Tips On Travel & International Banking – The Money Hostage Situation Explained

Tips On Travel & International Banking – The Money Hostage Situation Explained

Traveling around the world and getting access to your money can be a logistical nightmare if you’re not prepared.  Thankfully, your trusted guinea pigs (that’s us!) have done the grunt work, made the screw ups and are here with the full report.

Some banks have limited online services.  ATMs can have high fees or ridiculously low withdraw amounts.  Travelers checks, Western Union and Wire Transfers can come with massive fees.  And possibly the worst, your bank could decide to freeze you out and hold your accounts hostage in the middle of tax season while your half-way around the world.  Yep, that can and did really happen.

Managing Money While Traveling and sailing Around The World

Before I go diving into my cautionary tale of Big Bank woes, lets look at some of the basics when it comes to world travel and managing money.  We’ve been full time travelers for eight years.  And before we left the sticks and bricks life we traveled all over the world for work.  So international banking as well as money management during travel isn’t new to us.  We follow the unwritten golden rules of nomad banking and feel we have a good system in place that works well.

General Guidelines we follow (and suggest) for managing money while traveling and sailing around the world.

  • Bank Account with No International Fees – Withdrawing money from ATM machines is how we get local currency and additional cash on the go. We have found ATMs almost everywhere (except here).  It’s easy to withdraw money as we need it and we don’t have to carry around pockets full of cash (which is never a good idea).  Many banks charge high fees for withdrawals abroad. This is why it’s important to have no or very low international fees.  When looking for a bank make sure to check their policy on foreign exchange rates, do they use: real-time rates, the end-of-day rate or do they add an additional % on top of the standard exchange rate?
    • For Banking we use:  Chase & Charles Schwab.  Charles Schwab is by far the superior bank.  They don’t charge ATM fees and the refund any additional fees you might get from the ATM when you withdraw your cash.  If you use your banking/debit card to make a purchase at a store you’re given one of the best exchange rates we’ve found.  This also keeps us from running around trying to find bank specific ATM machines.  Unfortunately Schwab does not offer a business ATM card, so we do the majority of our business banking with Chase.
  • Online/Internet Banking Access – We manage our money online, having good online access, apps and general user friendliness is a big factor for us.  Also simple account syncing with programs like Quickbooks helps when the tax man comes knockin’ each year.
  • Ability to Link Accounts – Keeping money in separate accounts helps ensure we always have some funds accessible.  But, we also need to be able to easily transfer funds around.  We like when our accounts play nice with each other and easily link up.  For example I can freely move money between my Schwab and Chase accounts without any fees.
  • Bill Pay Options – Believe it our not some of the companies we use still request paper checks…like our Life Insurance policies.  I can setup with Chase to print and mail checks to these companies and there’s no fee for the service.  This service also comes in handy when paying bills where companies try to charge an additional 3% credit card processing fee (I’m looking at you service & haul out yards).
  • Multiple Debit and Credit Cards – You may be picking up on the “not having all our eggs in one basket” theme going on here.  We try to keep two debit cards and two credit cards. Bank cards can get stolen (luckily we’ve not had that happen yet), eaten by ATM machines or blocked.  Ever made two transactions in a row at one place?  That sometimes will cause our card to get flagged, requiring a quick phone call to verify the purchase isn’t fraud.  Kind of a difficult task when you’re halfway around the world, on a completely different timezone with limited conectivity.
  • Alternative Payment Methods – We always keep a little money in our Paypal account because it’s a great alternative payment.  Works for lots of things like rental cars, flights and tours.   Or, it’s a great way to send thank you money to your favorite video creating, helpful blog writing, travel peeps (cough, cough, like us).  Another option that is becoming increasingly popular is Bitcoin.  It’s virtual currency that’s big in certain countries (Germany being one of them) but we don’t have any experience to share yet.  We did start a Bitcoin wallet though and we’ll keep you updated on our thoughts on that front.
  • Point Programs – We’ve racked up thousands of dollars in free money with the Ultimate Rewards program from Chase.  Of course points are only beneficial if you pay your credit cards off each month, which we do and you should too.  Credit card debt is like quick sand…not a place you want to linger.
  • Cash is King – We always carry some local cash on us and have a small stash hidden on the boat (local and US currency).  Nobody ever says no to cold hard cash.  But, we never keep over 10K (more like a 10th of that) because carrying any more can cause issues with customs and immigration.
  • Alert The Bank – We always call in and let our banks know where we are traveling and for how long.  If you have bank accounts and credit card accounts from the same bank, you might need to call different phone numbers to alert each department (different branches of the same bank don’t often communicate small things like a travel notification).  Most of the time this helps avoid any issues…but not always as you’ll soon learn.

Sadly, following all the above didn’t save us from the stress filled weeks that took place in Ecuador. It was a string of events that while frustrating, we did learn from.  You may want to grab a glass of rum for this tale.

We had an overwhelming list of boat projects to tackle, and of course, when it rains it pours.  In the midst of our sailboat work I had to drop everything and fly home to Texas, all in the name of “security”.  Chase had frozen our bank accounts. Here’s the documentary of that time.

I didn’t find out all the details until I appeared in front of a banker at a local Chase branch.  It appears all my financial woes were caused by a perfect storm of red flags:

It began with me linking QuickBooks to one of my Chase accounts, so my bookkeeper could access expenses for tax season in April.  Then I linked all my Chase accounts to my Charles Schwab bank to better manage my financials in one central location.  After all that, I logged in and downloaded 7 months’ worth of financial statements, so we could print them out for our French Polynesia Long Stay Visa application.

The next day I attempted to login and my access was blocked. I called the fraud department and had the block removed.  No problem.  I told the agent something along the lines of “it’s tax season so I’ll be logging in several times throughout the week from Ecuador and my bookkeeper will be logging in from TX.”  I told them Schwab Bank might access my accounts as well as my CPA.  Basically there’d be a lot of activity for the next month.

The next day my online access was blocked again.  I called the fraud department.  “Suspicious login from South America” was all the info I was given.  I was told “The only way to unlock the accounts would be to speak with my personal business banker” (which my banker had opened my accounts 15+ years ago and had left Chase years ago) “or show up at any Chase branch with 2 forms of ID” (there are no Chase banks in Ecuador).

To verify my identity, I offered to go to a local Ecuador bank, a government office, a lawyer and none of it would appease Chase.  They wanted me to fly home and prove definitively that I am Jason Wynn.  Only then would they close all my accounts and open new ones for me.  Until all new banking accounts were opened I would not get online access to any of my accounts.

I can’t tell you how stressful it is not having access to our banking information, and don’t you know, this all happened in the middle of our Tax Season!!! (insert blood shot eyes and sweat beads on forehead here)

I wasn’t totally screwed, just mostly.  One of my Chase Credit Cards still worked, and I was able to call a phone number to pay bills.  Some functionality, but with a whole lot of added time, hassle and expensive international phone calls.  I could have hired a lawyer to help get my money, or authorize a family member to act on my behalf, but that seemed like an expense and headache that might be worse than dealing with Chase.

That was it!  My only true option was to fly home…but did I mention I’ve been without my passport for nearly two months?  Yes, we had to give those up when applying for our French Polynesia Visas.  So, the morning after our Longest Bus Trip Ever, where I was reunited with my passport, I jumped online and immediately booked a flight to Dallas.  I was to leave in three days.  Here’s the documentary of that trip:

Here’s the important information I was NOT given over the phone: Apparently the second time Chase froze my account I answered a security question incorrectly (or they may have typed it in wrong, who knows).  When they hung up with me they called the number on file for Nikki (the joint account holder).  Before we sailed to the Bahamas, Nikki gave up her phone line and with that her phone number (hello saving money & saying no to being a slave to social media).  To the surprise of the Chase fraud agent when he rang Nikki, he was connected with a Spanish speaking male who had no idea who Jason Wynn is.  And that is what triggered the total online freeze.

After all that, why stick with Chase?  This was something I debated back and forth.  Chase caused me major stress during tax season, cost me a small fortune in international phone calls and forced me to purchase a $1000 last minute flight and leave Nikki all alone aboard Curiosity…at anchor, in Ecuador.

Basically, it boils down to time.  Our finances are complicated due to our travels, but it’s amplified by also running a small business.  I quickly looked at HSBC, Credit Unions and other international banking options.  I was overwhelmed and only had a few days to deal with all these issues.

Chase has one of the best No Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Cards on the market.  I can deposit checks with my phone, pay bills for free and manage everything from an app.  It links up seamlessly with my QuickBooks, Schwab, Life Insurance, etc.  Once I was told the additional reasons for freezing my online access I was able to (somewhat) forgive Chase for forcing me home.

Future Proofing My Bank Accounts

I can never be guaranteed that Chase (or any bank) won’t do this to me again.  I can understand how a series of red flags would make any bank want to freeze all activity.  What I can’t understand is why they didn’t choose any number of ways to verify my identity without me having to book a flight.  Here’s what I did to (hopefully) keep from ever being in an emergency, frozen banking accounts situation again:

  • I met with a business banker that can verify my identity and knows me personally. I am in contact with him quarterly via email to make sure all is running well with my accounts.  We have established a set of personal questions that he can ask to un-freeze my accounts should there ever be a hold placed on my online access again.
  • I added my mom on the accounts. She has the authority to verify identity and move money within my accounts.  She is not able to withdraw from the accounts (sorry mom). This is another reason I stuck with Chase, there’s a branch right by her office and another near her home.
  • I added a business brokerage account with Charles Schwab. I’ve always had personal accounts with Schwab and it’s impossible to beat their ZERO FEE ATM card.  If I get locked out of Chase, I can go to Schwab’s website and move all my personal funds and my business funds with a few clicks of the mouse.  This will allow me access to my cash and I can postpone flying home to deal with Chase indefinitely.

Business and Pleasure Don’t Play Well

Chase isn’t like an evil villain, they didn’t say you HAVE to fly home or else.  I had one other option…but at the risk of upsetting the real villain of finance:  The IRS!

If I really needed my money, I could have logged into Schwab and withdrew everything from Chase.  The BIG issue is I didn’t have a Schwab business account.  So I’d effectively be moving all my business money into my personal account.  With loans, dividends and other creative accounting I could have proven to the IRS that moving this money was necessary, but I’d rather not have to “prove” anything to them.  I’d much rather give them the documents they need with straight forward information, so they can file it away and move onto the next person.

You see, our life is our business and our business is our life.  It’s a delicate balance that we walk each day as bloggers and YouTubers. Many items we purchase are considered a ‘write off’ but many aren’t.  We always keep separate accounts for business and personal and I would urge you to do the same.  We do not want to upset the IRS.  They are hard working, meticulous people who try tirelessly to find imperfections in tax reports.  In the end, I’d much rather burden myself with a flight home than risk a red flag with them.

The Moral of the Story

When I look back at the mess that was my life in those three stressful months I see three clear points worth mentioning.

  1. Regularly (or at least yearly) double check all addresses and contact information on all major accounts.  I’m talking emails, business address, home address, phone numbers and so on.  Make sure if they call/email/write any of those contacts that it will be YOU, or someone on the account, that answers.
  2. If you’re traveling with the joint account holder it might be a good idea to get someone else you trust on the account.  A sibling, parent, CPA or perhaps a close friend.  Before adding anyone to the account make sure you understand their access level and what restrictions you can place on their liberties with your money.  If you are advised to do a power of attorney make sure to talk to a lawyer, this is a very powerful type of legal document.
  3. Have a backup bank!  I’ve always had two banks for my personal money management.  After this debacle I now have a backup bank for my business accounts as well.
Managing Money While Traveling Around The World

The Silver Lining?

In the end I felt it was a necessary trip because I had a growing list of USA based tasks that were becoming more urgent.

  • I really needed to renew my Texas driver’s license (which could only be done in person because I have a class B license).
  • Nikki needed a new computer and trying to buy a high-powered editing machine in Ecuador or French Polynesia wasn’t proving to be a good (or affordable) option.
  • We needed several important boat parts that we couldn’t find in Ecuador (like a pump rebuild kit for our watermaker).
  • We wanted to close our T-Mobile phone account and upgrade to Google Fi for international roaming data & calls (which can only be setup in the USA).

Big bonus, I was able to see my mom, my dad and several close friends that I hadn’t seen in years.  I picked up a special bottle of Wine and a couple craft brews to celebrate our planned arrival in French Polynesia.  I bought some of our favorite toiletries and home goods that we couldn’t get in Ecuador.  And even though it was last minute I was able to setup a Patreon Only Meetup.  We met at a local brewery and we finished off the evening with dinner at one of my favorite Tex-Mex joints.

Not bad for a week-long emergency visit.  Turns out the banking issues were just a catalyst to force me home.  The world works in mysterious ways…although next time I’d appreciate if it was a little less stressful.

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