Best ways to spend travel money in the USA: Debit & prepaid cards

Learn more about the best card to use, if you should use a UK debit card and other ways to take spending money to the USA.

The United States of America is a society of credit. If you’re travelling to the States, you can use your Visa, Mastercard and American Express cards everywhere. Banks are common and ATMs are inside most corner stores as well.

What is the best way to take and spend money in the USA?

You’ll find most Americans rely on their credit card or debit card to make purchases as much as cash. There are times when you’ll need to pay cash. For example paying for a drink at a small bar or buying a hotdog from a food truck might require cash. However, you will see that most merchants in American cities are set up with the infrastructure for card, contactless and mobile payments. Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Diners Club cards are widely accepted.

Travel money options for the United States

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Can I use a UK debit card in the USA?

You can use any Mastercard or Visa branded debit card in the United States, though you should be weary of using it abroad as there may be fees attached. Barclays will charge a 2.99% non-sterling transaction fee, Lloyd’s will charge a 2.99% non-sterling fee on cash withdrawals and purchases, and NatWest/RBS will charge a fee of 2.75%. In the case that you find yourself needing to use a debit card abroad, it’s worth checking if your bank is part of the Global Alliance, a group of banks with an agreement to give customers a cheaper way to withdraw money abroad.

It may be a better idea to open an account with a separate bank or e-money provider that provides either low or no overseas fees and when travelling abroad, use this card instead of your main bank account.

Using prepaid travel cards

All UK travel money card issuers allow you to load and spend in US dollars. The main advantage of these cards is you can lock in an exchange rate when you convert GBP to USD and spend without paying the extra 3% for currency conversion. Although Visa, Mastercard and American Express are accepted everywhere (if the merchant can accept a credit card they can also accept a travel card), not all of them have your name printed on the front, which may cause the merchant to reject them. These instances may be limited to smaller shops. Compare these cards by the fees. For example, some travel cards waive the international ATM withdrawal fee. The local ATM fee is unavoidable unless your travel money provider has a pre-arranged deal with a US bank. There’s also the initial load fee, the reload fee and inactivity fees to think about too.

Using credit cards

The US is a society of credit, and credit cards, there are no issues with Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Diners Club card acceptance. Contactless payment terminals are common at places like Walmart, Target, Kmart and other major retailers. The currency conversion fee is the main charge to avoid when you’re looking at travel friendly credit cards. The international ATM fee is the other main fee; however, due to the extra charges which come with a cash advance, you should avoid using your credit card to make cash withdrawals. Depending on your card provider, you can avoid some cash advance fees by loading your credit card with your own money (keeping a positive balance), but you forego anti-fraud guarantees when you spend your own money on your credit card.

Credit cards in the US

Using traveller’s cheques

Traveller’s cheques were once a staple for any overseas trip. In recent times, card acceptance and security have made these travel money products a burden.

How much sterling do I need to bring to the US?

There’s an old saying first coined in the Reader’s Digest, once you’re finished packing your suitcase, take out half the clothes and take double the money. Ultimately, how you take your money is up to you. Someone couch-surfing in San Francisco will have a different budget to someone on a New York shopping holiday. The USA also has a pretty big tipping culture – so keep this in mind when planning your travel budget.

New York serviceBudgetMidTop
Accommodation icon
Hostel: £20 – £40 per nightHotel / Motel: £105 per night5 star hotel / Superior suite: £245+ per night
Food icon
Food truck: £4 – £7Restaurant: £15 – £305-star restaurant: £35 a plate
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Free festivals year round in American citiesGuggenheim Museum: £18Broadway Musical: £140 – £250

*Prices are approximate and subject to change

Buying currency in the UK

If you’d like to have American dollars when you arrive, you have a number of choices for getting cash changed in the UK. Look at your bank and look at foreign exchange providers such as Travelex or No1 Currency.

  • Travel Money Delivered
  • Tesco
  • Covent Garden FX

There’s no restriction on the amount of foreign currency or US dollars you can bring into the US. You must declare your cash at customs if you’re taking more than $10,000 or the foreign currency equivalent.

  • Tip: Make sure you’ve applied for your United States ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) before you leave for the USA. This will cost you $14 and you can pay by a Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Diners or Discover credit card.

Why you’ll need a combination of travel money options

Use a combination of travel money products which don’t charge for currency conversion and have low or no international ATM withdrawal fees. A travel card or debit card used in conjunction with a travel-friendly credit card will give you a cost-effective way to make both over the counter purchases and ATM withdrawals in the USA.

It’s important to have more than one way to access your money when you’re abroad. Travel to the United States is exciting, don’t make it stressful by limiting your options. By doing a little research before you go, you can save on fees which can easily add up to the cost of a night out or souvenir for a loved one.

You’ll find card payments are the norm in the USA, the currency conversion fee may not seem like much, but giving almost £10 for every $300 you spend or withdraw to your bank isn’t just unnecessary, it’s criminal. Compare travel money options and apply for a card you can use to spend for less in America to avoid throwing money at your bank while you’re visiting the United States of America.

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4 Responses

    Default Gravatar
    AlexMarch 9, 2019

    I am traveling to the USA and I want to buy a pre-paid SIM card before my trip. But there are not so many options who would ship it internationally.
    Does anyone have experience with Arieli Mobile or other resellers?
    Thank you

      JoshuaMarch 11, 2019Finder

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for getting in touch with Finder. I hope all is well with you. 😃

      Arieli has been in the business since 2015. They do have good feedback and positive testimonials. However, you would need to do your own independent research and determine whether Arieli is a good choice for you or not.

      Moreover, another option you might want to consider is using an international SIM card. On that page, you will see an international SIM card that offers worldwide delivery as well its description. You can then click on the “Apply now” green button to be redirected to their website.

      I hope this helps. Should you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to reach us out again.

      Have a wonderful day!


    Default Gravatar
    DenluvszeppelinFebruary 18, 2019

    Hi. I am going to the USA in October. I am 64 and retired. What’s the best way to take funds with me, please. So confused which is the best way. Thanks!

      JoshuaFebruary 19, 2019Finder

      Hi Denluvszeppelin,

      Thanks for getting in touch with Finder. I hope all is well with you. :)

      The best way for you to bring money with you in the USA depends on your needs, preference, and budget. You need to identify first the most important for you. From there, you should be able to determine how to choose a method that perfectly meets your need.

      Most people would use travel prepaid cards, debit cards, or credit cards. Since I’m not too familiar with your whole situation, it would be best to read this page for more tips and guide on your options. Pay attention more on the table found under the subheading, “Travel money options for USA at a glance.”

      I hope this helps. Should you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to reach us out again.

      Have a wonderful day!


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