Foreign currency fees are probably one of the most confusing aspects of credit cards. Banks hide them away in the small print, and very often you only find out how much you really paid after you get your bill.
The question today is: Is it worth it to pay with your credit card overseas in order to earn miles?
It might be helpful to read a brief refresher on what the value of a mile is, because that affects your answer.
First, what happens when you charge something to your credit card overseas? You get hit by several fees
(1) The currency conversion spread
The practice most banks have for foreign currency transactions is to convert them into USD before converting into SGD.
If you’re interested in seeing how Visa does this, you can play with their converter here
For illustration, suppose you buy something online costing 10 Euros.
Step 1: 10 Euros= 11.18 USD
Step 2: 11.18 USD= S$15.78
For reference, the spot rate for Euro to SGD is 1 Euro= $1.5642. This means you are paying a spread of 13.8 cents, or 0.88%
(2) Bank Fees
Your bank will charge you a fee for using your card overseas. DBS for example, charges 1.5% and 2% for foreign currency transactions on Visa/MC and AMEX respectively.
(3) Visa/Mastercard/AMEX Fees
Visa/Mastercard/AMEX will also charge a fee for using your card overseas. This is generally 1%
So straight off the bat, you’re looking at a 3-4% surcharge on whatever you’re buying. Is that a good deal? Consider 2 scenarios
- Using UOB PRVI Miles Card with 3.25% fees + 0.8% spread for 4.05% total surcharge.
- Earn 2.4 miles per S$1
- 2.4 miles are worth 9.6 cents if you redeem for business, but let’s be conservative for this analysis and give them a value of 2 cents each.
- This means for each S$1 you spend, you earn 2.4 miles or 4.8 cents worth of value. 4.8% rebate vs 4.05% surcharge- you come out on top, but barely. You might be better off exchanging money at The Arcade for a 2-3% spread.
- Using UOB Preferred Platinum AMEX card with 3.25% fees + 0.8% surcharge for 4.05% total surcharge
- Earn 4 miles per S$1
- 4 miles are worth 16 cents for business class travel, or 8 cents if you take a value of 2 cents per mile
- This is an 8% rebate on the lower end, so you clearly come out on top here
Bank + Visa/AMEX/MC Fees for Major Banks
- Remember that the “true” cost of the transaction will include a ~0.8% foreign currency spread which is not reflected in the table above
- Looking at this table, I can understand why UOB offers such a generous overseas spending bonus on its PRVI cards. You’re basically paying for the privilege through a 3.25% fee
- I also understand why DBS offers only 2 miles (vs 2.4 for UOB PRVI) on its Altitude cards, when you consider that they charge less than UOB. (EDIT: Since this article was originally published in Feb 2016, DBS has increased its Visa/MC fee from 2.5% to 2.8%, closing the gap somewhat)
- When spending overseas and using your DBS Altitude card, it makes no sense to use the AMEX over the Visa, because both earn 2 miles per $1, yet the AMEX version has higher fees
- Standard Chartered levies the highest fees (3.5%) on Visa/MC transactions- crazy, considering they lack any good rewards card for overseas spend
- Similarly, I chuckle at OCBC’s audacity to charge 2.8% on overseas transactions for the same reason
Whether or not you want to use your card overseas depends on how you value your miles. I think it’s a pretty good deal to use your specialised spending cards overseas, because 4 miles per $1 would surely exceed any transaction fee levied. General spending cards are a bit more of a marginal proposition- if you’re determined to redeem for first class flights only, then you would get some value out of this.
If you’re not keen on paying foreign transaction fees, you may want to consider the CIMB Visa Signature or BOC Visa Infinite. However, even though CIMB/BOC do not charge the bank levied fee, you will still have to pay the 1% fee levied by Visa. Also, these are cashback cards and won’t earn you much in the way of miles. And with income requirements of $120,000 each, they’re not exactly the most accessible of cards.
P.S: Since we’re talking about using your credit card overseas, it’s only apt that I insert a warning about the scam of DCC. DO NOT FALL FOR DCC. It is the most cynical ploy ever, and with more places automatically offering you this “convenience” without asking you for permission we need to be extra vigilant about falling for it. DCC does nothing for you, denies you the opportunity to earn miles for overseas spend and on top of that, the bank still charges you a 0.8% fee on DCC transactions. So you lose out on the exchange rate, you lose out on the miles, you lose out on the 0.8% fee. You owe it to all your friends and loved ones to warn them about this scam and make sure they don’t fall for it. [/PSA]