Payments in the US


You can easily pay in the US with cash, debit cards, credit cards and checks. Here are some advices.

  • Cash of course is always accepted; as some other payment methods are available, there is no need to travel with a lot of cash on you, it is a unreasonable risk.
  • Debit cards are accepted in the majority of places. Remember that a debit card requires immediate availability of the amount on your bank account and it requires you to digit a pin number to authorize the transaction. Debit cards usually charge a fee if the transaction is in a foreign currency; this fee is usually proportional to the amount, with no fixed fee, if you're using the debit card to buy something; it can have a fixed amount if you are getting cash. It's quite common in the US to be asked if you want cash back: it means that you can have some cash back when buying something, up to 50 or 100 USD. If you want to know where the closest ATM is, try this worldwide ATM locator.
  • Credit cards are generally well accepted, almost everywhere; they don't require you to have the immediate availability of the money on your bank account, as they usually charge you the next month (ask your bank). They will probably ask you for photo identification and to sign the receipt; remember that this is a form of protection for the merchant, so they can ask you nothing if the amount is small. Credit card have always some kind of fraud protection, you should know how it works before using it regularly. Credit cards don't have fixed fees for usage, they can only charge you usually up to 2% if the transaction is in a foreign currency; it's usually expensive to get cash at an ATM with a credit card, especially because the credit card issuer is not only providing you the cash, it is lending you the money for a month.
  • Personal checks are quite common in the US, more than in Europe for example. Foreign checks are completely useless in the US, you can only use checks from your US account. If you're required to send a check before you have an American account, you should ask to your bank: they can do that, but it's usually quite expensive as they have to pass through an American bank for that.

To summarize, if you're using foreign payment tools:

  • it's always cheaper to pay than to withdraw cash
  • if you necessarily have to get cash, debit cards are way cheaper than credit cards
  • it's your choice whether to use debit or credit card to pay goods: ask your bank about fees and remember that debit cards have usually daily an monthly limits, while credit cards have only a maximum monthly amount, usually higher than the debit cards.

Do I need a bank account?

The only true reason to open a bank account is to be able to sign checks, and you will probably need checks *only* to pay university fees. You can always pay those fees by cash, and for this reason you should think about opening a bank account only if you're staying for more than a quarter in the US.

Your new US bank account

Opening a bank account

Opening a bank account is generally easy in the United States, it will take you less than an hour. Every bank should offer you a student checking account, and you should look for something that satisfy the following requirements:

  • No opening/closing fees
  • You don't need a banking account, a checking account is more than enough
  • No monthly / quarterly / annual fees
  • Some free checks
  • A free debit card (check that you have an ATM of your bank close to your campus, or on campus)
  • Online banking (remember that you may have to ask to go paperless, that is no paper statement in your mailbox, only by email, to have zero fees on your account).

To open a bank account you just have to go to the Bank with two photo IDs (passport and visa are usually ok). You don't need a SSN. You have to provide a valid US mailing address. They may require a first deposit, for example 100 USD.

They should give you immediately some free checks (three, for example). Your debit card should arrive in some days in your mailbox. You can usually have your photo on the card, against unauthorized use, but maybe is not worth if you're closing the account in one year (it's a debit, not a credit card).

Applying for a Credit Card

Having a US based credit card would be very useful and convenient (for example, they pay the insurance - about 25 USD a day - when renting a car) but it's a long and complex process. If you don't have a credit history in the United States, that is a record of your past "credit behavior" - you can apply for a credit card only if you give the bank a security deposit of some hundreds of dollars (up to 1000). After you well-behave for some months, 9 months for example, they give your money back. This makes everything more difficult for international students. Your credit card will be linked to your bank account, which you then have to keep when leaving the country if you want to keep the credit card. Every American bank account must have the mailing address of a US resident, then you wouldn't be allowed to keep it (not sure). Actually if you go completely paperless, they won't use your mailing address for anything, so maybe you can leave your on campus / off campus housing address (again, not sure).

Some banks

There are no particular advises when choosing your bank for one year, as long as they offer you a checking account fulfilling the minimum requirements listed above. Moreover, you should check if there is a ATM of your bank on campus, it can be useful. Search "ATM" in the top right corner search box, they should be listed.


Bank of America

Monday-Thursday 9:00am-6:00pm
Friday 9:00am-7:00pm
Saturday 9:00am-2:00pm
They offer (at least in 2007) the Campus Edge checking account. It satisfies all the requisites listed in the previous sections, so for this reason it can be considered a good choice.


Wells Fargo

Monday-Friday 9:00am-6:00pm
Saturday 9:00am-2:00pm


Santa Barbara Bank & Trust

Monday-Thursday 9:00am-5:00pm
Friday 9:00am-6:00pm
Saturday (drive up) 9:00am-1:00pm

Moving money to your checking account

The main way to move money from your home account to your new American account is a wire transfer. As a currency exchange is happening, it has usually expensive fees. First of all, your home bank will ask you for a foreign currency wire transfer fee. Then the American account will probably have a fee to receive a wire transfer (differently from most of the rest of the world). Then you should pay attention on how your money is converted. It's usually a good idea to express your wire transfer amount in the destination currency, that is USD. Firstly because in this case your bank does the conversion and they can tell you before how much will it cost. Also because if there are any problems about the conversion rate, it is way easier to complain with your own bank than with the American bank or even worse with a middle-agent.

Remember that all this fees can be fixed or depend on the amount of money you're moving. This should make you decide about doing a single or multiple wire transfers. An international wire transfers can require up to 7 working days to arrive.

Another way to move money from your home account to your US account is to withdraw cash at an ATM with your home debit card and deposit it in your new account (you don't have to go to the bank, you can deposit money at the ATM with deposit envelopes). Even if ATM withdrawal abroad has usually some fees, it can be cheaper than a wire transfer.

Using your bank account

Here are some guideline to use you US bank account.

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