 12.99 GBP/month, depending on plan||Fair usage and out of hours fees may apply based on your plan type|
|Post Office Travel Card||Varies by currency - 1.5 GBP or 2 EUR for example||2 GBP (Applies from 12 months of no usage)|
1.5% - from 3 GBP - 50 GBP - to top up in pounds
3% fee when spending a currency you don’t hold on the card
Withdrawing cash from an ATM in your destination country can often be cheaper than changing money in advance and carrying cash - and is almost always more convenient. However, fees may be involved, depending on the card you choose.
International credit cards will typically have a cash advance fee when you take out money from an ATM, plus foreign transaction or non-sterling cash fees. You’ll also often start to rack up interest instantly without any grace period.
International debit and prepaid cards may have some fee free ATM withdrawals - although you might need to find an in-network ATM to benefit.
Annual, monthly, or ongoing maintenance fees can push up the costs of holding an international card. International credit cards commonly have annual fees, while international prepaid cards may not have any annual fee, but may charge an account dormancy fee if you don’t use your card often enough.
Specialist providers offering international debit cards may offer free accounts which have no ongoing fees - or in some cases you can choose to upgrade to a fee paying account to get more benefits. Wise, for example, has no account maintenance or monthly fee, while Revolut has a free standard plan option, plus several fee paying accounts which have more features available.
Before you get an international card, read the fee schedule carefully. Charges can vary widely - so look out for:
Foreign transaction fees or non-sterling cash fees
Currency exchange fees
Top up fees
Account dormancy or closure fees
Interest and penalty fees for credit cards
Cash advance fees and ATM withdrawal fees
Conclusion: is an international card worth it?
Getting an international card can make life easier, cheaper and more convenient when you travel or spend overseas. However, it’s important to pick the international card type that suits your needs - and that you find a provider which has the best balance of cost and convenience for the transactions you’ll make often.
Use this guide to help you research your options, including traditional bank international debit and credit cards, and products from specialist services like Wise and Revolut, which can be cheaper and offer better exchange rates.
International cards FAQs
There’s no single best international card out there - the right one for you will depend on the transactions you’re likely to make.
International credit cards can be a good option for people who like to spread the costs of their travel, and don’t mind paying for this facility. On the other hand, international debit cards from specialist providers can be handy for people looking to cut the costs of spending in foreign currencies, with low overall fees and a good exchange rate.
For most international cards issued by specialist services, there will be an easy way to apply online or in-app. You’ll normally have to register an account, show some ID and add some funds to your account to get started, and can receive your card in the post shortly after.
Most debit and credit cards issued on major payment networks like Visa and Mastercard can be used internationally. However, some cards are optimised for overseas use, and may offer better exchange rates, or higher rates of cashback and rewards when you travel.
If your card has been issued by your bank it’s worth checking if they need to activate it for international travel. You may also need to notify your bank of where you’re heading, so they don’t block your card due to suspicious transactions.