Travel Cards: What are the best options in Canada? 2023
Spending in foreign currencies - at home when shopping online, or abroad when you travel - can feel daunting. Common questions include: how do I know I’m getting a fair exchange rate? What about bank fees? Is it safe to spend internationally with my regular card?
Travel cards, including international debit cards, can sometimes be the answer. International debit cards, issued by a regular bank or a specialist provider, can often offer the lowest fees and the best exchange rates available. They also boost security as they’re not normally linked to your primary bank account.
If you’re wondering about getting an international debit card, this guide is for you. We’ll look at the advantages of getting one, how they work, and which to look at.
Our Top 3 Travel Debit Cards in the UK:
Travel cards: the best options in Canada
|Wise debit card|
|Canada Post Cash Passport|
|BMO Prepaid Mastercard|
Types of travel cards
Traditional banks offer customers a pretty standard range of international cards - prepaid travel cards, international debit cards, and travel focused credit cards. Each one has its own merits - but understanding the features and fees for the cards on offer is important to make sure you get the right one for you. Here are a few things to look out for:
Prepaid travel card
Prepaid travel cards, which can also be called travel money cards, allow you to top up your card in dollars and switch to the currency you need. You can use your prepaid card to spend and make withdrawals when you travel - but they’re not universally accepted, so it’s worth having a secondary means of payment with you as well, just in case.
International card with traditional banks
Regular banks offer travel cards which can include both debit and credit cards. These can be convenient - but there are a few drawbacks too. Banks typically don’t offer the best exchange rates on the market, and the currencies they offer can be limited too. Plus, if you rely on your regular bank card when you’re away, and are unlucky enough to have it stolen or cloned, your full account balance may be at risk.
Travel card with neobanks
Getting a separate travel card from an online provider or neobank is often the best option for customers looking to balance cost, convenience and security. Neobanks can frequently provide great exchange rates, low transaction fees, and a simple online ordering process which lets you get set up with a card in no time at all.
Best travel cards: a comparison
There are a few great alternative services which offer travel cards which can often beat the banks in terms of flexibility and price, including the Wise card which is available to customers in Canada. We’ll look at a few in more detail in a moment - to start us off, here’s an overview of some of our top picks for travel cards in Canada.
|Provider/card name||Annual fee||Exchange rate||Withdrawal fee|
|Wise card||No annual fee||Real mid-market exchange rate with no markup|
2 withdrawals per month, to the value of 350 CAD fee free
1.5 CAD + 1.75% after that
|Canada Post Cash Passport||No annual fee - but there’s a 15 CAD fee to get your card, + inactivity fees if you don’t spend in 12 months||3.25% fee applies if you spend a currency you don’t hold in your account||Fee varies by currency - 2.50 USD in the US for example|
|BMO Prepaid Mastercard||6.95 CAD + a 5 CAD/month inactivity fee after the card expiry date||2.5% fee for all foreign currency spending||5 CAD + foreign transaction fee if applicable|
Wise travel cards are linked to a handy Wise multi-currency account which lets you hold and exchange 50+ currencies. Simply order your free Wise card from within the app, and get a virtual card right away for mobile and online spending - your physical card will arrive within a couple of weeks. Use your card to make payments in 200+ countries and in 150+ currencies, and get the real exchange rate with no markup every time.
Pros of the Wise card
Personal accounts and cards are free with no monthly fees
Hold and exchange 50+ currencies in your Wise account
Exchange rates don’t include a markup on the mid-market rate
Freeze and unfreeze your card in the Wise app and get instant transaction notifications
Cons of the Wise card
It may take a couple of weeks to get your physical card (virtual cards available instantly)
ATM fees apply if you make more than 2 withdrawals a month
Spending limits apply
No option to top up account in cash or with a cheque
Canada Post Cash Passport Travel Card
You can hold and spend 8 major global currencies with the Canada Post Cash Passport, which is issued on the Mastercard network. Top up your card digitally or in person by visiting a Post Office branch, and spend anywhere you see the Mastercard logo, including online. It’s worth noting the fees for this card, which are fairly steep for some services.
Pros of the Canada Post Cash Passport travel card
8 major world currencies supported
Reload online or in a Canada Post branch
Free replacement if your card is lost or stolen
Cons of the Canada Post Cash Passport travel card
15 CAD to get a card - inactivity fee also applies if the card isn’t used in 12 months
ATM withdrawal fees vary by country - 2.50 USD in the US for example
3 CAD fee to reload your card
Foreign transaction fee if you spend a currency that you don’t hold in your account - 3.25%
BMO Prepaid Mastercard
The BMO Prepaid Mastercard allows you to load funds in advance of spending, and use your card in any location that takes Mastercard. This card doesn’t let you convert funds within your account or hold a foreign currency balance - but you can use your card to spend and make withdrawals internationally for a fee.
Pros of the BMO Prepaid Mastercard
No interest is payable
Spend anywhere you see the Mastercard logo
Manage from within an app to get instant transaction alerts
Cons of the BMO Prepaid Mastercard
6.95 CAD annual fee, + inactivity fees
5 CAD ATM withdrawal fee
2.5% foreign transaction charge
How do travel cards work?
Travel debit cards let you spend and make withdrawals in a range of currencies. That makes them handy for travelling and making cash withdrawals abroad - but also when you shop online with international retailers, and need to pay in a different currency. Different travel cards have different features and benefits - and so suit different customers. We’ll look at a few in detail later to help you pick one that’s right for your needs.
How does the travel card work?
Travel cards are usually debit cards - not credit cards. That means you can only spend the balance you hold on the card or in the linked account, with no possibility of running up surprise interest charges. However, unlike most normal bank accounts, travel debit cards often let you hold your balance in one or more foreign currencies.
Having a foreign currency balance is handy because you can switch your Canadian dollars over to the currency you need before you travel, so you’ll know exactly how much money you have to spend when you’re away. There’s no risk of being hit by changes in the exchange rate once you’ve left, making it easier to track and manage your budget.
You can usually get a travel card easily enough online, in a provider app, or by calling. However, remember, if you’re planning on using a card from your regular bank, you’ll probably need to inform them that you plan to travel to ensure your card isn’t blocked while you’re away.
How can I use a travel card abroad
The great news is that you can normally use your travel debit card overseas just like you’d use your normal card here in Canada.
A couple of things to watch out for include the networks which are supported wherever you travel to, and any extra fees that may apply. Look out for the network logos - Visa or Mastercard for example - when you want to pay or make a withdrawal overseas. That’ll show you if your card will be accepted for payment. And when it comes to paying, you’ll also need to avoid dynamic currency conversion (DCC).
DCC is where you’re asked by a merchant or when making a withdrawal, if you’d rather pay in Canadian dollars or the local currency where you are. If you pick to pay in dollars you’re likely to be stuck with a poor exchange rate and higher costs. Always pay in the local currency to make your money go further.
How to request a travel card
You may be able to request a travel card from your bank - but it’s usually easier and cheaper to use a specialist online provider. Getting your card is simple - you’ll be able to register an account online and order your card right from the provider’s desktop site or app.
To show how easy it is, here’s the full process for ordering a Wise travel card:
Download the Wise app or head to the Wise desktop site
Sign up for a Wise account with just an email address, Google, Facebook or Apple ID
Get verified by uploading a photo of your ID documents
Order your card online or in the Wise app
Your physical card is on its way - or you can access your card details in the Wise app right away for mobile payments
What are the transaction fees that apply to a travel card
Travel cards can help you cut the costs of managing your money across currencies. However that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re entirely free. There are different fees for different cards, but a couple of common ones to look out for include:
An exchange fee covers the cost of switching from dollars to the currency you need in your account or at the point of making a purchase. In some cases the fee is split out so you can easily see it - but it’s common to find what might be called a margin, conversion charge or spread added to the rate applied. That’s an exchange fee but it’s rolled into the rate used to switch from one currency to another, which makes it much harder to spot.
Banks and card providers often charge an ATM withdrawal fee. On top of this, the ATM operator might add their own fees which pushes up the costs. Look carefully at the terms and conditions for your travel card. Many providers offer free ATM withdrawals to a set limit, but some charge for all international withdrawals using a flat rate.
Advantages of travel cards
Getting an international debit card can be a good alternative to traditional bank cards to spend money abroad. There are plenty of different cards to choose from - coming from both traditional banks and online specialists - which means you should find one to suit your needs easily enough. Here are a few advantages of travel cards:
Easy to order - you may also get both physical and virtual cards
Secure ways to pay - not usually linked to your main bank account
Convenient compared to using cash
Some cards have low transactions fees and better exchange rates than traditional banks can normally offer
Are there any limitations on the travel card?
Travel cards aren’t always the right choice. It really comes down to what you need to do. Here are a few things to consider:
Travel cards may not be the best option if you need to pay a security deposit or hire a car - they may not be accepted
Not all cards offer great rates and low fees, so you'll need to shop around
Cards may have unexpected fees, like costs to add funds to your account, or inactivity charges
Deposits to your account may not be instant
Conclusion: is the travel card worth it?
For many people, getting a travel card can cut costs and make it easier and more secure when spending overseas, or online with international retailers. Depending on the card you choose you might be able to buy and hold foreign currencies in advance, reducing the risks of fluctuations in the rates - and you may also get lower transaction fees when you spend and make withdrawals. Shop around - using our guide as a starting point - to find the right travel card for your needs.
An international debit card lets you spend and make cash withdrawals in a range of foreign currencies - often with lower fees than using your normal bank card.
Many online and specialist providers allow you to apply for a card easily through a desktop site, app or call centre.
Use your travel debit card just like you would your regular card, to spend and make cash withdrawals around the world.
Different cards have their own fees, including exchange and withdrawal charges. Look at the terms and conditions carefully, and check for extra costs like top up fees, inactivity fees, or fixed monthly charges.