Speaking of Foreign Transaction Fees

In the previous post about Revolut, I have left open a topic that I wanted to move to its own post: foreign transaction fees.

For those who are not acquainted with the terminology here, with foreign transaction fee I’m referring to the additional fee levied by banks and payment card companies when you incur expenses in a different currency than the one the card was issued for. Sometimes (particularly in UK and Ireland) this is referred to as an “overseas transaction fee” — which is confusing, particularly for Ireland, where the fee is applied for expenses in GBP (which is not overseas, but rather “up the road”), but not in EUR (which is mostly oversea).

This is a different cost incurred than the possible bad exchange rate that the financial institution may be applying, and it has nothing to do with the various DCC scams that you may run into when going to touristy destinations with a non-local card, although there is a link there: even online, services may suggest you to apply the charge in your local currency to avoid foreign transaction fees — as you can see in the linked post, that’s rarely a good idea, with a few exceptions (e.g. PayPal actually applies sane conversion fees in my experience, even if not the best ever).

These foreign transaction fees are set by the card issuers, and vary widely. I have seen cards with up to 6% “fex fees”, but that was back in Italy (why I say that will be clearer in a moment). In Ireland, with the exception of various fintech companies, the typical fex fees were of 2-3% — I was very happy with Tesco Banks‘s 1.75% fex fee (Tesco Bank no longer operates in Ireland.) In the UK, it appears most cards either have 0% fex fee, or 2.99% fex fee; there are a few divergences, but those two appear to be the most common options.

The reason why I am specifying this information with a country attached is that, in addition to telling you what the currency is, the mix of local-vs-foreign spend for the average person is also connected to the country. For instance, for my friends and family living in Italy, foreign transaction fees only exist when buying from foreign websites (or eBay), or when going on a “far” trip — Croatia and Switzerland being the closest countries that incur the fex fee. On the other hand, if you live in Ireland, you’ll probably have at least one recurring expense in GBP — depending on how Brexit is going to go this may change.

Indeed, for electronics you often need to look at the UK, rather than the continent — because of plugs, regulations, availability, etc. And quite a few eShops with presence both in the continent and the UK used to refuse you service from the European website, referring you to the UK one instead — this is another thing that may change after Brexit. There is a reason why, when discussing markets, most companies call it “UKI”.

I’m told that a similar situation exists for those living in Switzerland, and I can imagine this goes similar in the Nordics, given that Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have their own currencies as well, and likely a lot of services overlap.

In the UK (and again this may change after Brexit), you may very well never spend money outside of GBP because all the services exist within the country. Unless you’re an expat, in which case you’re probably still visiting the continent (Eurozone or not) fairly often, or may be paying for ongoing services (such as cellphone contracts) in that currency. This probably explains why the two sets of fex fee groups: if you’re part of the first group, you probably don’t need a card with no foreign transaction fees — while you really do in the latter case.

In my case, I have two credit cards: one from Santander, which I spoke of last time, with no foreign transaction fee, and an American Express with a 2.99% foreign transaction fee. I effectively spread the expenses on the two cards, depending on where I am — namely I try to use the Amex in the UK, and the Santander anywhere the other does not work. I could give up on the Amex, as the Santander is strictly a superset usage, but the perks provided by Amex are worth having. And that’s the most important thing: cards have perks, so you should probably consider those as well.

Thus the utility of fintech services like Revolut and Curve depend on the country you live in not just because it sets the band for foreign transaction fees, but also because they set the tone of foreign currency usage. In the UK, with the wide availability of debit and credit cards with no foreign transaction fees, their services are likely less useful than in other countries — except when it comes to perks. Indeed in the case of Curve, you would be able to keep most of the perks of a credit card, such as cashback, even if the card comes with a hefty foreign transaction fee. Except for Amex of course.

But is it convenient for you to pay for such a service? That’s another very good question. And to answer it, I’ll try to forget about the UK and go back to Ireland — mainly because here, as I now repeated a number of times, cards with no foreign transaction fee exists and you can just use one of those. Metro Bank has free current accounts with cards that come with cards without foreign transaction fees in Europe. Santander has a £3/month credit card with no foreign transaction fees, and 0.5% cashback. Halifax has a Clarity MasterCard that comes with no monthly fee, no foreign transaction fees (and of course no perks.)

But let’s go back to Ireland and take a look at the options. As I said the usual foreign transaction fee in the country was between 2% and 3%. In the case of Ulster Bank, the card I used to have had 2.75% foreign transaction fee. At which point would it have been cheaper for me to subscribe to Curve Black, at €9.99/month, rather than give Ulster Bank their fees? (And for simplicity here, I’m not talking about exchange rates; the exchange rate for their MasterCard is network-provided so it’s not at all bad, and in fact it’s comparable to Revolut’s.)

As most services would require a yearly commitment, we should consider the spend on an yearly basis too. This makes the cost €119.88, but we’ll call it €120 to make it easier to run umbers on them. Let’s just call the twelve cents a rounding error. If we’re ignoring the cashback options (as in Ireland there were none, beside Tesco Bank), the amount of foreign expenses you’d need to break even on Curve black with the foreign transaction fee noted above is about €4364 (divide the yearly cost by the foreign transaction fee). That’s the cost of fairly big vacation for a family (note that you can’t include flights in the vacation cost, as those would be billed by the currency of the country of origin, which is likely local).

If you have a card that provides cashback, then things become more complicated, because you’d have to include the cashback in the calculation. If you’re curious the following formula will give you the number, making S the yearly subscription cost of the service, F the foreign transaction fee percentage, and C the cashback percentage:

(S + (S/F) * C) / F

For Revolut Metal, with their variable cashback, figuring out the number is a bit more annoying. But we’re also talking about 1% in the best case scenario (all non-European spend). So the basic number (€5673) only goes down to €5616. The 0.1% cashback option of all European spend is so minimal that it’s not worth calculating exactly.

So what should you do if you don’t usually spend that kind of money on foreign transactions? You can still use the Revolut and Curve and other fintech services without paying for them, and grab the best deal you can until they go bust. Or if you don’t want to bother, you can just spend on your normal cards, get your usual perks and ignore the need for no foreign transaction fees.

Indeed, if your options are spending on Curve attached to a debit card with no cashback and no perks, or spend on an American Express Platinum Cashback Credit Card, you would need to spend more than £5330 a year in foreign transactions for it to be worth it — and that’s assuming you don’t qualify for the higher tier. And this is probably the worst case scenario for the UK, for a non-zero foreign transaction fee card.

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