Street Smart: Managing Money Abroad


When preparing for your education abroad experience, finances are one of the most important factors to consider. While you may have had a field day trying to afford the cost of the program via scholarships, grants, or loans, you cannot neglect the money you will need during your actual time abroad to get around, buy souvenirs, and anything else you might need to purchase in an emergency situation.

In general, your length of time abroad will certainly impact how you manage money. If your education abroad program is three weeks long, chances are you will have little free time to incur extra expenses that aren’t already predetermined by your program schedule, or factored into your program costs. If you are spending a semester, or even an academic year abroad, planning a budget and having extra spending money will be crucial to your experience. In any case, you should notify your bank that you will be going abroad for an extended period of time. Whether or not you plan to access your bank account abroad, notifying your bank in advance will make your life much easier if you need to use a debit or credit card abroad for emergencies. Some banks will even offer to reimburse the transaction fee for withdrawals made abroad, but the average charge for withdrawals is $4-8 depending on your home financial institution.

Be knowledgeable about currency in the country where you will be living. Does the country use bills? In what increments? Do they use coins? What are their values? Becoming familiar with money is extremely important, especially if you are going to a less-traveled education abroad destination that may not serve as an international tourist destination where US dollars could likely be used. Learning how exchange rates work before arriving abroad will also be in your best interest. Exchange rates may be higher in airports so, unless you will need immediate currency for transportation, wait until you can visit a local bank to get the best rate before exchanging your money. Some programs feature a segment on managing and exchanging money as part of an orientation. In the event that your program does not have such a presentation, it is your responsibility to secure enough of your host country’s currency to fund your experience.

Your money abroad is almost equally important as your passport, thus it is crucial that you take necessary precautions abroad. Do not carry large sums of money on you at any given time just as you would not at home. Additionally, be cautious of who can see how much you are withdrawing if you complete a transaction at a bank or ATM. Likewise, if you need to pay bills abroad, consider opening a checking account abroad from which you can pay or explore options for online bill pay that omits the need for currency exchange. Consider researching customs of your home country such as tipping for services. Some countries, such as Costa Rica, do not tip cab drivers and at some restaurants because a service charge has been factored into the price. Some smaller countries, cities, and townships will not accept large bills when you are buying from small, local shops or vendors, so try and have smaller bills on you just in case. Such considerations may help you conserve and protect money if you plan to be abroad for a lengthy period of time.

In all my time abroad, I never felt as though my money was threatened, or that I was in danger of being robbed or pick pocketed, but such crimes can happen in any education abroad destination. Be mindful of where you carry this money on your body: not in a back pocket where it could easily be exposed or fall out. As a female carrying a purse, I have always traveled with a cross-body purse with a zipper close; it makes me feel secure knowing it is close to my person at all times and it is not easy for someone to reach into my purse if I am preoccupied (example cross-body pictured below). Lastly, keep a record of your purchases and expenses abroad. If you are primarily using bills or coins, write your expenses in a journal that will help you stay on budget while abroad. If you are using a bank card abroad, regularly check your online statements as available to verify and authorize charges. All of the aforementioned suggestions should remove the stress of managing money abroad and aid you in enjoying the new experiences of education abroad!

Written by: Sarah Caton

Sarah Caton is an Education Abroad Peer Ambassador studying Spanish and Gender & Women’s Studies. She participated in the UK Partner SOL Costa Rica program.


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