Money To Live

September 2, 2008

Reader Question: Finances when studying abroad

Filed under: banks,travel — by moneytolive @ 5:00 am
Tags: , ,

A reader, Jenny, asked about managing finances when studying abroad in Spain for a semester. If you have a question, send me an email or use the comment form.

Bank accounts

This is my advice for a college student studying abroad who is not earning income (or is earning a minimal amount) and has saved enough for the trip: take a credit card and a debit card. Before leaving, set the credit card account to be paid with automatic payments. Keep the ATM card at home except when you are using it.

In the event of a stolen card, credit cards generally provide better protection than debit cards (some debit cards offer comparable protection, but you have to check the details). If you notice the credit card or debit card is missing, call the issuer immediately. To make this phone call, you need to know the number. Before leaving, prepare a list of emergency numbers — emergency contacts back home, the study abroad office, and your bank/credit card phone numbers. Keep a copy with your belongings and leave a copy with a fried or family member.

For most students abroad for a semester, a local bank account is probably not necessary. Opening a bank account can be difficult if you do not have the necessary documents (proof of address, proof of a job, and sometimes proof of citizenship or residence). Modern ATM networks are extensive, and they should provide enough access to your cash.

Call your bank to ask about fees at international ATMs. In my experience, the fees cost a few dollars. By making fewer, large withdrawals (as opposed to frequent, small withdrawals), you can pay less in fees. Check with your bank to see if there are some ATMs that you will not be charged for using.

Think about a budget

Jenny said this is her first time to deal with money on a daily basis. At college, she has a full meal plan and only needs money for occasional expenses. In the summers, she took jobs that provided a meal plan and sometimes housing.

There are three basics to a budget abroad: housing, food, and transportation. (Jenny is covered by her university’s health plan, which has international coverage, so she does not need to buy a separate plan). Then there are the fun expenses: traveling, souvenirs, …

Housing – Jenny is taken care of here; her study abroad program hooked her up with a homestay.

Food – One of the best cheap meals in Europe is bread and cheese from a grocery store. With a homestay, breakfast may be provided and sometimes dinner too. Grocery stores can be intimidating in another country, but you can stick to the basics — rice or pasta with vegetables.

Transportation – One of my favorite things about Europe is the extensive public transportation network. In large cities, there are typically subways, trolleys, and buses. In smaller towns, there may only be buses. Check with locals about the best way to travel (you might find a monthly pass with a student discount)

Holidays/vacations – Consider taking some weekend trips to nearby towns (or countries). A great planning resource is the Lonely Planet Guidebook series. Lodging and restaurants are sorted by price with frank descriptions of what you get for the money. Before leaving the country, make sure your visa allows re-entry!


Whenever traveling abroad, check the State Department website. It has important information (such as if the country is unstable and Americans should not visit) and some silly advice for students (“try not to make a spectacle of yourself”). Though maybe it isn’t so silly in light of the increasing numbers of Britons arrested abroad.


1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for this excellent post!
    I am abroad and do have my ’emergency numbers’.
    So, it seems like the only reason to choose a cc over debit card is:
    protection in case you lose it?
    I do understand that this is a valid reason. just want to know if there are any other main reasons.

    like the State Dept website, thanks.

    Comment by katherine — September 18, 2008 @ 4:04 pm |Reply

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