The minute you use your U.S. debit card or bank account abroad, your wallet may feel the impact. You may incur foreign transaction and ATM fees. Or your bank may decline debit card purchases if it doesn’t know you’re traveling.
If you live or have close connections outside the U.S., you might need a more global account for certain banking needs. That’s where a multicurrency account comes in. Here’s how it works and how to know if one’s right for you.
What is a multicurrency account?
A multicurrency account is typically an account at a bank or financial tech firm that lets you spend, receive and hold multiple currencies. It can work like an international checking account with multiple subaccounts, each with a different currency. This lets you manage payments in a foreign currency instead of opening a new bank account overseas.
“Credit cards and multicurrency accounts allow you to spend as a local, but only multicurrency accounts allow you to quickly transfer and receive money,” says Leyla Beriker, product owner of U.S. payments at Revolut.
Most multicurrency accounts — also called foreign currency accounts — are reserved for businesses and high net worth individuals through international or private banking services at banks such as Citibank
Two notable exceptions are Wise
and Revolut, two fintech companies that offer multicurrency accounts for the general public and businesses.
When to choose a multicurrency account
1. You live or work outside the U.S.
A multicurrency account can be an easy way to avoid currency conversions every time you make a transaction. This removes the uncertainty in cost from constant exchange rate fluctuations.
“This is more of an expat’s tool than a vacationer’s tool,” says Daniel Tobias, certified financial planner at Passport Wealth Management in Cornelius, North Carolina. Some of his clients are U.S. citizens who use Wise’s account as an easy way to manage money when retiring or buying property abroad.
In addition, since COVID-19, “as remote work has become more common, we’ve seen that multicurrency accounts are more useful for companies with employees around the world,” says Revolut’s Beriker.
2. You make frequent transactions to or with people abroad.
If you have family or friends in other parts of the world, or you work with non-U.S. business clients, you might find a multicurrency account more convenient than using wire transfer services. Bank wires can have steep fees and exchange rate markups, and delivery isn’t as fast as domestic wires.
“To execute international wires [is] a little bit of a nerve-racking experience. You have to wait for a day…but sometimes it takes weeks to get things sorted out,” Tobias says.
Massachusetts-based certified financial planner Chris Chen and his wife use Revolut’s multicurrency feature to send money to their son, who lives in Switzerland. And on a recent vacation in Portugal, Chen saw the difference in cost between Revolut and his U.S. national bank account. He made two ATM withdrawals the same day, each for 200 euros but using different accounts. His bank statements showed the converted amounts: $225 from Revolut and $252 plus a $5 fee from his big bank. Revolut saved him $32.
When not to choose a multicurrency account
1. You deal with currency exchange for occasional trips abroad.
If you don’t need to send or receive money in a foreign currency using a bank account, it’s safe to say you don’t need this account. To avoid transaction fees, see other travel-friendly payment options below.
2. You make one-time international transfers.
Banks and nonbank transfer companies let you send money abroad without requiring a new place for your money. A multicurrency account can act as a substitute for a bank account in another country or as an intermediary account to connect U.S. and foreign bank accounts. In either case, this type of setup is not for occasional transactions.
“The benefit is for a business or individual that’s receiving consistent funds from another country,” says Jason Kumpf, head of strategic and enterprise partnerships at OFX, an online money transfer provider that offers a multicurrency account for businesses.
Benefits of multicurrency accounts at fintechs
Personal and business multicurrency accounts have different use cases and perks. Here’s what Wise and Revolut offer for their personal accounts:
Competitive exchange rates. When sending money, converting between currency balances or making purchases, the firms’ rates tend to be based on foreign-exchange markets with low to no rate markups. There are some fees, but the total cost of a conversion tends to be much cheaper than what traditional banks charge.
Bank details for multiple currencies in one account. You can get country-specific bank details — Revolut offers a few, Wise provides up to 10 — so you can receive payments in different currencies. For example, you can have both a U.K. account number and U.S. routing number.
Mobile app and debit card included. Wise and Revolut both partner with banks to offer their debit cards, which work in the Visa
network. And the Wise and Revolut iOS and Android apps are highly rated.
Other travel-friendly options
Using money abroad can incur costs, but a multicurrency account isn’t the only way to limit expenses. Here are four to consider:
Credit cards with no foreign transaction fees: For everyday purchases when you can use physical cards or mobile wallets.
Debit cards with no foreign ATM fees: For cash withdrawals, especially in countries where cash is heavily used. Generally, these debit cards, and the checking accounts they’re connected to, don’t have foreign transaction fees either.
Currency exchange services from your bank: For cash you’ll bring on your next trip. See if your bank or credit union has this service since it’s cheaper than using kiosks at the airport.
Nonbank money transfers for sending wires overseas while in the U.S.: Companies such as Wise and OFX offer stand-alone transfers internationally that have competitive rates and low to no fees.
What else to know
Investing with multicurrency accounts is rarely available. TIAA, as one of the exceptions, has two types of savings accounts that are “mainly aimed at investors looking to diversify their investment portfolios across different currencies,” says Chris Gaffney, president of TIAA Bank World Markets. For more on investing in currencies, consider forex trading.
You might like: How to find the best credit card for international travel
Multicurrency accounts can be regulated differently. Revolut and Wise are not banks but companies that partner with banks to provide certain services. Revolut offers federal deposit insurance through its partner bank, and Wise is licensed and regulated as a money transmitter, which by law must protect consumers’ money through a different process.
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Spencer Tierney writes for NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @SpencerNerd.