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What to do if you lose your card while traveling

Jenny Hoff

Traveling abroad makes you inherently vulnerable: You’re in a foreign country, sometimes operating in a different language, figuring out a new currency and hopping around from one uncomfortable hotel bed to another. It’s probably the worst time for your credit card number to be stolen and to lose access to your account, especially if you’re not staying in one place long enough to receive a new card. If you are from another country traveling to the United States, you’re equally vulnerable, especially if you need to contact your bank in a different time zone and don’t have a 24-hour service available for card emergencies.

So, if this happens, what can you do?

The problem
This was exactly the question I had to ask myself when my in-laws were visiting from Europe and we were all traveling in the U.S. My father-in-law went to pay for a meal at a restaurant and was told his card didn’t work. He called his bank only to find out his card information had been compromised and the bank had shut down access to the account. If he wanted to continue to use the card while on vacation, he would need to call the bank every time and they would open the line for a few minutes so he could make the transaction. There was no toll-free international line for him to call. Clearly, this would end up being extremely inconvenient and expensive, so we had to come up with a plan to limit the inconvenience while still getting him access to money.

The solutions
Coming up with alternatives to paying with a credit card isn’t easy, especially if you can’t just go to your bank and pull out as much cash as you want. However, here are some ways to manage the situation until you get home.

  • Use an ATM: The first thought that comes to mind is just to pull money from the ATM if you have your debit card. However, there may be limits on how much you can take out daily or weekly, and this could become a big problem if you have a large bill to settle, such as with a hotel. Additionally, you may get hit with high ATM fees if there is no partner bank nearby. (See “What are the best debit cards for ATM withdrawals overseas?“)
  • Use a prepaid card: If you are in a country that sells prepaid debit cards and are able to make a call to use your credit card to buy them, then getting a few prepaid cards might be your best bet. You get the convenience of using a card, and you can buy as many as you think you’ll need for the rest of your trip. You can also plan ahead by buying prepaid credit cards before you leave the country. Tuck them away in your suitcase or in the hotel safe, so you have them in case of an emergency. (See “9 things to know about prepaid cards“)
  • Wire transfer: This is an option if your physical card is stolen and you have no other access to cash, though it will come with high fees.
  • Cash advance: If the card allows you to get a cash advance at an ATM or a bank and you don’t have your debit card, this is another option, though keep in mind that it can also be costly. (See “Cash advance fee survey: Convenient cash will cost plenty“)

Ultimately, it worked out and my father-in-law was able to have access to money by buying prepaid cards. However, this experience taught me a lesson. Always travel with at least one additional method of payment, and keep that card separate in case your wallet or purse gets stolen. Before you go, make sure you check out the benefits that come with each of your cards, and if you are only going to bring one, choose the one that has the best service for travelers (24-hour hotline, ability to overnight a new card, willingness to open your account so you can take out cash).

And, remember if you do lose your physical card, alert your bank immediately, so you can avoid liability for money used fraudulently. By planning ahead and ensuring you have a backup plan in case of a theft, you can spend your time enjoying your vacation instead of washing the dishes to pay for your dinner.

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