Debit/Credit Card Foreign Currency Transaction Fees

I called several (Singapore) banks today to enquire about the transaction fees associated when one uses a credit/debit card to make purchases in foreign currency (including online purchases), and the frustration I had talking to the Customer Service Representatives (CSR) drove me to write this entry. The information below is accurate as of today, based on the information I obtained on the phone calls as well as correlations with information obtained online via the banks’ websites. I did not verify American Express fees, but based on prior experience, fees for American Express transactions tend to be higher than that for Mastercard/Visa.

Standard Chartered – 1% by Mastercard/Visa + 2.5% by bank
Customer Service Experience: CSR started by telling me that I can obtain information from the website, and proceeded to read out the information to me. I immediately knew because she said 2.5% initially, until I told her that the next line says that as of 1 Dec 2012, it is 3.5%. I told her to confirm, which she did after a long wait, but said that 3.5% was totally charged by Mastercard/Visa when I asked for a breakdown. I gave up, and asked to speak with someone who knew what he/she was talking about. After another long wait, I was told I would get a callback within 20 min. I got a callback within 10 min, and confirmed the breakdown as above.

HSBC – 1% by Mastercard/Visa + 1.5% by bank
Customer Service Experience: CSR answered my question on foreign currency transaction fees with interest charges etc. and I went “Huh?” I probed a little and she confidently told me that there are no foreign currency transaction fees apart from the bank’s exchange rates. I cut her off and told her that she clearly doesn’t know what she was talking about, and asked to speak with someone who does. I was put on hold for about 3-5 minutes, before she came back with information as above.

POSB/DBS (Credit) – 1% by Mastercard/Visa + 1.5% by bank
POSB/DBS (Debit) – 1% by Mastercard/Visa + 2% by bank
Customer Service Experience: CSR was able to give information almost immediately about the related fees for credit card which matched online information, and was even able to tell me that it is different for debit cards. Pleasant experience.

OCBC – 1% by Mastercard/Visa + 1.8% by bank
Customer Service Experience: OCBC does not indicate the fee which Mastercard/Visa charges, and refers customers to contact Mastercard/Visa directly. Experience with CSR was best (and fastest) among the banks.

UOB – 1% by Mastercard/Visa + 1.5% by bank
Customer Service Experience: By far the worst. I was put on hold 4 times, and still needed to request for a callback in the end. Right at the start, CSR did not know there was a fee, and only after prompting, did she confirm the website’s information that it was 2.5% total inclusive of Mastercard/Visa fees. When I asked for the breakdown, I was told that UOB does not disclose the breakdown, and I went “Huh, does UOB have a special relationship with Mastercard/Visa which the other banks do not?” When I next asked to speak with someone else, I was put on hold (again) for a long time and she had the cheek to come back to tell me that the other person was not available and anyway would be telling me the same thing she already told me. I finally gave up and asked for the CSR’s supervisor or someone with appropriate authority to talk to me, and I was told I would get a callback within 3 hours. Wonder of wonders, the very same CSR called me back within 10 min to give me the breakdown as stated above. I had the urge to still talk to her supervisor, but decided it would be pointless anyway.

Citibank – 1% by Mastercard/Visa + 1.5% by bank
Customer Service Experience: I thought that this would be a simple case of verifying the information I already had, but no. I spoke with the first CSR who refused to give a breakdown of the 2.5% he told me, despite the breakdown being explicit in the Cardmember’s Agreement. When I insisted on the breakdown, he put me on hold, and the line got cut off after 3-5 min. I called back, spoke to the second CSR who put me on hold, then came back after 5-8 min, to tell me 2.5% as well. I pushed for the breakdown and he wavered between 2.5% including and 2.5% excluding Mastercard/Visa fees. When I pointed out the clause in the Cardmember’s Agreement which clearly gave the breakdown, he suddenly saw light. But by then I had lost all confidence that the information he would give me is updated. So I asked to speak to his supervisor. Within 1 min I was transferred to another, but guess what? The person was not his supervisor and was another CSR at his level. At least she was confident-sounding and confirmed that the most-updated fees are as indicated above. I could have insisted to speak to the supervisor nevertheless to question why CSR 2 didn’t transfer the call as I had requested, but after all these calls, I was tired and any feedback seemed pointless anyway.

Do note that the replies and online information given for the transaction fees charged by Mastercard and Visa vary slightly, from 0.2% to 1.1%, but I just approximated it to 1%. This rate will apply no matter which bank card is used, so just treat it as a constant. It’s also noteworthy that the currency exchange rate is determined by Mastercard/Visa and not by the banks.

My own takeaway is that although withdrawing money from overseas ATMs may incur fees, they may not necessarily cost more than using Mastercard/Visa while overseas. Yes, a difference of 1% may seem like a small petty amount to quibble over. But habits do add up eventually, and ultimately, it’s about making informed decisions, i.e. convenience vs cost. Maybe it’s time to consider a Citibank banking account given that there are no Citibank ATM transaction fees worldwide.

As for customer service in Singapore. I have no other word than “atrocious” to describe it in general. Yes, these may be specific negative examples that are not representative of the whole, but believe me, today is not the first time I’m calling company hotlines to verify information. Why do I call even after I can find the information online? Because there is always the clause that says the bank (or company) may change this and that at its discretion from time to time. So I think it necessary to ensure I have the most updated information. But if more often than not I’m educating the CSR instead of the other way around, I think there’s much to be improved for the standard of customer service in Singapore. Yes, my questions may be difficult and uncommon, but that’s why I need to call to verify information in the first place, no? I can only feel sorry for the majority of customers who will likely take whatever the first CSR says to be the truth.

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