How to avoid high bank fees with other currencies, while traveling

Do you often check your bank account while traveling? I don’t. Once in a while to see if there is enough money left on it, but I prefer not to confront it, which is for home. I want to enjoy my journey without seeing how much my account is suffering.

And that came at quite a cost to me.

After our last trip outside Europe, I saw that the bank had charged more than €200 in fees. I had no idea it could be that much!

This could be better, I thought. For my next trip outside the euro zone, I decided to splash the bank a little less with my hard-earned pennies. You can read how here.

In this article, I compare the costs of 3 Belgian banks (both debit and credit cards) with the costs of the digital multi-currency accounts Revolut and Wise. I also give you other tips for saving money when making money transactions outside of Europe.

I deal with cash withdrawals as well as transactions with your debit card in such places as hotels, restaurants, stores, et cetera. I keep talking about “outside Europe” or “outside the euro zone,” by this I mean all countries outside the EEA zone (EU + Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein).

In this article, I try to give you as complete information as possible. If you are just looking for the calculations and comparisons, you will find them here: the comparison for transactions in, for example, merchant stores and the comparison for cash pickup.

Banking fees outside Europe, what exactly is the situation?

When you want to pay with your debit or credit card outside Europe in a store or withdraw cash, there are various bank fees involved.

Because of these costs, it is often recommended to bring cash. You can exchange your bills locally at a (often) slightly better exchange rate than you get through the bank.

Personally, I don’t like walking around with a lot of money and also find exchanging a hassle, in addition to the fact that it often involves scams. So I am willing to pay a little more to avoid walking around with too much cash. But what I didn’t know before is that bank fees are (can be) horrendously high.

There may be local bank fees, as well as fees from your own bank. I’ll guide you through this rather difficult topic!


What is a debit card?

Your debit card is your regular bank card. The bank card linked to your current account, in Belgium you probably make your purchases with this. In Belgium, this bank card is often called Bancontact, in the Netherlands PIN. It usually also says “Maestro” or “Visa Debit.

A debit card has money on it in advance; a credit card allows you to pay on credit.

So there are two different bank cards: debit card and credit card.

When collecting money, it's best to keep Google Lens or another translation app nearby if you don't speak the language. Even though I chose English, I suddenly got the above screen. Without Google Lens, I would never have known I was entering the wrong PIN 😉

Do you have multiple banks or a credit card as well? Take those with you as well so that if one pass doesn't turn out to work, you still have a backup. From experience we can tell you that it is not convenient to be with only one bank, in case of a failure you can't go anywhere!

Local bank fees on cash withdrawals

Often in a country you pay fixed fees at the automatic teller machine (ATM). For example, in Thailand it is always 220 baht; in Panama it is usually $6.50 per withdrawal. The amount you have to pay extra is always indicated on the screen and is also on the receipt. No matter which bank you’re with at home, you’ll always pay these fees if you don’t have a local bank card.

In Thailand, 220 baht per transaction seemed fine for us to travel “more safely” (i.e., without too much cash in our pockets).

But what many people don’t tell you is that your own bank’s extra transaction and exchange fees can be a lot higher than you think!

When withdrawing money at an ATM, always choose "without conversion. The moment you choose "without conversion," you withdraw money in the local currency.

If you choose "with conversion," you actually choose euros and the bank where you withdraw money gets to choose what the exchange rate is. And that's a great way for them to make money, you're much more expensive in most cases.

Always withdraw as much money as possible at once, otherwise you'll pay those local bank fees over and over again. Often the limit is between €250 and €500.

oreign exchange / exchange surcharge & transaction fees

When you make a transaction in a foreign currency, you pay exchange fees. Whether you take cash out of the wall or pay with your credit card at a store, if you have a bill in euros, you pay exchange fees on it. Also called rate premium or exchange rate surcharge.

But that’s not all. On top of that, you often pay transaction or handling fees.

The difficulty in this? Each bank may choose how much exchange rate mark-up and handling fees it charges.
So what you pay depends on the bank you’re with, and those differences can be high.

Just a little example to make it concrete, where you withdraw
€550 cash withdrawal from an ATM in Thailand.
I compare the charges at three different Belgian banks. For the 220 baht in local bank fees, I charge €6.

The Belgian ING charges 0.3% + €4.24 in handling fees and 3.90% in exchange rate. That means that at ING, you will spend €27.34 per transaction of €550, not counting the 220 baht. So with the 220 baht, you’re at
€33.34 per transaction
. That can add up considerably!

KBC has three different transaction fees. The commission for a foreign bank is €2.12 + 0.61% on the amount. The commission for “domestic service providers” is €1.21 and 0.61% of the amount and, finally, the exchange rate is 1.94%. So for a €550 transaction outside Europe, you’ll spend €20.72 and with the 220 baht added € 26.72 per transaction.

At HelloBank (a brand of BNP Paribas Fortis), you pay €13.48 on the same amount. HelloBank charges €2.86 + 0.3% over the amount (with a maximum of €12.09) + an exchange margin of 1.63%. With the 220 baht, you total
€19.48 per transaction
of €550. A lot cheaper, then, but still far from cheap.

I’ll go into more detail later about math examples of both cash withdrawals and transactions at, say, a store.

If you only have a debit card and credit card, it is usually recommended that you withdraw cash with your debit card and pay at the store with your credit card. This is often true, but also depends on your bank and the amounts you withdraw. Look up the costs and calculate when which is cheaper, if you don't opt for a multivalue account that we discuss below.

Hello, multi-value accounts

You get the idea, your trip can get very expensive that way. This really should be able to be cheaper, so I went to investigate.

I soon came across Wise and Revolut. I had seen these cards come up before, but always saw that only the first 200 euros is free to withdraw. So I thought there were no benefits to it, as 200 euros runs out pretty quickly. Until I took a closer look at the cost and compared it to the normal bank.

No idea what I’m talking about? Wise and Revolut offer multi-currency accounts. That means you can have both euros and dollars, and Thai baht et cetera in one account. These “digital bank accounts” were originally created to make international transfers cheaper and easier. They both have many different options, but in this article I focus only on the benefits of transactions outside Europe when you travel.

With both banks, you can open a free account. For this, of course, you have to identify yourself and fill in some information.

At Revolut, you will find that you can choose from a variety of subscriptions. If you travel very often outside the euro zone, this may be of interest. If you think, I’ll just subscribe for one month and then cancel, that won’t work. You then pay additional fees listed in the fine print (I had the same idea 😉 ). So just take the free account, unless, for example, you are traveling around the world, or need the other benefits.

Wise and Revolut both use the “mid-market rate,” which is also called the real rate. You can also find these in Google, type there the number of euros you want to redeem, the amount you see you actually get.

The differences between Wise and Revolut

Below I list the main features of both digital accounts that relate to cash withdrawals or payments in a store.

(Scroll the table to the left and right you are viewing this article on mobile)

Features Wise Revolut
Open account Free Free
Adding money to account
  • No transaction fees via iDEAL and bank transfer
  • €2.35 with credit card, debit card and Apple Pay
  • € 0.66 via Klarna
No transaction fees
Exchanging money to another currency Exchange fees, to be calculated via this convert tool or in the app.
  • No exchange fees up to €1,000 per month on weekdays
  • 1% weekend costs
  • Exchange fees above €1,000 per month, to be calculated via this convert tool or in the app.
Purchase transactions No cost No cost
Cash withdrawals €200 cash "free" per month, thereafter €0.50 per withdrawal + 1.75% €200 cash "free" per month, 2% thereafter
Physical pass One-time €7 for a physical pass (use this link for a free pass) One-time €7.99 for a physical pass

Practical: calculations in costs

As may have become clear above, Revolut and Wise are quite similar. There are only minor differences. Which one is cheaper now?


Cash withdrawals

In the calculations I assume that we have already done the €200 “free” collection, since there is no difference in this between the banks.

You pay this to Wise or Revolut when you withdraw cash from an ATM:

Amount Revolut Costs Wise Costs
€ 250 € 5 € 4,88
€ 500 € 10 € 9,25
€ 750 € 15 € 13,63
€ 1000 € 20 € 18

The calculations are as follows:

  • Revolut: amount * 2%
  • Wise: (amount * 1.75%) + € 0.50

So, as you can see, in most cases Wise is cheaper to withdraw money from.

It is still not cheap, but it is cheaper than at a Belgian bank. We will put those costs in a comparison table later.


Conversion/exchange fees

Wise uses conversion fees and they may be different for each currency. I’ve been “playing” with it a bit and the exchange cost seems to go between 0.56% and 1.15%. Revolut charges NO exchange fees when you exchange up to €1,000 per month.

If I want to exchange 500 euros to USD, I currently receive:

  • Wise: 543.19 USD from which €2.78 in exchange fees have already been deducted.
  • Revolut: $545.22 USD, no further charges.

At Revolut, you do pay a 1% exchange fee if you exchange your currency over the weekend. So if you go into business with Revolut, make sure you change your money on time.

But what if you want to exchange above €1,000? Because then you do pay exchange fees at Revolut. Even then, Revolut remains cheaper. If I want to exchange €2,500 to USD, I pay €13.92 (0.56%) at Wise and only €7.50 at Revolut.


Wise or Revolut: which is cheaper to withdraw money in a foreign currency?

Revolut seems cheaper in the end because Wise uses exchange fees that quickly become more expensive than the difference in withdrawal fees.

I will now first compare the costs of three different Belgian banks with Wise and Revolut. First the “regular” transactions, think payment in a store, hotel, restaurant or online. I then go into even more detail about the cost of cash withdrawals at an ATM, and compare costs there as well.

General transactions outside the euro zone: debit, credit, Revolut, or swipe card?

What about general operations outside the euro zone? I’m talking about payments with your physical card in a commercial establishment (store, restaurant, hotel, etc.). But also online. Because even if your hotel debits money in advance, there’s a good chance you’ll pay exchange and handling fees on it.

Unless you pay with Wise or Revolut…. We compare the cost of these multi-currency accounts with ING, KBC and HelloBank. First I show you the equation and then I explain all the costs.

The comparison in cost

As an example, I take a retail transaction of €250 outside Europe in a foreign currency.

(Scroll the table to the left and right you are viewing this article on mobile)

Bank Type of card Total cost Calculation
ING (BE) Credit Card € 5 € 250 * 2% = € 5
Debit Card € 10,36 €250 * 3.90% = €9.75 + €0.61
HelloBank Credit Card € 4 € 250 * 1,60% = € 4
Debit Card € 7,11 €250 * 1.63% = €4.08 €250 * 1.21% = €3.03
KBC Credit Card € 4 € 250 * 1,60% = € 4
Debit Card € 5,46 €250 * 1.94% = €4.85 + €0.61
Revolut Prepaid debit card € 0 No cost
Wise Prepaid debit card € 1,39* *No transaction fees, but in advance you pay variable exchange fees, in this case 0.56% for USD: €1.39
There is no need for me to comment on this. Revolut is completely free and then Wise is the cheapest.

If you end up NOT going with Wise or Revolut, remember to use your credit card for all payments. Whether your debit or credit card is cheaper on cash withdrawals depends on the amount you withdraw and does require some math. We’ll get into that later.

Belgian bank card or credit card

If you have a credit card, your transactions, even outside the euro zone, are usually free. But you do pay an exchange rate. For example, you pay in Thai baht and that still has to be converted to euros.

In the case of Belgian ING, this is 2% at the exchange rate, at HelloBank and KBC it is 1.60%.

With your debit card (regular bank card), it is often not a good idea to pay in a commercial establishment outside Europe.

At HelloBank, you pay 1.21% of the amount on that (with a maximum of €12.09) and an exchange margin of 1.63%.

At ING 3.90% on the amount + €0.61.

KBC charges 1.94% exchange fee + €0.61.

You can also find these calculations above in the comparison table.


Wise or Revolut card

For both cards, you can pay with them for free. And you basically don’t need a physical card for it either; if you have an iPhone, you can add both Wise and Revolut to Apple Pay.

Very important though: make sure you have exchanged your euros in the app to the currency you need before making the transaction. If you are in Panama, make sure you have dollars. If you are in Thailand, convert to Thai baht. Of course, changing that is easy, but just make sure it’s in order before your transaction.

So with Wise and Revolut, these transactions are completely free. Although you do have to pay exchange fees in advance with Wise, but they turn out to be a lot cheaper than through your Belgian bank anyway.

The equation: which is the cheapest option to withdraw cash outside Europe?

OK, so normal transactions are a lot cheaper through Wise and Revolut. But what about cash withdrawals?

As an example, I will take a cash withdrawal of €250 outside Europe in a foreign currency. Assuming we are already over the €200 limit that is free with Wise and Revolut. We compare three Belgian banks with both debit and credit cards.

(Scroll the table to the left and right you are viewing this article on mobile)

Bank Type of card Total cost Calculation
ING (BE) Debit Card € 14,74 €250 * 3.90% = €9.75 €250 * 0.3% = €0.75 + €4.24
Credit Card € 13,50 € 250 * 2% = € 5 € 250 * 1% = € 2.50 + € 6
HelloBank Debit Card € 7,69 € 250 * 1.63% = € 4.08 € 250 * 0.3% = € 0.75 + € 2.86
Credit Card € 10 €250 * 1.60% = €4 + €6
KBC Debit Card € 11,24 € 250 * 0,61% = € 1,53 + € 2,12 € 250 * 0,61% = € 1,53 + € 1,21 € 250 * 1,94% = € 4,85
Credit Card € 9 €250 * 1.60% = €4 + €5 (minimum cost, 1% otherwise)
Revolut Prepaid debit card € 5 € 250 * 2% = € 5
Wise Prepaid debit card €4.88 (+ €1.39) € 250 * 1.75% = € 4.38 + € 0.50 (Exchange fees paid in advance: € 1.39)
As you can see, the differences are not huge, but can still make a big difference with multiple cash withdrawals. Local bank fees may be added of course, but they are bank-independent.
With Wise and Revolut you get €200 a month “free” which in the examples has already saved at least €7.69.

What I have not been able to find back is what rate is used in Belgian banks. Both Wise and Revolut use the actual rate, which might also be more advantageous?

At some banks, in this example, it seems more advantageous to withdraw money with your credit card. It may be worth doing the same calculations with higher amounts. This is because sometimes maximum fees are charged as I pointed out in the bit about exchange fees.

Before you travel, make your bank card available outside of Europe. You can arrange this in most cases through your app. With Revolut and Wise, this is not necessary.

Save banking fees outside the EU with Wise and Revolut

Conclusion: who is the winner? Which card to take with you when traveling outside Europe?

We just returned from our trip to Panama and used both Revolut and Wise. That saved us an awful lot of bank fees!

When we used our normal credit card once, we immediately saw the difference in cost.

Belgian bank versus multicurrency

Anyway, Wise and Revolut wins over ING, KBC, HelloBank and probably all other banks. Both on the use of credit card and debit card. And both on cash withdrawals and other transactions outside Europe.

It often saves “only” a few euros, but of course this can add up greatly depending on the number of transactions and the length of your trip. I think there are few trips where you do less than 15 transactions in total (hotel, restaurant, store, …), that will save you more than €100. You can already do fun things with that while traveling, right?


Wise versus Revolut

Revolut seems cheaper because (up to €1,000) you pay no exchange fees during the week. But even after €1,000, Revolut is slightly cheaper in terms of exchange fees.

If you want to use the cards in Europe as well, Wise may be more advantageous for cash withdrawals, as you won’t have to deal with exchange fees.

I just have them both, an extra card never hurts when traveling. And since they don’t cost anything else, I can take advantage of monthly 200 euro free withdrawals with both.


Considerations for using the cards as cheaply as possible

  • Wise
    Only put money into your account via bank transfer (or iDEAL), otherwise you pay a fee.
  • Revolut
    Change your money to a foreign currency only during the week, otherwise you pay a 1% weekend fee (the currency market is closed then). Up to €1,000 per month, you pay no exchange fees; if you think you will use more, you can spread it smartly for your trip.

Good to know

You can also just use these cards in Belgium or the Netherlands. And if you do sometimes shop (online) across the border, Wise or Revolut may also be more economical.

The other day an accommodation charged €250 in advance through my credit card. That was charged in USD, and I had to pay a €5.50 exchange fee. Had I passed my Revolut card that had USD on it, I would have had no additional charges.

The nice thing about these apps is also that you decide when to switch. If you are not going on vacation for another 3 months, it is advisable to exchange during the best rate!

Wise even offers“auto conversion” where you enter your desired rate and as soon as the currency taps it, your desired amount is exchanged. Very convenient because the rate fluctuates constantly.

Do you have another bank?

I considered naming all Belgian banks in this article. But in the end, HelloBank does seem to come close to the rest of the banks and I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much math.

Whether Wise or Revolut is going to make that much difference for you can be quickly compared with the calculations above. Look up what your bank charges (be sure to find current amounts, not old ones) and do the comparison yourself. But on store transactions, it will be hard to beat Wise and Revolut anyway.

On ATM withdrawals, the difference is slightly less, but since it is so easy to open the account and use the card, it is well worth it.


Here’s how to get started with Wise or Revolut

  1. Create your account
  2. Request a physical card (if you need one)
  3. Put euros into your account
  4. Exchange euros to the foreign currency you need
  5. Pay or pick up!

Want to get started with Wise?
Then register with my link and you will receive a gift! You can choose from a free physical card or a free transaction of €500, on which you therefore pay no exchange fees.

You can create a Revolut account here.

Hopefully everything is clear now. Enjoy your trip and let me know if you have any questions!


Seen a mistake? Let me know in the comments!