Why foreign transaction fees matter even if you don’t travel
Many credit cards geared toward business or leisure travelers boast about no foreign exchange fees. If you don’t travel abroad often, you may think that doesn’t matter.
But as I recently discovered in a Kafkaesque exchange with customer service, you don’t have to leave home to get charged this fee. If you’re doing business online with a company that uses a foreign bank, that fee can also apply — even if the transaction is displayed in U.S. currency and there’s no mention of a foreign bank, foreign currency or foreign transaction. As business becomes more global, this is another good reason to add a card with no foreign transaction fees to your wallet, even if you rarely (or never) cross the border.
In my case, I purchased a year’s subscription to online content I can access through my smartphone. Several friends in the U.S. had recommended the company — and because the website didn’t scream: “Hey, we’re a British startup but we’ll take American money!” — I assumed the company was based somewhere in Silicon Valley, as many emerging tech companies are. When I checked out, I selected U.S. dollars, but that didn’t set off any red flags in my mind, because online content doesn’t require shipping, and theoretically you could buy and access the content anywhere in the world.
Then, when I checked my card transactions online (which I suggest you do often; Ashley at Saving Money in Your Twenties agrees with me), I noticed that my bank had tacked on a foreign transaction fee (fortunately, only 1 percent). I called (also a good idea; Miranda at Ready for Zero has tips on getting card fees waived) expecting to get the fee waived once I’d explained that the transaction was in U.S. dollars and was made from my home computer, so the fee shouldn’t apply.
The first not-so-helpful customer service rep told me that the currency of the transaction was irrelevant and the fee was actually charged because the company uses a foreign bank. “I understand that I’ll pay a fee if I use this card in another country, but there was no mention of foreign banks or foreign currency on the website,” I said. “I’ve had great experiences with this card for the past eight years, so can you waive the fee just this once for a loyal customer?”
No, she could (or would) not.
Instead, she suggested that she could transfer me to the disputes department, and I could dispute the transaction (Holly at Get Rich Slowly offers tips on disputing card transactions). That didn’t seem like the best approach (the company had delivered the content I wanted, after all), but I agreed to try that.
The next rep told me that I could not dispute the transaction because the fee had been charged by the card, not the merchant. “Shouldn’t the merchant disclose that there was a foreign bank involved?” I asked. “This doesn’t seem like a responsible business practice, and I’d like that money refunded.”
He responded that if a merchant is operating outside of the U.S., they wouldn’t be subject to any sort of U.S. rules around disclosure, and essentially it was my fault for not researching the company more carefully before buying. (“Really? Do consumers even know to look for a relationship with a foreign bank?” I wondered.) He offered to transfer me back to customer service so I could ask again to waive the fee.
Once transferred, I explained again that I was aware of the foreign currency fee and expected to pay it while traveling (unless I used one of my three other cards that don’t charge a fee — that’s the maddening part about this whole situation!), and got shot down one final time.
Out of curiosity, I checked the contact page on the company’s website and saw that it has offices in California and the United Kingdom (but no .co.uk URL, which would have made it obvious it was a UK company). I suspect they’re trying not to broadcast a specific location to appeal to a global audience, but it had never occurred to me to check the location for an online product.
I’m not going to close that card (after all, it’s one of the cards I’ve had the longest and length of history accounts for 15 percent of your FICO score), but I am going to use another card for all future purchases online just in case.
Bottom line: Never assume that an online purchase will be free from foreign currency fees. When in doubt, pay with a card that doesn’t charge foreign currency fees.