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Traveler's Checks: A Guide for the Modern Globetrotter

Andrew Secker, Private Banker, First Republic Bank
September 30, 2022

  • Traveler's checks are a method of paying for goods and services abroad.
  • Unlike cash, traveler's checks offer protection against loss or theft.
  • Although less popular than in years past, traveler's checks are still available and accepted across many parts of the world.

Paying with cash when traveling abroad can offer advantages, such as avoiding your credit card’s international transaction fees, budgeting more easily or ensuring that you can make purchases even when your card isn’t always accepted. 

Using cash while traveling can present some challenges as well: there's the risk of your money getting lost or stolen, and you may not get the best exchange rate.

Although traveler’s checks are less common than they once were, they’re still a worthy option to consider. A traveler’s check offers the convenience of cash, with more protection options. 

What is a traveler’s check?

A traveler's check is a type of check issued by a financial institution that can be used as payment while traveling abroad. Before your trip, you can purchase the check in set denominations, ranging from $20 to $1,000. Once you're abroad, you can use these checks to pay for goods and services at participating hotels or retail stores, or exchange your checks for cash in the local currency at participating banks or check-cashing agencies.

Each traveler's check has a unique serial number for insurance against theft or loss. If you lose your check during the trip, the original issuer can cancel it and provide a replacement to pick up at a local bank or travel agency abroad.

The first traveler’s check was issued by the UK travel agency, Thomas Cook, and they have since spread across the world. 

How do traveler’s checks work?

Traveler’s checks can be a secure alternative to carrying cash when visiting foreign countries, while also avoiding credit card fees associated with making purchases abroad.

Where to buy traveler’s checks?

Several financial institutions, including credit unions, American Express, Visa and the American Automobile Association (AAA), issue traveler’s checks. 

When you find an institution that offers traveler’s checks, the process of purchasing them is fairly straightforward: Ask for checks in the denominations and total amount you wish to purchase and pay the additional fee, if required. You should then sign the paper checks as soon as they’re in your possession for security’s sake. 

Where to use traveler’s checks?

You can use your traveler’s checks at hotels and retailers that accept them. This payment option has become less popular over the past 20 years, so it’s best to make sure that the business accepts them before you make a purchase.

Why use traveler’s checks?

Although traveler’s checks may not be as prevalent as they once were, traveler's checks can be helpful in the following scenarios.

You don’t have a credit or debit card

If you do not have a credit or debit card and want to spend money abroad, traveler’s checks can provide you with more security than cash. Stolen traveler’s checks can be replaced, which isn’t true for hard currency. 

You want to avoid foreign transaction fees

Foreign transaction fees, including Automated Teller Machine (ATM) fees, may pop up when you're withdrawing money abroad. You may also encounter international credit card fees when using your card overseas. Traveler's checks, by contrast, do not charge the same kind of fees. You may need to pay the issuer when you buy a traveler’s check, but this amount often may be less than the transaction fee that would come with the use of a credit card.

You want to protect your money

Traveler’s checks come with unique serial numbers (or a check number) for security and require two signatures from the owner: one upon purchase of the check and another at the point of purchase. 

You can also have your checks replaced while traveling if they are lost or stolen, as long as you can provide proof of purchase. Depending on the issuer, you also may be able to transfer your unused traveler's checks back to your bank account.

Alternatives to traveler’s checks

Several alternatives to traveler’s checks have become popular in recent years. These often take the form of prepaid cards (or prepaid travel cards). Debit cards make withdrawing a local currency at a currency exchange easier to do than in the days before ATMs.

Some credit or debit card issuers may not charge international transaction fees, depending on your type of account. First Republic’s ATM and ATM debit card offerings allows you to access your funds worldwide. 

Traveler’s check FAQs

Read on for tips about when and how to use traveler’s checks abroad.

Are traveler’s checks still used?

Yes, traveler's checks are still accepted and used throughout the world, though they're not as common as they once were. It's worthwhile to explore other alternatives, such as prepaid travel cards or flexible ATM debit cards, that give you peace of mind while abroad. 

Can I deposit traveler’s checks into my bank account?

You can deposit traveler’s checks into your own bank account. Simply provide the check to your banker as you would with other check types. Confirm with your bank before trying to deposit your traveler’s checks electronically, to make sure they support this feature.

Do traveler’s checks expire?

Traveler's checks generally do not expire; confirm with the issuer before making a purchase.

Before you travel

When planning and budgeting for an international trip, it's important to understand all the payment options at your destination. One tried-and-true option is a traveler’s check, which is designed for foreign travel and gives you the convenience of cash, while avoiding credit card fees. Another alternative is ATM debit cards that allow you to access your funds worldwide. 

With some research and careful planning, you'll be able to make safe, secure purchases on your next global adventure. 

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