Risk Insights
October 10, 2019

Should You Use ATMs or Debit Cards While Traveling Overseas?

Travelers are seen withdrawing cash at the Bank of China and HSBC ATM at Hong Kong international airport.
Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

With the launch of Stratfor Worldview Enterprise, business leaders from a variety of backgrounds share their opinions on geopolitical risks and business strategies.

In this blog post, the seventh in a series, Thomas Pecora discusses best practices for using ATMs and debit cards overseas. He is director of Pecora Consulting Services, which provides consulting services in security vulnerability and threat assessments in Asia and the United States, as well as personal safety and crime prevention and avoidance, and travel security skills training. Pecora is also author of the memoir, Guardian: Life in the Crosshairs of the CIA's War on Terror, and served 24 years as a CIA senior security manager. He managed large complex security programs and operations in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Middle East and in war zones.

Business travelers often need foreign currency when they travel so it is important to decide, in advance, how you will access money when you travel internationally. Instead of changing cash money, the modern traveler has an electronic option to obtain foreign currency by using an automatic teller machine (ATM) via specific ATM and debit cards. ATM and debit cards have different characteristics and risks that need to be assessed for your specific trip.

Rates and Fees

ATM and debit cards used at foreign ATMs often get the best exchange rate but factor in any service charge at the ATM as well as service charges associated with your bank. If possible, get an ATM/debit card that does not charge foreign transaction service charges.

ATM vs Debit Cards

ATM cards usually have a daily spending limit and can only be used to withdraw cash, not make purchases. If yours is lost or stolen, immediately contact your banking institution and cancel the card. This can limit any immediate loss to your daily limit.

Debit cards can be problematic when used overseas. Debit cards, similar to credit cards, usually have a limit $50 liability for fraudulent transactions. But only if you notify your financial institution within two days of discovering the theft. If you don't check your bank statements for a while, you could lose everything as money comes directly out of your account in real time. That means you've lost that money until the bank investigates your fraud claim. This can take several weeks.

When travelers use debit cards, hotels, gas stations, and rental car companies often put a "hold" on funds in your account for more than the actual bill. The hold is only removed from your account after the final transaction is done. But it affects the available balance in your bank account and could lead to overdrafts if you are not monitoring your account closely.

ATMs and other card readers are susceptible "skimming" machines that read your card data and charge your account. When your debit card is skimmed, your bank account can be drained before you even know that you've been skimmed.

If you lose an ATM or debit card, immediately contact your financial institution to cancel the card and to prevent you being held liable for fraudulent charges.

Security Precautions for ATM and Debit Cards

Just like cash, your ATM and debit cards are valuable items. Do not put your pin number on the card or in your wallet. If you lose an ATM or debit card, immediately contact your financial institution to cancel the card.

The following are some basic security precautions that are applicable anywhere you use an ATM machine:

  • Travel in pairs so that someone is watching your back and preventing anyone from looking over your shoulder to get your pin.
  • Try to pick out the ATMs you plan to use in advance, based on their proximity to security elements (guards, good lighting, in plain view).
  • Avoid using ATMs at night or in locations that are out of the way or off the beaten path.
  • If the ATM has a locking door system, ensure you are alone in the vestibule and take a second or two to observe the area before you leave. If you see something you do not like — don't exit. Wait and, if necessary, use your cellphone to contact security/police.
  • Do not use an ATM if it does not look in perfect working order — it may have been tampered with.
  • Complete your transaction as quickly as possible. Immediately leave the area for a more secure location. You now have a "bullseye" on your back as there may be thieves waiting to catch you in less secure area.


Understanding the specific advantages and disadvantages of using ATM machines and associated ATM and debit cards will increases your safety when you make financial transactions and help mitigate any potential mishaps that may occur with these cards while you are traveling overseas.