Which bank is best for travelling?

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Last updated: May 29, 2024

When travelling you want a bank that charges you as little as possible. Oh, and it would be handy if it worked in ATMs too. Doesn’t sound like a lot to ask, but apparently it is. Luckily, we have these incredible travel-friendly banks to use!

It really wasn’t that long ago that I would exchange currency before visiting a country and would then have to carry around a wad of cash with me. Using my bank card would incur eyewatering fees and I would have to notify them of my upcoming travel plans. Even if I did then decide to use it abroad, my bank would still freeze my cards after noticing ‘unusual behaviour’ in my account. And I probably don’t have to tell you how difficult it was to get through to their customer service whilst abroad. So yes, cash was key*.

That simply isn’t the case anymore. You can withdraw cash in the country you are travelling in with zero or minimal fees and you can even use your card like a local, thanks to these handy travel-friendly bank accounts!

In my exploration of the best banks for travelling, I’ve honed in on UK-based institutions, drawing from personal experience. However, I’ll also shed light on a few non-traditional banking services like Wise and Revolut, which extend their benefits beyond UK borders.

Each bank I’ll discuss has earned its place in my travels, though not without the occasional hiccup, of course.

*I’d argue it still is in some countries, like Cuba. So do make sure to research the country you are travelling to before assuming your bank card will work.

My top picks

A green Wise bank card on top of a stone floor - one of the best banks for travelling

Wise

  • Type: International money wallet
  • Available to: Most of the world (see exceptions)
  • Exchange rates: Mid-market rates + a small fee
  • Withdrawal fees: 2 withdrawals of up to £200 each month for free per account
  • Spending fees: Free when you hold the currency in your account, a small fee if not
  • Extras: Send money to and hold 40+ currencies in the same account, gain interest on your balances, and open digital cards

You may think this is a joke, but my first choice isn’t actually a bank. Wise is an electronic money account, AKA a digital wallet. It works similarly to a bank (and is regulated like one) but is 3x cheaper on average, particularly when making international payments. It is my ‘bank’ of choice that I use when travelling.

The main selling point of Wise for me is the ability to hold 40+ currencies in one account. They have their own individual balances and you can use one card to spend them all like a local. You can also get full account details for 10 different currencies (allowing you to receive payments), including GBP, USD, EUR, CAD, and AUD. This is perfect for those of us who spend larger periods of time abroad and need more flexibility with international balance transfers.

Conversions are cheap and you can even schedule automatic conversions for when exchange rates hit a desired level. I have been able to make a bit of money doing this! Even when I don’t have a currency set up in my account I can use my card like a local and Wise will auto convert at the mid-market rate.

Currency conversions do incur a small fee, which is my biggest issue with Wise. Most banks, like Starling, Monzo, and First Direct won’t charge you any fees to convert your money when you make purchases or withdraw cash from your GBP balance. On the flipside, these banks will charge you large fees (often hidden as markups) for making international payments. So, if you want to pay someone via bank transfer for a service whilst travelling, Wise will be your cheapest option.

I love that the Wise app allows me to set up savings jars, earn interest off my money, and freeze any cards at any time. I have also used the Wise app to create handy digital cards for paying online and for using Apple Pay. This means if my card details are compromised online then I can just set up a new digital card, with no need to send out a new plastic card. Read my full Wise review for more information.

A red Monzo credit card for travelling on top of a stone floor

Monzo

  • Type: App-based bank
  • Available to: UK
  • Exchange rates: Mastercard Exchange Rate
  • Withdrawal fees: Zero fees
  • Spending fees: Zero fees
  • Extras: Bill splitting tool and purchase protection

Monzo’s credit card is one of the best travel-friendly options you can get. Unlike many credit cards I’ve used in the past, the app shows real-time balances, giving you much more control and insights into your spending. This has been really useful for me when travelling, because I can be quite liberal with my spending! My old credit cards wouldn’t have shown the damage until the next day or so.

Interestingly, Monzo is in partnership with Wise (mentioned above) to bring you easy and cheaper international payments. Although, they add their own fee ontop of the Wise fee, so you will pay a little extra.

I also really like Monzo’s ‘Bill Split’ functionality that allows you to select payments which you are splitting with others. It will keep track of what you are owed. Plus, with this being a credit card, you are protected for payments between £100 and £30,000. This gives me peace of mind whilst travelling, particularly when purchasing flights.

The only downside to their credit card is that you also need a Monzo current account. So I have a Monzo current account that I currently have no need for, since I already use Starling (mentioned below) as my main bank account. Although, as someone who has had bank cards stolen on my travels before, I do like to travel with a few different cards from different banks. Transferring money between bank accounts online is easy, but getting replacement cards sent to you abroad, pretty much impossible!

A Starling Bank card sat on the grass - one of the best banks for travelling

Starling

  • Type: App-based bank
  • Available to: UK
  • Exchange rates: Mastercard Exchange Rate
  • Withdrawal fees: Zero fees
  • Spending fees: Zero fees
  • Extras:

I am a big fan of Starling. It is a female-owned bank which follows the Women in Finance Charter to ensure equality in their workplace. Moreover, their app-based banking is really simple and easy to use. Plus, it has some nifty functionalities that make travelling that bit easier.

For example, I have been able to create a few virtual spaces within the Starling app to help me separate my money for specific purchases. I have then set up a virtual card for using with each space. If I run out of money in a space then the linked virtual card will decline. This has really helped me to control my spending habits but also save up for things like flights and hotels! Seeing money grow in a space helps motivate me to keep on saving.

Unfortunately, you can’t set up a virtual card for use with your main balance. I would love to see this feature added for security reasons, like I can with Wise (mentioned above).

Moreover, their overdraft functionality has been really handy for whenever I’ve needed to spend a little more than what I currently have in my main balance. Great for when those flights cost a little bit more than you expected.

A revolut card with travelling perks being held in a hand - one of the best banks for travelling
Credit: Revolut

Revolut

  • Type: E-money institution
  • Available to: UK, USA, European Economic Area, Japan, New Zealand & more (see here)
  • Exchange rates: Their own Revolut exchange rate (see it here)
  • Withdrawal fees: 2% per withdrawal
  • Spending fees: Free when you hold the currency in your account
  • Extras: Send money to and hold 36 currencies and access perks with their monthly plans

Looking for airport lounge access whenever you fly? Well, you can get this and much more when signing up for one of Revolut’s monthly plans. Whilst they offer a free plan for everyday banking and spending money abroad, as I have used previously, for a small monthly fee you can access a variety of perks that make travelling a lot easier.

For example, their Ultra plan which costs £45 per month includes unlimited airport lounge access, 3GB worldwide data for your phone, access to Headspace, and much more. Making it a great solution for frequent travellers and digital nomads like me.

I used to use their free plan and found it was great for travelling, but ended up preferring Wise. They are similar in that they are both electronic wallets and both offer interest on your money and fee-free/low-fee spending abroad, but Wise offers higher earnings on your balances without needing to pay for a plan and they have a larger variety of currencies you can use. However, if you want all the fancy perks, then you must try out Revolut.

Lucy holding up a First Direct card in front of a garden - one of the best banks for travelling

First Direct

  • Type: Online bank
  • Available to: UK
  • Exchange rates: Mastercard Exchange Rate
  • Withdrawal fees: None for debit cards and 2.99% for credit cards (minimum £3)
  • Spending fees: None for debit cards and 2.99% for credit cards
  • Extras: Great customer service and travel money service

I banked with First Direct for years and found their customer service to be one of the best. They have UK call centres and live chat for both customers and potential customers. I have always found them to be helpful and quick.

You can order travel money with free delivery to your door through your online account and you can use your cards for spending abroad. There is no need to contact your bank to tell them you will be travelling, as you typically need to with most traditional banks. Instead, they’ll just look out for anything unusual as they would do when you are spending at home.

I have once had my First Direct account frozen when spending abroad, which was a little inconvenient, but it was easy enough to contact them online and unfreeze the card. Although, I do make sure to carry a few different bank cards around with me as a safety precaution.

As First Direct is a more traditional bank, you can’t hold multiple currencies within your account. But you can use your GBP balance to make payments or withdraw cash from ATMs in any country. They don’t charge any fees and exchange rates follow the Mastercard’s Exchange Rate of the day.

BankExchange RateTransfer FeeTransaction FeeWithdrawal Fee
WiseMid-marketFrom 0.35%None if you hold the currencyNone below £200
MonzoMastercardApprox. 1%NoneNone
StarlingMastercardMarkup + £9.5NoneNone
RevolutRevolut’s rate0.3% – 2% (+ 1% at weekend)None if you hold the currencyNone below £200
First DirectMastercardMarkup + £5NoneNone
Mastercard Exchange Rate = Mid-Market Rate + Small Markup (fee)
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