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How to Maximize Points and Credit Cards as a US Expat

May 17, 2019
7 min read
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You've moved abroad (or plan to) and soon discover the cold, hard fact that no other country does credit card points like the good old US of A. Additionally, here in the UK it's difficult to establish credit due to its reliance on the electoral roll and that your US credit does not transfer. As an American who has lived in the UK for 13 years, I've put together some pointers on how to keep your American credit cards and keep racking up those points as an expat.

Foreign Exchange Fees

At 2.7%-3% on every purchase, foreign exchange fees negate any potential gain for US expats earning points and miles abroad. You need to be focused only on cards that have no foreign transaction fees. No forex fee is the baseline for any card before you delve into points and miles as an expat. As my UK credit cards often have foreign transaction fees, I often use my US credit cards when traveling in the rest of the world rather than my UK cards.

Best No-Foreign-Transaction-Fee Credit Cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card
  • United Explorer Card
  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®
  • Citi Prestige® Card
  • Citi Premier® Card
  • The Platinum Card® from American Express (see rates & fees)
  • Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
  • Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card (see rates & fees)
  • Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card
  • IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card
  • Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card
  • Ink Business Preferred Credit Card
  • Uber Visa
  • Discover it Miles

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card, Citi Prestige, Uber Visa, and Hilton Aspire card have been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

The Easiest-to-Use Options for Expats

Over 50% of transactions in the UK are contactless and everywhere from the London Underground to Boots accept contactless payments. As an American going abroad, you'll be familiar with handing over your card overseas and getting that confused look when you have to sign for your transactions, sometimes involving a manager's approval and certainly a delay.

Luckily, many expats link their favorite cards to Apple Pay or Google Pay to get around the paper signature issue. Some expats told me that Apple Pay and Google Pay are often not subject to the £30 cap that contactless cards are, although it's up to the retailer.

There are a variety of chip and PIN cards, which means that you don't have to sign.

Finally, there are contactless cards in the US. Expats I spoke to sing the praises of their newly issued contactless Chase Sapphire Reserve (call and ask for a new contactless card) that they're even using to get on the tube. American Express® Gold Card is another option for a contactless card, although be aware that the 4x points at supermarkets only applies to U.S. purchases (up to $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x).

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(Photo by Eden Batki / The Points Guy)
The Amex Gold is one of several contactless credit cards that earn strong rewards. (Photo by Eden Batki / The Points Guy)

Top Credit Cards for Earning Bonus Points

In the points and miles world, the United States is still the envy of other nations for the large sign-up bonuses and generous multipliers on certain categories of spend.

Expats loved their Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve even before the contactless change because Chase widely defines travel and dining categories, including expenses like public transit fares and parking fees.

TPG UK has confirmed that the London Underground and National Rail code as travel and earn 3x every dollar spent with the Chase Sapphire Reserve or 2x with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which can be a significant spend over the course of the year.

Personally, I love my Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card for its 2x miles on every purchase. I don't have to worry about how a purchase codes as I know every purchase is getting at least 2x with no foreign exchange fees. It has also recently gone contactless.

Transferring Money to the US

We always recommend that you pay your balances in full every month — if you don't, the value of the points and miles you're earning are negated. However, how are you going to pay off those US credit cards if you're living abroad and earning pounds? I use expat favorite Transferwise. Other expats I know use Paypal, and Azimo. Your bank may transfer money to linked banks overseas without a fee if it's the same bank in both countries (HSBC, for example).

(Screeshot courtesy of iTunes)
TransferWise is available on both Android and iOS devices. (Screenshot courtesy of iTunes)

Some expats also use their US cards essentially as a money transfer rather than sending over a large amount of dollars when they move abroad. By putting their everyday UK expenses on their US credit cards and using their US savings to pay it off, they're often getting forex rates at interbank exchange rates — which are much more favorable rates than other methods of currency conversion. It's worth noting that there's a slight margin between the buy and sell rates of currency, which you can read more about here.

Using Friends and Family

You can add friends or family who live back in the US as authorized users to your credit cards in order to continue to accumulate points and miles. I often ask my family to purchase things to either send me or manage our property in America. I added my cousin as an authorized user on my cards so that she can make purchases for me and I can continue to accrue points and keep my US credit active. I also use US online shopping portals to maximize any gifts I'm sending to friends and family in the United States (all those wedding and baby gifts add up!).

Bottom Line

When you leave the United States to live abroad, it doesn't mean you have to give up the strong points and miles earnings of your US credit cards. Keeping your US credit active can help when you repatriate and can serve as a way to save up for those flights home.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum, click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire Card, click here.

Featured image by Getty Images/Westend61
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
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