The safest way to pay when traveling abroad

Ask the Experts: How to spend money abroad safely

I am traveling to Korea this summer and was wondering what is the safest form of money to carry? I do not have a credit card, really do not want one, and usually use a debit card or check for payment. I receive credit card offers all the time, just wondering if this is the safest to use when traveling. -Jan

Hi Jan,

When traveling abroad, you have a number of different money options, all with pros and cons.

  • Cash
  • Credit card
  • Debit/ATM card
  • Traveler’s Checks
  • Prepaid card

No one option is the clear cut best bet for all circumstances. In truth, you’re better off having multiple payment options available, in case one doesn’t work. The key is knowing where you’re going and how you’ll be using your money when you get there.


Cash is easy to use, but the least secure option. It’s probably a good idea to get at least an emergency supply of cash in the local currency before you leave. It’s not a good idea to get all the money you plan to use in cash prior to leaving. Even if you’ll be primarily using cash where you’re going, it’s safer to bring a little and then find an ATM once you arrive.

Credit card

Credit cards are one of the most secure options for international travel. Major credit cards are usually accepted most places, but not all places. Something to consider: most credit cards in Europe, Asia and South America contain an embedded chip and require the use of a PIN to work. U.S. cards do not work in certain kiosks and automated payment machines because they lack this chip.

Debit cards

Debit cards are also secure, provided you report them missing in the proper timeframe, but aren’t as widely accepted as major credit cards. However, as long as your home bank is connected to a worldwide network (PLUS or Cirrus), you should be able to access your money almost anywhere in the world.

Traveler’s Checks

Once considered to be the most secure way to travel with money, traveler’s checks have fallen out of favor. They’re still safe to use, but depending on where you’re going you might find a limited number of places willing to accept them.

Prepaid card

Merging properties of credit cards, debit cards, and traveler’s checks, prepaid travel cards are a good alternative option to consider. They’re not cheap to activate, load, and use, but they’re secure, usually give you a good exchange rate, and work nearly all places where credit and debit cards are accepted.

So if you’re going to Korea and dead set against opening a credit card, I’d check with your debit card provider to see what issues or fees you should expect from using your debit card as your primary form of payment, and then bring enough cash to get you through should something happen to your debit card. If you do use a credit card (or a debit card), be sure to contact the issuer before leaving to let them know where you’re going. If foreign charges start suddenly showing up on your account with no forewarning, it’s likely that they’ll suspend your account until they’ve spoken to you, which would be majorly inconvenient while traveling abroad.

Hope that helps. Good luck on your trip!

Jesse Campbell photo.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, with over ten years of experience creating valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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