Avoid hefty foreign transaction fees

I stopped using travelers checks almost 15 years ago and instead rely on my ATM card for getting cash and my credit card for large purchases, but the foreign transaction fees that banks and credit card companies charge can quickly add up — especially on a long trip.

Travel Tip: Before you leave, check with your bank and credit card companies to find out what they’ll charge you for using your cards abroad. Banks once hid this fee to the dismay of travelers reviewing their statements once they returned home. Starting in 2009, they’re now required to disclose this fee separate and apart from the other fees they charge.

Credit card companies most often charge a percent of the transaction amount (usually 3%) while banks charge either a percent or a flat fee (often whichever is higher) for foreign ATM withdrawals. Knowing which type of fee (percent vs. flat) can help you manage the cost of accessing cash. For example, if your bank charges a flat foreign ATM withdrawal fee of $5, larger, less frequent withdrawals will make more sense.

If you travel frequently or for long periods of time, consider getting a credit card that doesn’t charge a transaction fee on foreign purchases. For example, Capital One has a policy of not charging a foreign transaction fee on any of it’s credit cards and in November the British Airways Visa Signature became the first airline rewards card to waive fees on international purchases.

You may also want to consider opening a second checking account with a bank or credit union that charges a more favorable foreign ATM withdrawal fee. For example, I used to bank with Washington Mutual (which was “bought” by Chase during the bank solvency crisis a few years ago), which charges 3% on ATM withdrawals. The credit union I switched to only charges 1% and when I asked them if they were able to adjust or waive this, the explained that this was a fee charged to them by MasterCard.

Filing income taxes while traveling abroad

In honor of the personal income tax filing deadline today in the US, I wanted to share how to managed to submit my tax returns while traveling.

I’m currently on a five month trip. I left in February and am planning to return to Seattle at the end of June – completely missing the tax season. (If only this were a check box on the 1040 that said “Sorry, I can’t be bothered to submit this form because I’m away traveling!”)

Now, I should say, that I’ve had a CPA for the past eight years which greatly reduces the amount of time and effort involved with preparing my business and personal tax returns, but it has always been my job to gather and submit all of the supporting tax documents and information, sign and submit the returns to the IRS, and pay any taxes that were due. None of these tasks is overly complicated and all are easily accomplished from home, but taking care of taxes while traveling added a few complications.

How I did it

The first thing I did was sign up for the IRS’s EFTPS service. This is an online tool that allows you to submit estimated quarterly and yearly tax payments. The enrollment process is decently straight-forward, but does involve the IRS does sending an enrollment PIN by US mail, which means you have to sign up for the service a few weeks before your departure – or – make sure you have access to your mail while you’re away.

I then gathered and scanned all of the tax-related paperwork and information I had in-hand before my departure, and stored these as PDFs using Dropbox. As more documents arrived by mail, my mailing service, Earth Class Mail, scanned and uploaded them as PDFs so I could access these from any internet café. Once I had all of the documents and paperwork together, I submitted them to my CPA using their ShareFile account. (I could have also shared these using Dropbox, but the firm had standardized on ShareFile.)

When the returns were finally prepared, the CPA emailed them to me as PDFs so I could review and approve. And once we agreed they were good to go, he emailed me the authorization forms required to submit these on my behalf electronically to the IRS. So far, so good.

The last thing I needed to do was print, sign, and return the authorization forms. Printing and signing was relatively easy – most internet cafes in India had printers available and charged a nominal 5 to 10 rupees per page – but returning the document turned out to be a bit of a challenge.

Since the documents contained my name, social security number, and signature, I didn’t want to scan and email them, as I would have back home. I was worried the internet café could have retained a copy of the scanned page. As an old-school and slightly more secure alternative, I tried faxing, but the connection repeatedly failed and the fax never went through.

After a bit of creative problem solving, I used my iPhone to snap a picture of the signed authorization forms, which I then emailed to the CPA. The result wasn’t the prettiest, but it was a functional solution and allowed them to submit my returns. After the returns were submitted, I signed in to EFTPS and submitted my tax payment (which was decidedly no fun).

Resources for filing your taxes while traveling

  • EFTPS – IRS service that allows you to make tax payments online using direct withdrawal from your checking or savings account. Sign up a few weeks before your departure.
  • Dropbox – service that allows you to sync your files online and across computers/devices, including iPhones/iPads.
  • Earth Class Mail – online mail management service that receives, opens, and scans your mail to PDF.
  • IRS FreeFile & e-file – two options for filing your personal tax returns online. Everyone can e-file individual tax returns for free.
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