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The bank account for backpackers

14th February 2019

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Starling customer and team member Charlotte Lorimer describes the benefits of taking a Starling Bank debit card with you on your travels.


Sorting out your travel money doesn’t have to be complicated, especially if you bank with Starling. So far, I’ve used my Starling card in 12 countries and it has never let me down.

Before Starling, I worried about fees for using a bank card abroad and my phone bill after calling my high street bank to unblock my card, even though I had already told them where I would be going. With the Starling app, that stress is behind me.

Free to roam

Starling won’t charge you to use your debit card abroad and you don’t have to contact us before travelling. With the Starling app you get real-time notifications that tell you whenever money moves in or out of your account, putting you in control and helping you stay on track with your finances as you travel. If you do receive a notification you aren’t sure about when you’re overseas (or at home), you can contact Customer Service through the app straight away.

Safe in the knowledge that I won’t be charged extra, I prefer to pay by card when I travel abroad, so I can to keep track of transactions. But depending on where you are, you’re likely to need cash at some point and it’s always worth having a few emergency notes. For example, if you’re backpacking through South America or South East Asia, you’ll almost always pay in cash. Countries such as Japan and Italy are still very much cash-driven economies while in Canada and Sweden, by contrast, card is king. It’s worth doing a bit of research on the country you’re travelling to before you set off to make sure you’re prepared.

A landscape showing Laguna Colorada, Bolivia
Laguna Colorada, Bolivia

When you withdraw cash from an ATM, you may be charged by the ATM but there won’t be any additional charges from Starling. If I find that one ATM is going to charge me, I often try to suss out another one from a different bank that offers free withdrawals.

Whenever you use your Starling card abroad, be sure to process the transaction in the local currency not pounds. We asked twins Heidi and Alice to test this during a weekend in Berlin. Heidi paid in the local currency, Alice paid in pounds and ended up paying 10% more for some transactions. The reason for this is that when you pay in the local currency, you get the real Mastercard rate from Starling not from the rate used by the foreign bank, shop or restaurant. Once processed, Starling will also send you a real-time notification so you know exactly how much you’ve spent both in the local currency and in pounds.

Making tracks

The Starling real-time notifications and breakdown of outgoings are incredibly useful for keeping to your budget when you’re travelling on a shoestring. When I was in New Zealand, the group of girls I was with struggled to predict how much their average day cost and how much they could budget for the rest of the trip. With Starling, my daily spend was calculated for me. I could see exactly how much I’d spent on hostels or in the supermarket in one tap.

A landscape showing Lake Wanaka, New Zealand
Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

If you’re on holiday and want to collect all outgoings into the Holiday category, you can customise this in the app. For example, if you’re going skiing this February and have lunch up the mountain, you could change the category from Eating Out to Holiday to keep everything in one place.

Card padlock

When you’ve bought a padlock for your backpack, why wouldn’t you want one for your bank card? Of all Starling’s features, the card lock toggles give me most control and peace of mind.

After New Zealand, I spent three weeks in Bali with a friend, also a Starling customer. Jetlag, combined with a constant flow of conversation meant that when we withdrew cash from side-by-side ATMs, we both forgot to wait for our cards to be returned. We only remembered our mistake a few hours later when the bank had closed. But with Starling, it wasn’t really a problem - we simply locked our cards and went to the bank the next day. Luckily, they had retrieved our cards, along with three others. Clearly we weren’t the only ones.

Even if we hadn’t been able to get our cards back, I could still have kept using my Starling account through Apple Pay wherever contactless payments were accepted. The app allows you to turn all payments off except your digital wallet to keep using Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay. You can also turn your card on or off for online payments or ATM withdrawals.

If both your card and your phone have been lost or stolen, the number to call is on our website - Customer Services are on hand 24/7 and can block your card and Starling app instantly.

Travel Goals

Goals is the section of the Starling app designed to help you save: name your Goal, set a target amount, choose a photo and then start setting money aside. Whatever you save is kept separate from your everyday balance but will still earn interest and can be moved back if your balance needs a top up.

An app screenshot showing round ups for a goal

Of all Starling customers, Travel and Holiday are the most popular Goals. Many customers have named specific places: New York City is most popular, followed by Australia and Florida. At the moment, my travel Goal is for visiting my dad, who lives in France. This is also the Goal that I’ve connected to Starling’s Round Ups feature. This means that if I spend £2.60 on lunch, 40p is rounded up and added to my Goal. So far, 43,000 Starling customers have used the Round Up feature - an automatic way to save for sunny (or rainy) days. Why not set up a Starling Goal now for your next trip, or if you’ve already got one, let us know where you’re saving for.

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