Some Observations On Foreign Credit Card Use


I have written a bunch about using credit cards overseas and in foreign countries.   It does seem that most American banks and credit card issuers really want to sock it to you when it comes to credit card fees for foreign transactions.   I just returned from a week long trip to the city of Salvador in Brazil.  I had a chance to try out all of my advice that I regularly give my readers, as well as to make some observations as to how credit cards work down there.

Follow My Advice

I recently wrote my Overseas Check List For For Credit Card Users.  I was able to perform each checklist item and it all worked out.   Amex claims that it is no longer necessary to contact them, but my bank and my other credit card companies were glad I called.   I only used my Capitol One Visa and my ATM card, although I kept other cards as backups.   As you may well know, Capitol One distinguishes itself by not charging a foreign transaction fee.

Some Interesting Observations:

Don’t Trust The Signs.   Every restaurant, bar, and souvenir shop displays various logos from credit card networks such as Visa.   In the United States, these signs tell you pretty unequivocally that the card is accepted.   In Brazil, these signs are meaningless.  Many times we found restaurants that displayed Visa signs no longer accepted the card.   Other places gladly ran my card, despite no indication of it.   Eventually, we just learned to show the card when we walked in, and that way we knew if it was accepted.

Credit and debit are not accepted equally. When you are in a foreign country, many merchants will take your card and assume it is either credit or debit, attempting to process your bill incorrectly.   If there is a language barrier, the results can be frustrating.  What we learned to do is to always tell them that the card is “credit” a word that seems to be the same in Portuguese as it is in English.

It’s All Portable. Credit card processing is almost entirely accomplished with portable processors.    We learned that people in other countries are very afraid of credit card fraud and theft, as if they do not have the same protections we Americans enjoy.   Therefore, every merchant has a wireless credit card processor that they bring out to you and swipe your card in front of you.   The processor even prints out a receipt for you to sign, and one to keep.   If you were to perform a debit card transaction, you would be given the opportunity to enter your PIN right there at your table in a restaurant.

Tips Not Required. One thing we found out from locals is that tips are uncommon in Brazil.   As per local custom, we tipped when we received exceptional service, but not in most situations where we would have tipped at home.   Interestingly, credit card receipts at restaurants did not have a place for a tip, belying the trend of spaces for tips appearing at even fast food joints here in the States.

ATMs Rock Credit cards are still not accepted everywhere in Brazil, and it is wise to carry some amount of cash with you to make purchases where they are not accepted.    Every ATM we went to had an English option.   Most did not charge us a transaction fee, and they all have great rates.   ATMs seemed to be located in safe, well lit places, so we never felt like we were in any danger.    When it came time to depart, we changed our remaining cash at the airport for a poor rate, although the sign said “No Commission!”.   Yeah, whatever.

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