Eurasia today is quite affordable. Students are often surprised how far their dollars will go even in major cities like St. Petersburg and Warsaw – and very surprised at how far they go in places like Bishkek and Irkutsk. However, students can also be surprised at how easy it is to run into troubles – like blocked bank cards or overspending while abroad. This guide will help you plan in advance to avoid these mistakes and make the most of your budget abroad!
In This Guide
- See also: Financial Aid
1. Prepare to be Safe
Call Your Money! Make sure your bank and credit card companies know you are traveling. Your accounts should be “flagged” so that your cards are not blocked for security reasons. A card crossing international borders is considered “at risk” for having been stolen.
Find Your Moderation Point. Transaction fees mean fewer, larger bank withdrawals are preferable. However, keeping large amounts of cash on hand can be dangerous. Find a moderation point of how much money to carry at once and how much to leave in the bank. Don’t bring large amounts of dollars with you. Bringing 200-400 dollars to keep hidden in safe place can come in handy if you lose your debit card. Beyond that, ATMs in SRAS locations are plentiful, safe, and, if managed well, affordable. See below for more detail.
Create Backup Plans. Know the PIN numbers for all your cards – debit and credit. Should your debit card be lost or stolen, you will need your credit card PIN to get cash advances. A backup debit card and/or account are also good failsafes.
Some banks offer travel cards that are not directly linked to your bank account. You can add certain amounts to the card at any point from abroad. These cards make budgeting for your travels easier and if they get stolen, can be cancelled without affecting your personal bank account back home.
2. Forms of Currency
Dollars should be clean, crisp, and unmarked. Yes, US bank employees look at you funny when you request this, but even the smallest mark or tear will mean that you will have problems exchanging the currency abroad. US currency in circulation abroad is not used for daily transactions, but instead for savings and major purchases. Thus, the bills will be crisp and clean.
Checks should not be used. They will likely be looked at strangely and handed back, perhaps with some choice words. Most locals in SRAS locations have never heard of the personal check and they never will as their banking systems have simply jumped to debit cards in the post-Soviet reform.
Traveler’s Checks can be cashed in few locations (such as major banks and some major hotels), but problems are likely and fees are assured. Stick to cash and credit.
Credit Cards are now widely accepted. In major cities, most larger grocery stores and even fast food chains now take them. However, never assume you can pay with a credit card – always carry at least some cash. Even places that advertise that they accept cards will often have difficulties with their systems. Some places are also not set up to accept dollar-denominated credit cards (although they otherwise accept credit cards), so don’t be surprised if your card is sometimes randomly turned down.
3. Financial Institutions
Exchanges and Banks can be found throughout all SRAS locations. Exchange services in banks tend to be more trusted, but we’ve found that the little exchange kiosks tend to be reliable and convenient as they don’t ask for ID for transactions under $400. Banks always ask for ID. Always calculate how much you should get back before you hand money across the counter. Never leave the counter if you believe a mistake has been made. Once you leave, no argument can be made. Don’t be embarrassed to count your money in front of the person who just gave it to you – it’s completely expected. As should be obvious, don’t trust someone waiting outside the exchange who offers “a better deal.”
ATMs are now common in all SRAS locations. These are now as safe as ATMs in America (with some exception in Bishkek), but make sure you tell your bank that you will be withdrawing money abroad and the dates of your stay (see section one, above).
Western Union has outposts in most banks and has a fast, secure wiring service – but it’s not cheap. If you can wait, it is easiest and cheapest to have someone deposit money to your account (or mail your bank a check with your account information and instructions) and then withdraw the money from an ATM.
4. Day-to-Day Expenses
In addition to tuition and housing (provided by SRAS for most programs), students will need to purchase transport to/from Eurasia (airfare can generally be found for about $500-$1000 from New York to any SRAS study location) and budget for daily living expenses. Student budgets can differ widely based on student lifestyle and by which location students choose. Individual budget guides can be found (or are in development) on this site for:
- Moscow (Average student budget: $90-110 per week)
- Warsaw (~$100 per week)
- St. Petersburg (~$80-110 per week)
- Vladivostok (~$60-90 per week)
- Kyiv (~$50-70 per week)
- Irkutsk (~$35-50 per week)
- Bishkek (~$30-50 per week)
Numbeo.com also provides an excellent cost of living calculator. You can even run comparisons between your destination and your home town.
5. Fees for Spending Money Abroad
You probably have dollars. However, you can’t pay directly for most things with dollars abroad. Your money will need to be converted to the local currency to do this. Whether you exchange dollars at a bank, use your credit card, or withdraw cash from an ATM, someone or some organization is exchanging your money for you and they will expect to be paid for that service. Banks, cards, and exchanges all have different ways of turning a profit – but usually try not to tell you how they do it. A single transaction might incur one or more fees from one or more organizations. You should understand the process so as to receive the best deal.
First, never accept a charge in anything but the local currency. While it might seem from the above that paying in dollars might be in your favor – keep in mind that the business will still have to convert your dollars into local currency to use it locally. They will still incur conversion fees and will add this into the exchange rate they charge you – usually with added profit as well. In short, just let your bank or credit card provider do the conversion. They will always have better rates.
Local Currency or “Your Own Currency?” Some ATMs, retailers, and cafes will give you this option. Always pay in the local currency. It may sound convenient to have your bill brought in dollars, but it will always be higher. You will be paying at the store/ATM/cafe internal exchange rate. This is always worse than the exchange rate you will get from your bank or credit card company if you simply use your card to operate in the local currency. Always use ATMs that are connected with banks. Avoid those machines that are unbranded or privately branded.
For those who like to have dessert first, here’s the conclusion: the best account for international travel is the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking account. This account charges no fees, applies no “exchange rate adjustments,” gives a (low) interest payment to you for money held on account, and even refunds most fees charged by other banks worldwide. When you open an account, you also open a Schwab investment account (but need not invest anything). Schwab makes its profit by assuming that international travelers will eventually become investors.
For those who want to understand the financial process in more detail, the first step is to know that…
The Central Bank of each country controls currency issuance and declares official exchange rates. To make a profit, banks, card operators, and exchanges will usually give you a slightly worse rate than they get from the Central Bank or add fees. Official exchange rates are listed (and updated weekdays) on central bank sites for Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Poland.
Visa/Mastercard Fees. Your debit and credit cards probably say “Visa” or “Mastercard” on them. Whether or not your account offers “no foreign transaction fees,” you still pay for currency conversion. With Visa, you’ll be paying the “Visa Negotiated Rate,” which usually only slightly differs from Central Bank rates. Mastercard piggy-backs on the Visa rate and then applies what it calls an “exchange rate adjustment,” pocketing around 2-3% from every transaction. But Visa is not always better because…
Bank Fees are charged on top of Visa/Mastercard fees and are more common with Visa cards. Mastercard generally cuts the bank in on the “adjustment fee” so that they can offer a “no foreign transaction fee” card. However, many banks also charge fees for using another bank’s ATM. Most American banks have no branches in SRAS locations. Also, debit card purchase fees arise for using your debit card in stores. Call your bank and take stock of all applicable fees. You may want to open a better account before departing.
So Which Card Is Best? Here is data taken from two cards used in Moscow ATMs in April, 2015. Exchange rates are different in 2018, but the fees and defferentials are largely the same. One data set comes from a Wells Fargo Visa debit card, which charges a $5 “Non-Wells Fargo ATM Transaction Fee” (there are no Wells Fargo ATMs in Russia). The other is a Chase Platinum Business Mastercard with “no transaction fees.” Chase advertises no fees but the cost of each transaction is very similar to Wells Fargo, which charges a flat $5 fee. MasterCard in fact “adjusts” the exchange rate to make its profit. Other cards are similar; Capital One 360 Mastercards advertise no fees, but also apply a significant “adjustment.”
Another issue that arrises when you have a dollar budget and, for example, ruble expenses, is that your true costs can fluxuate signifcantly based on exchange rates. Currency volitility is not uncommon. Although it went through a period of high volatility in 2014-2016, the ruble, for instance, has now stabilized around 60. But as world events remain… interesting, the possibility that they could be volatile again remains. That said, things are currently working in favor of travelers using dollars; relative prices are down across the board due to the recent loss of value experienced by most local currencies in Eurasia. Watching your own day-to-day expenses in both dollars and the local currency should be a learning experience for you. Take advantage of it.
7. Tips for Students Worried about Budgets
Many students report that they tend to spend a lot their first few days or weeks because the local currency doesn’t look or feel like “real money,” so it’s easier to just throw them around. Keep up-to-date on the current exchange rate (see above) and force yourself to do a rough calculation each time you buy something.
- Find rules of thumb for calculating and memorizing the value of the major bills. For instance, a 100-ruble bill is worth a bit more than a $1.50 right now. A 500-ruble bill is about $8. Knowing what you are taking out of your wallet to pay with can help you to limit expenditures.
Try not to carry around too much money at once. Feeling rich can make you act like you’re rich…