5 Tips: Finances When Moving Abroad

June 13, 2013

Five Affordable Souvenirs to Bring Home from your Trip to France.

Image and text by Gabrielle.

The other day, we were wiring some money from one of our U.S. bank accounts to our French bank (funds for the cottage!), and I realized I’ve learned a few things about how to move money from place to place that might be helpful for anyone embarking on an international adventure. Here are 5 tips I wish I’d known before we moved.

1) XE.com is our favorite for international transfers.
It’s free to sign up. You can add multiple accounts to draw funds from (we have a personal account and a business account), and you can also add multiple accounts to send funds to. We use it to pay rent on La Cressonnière. And since we get paid in dollars, but run errands in euros, we also use it to transfer our monthly budget from our U.S. to our French account. XE seems to offer the best exchange rates we’ve seen and there are no added fees, so the exchange quote you see is what you pay. I love that.

There are two downsides. First, it takes time. The transfers don’t happen overnight. It usually takes about a week for the funds to make it from one account to another. This means you have to work ahead and think ahead. When we don’t think ahead, we end up using our U.S. debit card for groceries or gas, and there are added fees for international purchases. Which is a bummer. Second, the max transfer is $10,000. Normally that’s way more than fine, but when we were buying our car, the max limit didn’t work for us, so we had to figure out a different way to go. 

2) Make friends with your banker.
We sort-of did this with our personal account. And didn’t do it at all with our business account — which we opened a couple of days before we moved here. And it’s maybe the one thing we would do over if we were starting this move from scratch.

We’ve found it’s so important to be able to call a specific person at your bank, someone that knows your voice and face, and can help you find workarounds for standard bank rules. For example, the bank that holds our business account doesn’t allow for wiring money over the phone. They require the account holder to come into a branch. No exceptions. Obviously, we can’t come into a the branch. But we know from talking to fellow expats, that if you know someone personally at the bank, they can make an exception to that rule.

So we would recommend making a good friend at the bank. Bring in cookies or flowers. Take your banker to lunch. Tell them you’re moving abroad and make sure you have their direct line in case you run into any banking emergencies while you’re out of the country.

3) Small banks are easier to work with.
Similar to item #2, we’ve found our smaller credit union has been much more flexible and helpful than our larger bank. There have been several instances when we needed to get someone on the phone quickly — like when we’ve got a road trip with stops in multiple countries. We try to be good about calling our bank’s card security team and letting them know where we’ll be, but we’ve had many times where a security hold was put on our card anyway. We’re grateful that our banks take a tight approach to security, but it’s also nice if you have a direct number of an actual person you can call and quickly get the hold lifted when you’re waiting at a register.

At our bigger bank, we get stuck with a phone tree, and sometimes it can take a long time to get help. At the credit union, it’s been speedy. In this case, smaller is better.

4) You can still shop from U.S. stores.
The fourth tip is indirectly related to banking, but I still think of it as a financial thing. When living abroad, sometimes you want to buy things from American stores — maybe a Christmas present your son has been wishing for — but either the store doesn’t ship internationally, or the fees are so expensive it’s prohibitive. When this happens, you could have it shipped to your Mom’s house or a friend’s house in the U.S., and they can ship it on to you. But I always feel bad about asking that kind of favor. So instead, I recommend this service. They give you a U.S. address where you can send all your purchases, then they re-box things as efficiently as possible and send everything to you at a much lower rate.

And you don’t need to be a U.S. citizen to use this service! So if you are French, but want to buy stuff from Target, this would work perfectly.

5) Sign up for a VPN.
The last tip: Sometimes there are websites that redirect to a foreign url, even if you type in a U.S. address. For example, if I type in google.com right now, it will automatically redirect to google.fr. This can happen with stores or banks as well. It can be frustrating! If you need to access the U.S. site, you can use a VPN which stands for Virtual Private Network. We use a service called Strong VPN. We pay $50 a year and they issue clear instructions on how to use their service. Basically, when we need to access U.S. sites, we turn on VPN and then type in the URL we need, and the VPN makes it look like we are logging in from a U.S. city. It’s like magic!

And we don’t just use this for practical stuff. It’s also how we stream shows on Amazon or watch things on Hulu. Did you know you can’t access Hulu’s content outside of the U.S.? Or stream videos? But if you log-in with a VPN, the sites work seamlessly. We use our VPN service daily. But we didn’t know about it until we’d been here several months. I can still remember how frustrated we were without it!

So there they are. Five tips that will hopefully give you a smoother financial transition if you’re moving abroad — or even taking a long trip. And I’d love to hear your tips as well! Have you ever had to figure this sort of thing out? What tips would you add?

P.S. — The play euros pictured at top were originally featured in my post about 5 French Souvenirs under $5.

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{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marija Taraba June 13, 2013 at 8:39 am

Thank you so much for the last tip!!!! I will use it for Netflix for sure!!

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2 Design Mom June 13, 2013 at 10:58 am

Yay! Glad to be of help, Marija.

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3 Caddy June 13, 2013 at 8:48 am

This is my first time to be hearing about VPN’s but they sound brilliant. I too get frustrated when sites redirect to the local version and I’m trying to access the international or American one.

The shipping service sounds awesome too!

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4 Design Mom June 13, 2013 at 10:46 am

Yes! VPNs will change your life. The best!

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5 Karen June 13, 2013 at 8:56 am

This is very helpful information. I only wish I’d seen it before our family went to New Zealand for 3 months!

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6 Design Mom June 13, 2013 at 10:48 am

I’m the same! If only I’d known all of this before we moved here — the head aches we could have prevented. Oh well. It’s all part of the adventure. : )

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7 Bethany Bassett June 13, 2013 at 8:59 am

We are self-employed while living abroad, and one thing I’ve learned is to keep track of the day’s exchange rate when we make business purchases in euros. U.S. taxes require foreign business expenses to be converted to dollars by the exchange rate in effect *that day*, and it’s so much easier to keep track of it throughout the year than to spend hours copying and pasting from historical rate tables when tax season comes. (Not that I have ANY experience doing that… ahem.) The currency converters on XE.com are our best friend!

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8 Design Mom June 13, 2013 at 10:50 am

That’s a great tip, Bethany! Having an easy spot to check exchange is so helpful. I don’t think I realized until we moved here, how quickly the rates can change.

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9 Rachel June 13, 2013 at 9:16 am

When I studied abroad in France, I used a no-ATM fee debit card from my small local bank, which was amazing. I could take out my weekly budget amount (only 90 euros!) without fees, while everyone else took out hundreds at a time to avoid paying too many fees. I’m not sure how common no-international-ATM-fee accounts are, so it may not apply to everyone, but it might be worth looking into.

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10 Design Mom June 13, 2013 at 10:52 am

That’s so great, Rachel! And such good advice. It’s definitely worth talking to your bank to find out if they offer any specific cards or services for international purchases.

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11 Willa June 20, 2013 at 8:03 pm

When moving abroad for two years I ended up switching from a big bank to a credit union for just this reason: they offered a no-fee-at-foreign-ATMs debit card. One more reason to look into the little guys; they often have unique, client-friendly perks like this.
(Also, you usually get reciprocity at other domestic credit unions if you’re traveling or moving within the states. There is a nationwide network of CUs and you can walk into any branch to do your banking if they’re a member of the network.)

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12 Joanna Stewart June 13, 2013 at 9:31 am

Thanks so much for these tips — and all of your other practical and beautiful posts. I’m from Colorado, but now live in a small village in Spain and I am expecting my first child in August. Just discovered you and am enjoying your site very much.

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13 Design Mom June 13, 2013 at 10:54 am

How fun, Joanna! My first baby was born in August as well. It’s hard to be big and pregnant during those hot summer months, but it’s lovely to have a newborn in September and October when it’s easier to bundle them up, and there’s no fear of the winter RSV season. How exciting for you!

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14 Michelle June 13, 2013 at 9:50 am

VPNs are a must! We have lived abroad for 6 years and it has been almost necessary to have one. Several U.S. government agencies will not allow you on their internet sites from outside the U.S.
In case anyone is moving to China – They are shutting down a lot of VPN sites so you have to change frequently. Did you know Facebook, blogspot and many other sites are blocked in China? It’s very frustrating to stay in contact with family with the 12 hour time difference and the blocked internet. But if you change the VPN frequently you can get behind the firewall.
Thanks for the great post!

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15 Design Mom June 13, 2013 at 10:56 am

While we’ve lived here, my parents spent a year in China teaching English. The added challenges of living in China make my head spin! But the places they were able to visit are just amazing. The experience of a life time! I love reading your advice, Michelle. Thank you!

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16 Grace@ Sense and Simplicity June 13, 2013 at 10:05 am

Those are great tips – thanks so much. The only tip I have (and it’s not really that great) involves making use of a foreign URL. When my daughter was living in France she wanted some more books to read (especially English ones so she could relax). The shipping from Canada using Amazon would have been expensive, so we logged in to Amazon.fr and ordered used English books from the UK so the shipping was inexpensive. Since I can only read a little French and I didn’t’ want to mess up I opened a browser with Amazon.fr (which is only in French) and a browser with Amazon.ca (in English) and followed along page-by-page to make sure I was clicking the right boxes etc. It worked like a charm.

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17 Design Mom June 13, 2013 at 10:57 am

That’s a great tip, Grace! Thank you.

We are big Amazon users in the U.S., so we were frustrated to find out we had to create a new account to use Amazon.fr. Someday, I imagine it will all be seamless. So dreamy!

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18 Victoria June 13, 2013 at 11:40 am

I’m surprised to hear you say that! It’s the thing I love most about Amazon, that I can shop on all their sites with the same account. I also live in France, and have never had a problem shopping on Amazon.com, .ca or .co.uk with the same account. So handy!

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19 Grace@ Sense and Simplicity June 13, 2013 at 12:13 pm

We didn’t need a different account, but it was hard to access books in the UK when you are in Canada as you only get Canadian (or American) books. By changing the URL to Amazon.fr we were able to access the books in the UK and France so the shipping was less expensive.

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20 Design Mom June 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Oh man. I must be missing something. We have never figured out how to use our U.S. account to shop on other Amazon sites. Then again, we haven’t tried to for a couple of years. Is this a new thing? Or have I just been missing out this whole time?

Either way, it’s great news to me!

21 hollee @moxiblog.com June 21, 2013 at 4:07 am

We live in Switzerland and shop from amazon.de. I use our us account no problem- it was automatic! As an added note- you can open any of the foreign language sites in “Google chrome” browser and it can translate it automatically- so you wont have to follow along on a different site!

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22 Alex June 13, 2013 at 11:15 am

We have a debit card from our US bank that does not charge any fees. So we can take out cash from ATMs or use the card as a credit card anywhere in the world. It has made traveling and living abroad a LOT easier.
And more shopping than finance related, but there are lots of sites that deliver for free internationally. Some of my favorites are betterworldbooks, bookdepository, Gilt occasionally offers free international shipping and some ebay sellers offer worldwide shipping for a flat shipping fee.
Great tips, Gabrielle!

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23 Design Mom June 13, 2013 at 12:16 pm

That is so ideal, Alex! Love that.

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24 GP June 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Thank you so much for this info! I love understanding the fiddly little details that add up to making a transition easier. I’m bookmarking this post in the “if we had only known” folder. So far I’ve travelled with your family from NYC to Colorado and now to France. (Also your sister’s family too!) I’ve really enjoyed ALL the details about life in France/Europe…from yogurt to tea towels. Good stuff!

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25 Lisa June 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm

I am living in Canada but also have a home in Denver. It’s just necessary to be able to “live” in both places online. Definitely having a credit card that doesn’t charge exchange rate fees is helpful. We use American Express and it does have a higher yearly fee, but it’s still worth it for us. The VPN is an absolute must (we use HMA). We even watch college football games with it! We use a bank that also has a US branch, opened an account there and send money to the US pretty easily. I will definitely have to check out EX.com. THE most important thing on the list for us is getting to know someone at the bank that you can call. There have been so many times we have had to have “help” in getting things taken care of. Having someone that actually knows us and has our backs has been a very important thing.
As far as shipping and ordering online, we are fortunate that we can drive an hour over the border and open a mailbox there to ship to. Otherwise, we do lots of shopping when we are at home (most clothing items in Canada are 20-40% more than what I pay in Denver – and don’t get me started on food costs).

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26 Erin June 13, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Capitol One is credit card with no international fees. That was very helpful when we lived abroad. Also Charles Schwab is a bank that doesn’t have international fees. That is what they tell all the Fulbrighters to use.

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27 derek June 22, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Yes, you guys are crazy for not having a no international fee credit card. Not only are you sometimes paying the 3%(!) foreign transaction fee, you are throwing away the 1.5% rewards for using a credit card.

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28 Rossanna June 13, 2013 at 4:37 pm

We moved to Spain recently and had a Citibank account in the US and opened one in Spain. We can transfer money back and forth with no fees and the money is available immediately.
Also, before we left I bought and Apple TV and I am able to acces my US account and watch all movies and series that I want without a VPN. Finally, we sign up with a similar service to the one that you mention above for purchasing US stuff that can get repackage and send to you, but also they scan and forward you your mail, throw all the advertisement and repackage it into one box.

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29 Kelly June 13, 2013 at 4:40 pm

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

My husband and I are about to leave the US for London and tip #1 and #5 were exactly the type of advise you can’t get on [one of my MANY searched on] the internet! If you have any others, please post!!

K.P.

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30 shelli June 13, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Are you moving to Colorado when your family moves back to the U.S.?

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31 Kirsten June 13, 2013 at 8:29 pm

Super practical.
Hey, I was wondering if you’d post about your French church experience on here? What did you think of the LDS church in France? Did the kids like it? Did you have callings? Girls camp?

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32 Heidi June 13, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Hi, I just heard a report on the radio that said that VPN’s are a legal grey area and can make the authorities suspicious. Not sure if this is true, but you might want to check it out before you use one.

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33 Miriam June 13, 2013 at 10:04 pm

I’m moving to Belgium in six weeks to teach at an international school. The school is amazing at setting everything up, but this is answering many other questions, mainly how to watch my favorite TV show in Europe. Thanks so much!!!

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34 Amanda June 14, 2013 at 3:46 am

What a great post, Gabrielle! Thank you!

I moved to Beijing in August to teach for a year (and have enjoyed it so much that I signed a contract for another year!) and tips like these are handy! Banking especially can be such a nightmare!

I’m from Canada and have always been jealous of people who live in the U.S. because of the ease of shopping online. Yes, we can do so in Canada, but SO many stores only allow free shipping and returns if you have a U.S. address. And moving to China has made online shopping with my favourite places near-impossible. I’m excited to check out the service you recommended!

And yes, a VPN is so necessary, especially if you live in China! I had never heard of them until I moved here, but I learned quickly. So many sites are blocked and it’s true what a previous commenter said; the government blocks a lot of VPN services so it’s frustrating. In case anyone else reads this — I’ve used Witopia for the last 10 months and it’s been great! Their customer service is excellent and they’ve found ways around a lot of blocks :) And when I use my VPN, my IP address is U.S. so I can stream U.S. Netflix (did you know it has a better selection than Canadian Netflix?), and access other U.S.-only services! Bonus!

One thing that I’ve found really frustrating is when I’ve had to do any kind of “business,” I guess I’ll call it (not work stuff, but banking, student loans, etc.), and I have to give a phone number, the person I’m speaking to almost always tells me my # is too long and their system won’t accept it. (Phone #s in China are 11 digits, not counting area and country codes!) They’ve asked me to give them a different phone number, but obviously, I don’t have one, because I LIVE in China — haha! I always think, “If you’re a company that serves people who live abroad or travel abroad, shouldn’t your system be set up for situations like this?”

Anyway, sorry for writing a novella :)

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35 Dana June 14, 2013 at 4:22 am

It’s one thing to make friends with your banker, but even more important to ensure that you are in contact with them not just at times when you have issues. We were Canadian ex-pats in the USA for 6 years and we had our banking down to a rythym for the most part. Because of this, we didn’t bother our banker unnecessarily. One month we had a hiccup and tried to contact our banker, only to discover she had switched branches and we were left fumbling to find an efficient way to acquire her direct line once again (that information is near impossible to acquire if you are stuck in the quagmire of a phone tree). We connected again after many, many calls but a few months later, we discovered she had left our bank to work for another institution. Although someone replaced her, they were not up to speed on who we were or the unique needs we had. For this reason, I would recommend getting to know your bank manager as well, that way you always have a backup person should your personal banker be on vacation or you discover that they have legtin your time of need.

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36 Dana June 14, 2013 at 4:23 am

*left in your time of need. Oops! Typing from my phone without glasses is tough!

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37 The Paris Busy Bee Blog June 14, 2013 at 6:00 am

This is fantastic Gabrielle! I’ve linked it up to my Friday sweet links! Happy weekend! http://www.busyasabeeinparis.com/2013/06/summers-coming-my-friday-sweet-links.html

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38 PARIS BEE kids blog June 14, 2013 at 6:17 am

Didn’t know about XE and will check it out! When opening a bank account, especially here in France, it’s good to check their policy of their transfers as some banks do allow you to transfer on in the internet or to email a scanned wire order directly to the person who oversees your account. LCL for example.

My only tip is perseverance. Because financial transactions between your old country and your new one can be very tricky. Especially things like opening a bank account here in France. Everything takes longer. Plus you really need to pay attention as the credit card system is very different here as well from North America. Reading your account info and knowing your options is the best thing one can do!

xoxo PARIS BEE kids blog

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39 Bekah June 14, 2013 at 6:38 am

Through my father in law, we have USAA, which is the armed services bank. When we were in grad school and country hopping, they took great care of us. They are great for ex-pats because they are used to working with deployments. Now anyone who has ever been in the military is eligible for their benefits. We got our children accounts through them so that they will be eligible when they are older.

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40 Kris June 14, 2013 at 7:51 am

This is such a great post. I am an American living in Brazil and found so many useful things I had to pass it on to my little expat group here! Thank you so much for sharing your great experience.

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41 Cathy Thelen June 14, 2013 at 9:31 am

Kris, where in Brazil? We have lived there for two and half years. Hope my post will help you. We also do US Netflix.

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42 Cathy Thelen June 14, 2013 at 9:29 am

We use Charles Swab banking. You can use your debit card anywhere in the world no fees. You get the bank rate for currency. Other Atm’s charge you a fee but Charles Swab refunds it back to you. They are an online bank with very few actual bank building. Helps keep overhead low.
After you get your VPN there’s another service called http://www.ustvnow.com that you can get for a reasonable price to watch TV. We use Roku to get TV service. The Roku gives you so many options. You pay for it once and that’s it.

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43 Kelsey June 14, 2013 at 9:34 pm

This is one of those posts that has no real relevance to my life right _now_, but I’m sitting here reading it and nodding eagerly, like: ok good to know ALLOW ME TO MAKE NOTE. Definitely one of those nice little reads that you bookmark for later– because if and when it’s relevant, I’ll be sitting here rubbing my face against the screen and trying to will it forth from google, haha. :) Thanks!

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44 Sarah K June 15, 2013 at 12:44 am

Those are great tips! the VPN would have come in so handy when I lived in France–I didn’t know there was anything like that! Go technology. :)

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45 Alice June 16, 2013 at 10:01 am

I wondered how you accessed Hulu, now I know!

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46 Mylien June 18, 2013 at 8:39 pm

Love this post!
We had to switch Banks after 20 years with same banker due to a move (AZ) and have yet to have same banker every year! So (2) doesn’t work for me.
We use our iPhone to communicate with others via FaceTime And Line (Japan) and make calls to (Japan) for free!
Check other countries custom on excepting checks. Japan takes mostly cash and some places will not credit cards, only cash or debit card.
VPNs- if you travel frequent you’ll want to make sure that your VPN provider has servers in the country you travel to.
Also I notice some online sites will not ship clearance items internationally. :(

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47 Dariela June 19, 2013 at 11:38 pm

These are such great tips!! I don’t need them myself but I can recommend them to friends and family that live out of the US! Thanks!

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48 Shannon A June 20, 2013 at 12:25 pm

We are Americans currently living in Germany. We use a VPN called MyExpatNetwork, which is about $7 per month…and like Gabby, we access Hulu and Netflix using it, as well as YouTube content that is not available in Germany (you’d be surprised how much is blocked here due to copyright issues).

A couple of things I wish I’d done before we left the States: 1) Gotten a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. We still managed to get one, but had to jump through hoops to get it once we *already* lived overseas and they knew we’d have lots of foreign transactions. 2) Checked our other credit cards to make sure they had European “chip” technology and PIN codes for usage — many points of sale systems won’t accept our cards because they don’t have this “smart” tech embedded, even though lots of times the US banks will tell us that they do…so we use a lot of cash! Agree that it’s best if you have a banker “back home” that knows you, who can help you out when you need it — we bank with a bigger bank, and on more than one occasion we’ve been really sorry that was the case.

Oh, and another thing — while I know from my best friend that checkbooks are still used all over France, Germans where we are wouldn’t know what to do with one. Everywhere you go, people just give you their bank account info (name, account number, bank code), and expect you to transfer the money into their account — this is true for private school tuition, preschool tuition, utilities, payments to other people, and…wait for it…when you get a parking ticket here, the ticket is a deposit slip you’ll use to deposit the amount directly into the bank of the Stadt Polizei! I think this is insanely convenient, actually. Not sure how these are handled in the USA now, but when we lived there before we always had to send a check via mail.

Gabby — have you said what’s next for you guys? Where to, after France?

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49 hollee @moxiblog.com June 21, 2013 at 4:13 am

Thought you guys might like to know- I don’t know if it’s a perfect solution for VPN- but it does the job for us and is FREE.
VPN. http://tunlr.net
Stream video and music, whenever and wherever you want for FREE!
Do you want to stream video or audio from U.S.-based on-demand Internet streaming media providers but can’t get in on the fun because you’re living outside the U.S.? Fear not, you have come to the right place. Tunlr lets you stream content from sites like Netflix, Hulu, MTV, CBS, ABC, Pandora and more to your Mac or PC. Want to watch Netflix or HuluPlus on your iPad, AppleTV or XBox 360 even though you’re not in the U.S.? Tunlr lets you do this.

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50 xiaolinmama June 24, 2013 at 9:16 am

We’re headed abroad for a year Gabby. And will be living in Europe for 6 mos. These tips are SUPER helpful. Also signed up my daughter for k-12 at your suggestion. We’re off next month…
Thank you.

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51 natasha July 1, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Great info. Have you found xe.com admin charges to be cheaper than western union?

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52 Taido Chino August 19, 2013 at 6:48 am

This post is a life saver. In the process of moving my family to Scotland for a three year stint, and points 1 and 5 are must haves. We also have a credit card from British Airways that has no fees associated with it and gives the market exchange rate. Helpful. Anyone ever heard of or use Tranzfers.com? It looks like they may best XE by a penny or so.

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