Use our guide to get the best out of your plastic, and your cash, on holiday in the United States of America.
Home to the Statue of Liberty and Hollywood Boulevard, the USA attracts over 2 million visitors from the UK each year. As the USA is such a popular destination among Brits, it’s worth knowing how to use your British credit card across the pond.
Visa, Mastercard and American Express credit cards are all widely accepted in the USA, though you should be aware that payment methods differ slightly from those the UK. The insert-and-sign method is the most common form of payment when making purchases in the USA, rather than the chip- and-PIN method that many Brits are now used to.
Compare cards with fee-free currency conversion in the USA
Cash machines in the USA
ATMs are easy to find in the USA – located on streets, and at supermarkets, petrol stations and even bars and restaurants.
However, ATMs usually charge you a fee simply for using the ATM, and the fees are typically around $2-$3 (about £1.60-£2.40) per transaction, though this may change depending on location. Here is an ATM locator of all MoneyPass ATMs, which do not require you to pay a surcharge. Another way to avoid surcharge fees is to simply ask for cashback when shopping at supermarkets and stores, but make sure you present a form of ID when doing this, such as your passport.
If your card doesn’t have a magnetic stripe on the back, you may find that your card doesn’t work in some ATMs, since many are not chip-and-PIN enabled. However, the magnetic strip is slowly being phased out, so newer ATMs are more likely to have a chip reader.
It’s worth bearing in mind that when using ATMs, you are also likely to be charged a foreign currency exchange fee per ATM transaction, and if you withdraw cash as an advance from your credit card, you’ll pay interest.
Cash in the USA
It is perfectly acceptable to use your card for most small transactions, except for paying at either small bars or food trucks. It may be handy to take some dollars with you if you plan on tipping servers at restaurants and bars, especially as the USA has a culture of tipping.
Card payment methods in the USA (chip and PIN, contactless, swipe and sign)
While the USA has started to roll out a chip-and-PIN system across the country, it is not yet used by all stores. Most commonly, the insert-and-sign method method is used, so you should be prepared to insert your card and then sign the printed slip given to you by the store. If the shop does not accept the chip cards, and your card has a magnetic strip, then you can use the swipe-and-sign method instead.
However, as of April 2018, several card networks, including Mastercard and Visa, decided to remove the requirement for signatures on purchases. This means in some places you may be able to simply swipe or insert your card to complete a transaction, with no requirement for a signature.
Signing typically depends on the transaction total, as purchases amounting to less than $50 (around £40) typically do not require your signature, although this may vary depending on the shop.
It’s also worth noting that contactless payments aren’t yet accepted in the USA.
Is it safe to use my card in the USA?
By exercising some caution when using your credit card in the USA, you’ll have a relatively trouble-free experience.
- Keep your PIN safe. Use one hand to enter the PIN and the other to shield it from prying eyes and hidden cameras.
- Select ATMs with care. Try and stick to ATMs in banks and avoid using ones in the street.
- Watch out for “skimmers”. When installed in an ATM, a card skimmer works by stealing information from credit and debit cards. If you feel the card slot is not as smooth as it should be or if there’s a problem with the keypad, cancel your transaction and look for another ATM.
Keeping your credit card (physically) safe
Remain alert to street crime, especially where two or more people work in distracting victims before decamping with their valuables. There also have been numerous instances of identity theft, so make sure you know where your card and forms of identification are at all times.
Potential credit card fees
Credit card fees can leave a noticeable dent in your pocket when you’re travelling overseas, so know what you’re up against well in advance and choose a card with no or low fees.
Foreign transaction fees
British credit card issuers typically charge a fee equivalent to 1% to 3% of your transaction, so check your card’s terms to avoid statement surprises. Some cards designed for travel come with no foreign transaction fees, so if you’re planning a trip, this could be a good time to switch.
Currency conversion fees
If a shop offers to bill your credit card in sterling, dynamic currency conversion comes into play. While this might sound like a good deal, you’ll actually end up getting a worse exchange rate, and you might also end up paying currency conversion fees. Whenever you’re presented with an option, choose to pay in dollars.
Cash advance fees
Using your credit card to withdraw money from an ATM may not make sense unless it’s a bona fide emergency. Each time you withdraw funds from an ATM, you’re likely to pay a cash advance fee. Your APR for cash advances is typically higher than your purchase APR, and you’ll typically get no grace period on interest — instead, you start paying interest immediately. Again, some cards designed for overseas spending will waive this fee.
The table below serves as an example of how much extra you may pay to use your credit card for in the USA.
What is a cash advance fee?A cash advance fee is calculated (and charged) when you withdraw cash from your credit card. It’s usually the greater of a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction. For example, “2.5% of the transaction, minimum £3.00”.
How to prepare before travelling to the USA
- Go with Visa or Mastercard. Carry at least two cards on your trip to the USA, preferably connected with Visa, Mastercard, or American Express.
- Think no foreign transaction fees. When you can find cards that come with no foreign transaction fees, using ones that charge 2% or 3% of each overseas transaction doesn’t make sense. Some of these cards don’t charge an annual fee, either.
- Keep your bank posted. Banks, in their efforts to thwart fraudulent transactions, block credit cards if they detect suspicious activity such as unexpected overseas transactions. To make sure this does not happen to your card, let your bank know about your travel plans before you leave the UK.
- Keep the emergency number handy. Know which numbers you’ll need to call if you end up losing your card or if you need an emergency replacement.
- Know where you’ll get cash from. Consider using your debit card to withdraw cash from ATMs. If you need to exchange money, stick to banks or official money-exchange offices – possessing counterfeit money in the USA is a serious crime. Try to avoid exchanging money at airports and popular tourist destinations because of typically poor exchange rates.
Ask yourself these simple questions before you leave so your spending in the USA does not hit any roadblocks.
- Which cards will I take? Visa, Mastercard, and American Express are the favourites. If you’re planning a trip, check out cards which give you complimentary airport lounge access. If you’re planning well in advance, consider earning air miles for your trip with a frequent flyer credit card.
- Have I let my bank know? If you don’t inform your bank about your travel plans, you may end up with a temporarily suspended card.
- What fees do I need to pay? If your existing cards come with foreign transaction fees, look for one that does not. Paying in sterling outside of the UK might come with currency conversion fees.
- How will I get cash? Using your debit card at an ATM is the simplest way to access your own money. You can carry cash and traveler’s cheques with you. Exchanging sterling to dollars is easy and you’ll get several options.
When you’re in the USA, you don’t have to worry about where and when you can use your credit card. Just keep some cash handy to pay for small purchases or for tipping.
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