What To Do With Your Bank Account When Moving Abroad
A first-person account of how to avoid unnecessary fees and spend less time on customer service calls with your bank, when moving out of your home country
I didn’t even think about managing my bank account when I started graduate school abroad in Beirut. I had a perfectly fine basic chequing account with BMO that I’d opened in Toronto just before starting college. There was even a branch two blocks away from my new apartment. What could go wrong?
Turns out, handling money abroad wasn’t as simple as I’d expected. I eventually had to open a student account in Lebanon, which I closed after graduating. But then I decided to return to Beirut to work as a news editor after a brief stint back home. The second time around, I decided opening an account wasn’t worth the hassle.
Here are the eight lessons I learned once I moved abroad:
1. A bank can freeze your debit card and deny electronic access to your bank account
The first time I travelled abroad on my own, I didn’t tell my bank. I withdrew cash at the airport to pay for a cab and promptly got an email saying my debit card had been blocked for suspicious activity.
I was told to call customer service to resolve the issue. The problem was, I didn’t have a SIM card yet and my phone plan didn’t allow for international calls. I managed to borrow someone’s phone at the hotel and sorted the mess out, but the whole ordeal took hours.
I could have avoided an afternoon of panic by calling the number on the back of my debit card before I left the country. There are even online options to notify your bank. By filling out an online form or through your bank’s app, you can alert them to your travel plans and prevent a freeze on your debit card.
2. Replacing debit cards, while overseas, is a big problem
One day I misplaced my debit card. No problem, I thought. I’ll just go to the local bank, near me, and ask for a new one. Turns out, it wasn’t that simple.
Even if there are local bank branches affiliated with your Canadian bank that doesn’t mean they can issue replacement cards. The only real option is to contact your Canadian bank branch and request a replacement card to be sent by international post to your current location. This process can be expensive and can take time — up to a month!
3. Foreign transaction fees really add up!
While overseas, I found a bank that was affiliated with my bank back in Canada. To avoid fees, I would spend 30 minutes travelling back and forth to this ATM, just to avoid extra fees. Unfortunately, I was wrong. When I finally looked at my bank statement, I was surprised to learn I’d been paying foreign transaction fees, all along.
4. You might need to open a bank account to cash a student loan refund cheque
I spent the first few semesters of graduate school living off my savings. But that eventually ran out and I had to request extra student loans to cover my living expenses.
What didn’t occur to me until my school’s bursar handed me a crisp cheque was that I’d need a bank account to access that money. I went on the hunt to find a student bank account but quickly found out that my options were limited. It took about a month before I could open an account and cash the cheque — and that meant eating a lot of ramen and street food. My advice: Find a student bank account right away.
5. Having a student visa might limit your bank account options
As part of my student visa application, I had to sign a statement officially promising not to work. This not only meant I couldn’t legally earn income while I was in school in Beirut, but it also seriously limited my options when it came to opening a bank account.
Several banks required a minimum income of roughly $1,500 a month — even for a basic chequing account. Others would only work with me if I opened a joint account with a relative in Lebanon, which I didn’t have. After a month of looking around, I was finally able to open a student account after signing another affidavit promising not to work.
6. A foreign debit card might not work when you’re back at home
I tried withdrawing money using my Lebanese debit card when I came back to Toronto, only to find that no ATM accepted it. I was able to use it in some other countries like Cyprus, but only with a hefty foreign transaction fee.
I learned my lesson and closed my Lebanese student bank account when I graduated since I wasn’t sure if I’d return to Beirut for work.
7. You don’t necessarily need a bank account to cash a paycheque
Student life means situations can change, sometimes quickly. After two months in Canada, I decided to go back to Beirut to take a job at a newspaper. Every month I earned a paycheque that was given to me as a paper cheque. With my old student bank account closed, I assumed my only option was to open another bank account.
That wasn’t the case. When I brought my cheque to the bank used by my employer, I was told I could cash the cheque, free of charge, as long as I provided some form of identification, like my passport.
Since Lebanon had very few cash-free establishments, this meant I was able to survive without ever depositing or withdrawing money from a bank account. Not ideal, but it saved me some headaches.
8. A foreign bank account might not help you make student loan repayments back home
I was still working in Beirut when my student loan repayments kicked in six months after graduation. These loan repayments needed to be paid to a Canadian loan provider but the funds in my Canadian bank account were low. I didn’t have a Lebanese bank account, so I couldn’t transfer funds. Eventually, I asked the bank teller that usually cashed my paycheque what were my options.
She told me that opening a Lebanese account specifically to make student loan repayments wasn’t the best idea for two reasons:
- These types of transfers could take as long as 30 days
- I’d have to pay a steep fee every time I made this payment.
Instead, I enlisted the help of family members. They made the payments and I paid them back.
Managing my money in a foreign country was trickier then I’d expected. There were difficulties with exchange rates, the use of debit cards and determining how to make payments in one country while living in another.
About the Author
Romana King is the Canada Group Editor at Finder and a personal finance expert. As an award-winning personal finance writer and real estate expert, she has spent almost two decades helping Canadians make smarter money management decisions. Her first book, House Poor No More: 9 Steps That Grow the Value of Your Home and Net Worth, launched in November 2021, continues to be an Amazon bestseller and won the Excellence in Financial Journalism Book Award in 2022.
Finder is a personal finance comparison site with a mission to help Canadians save, invest, spend wisely and grow their wealth. Each month, Finder provides half a million Canadians – and more than five million globally – with independent and trustworthy financial information. Our goal is to help people make better financial decisions by providing objective, comparative insight on thousands of products and services.
As a global fintech website and app, Finder provides consumers free access to smart money content. Whether it's expert insight, product or service comparisons or independent reviews, Finder helps consumers stay on top of their finances while saving time and money.
Finder is available to consumers in Canada, Australia, America and the United Kingdom. Initially launched in 2006 by three Australians – Fred Schebesta, Frank Restuccia and Jeremy Cabral – Finder's global reach now includes thousands of products and services in hundreds of financial categories and provides expert content and independent reviews to more than five million users each month.
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