Charles Schwab ATM Card – Your Secret Weapon to Accessing Cash for Free Anywhere in the World

For those of you planning to travel internationally in the near future, I’d like to share a little more detail on the Charles Schwab VISA debit/ATM card in my wallet. I will tell you why it is the best ATM card to have and how you can start taking advantage of it in a few easy steps.

Typical Cash Withdrawal Abroad

I briefly mentioned how this card saved us money when we needed cash in Italy and South America. Many places abroad, including well-known sites, accept only cash. Most international travelers typically access cash in the following 3 ways.

  1. Buy foreign currency (FX) from your bank or an agency like American Express (Amex) Travel, prior to a trip abroad.
  2. Utilize airport FX exchange services.
  3. Use your US bank-issued ATM cards abroad.

Here is how you’d normally be charged for the above 3 methods.

  1. Even when your bank or Amex Travel tells you that there is no fee to buy FX, a 3-5% surcharge is embedded in the exchange rate used (you can get a sense of what the market exchange rate is by entering “1 Euro = ? USD” in Google).
  2. Similarly, the service charge and unfavorable exchange rates used by those airport services are outrageous (could be higher than 10%).
  3. US banks typically charge a flat fee ($3-5) + an embedded 3% FX fee for your cash withdrawal abroad. If you are a premier banking customer or if you use the bank’s international branches’ ATMs, the flat fee is usually waived but the 3% hidden fee is still charged. Additionally, most ATMs abroad will also charge you a flat access fee. 

Cash Withdrawal with the Charles Schwab ATM/VISA Debit Card

Now, the Charles Schwab ATM card not only charges NO explicit or hidden FX fees for cash withdrawal anywhere in the world, it also REIMBURSES the fees charged by the ATMs/ATM owners, with no limit.

Let me share a few of my actual cash transactions.

(1) Lake Como (Varenna),  February 21, 2011 – Withdrawal of 30 euros with no fee charged by the ATM – @the market rate of 1.36566.

(2) All three cash withdrawal activities in Peru and Chile incurred flat fees charged by the foreign ATMs. The fees charged represented 7.4%, 3.4%, 9.1% of the total US$ amount shown below.

On May 31, 2012, the fees of $15.82 were credited back to my Charles Schwab checking account, as shown below.

(3) Just to show you a domestic example, I withdrew some cash from a local Chase ATM, and was charged a $3 fee by Chase. The fee again was credited back to my account at the end of the month.

Anything Else Like It?

I looked into similar products offered by a few of Charles Schwab’s competitors, and couldn’t find anything identical.

E*Trade and TD Ameritrade only offer ATM fee reimbursement for US domestic cash withdrawal.

Our beloved American Express Prepaid Card waives its $2 ATM fee once per month, but does NOT waive or reimburse any fees charged by foreign ATMs. I am also not convinced that the FX rate it uses to process foreign transactions does not include an embedded charge, but will be happy to test it out by comparing it to another fee-free credit card the next time I travel abroad.

The Fidelity VISA Gold Check Card charges a 1% FX fee, and limits ATM fee reimbursement to $75 per year, as shown in the official terms & conditions below.

You Don’t Have to Change Your Primary Bank to Take Advantage of This

Even if you don’t have a Charles Schwab branch near you, you can still get your own Charles Schwab ATM Card by following the easy steps below.

  1. Open a single or joint account online at schwab.com (a linked fee-free brokerage account will be opened concurrently but does not require any funding).
  2. Return the signature page.
  3. Receive your free checks, free VISA ATM/Debit card.
  4. Fund the checking account only when you want/need to by using the Schwab app on your smartphone, sending in/dropping off a check, or linking your Schwab checking account with your primary account for easy free online transfers.
  5. Withdraw cash anywhere anytime you want to.

Now, you will never have to take any foreign currency with you before your international trips! (Remember to still put all your spending abroad on a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, whenever possible!)

Let me know what you think! I respond to all comments.

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  • Lacour

    As much as we love using a credit card for points and miles unless you have a European style card with a chip and pin required card it is best to use cash in Europe. My daughter spent a semester in Italy and the credit card fraud was more than we could have ever imagined. We do use credit cards for hotels, for everything else we use our Schwab ATM for cash.

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Lacour, thanks for your insightful comment. Chase and Citi have started offering premium cards with chips in them, but those are still chip & signature, not chip & PIN.

  • GC

    Thanks for the post. I do have a upcoming trip to Italy and for this purpose I ordered a Fidelity Gold card. Before reading your post, I thought that’s the best card in universe..

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      GC, you are welcome. Hope you still have time to order the Schwab card before your trip. Have a wonderful time!

  • Bella

    Very helpful,  thanks!

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Glad you found it helpful, Bella. Have a nice day!

  • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

    Yes, Mr. RTC, we have been using Schwab ever since we moved back from Asia. I remember you also recently got a smartphone. Don’t you love depositing checks with your phone? Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

    Oh, by the way, I just realized one limitation of using Schwab as your primary bank. Schwab does not seem to have a SWIFT code for receiving wires from accounts outside the US. Not that we need to use that, but for those who do, this could present a challenge.

  • oneeyejack

    Does it matter which checking account you sign up for?

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      oneeyejack, there is only one type of checking account to sign up for – the Investor High Yield Checking, which is opened in conjunction with a Schwab brokerage account. The Investor High Yield account comes with the Schwab Bank Platinum VISA debit card. The current interest rate for that account is 0.15%, while close to zero, still much higher than what you can get elsewhere.

      • oneeyejack

        thanks!!

      • raphael

        i just signed up. do I need to order a card or they sending me one automatically.

        • raphael

          sorry bout that didn’t read down far enough

  • Leigh3950

    Thank you for all your hard work! I just applied for this card and it will be perfect for my trip to London in November. 

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Leigh3950, you are very welcome. Have a wonderful trip!

  • Noah

    This sounds great! Though, we’ve also gotten cash through Amex Platinum’s emergency wire services and transaction fees are all waived for Platinum cardholders through Premium Global Assist.  It takes a bit more time (verification processes), but it’s another benefit.  

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Thanks for sharing, Noah! Amex Platinum recently got rid of its foreign transaction fees, and I only have positive things to save about Amex customer service.

  • http://paddyinba.blogspot.com/ Quickroute

    Bravo – this card saved me a small fortune on an extended 3 year overseas trip VS my main bank atm which fleeced me by charging a overseas convenience fee, awful fx rate

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Quickroute, thanks for sharing your experience. Yes, this would be a perfect card for US expatriates working overseas!

  • Ypcc

    It seems that although the brokerage account can be funded easily by electronic transfer from a different bank; the checking account can only be funded via check or by transfer but only from the linked brokerage account, and it takes 1-5 business days.

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Ypcc, you are absolutely right! If you set up the linkage on Schwab, it is between the brokerage account and your external bank. Once that transfer is done, you can then transfer the money into your checking account. Alternatively, you can set up the linkage from your primary bank (even from Amazon Payments or Paypal, for example) and initiate a transfer from your external account.

      I personally just use the Schwab app on my phone to deposit checks directly into the checking account (you could write a check to yourself and then deposit it on your phone), which usually takes a few hours.

  • Shannon

    I have a Charles Schwab card, too, because I just started studying abroad in Spain. I’m  very happy with the service so far! But I was wondering, do you know if I use my Visa ATM card at a store or business to purchase something with the card itself instead of with cash, am I charged any additional fees? Or is it still just the market exchange rate? Any help would be awesome!

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Shannon, I have never used it as a debit card for purchases. If you have a small purchase, you might want to try it to find out and then let us know? Otherwise, maybe an email to Schwab Bank customer service? Have fun in Spain!

      • Shannon

        I actually used it on Amazon.es, the Spanish Amazon website, to order a Macbook Pro adaptor since I forgot mine in the States, and they didn’t charge me an additional fee there; they only charged me the actual market exchange rate, so I’m thinking maybe it would be the same with debit purchases, although I’m in no way certain. I’ll have to contact customer service!

  • Bernice630

    Great! helpful!

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Thanks, Bernice630!

  • Janet Cho

    When you initially fund the checking account, does the card get sent automatically or did you have to mail the form?

    • Shannon

      It gets sent to you immediately as soon as your checking account is funded! I can speak from experience since I just set up my Checking Account this summer. :)

      • Janet Cho

        Awesome, thank you! I like Schwab but I just wish all their forms weren’t mail-in :(

      • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

        Shannon, thanks so much for answering Janet’s question! I signed up 8+ years ago and can’t remember all the details. I recently got a replacement card, but had to call in to request one for my wife as she did not use hers in the past few years.

  • Peglegnmh

    Question: how about using the card for POS? Any fees charged then? Thanks!

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Peglegnmh, based on our reader Shannon’s experience with Amazon Spain, there is no fee charged for foreign POS transactions. But I’d still recommend using a credit card with no FX fees for your purchases in other countries.

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  • WEA

    I’ve been using this card to get cash in Bolivia with no problem. It also worked in Colombia [Bogota], but I started having problems in Medellin  and Santa Marta where it was rejected at multiple ATMs. Some of the machines mention “chip,” which this card does not have.

    I thought this card would work at any ATM worldwide. Fortunately, I had other cards with me. Any thoughts on the problem or solutions would be greatly appreciated as I like[d] the flexibility of this card…

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      WEA, sorry to hear about your experiences in Medellin and Santa Marta. I have recently learned from a local Schwab branch that you could actually go inside any banks to request a cash advance from the Schwab VISA debit card without incurring any fees. All you need to show is a picture ID. I have not tried this in a foreign country, but my mother-in-law tried this at a Chase branch and it worked well.

      • WEA

        Thank you for suggesting the cash advance route. No fee is the main point of the Schwab card, and it is a good option when banks are open. Unfortunately, in South America and many other places, banks have limited hours [weekday only]. I would have been really stuck at the airport if I did not have cash or another ATM card. Hopefully, Schwab will add a chip or do something else in future to make this card work truly at any ATM.

        • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

          WEA, thanks for letting us all know about this issue. Next time I travel internationally, I will make sure to carry my other ATM cards also, just in case.

          • WEA

            I wrote to Schwab to ask about this issue. Their response:

            “The Schwab Bank Visa Debit Card is available to use at any domestic and international locations wherever the Visa or Interlink® logos are displayed and at ATMs that display the Plus® symbol.   These logos and symbols are listed on the back of your Visa debit card for convenience. “If these logos or symbols are not pictured on the ATM, the ATM is not compatible with our Visa system and the transaction will not complete.”I regret any confusion or inconvenience this may have caused while traveling.  I hope this information is helpful for future use.  Additionally, Schwab Bank has provided our International Collect Number on the back of the card which is 1-317-596-4501.  Our representatives are available for you at this number 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” 

            In other words, this card will not work at every ATM. If the card works at an ATM and you are charged a fee, Schwab will refund it. Be sure to hang onto all ATM receipts!Lesson learned. I will definitely carry at least one additional ATM card given my experiences in Colombia. This is always advisable as a card can be lost, damaged, or “eaten” by the ATM.On a related note, when I spoke with Customer Service about this card, they recommended taking out a small amount of money upon arrival in a foreign country to avoid a possible freeze. This is in addition to giving them an advance travel notification!I hope this information is useful to folks…

            • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

              WEA, thanks so much for sharing AGAIN! This is very useful information for everyone. Have a great week!

  • Fesave

    Is there a fee to transfer money from your Schwab account to an external bank, for example to an Israeli Bank?  I would have to do this at least once or twice a month to pay my housemate for rent and bills. Thank you for your help. 

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      If it involves a wire transfer, then there is a fee. Otherwise, for domestic account transfers, there is no fee. The best alternative for you might be to write a check (free checks provided by Schwab) or pay your friend cash. Hope this answers your question.

  • Cody

    I live in Hanoi and brought this card with me. Provides enormous amount of security as I do not have to take lots of money out at once to justify a $5USD atm fee with my wells fargo card. 

    Schwab provides great service, a low international money wire fee, and has a nice online website.

    I recommend their card to anybody moving / traveling abroad for an extended period of time.

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Cody, yes, probably the best card for expats to access cash abroad. Thanks for your comment!

  • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

    Thanks for sharing, Tony. The 1% forex fee kills it for most people.

  • InformantGuy

    Just talked with Schwab by phone and they said the run a HARD check on your credit report when you apply for a Schwab CHECKING account.  Something to keep in mind if you don’t want to have to many HARD check hits to appear on your credit report.

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Thanks, InformantGuy, for the tip. I got the card back in 2005 and couldn’t remember if it was a hard inquiry or not. In this case, you might want to time it with your other credit card applications. Good luck!

      I have also heard success stories of people calling banks to request a withdrawal of hard inquiries. YMMV!

  • CJ

    So helpful.. I have to ask though. does the atm convert/give you the exchange rate, or does Schwab do the conversion.

    • Shannon

      I’ve always just gotten whatever rate that VISA gives for that day. I use this link to check everyday: http://usa.visa.com/personal/using_visa/consumer_ex_rates_us.jsp. I’ve been in Spain, so I’ll check Dollars > Euro, and then put in ’0′ for the bank fee since Schwab doesn’t charge anything.

      • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

        Shannon, thanks again for helping out! All the best to you and happy holidays!

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      CJ, please see Shannon’s response to your question. Good luck!

  • Ljtobey

    Agreed! Thia card is awesome. On a more detailed note, I remained skeptical about whether the exchange rate they were giving me was fair so I looked at 5 transactions an compared it to the fx rates that day. It was consistently really close and fair. Posted my transactions here:

    http://www.abendinthearrow.com/traveltips/charles-schwab-high-yield-checking-actual-exchange-rates-are-fair/

  • http://twitter.com/illgetyouin a Ken Doll

    Im looking for the 800 number or any number on back of the Fidelity Visa Gold Check card. I lost mine again and dont want to call my Fidelity Rep yet again. Thanks

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      I don’t have the Fidelity card, so can’t help you there. Good luck!

  • Tony

    Any maximum limit for daily ATM withdrawals for Charles Schwab’s card ?
    For example, Firstrade’s limit is only $1,000 per day, that’s definitely not enough for me.

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Tony, I just placed a call into Schwab Bank and got some answers for you. The normal daily cash withdrawal limit is ~$1,005, but you can call to have your limit raised to $2,000 without any special approval. If you needed a limit higher than $2,000, a special request will be submitted on your behalf and you will find out on the same day whether that can be approved or not.

      Hope this helps.

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  • Tryston

    I can’t find any “official” information about Charles Schwab foreign atm fees or currency exchange rates. Anyone know if this is still the case?

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  • angie

    Don’t know if I skipped over this, but I am having trouble figuring out how to recieve the physical debit card…I am leaving in 21 days to Spain, and I will need the card before then…any help? Thanks!

    • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

      Angie, call Schwab Bank to request the card if you haven’t received it.

      • angie

        I haven’t deposited funds yet, could that be the problem? Also what is the easiest way to transfer funds from my chase account to this new account? Do I need to mail in paperwork, or can I do it online? Thanks again!!

        • http://www.travelbypoints.com/ Jimmy @TravelByPoints

          I believe you have to send in the MoneyLink form downloadable online. You might be able to set it up online either via Schwab or Chase. The easiest way might be to mail a check to Schwab for your initial deposit.

  • TJ

    Awesome…. I just signed up… their telephone service on sign up was impressive…Im going to be happy to be rid of WFargo now… their service was horrid and I’ve paid out the nose for my travels.

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  • Drew

    Just got my new debit card in the mail today. It has the EMV chip but it is chip and signature not pin. I called they said they are only doing chip and signature. So it’s better then nothing I guess.

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