A primer on overseas credit card usage (Updated with new rates)

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

Scenario 1:

  • 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.

Scenario 2:

  • 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

BankVisa/MCAMEX
DBS3.25%3.0%
UOB3.25%3.25%
OCBC3.25%N/A
Citibank3.25%3.3%
HSBC2.8%N/A
SCB3.5%N/A
Maybank2.75%N/A
CIMB3.0%N/A
BOC3.0%N/A
AMEXN/A2.95%

Thoughts

  • 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

Conclusion

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]

Aaron Wong
Aaron founded The Milelion with the intention of helping people travel better for less and impressing chiobu. He was 50% successful.

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A

Hi… wondering if you can advise does agoda process payment locally or overseas?

Jeriel

Does the UOB Visa Signature incur a 2.5% or 3.5% charge?

Rio

Hi Aaron how about using prepaid card for overseas transaction (top up with DBS Woman MC); U always get 4 miles/$ for any kind transaction (limited up to 2000)

using M1 prepaid mastercard : 2.5% mastercard fee + 1% top up fee (this is the disadvantage using prepaid mastercard but mastercard accepted worldwide )
using Amex imagine prepaid : 3% amex fee (but no top up fee)

And i check sometimes the rate given by mastercard/amex is better than money changer

Phil

I’ve used AMEX Imagine on a few overseas trips quite successfully. The AMEX wallet even works as an electronic ticket on the London Underground!
One thing to be aware of is that the overseas service charges are billed separately in your transaction list, but I’ve accepted that its actually a more honest way of accounting for the costs than the way other cards merge it in.

Rio

hmmm then maybe the rate conversion of AMEX is slightly higher (about 0.5%) than using mastercard but without top up fee its better than M1 prepaid (only AMEX is less accepted )

@C

I’ve used the card twice physically overseas. It only attracted 2.5% cross currency conversion fee. No more no less.

KT

Hi aaron,

2 questions,

1. what is the best mile card for overseas? I have only seen 2 miles/ dollar? Is there anything better?
2. I got a couple of stays in Hilton Bangkok coming up soon. I did my reservation through the official website. Will I get 3x DBS points if I use the DBS altitude card to pay upon checkout? What cards do you normally use upon checkout of an overseas hotel.

Love your website.

Thanks.

KT

thank aaron.

Well, based on my room reservation invoice, it says that a non-refundable deposit has been charged to my card. So, I was wondering if it has already been charged.

Anyway, I think 0.5 DBS points = 1 x Miles/dollar right?

Thanks!

JS

2.4 miles /$ with UOB Prvi Miles & 3.25% Visa/MC

vs

2 miles/$ with DBS Altitude & 2.5% Visa

Does the extra 0.4 mile cover more than the 0.75% additional charge?

JS

I’ve calculated for an overseas spend, supposed that it is S$100 equivalent after factoring the currency conversion spread of 0.8%:

With the bank/Visa charges,

DBS Altitude will be S$102.50 earning 205 miles
UOB Priv Miles will be $103.25 earning 247.8 miles

Assuming best case scenario where there is no rounding down of points or UNI$, using UOB Priv Miles will cost $0.75 extra with additional 42.5 miles.

That’s like paying 1.8 cents for the additional miles, which is about the same rate as buying miles from annual fees.

Peter

If “buying miles” is more important than lowest cost of miles, I’d suggest the SCB Visa Infinite than the PRIVI Miles (assume you can meet $2,000 min spend). It gives 3 miles per dollar, 3.5% foreign transaction fee but subject to $2,000 min spend in statement cycle.

Using the same method of calculation by JS:

SCB Visa Inifinite will be 103.50 earning 310.5 miles
Cost over PRIVI miles = $0.25 and earn 62.7 miles extra (0.3 cents per mile)
Cost over DBS Altitude = $1.00 and earn 105.5 miles extra (0.9 cents per mile)

Leanne

Hi Aaron

I am currently using most of my transactions on the UOB Prvi MC. Seems like the charges are very high especially when using overseas. Can I safely say that I should change to using another card to maximize my miles?? Which will you recommend? Thanks.

John

Hi aaron – time to update this article; DBS has recently hiked its Visa/MC fees to 2.8% too 🙁 Don’t get me started on their outrageous 3.25% fee for DCC on *DEBIT* cards…

John

My bad – yes it’s 2.8% for DCC and not 3.25%, that’s for retail. That’s for debit cards though! The DCC/overseas SGD transaction markup for credit cards is still at 1% (for now) Agree with your point in principle that I’d much rather hand over the margin to my bank and potentially get some rewards out of it – but considering how DCC is more often than not unilaterally imposed on the uninformed masses, cant help but think that the consumer stands to lose a lot here. 4% DCC markup + 2.8% charge by DBS – my god! Offtopic a… Read more »

woooo

citibank is not 2.8% instead of 2.5%

woooo

i mean citibank is now 2.8% instead of 2.5%

[…] MileLion article for more information and especially the DCC trap, if you don’t know what it is. While some […]

liz

hi Aaron,

what are your thoughts on using cash vs credit cards overseas? if we are savvy enough with credit card usage, would it more than offset the charges?

Thanks 🙂

liz

thank you! 🙂

Mark Chan

Hi, just a quick question. Your example of 0.88% currency conversion spread seem to be incorrect.

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%

Referring to your example above, 13.8 cents is the equivalent of 0.138 in dollars.

($0.138 / $1.5642) * 100% seems to me is more like 8.8%

Please do correct me if i’m wrong

[…] an administrative fee of 3.0% is on the high side compared to the 2.5-2.8% which most other card issuers charge (i.e BOC), it’s still lower than what UOB charges for foreign currency transactions at 3.25% […]

K

“If you’re not keen on paying foreign transaction fees, you may want to consider the CIMB Visa Infinite or BOC Visa Infinite. ”

I believe it should be CIMB Visa Signature or MC Platinum that does not have bank fees. CIMB Visa infinite charges 2% bank fees.

The CIMB MC Platinum also give 0.2% back for everything. I think this is especially useful when you use for websites that may be using and overseas office to do the billing. In this case, you are sure of paying only 0.8% fees.

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