Cross The Border Often? Consider These Credit Card Options

It’s hard to manage your finances in two countries. You need two of everything, from chequing accounts to credit cards. Snowbirds need a U.S. bank account to take care of the bills at their condo. Canadian shoppers want easier ways to pay their Macy’s or J.C. Penney account after cross-border shopping sprees.

Opening an account at a U.S. bank is an option, but you might not be able to get a U.S. credit card because you don’t have a credit history. It’s also a hassle to get cash into those accounts because you either need a money order or have to cross the border, find a bank branch and deposit the cash.

Besides traditional Canadian snowbirds, there’s an increasing number of expatriates living and doing business in the U.S. who want more convenient banking access in both places.

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Your credit choices come down to whether you want a U.S. dollar credit card issued by a Canadian bank, a U.S. dollar credit card issued by a U.S. bank, or a Canadian-issued credit card that doesn’t charge foreign exchange fees. Let’s explore those three options:

U.S. dollar credit cards

Most Canadian banks and credit unions offer some form of U.S. dollar accounts. Some offer U.S. dollar credit cards, allowing you to sidestep conversion rates and currency exchange service charges.

A U.S. dollar credit card is suitable for frequent travellers, cross-border shoppers, snowbirds, and online shoppers – anyone who makes purchases in U.S. dollars on a regular basis. Any Canadian resident can apply, as the requirements for obtaining a U.S. dollar credit card are the same as for any other Canadian credit product. Customers avoid the foreign exchange fee as well, since they can pay off their card in USD or CAD – whatever is convenient and makes sense from a foreign exchange perspective.

Best suited for: Individuals or small business owners who want to keep U.S. purchases and statements separate from their day-day-day banking in Canada.

U.S. issued credit cards

A U.S. credit card is a great way to ensure you can make purchases, pay bills, and get access to your money when you need it most. You can also avoid foreign transaction fees in the U.S. when you make spend and pay bills in the same currency.

Canadian residents must have an American address to apply for a U.S. domicile card. These credit cards are issued based on the applicant’s credit history in the U.S.

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Both RBC and TD Canada Trust now offer accounts that overcome these hurdles, pairing them with a U.S. dollar credit card. They let you pay U.S. bills online, use American ATMs without access fees and make it easy to transfer money among the accounts. Dealing with banks with operations on both sides of the border is an advantage because they’ll help you leverage your Canadian credit history to obtain a credit card, mortgage loan, or line of credit.

If you plan on moving south for the long term, having a U.S. credit card is an excellent way to begin building your U.S. credit history.

Best suited for: Snowbirds, or those with broader ties to the U.S., who want to build and maintain U.S. credit history

No foreign-exchange fee cards

Trips to the U.S. and abroad also means dealing with foreign currency. You might think your credit card provider is doing you a favour by converting your foreign purchases back into Canadian dollars, but think again. Foreign currency conversion fees are often hidden within your credit card statement – blended in with the exchange rate so you don’t even notice you’re paying an extra 2.5% on your purchases. Don’t kid yourself – these charges add up in a big way.

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Every major Canadian financial institution charges a 2.5% fee for foreign currency conversion on credit card transactions, a stiff penalty that cancels out any rewards you might have earned on your trip.

So what’s a traveller to do?  Luckily, there are two great credit card options for Canadians who might look to save money on foreign travel as well as on items purchased online through foreign retailers.

Chase Card Services – a division of U.S. giant JPMorgan Chase but nothing more than a niche player in Canada – removed the currency conversion fee on its Rewards Visa and Marriott Rewards Premier Visa. Customers using one of these cards will save the 2.5% foreign currency conversion fee when purchases are made in foreign currency.

Best suited for: Frequent travellers to the U.S. and abroad who want to avoid the 2.5% foreign exchange fee that most major credit card issuers charge.


  1. JA on May 31, 2015 at 11:36 am

    Chase also issues Sears Canada card with no Fx transaction fee.

  2. Anne Soroka on June 1, 2015 at 5:21 am

    The reviews on the Amazon Rewards Visa have been negative – poor service when you have a problem to resolve, paper statements only, and cards not always being accepted for no reason. Any advice?

    • Robb Engen on June 1, 2015 at 7:55 am

      Hi Anne, that hasn’t been my experience at all. Sure, there is no option for e-statements, but at least they’re not trying to charge you $2 for the paper statement.

      I had one incorrect charge on my bill and it was resolved promptly by their customer service team. I haven’t heard of cards not being accepted – it’s a Visa card, so it should be as widely accepted as any other Visa.

      I used it exclusively on a recent trip to Seattle without any issues – plus I was happy to save the 2.5% currency conversion fee, plus earn 1% on my spending. Once you’ve earned 2000 points you automatically get a $20 statement credit.

      • Henry Lee on June 1, 2015 at 8:15 am

        I’ve had the Amazon VISA credit card for a number of years and in general I’m happy with it. I only use it for Amazon purchases (double the points) and foreign travel. I used it for my trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan last fall. While it worked fine in Hong Kong, it was declined in Taiwan. Perhaps they did not register me properly there for those dates. I have an associate card for my daughter too. She called to tell them she was going on a trip to Korea and the rep asked her if it was North or South Korea! She said it worked initially but then it stopped. Again, I never found out why. She’s now on a trip to Spain and reports that so far it is working.

        • Robb Engen on June 1, 2015 at 8:47 am

          Hi Henry, the Korea question makes sense if you look at this statement from the terms and conditions:

          As of July 2013, the Rewards Visa Card will not work in Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Libya.

  3. Jean on June 1, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    I have the Sears Financial credit card which does not charge 2.50% for exchange. But you never mention it. Any reasons ?

    • Robb Engen on June 1, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Hi Jean, the Sears card is being discontinued later this year.

  4. warren w on June 2, 2015 at 12:23 am

    I have had a positive experience with the Amazon card. I contacted them re a charge that I disputed because the seller did not provide the service and the charge was reversed. I advised Chase that we would be travelling in Eastern Europe for two months and never had any charge refused. The only negative for me is their confusing online billing statement

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