How Traveler's Checks Work in the Modern World

Can You Still Buy Traveler's Checks?

Preparing to travel, with passport, camera, and notes
••• Tuan Tran / Getty Images

Traveler’s checks, once a necessity for traveling abroad, can keep your money safe. While modern alternatives accomplish most of what traveler’s checks do, those checks are far from useless. Traveler’s checks probably don’t need to be your primary resource in areas with an ATM in every town (or on every corner), but they make for an excellent backup plan.

What Are Traveler’s Checks, Anyway?

That’s a fair question in the modern world.

Traveler’s checks are paper documents that can be used like standard paper checks and cash. Traditionally, travelers carried these checks to get cash in local currency and pay merchants. Issuers print checks in varying denominations, and checks can be replaced quickly if lost or stolen. With the spread of digital payment options and ATMs, traveler’s checks have become less popular and more difficult to use.

Best Ways to Use Traveler’s Checks

Low-tech access to cash: In many places, you can get cash in local currency at an ATM. But ATMs are rare in some areas of the world. What’s more, ATMs can malfunction, communication networks might be down, and machines occasionally run out of cash. Traveler’s checks allow you to get local currency at banks, hotels, and foreign exchange offices with a familiar piece of paper. That said, converting a traveler’s check to cash can be challenging and time-consuming.

Added security: Traveler’s checks keep your money secure. Recipients are supposed to watch you countersign and compare signatures carefully when you use a traveler’s check, making them lose value when lost or stolen. Credit and debit cards provide similar protection, but they are more attractive to thieves (who often use them successfully before you disable stolen cards).

A safe alternative to cash, you can replace lost or stolen traveler’s checks or get a refund from the issuer. On extended trips, you can keep traveler’s checks on hand for emergencies without risking large financial losses.

Currency control: Buying traveler’s checks in your destination country’s currency helps you avoid surprises when it comes to exchange rates. You might not get the best conversion rates at home, but you can at least secure a portion of what you need at current rates.

Evolution of Traveler’s Checks

Traveler’s checks aren’t what they used to be. Banks, hotels, and even merchants were once accustomed to taking traveler’s checks from foreigners. Nowadays, you may not be able to find anybody willing to accept a traveler’s check (or the process will be harder than in days past).

Prepaid travel cards are the modern version of traveler’s checks. They allow you to get local currency from ATMs and make purchases with merchants—effectively eliminating the need for traveler’s checks.

Prepaid cards are not linked to your bank account, which prevents anybody from draining your checking account if the card gets lost or stolen—and you can’t go into debt. Credit cards offer similar (or better) protection, but you might not want to use your everyday card abroad.

By using a dedicated travel card, you avoid spreading your card numbers around, which means you can be less vigilant about monitoring your accounts when you get back home.

Visa and MasterCard both offer prepaid cards designed for use abroad. Those cards are available online, through travel agents, and at banks or credit unions. 

Travel cards should feature low ATM fees, technology that lets you operate like a local in foreign countries, emergency cash when you lose the card, and “zero liability” fraud protection. That said, prepaid cards can be expensive, so you need to compare fees against your other cards to decide whether or not a travel card makes sense. As an alternative, if you already have credit or debit cards that you rarely use, reserve those cards for foreign travel. Be sure to test the card if it’s been dormant, check with the card issuer before you leave home, and monitor your accounts after you return.

How to Use Traveler’s Checks

You can still buy traveler’s checks in the U.S. and other countries. In the U.S., checks are available primarily from American Express (use this page to search for purchase locations). But you may need to do some legwork to get your hands on new checks. It’s worth contacting your bank or Amex for additional purchase options.

  1. Keep purchase records separate from the checks. If checks get lost or stolen, you’ll need to provide proof of purchase and check numbers to get a refund. Leave those details with a friend or online for remote access.
  2. Sign the checks immediately after you get them. Follow the issuer’s instructions to find out where to sign (and only sign once). You’ll sign the checks again when you use them to make a purchase or get cash.
  3. Fill in the payee and date when you’re ready to use a check. Be sure that the payee actually accepts traveler’s checks before you do so.
  4. Sign the check again when you complete your payment. The person or business you’re paying must be present to watch you sign (this ensures that the signatures are valid). Both signatures must match.
  5. Traveler’s checks don’t expire, so you can either keep them for future use or deposit them into your bank account once you’re home.
  6. If checks get lost or stolen, contact the issuer immediately. You may be able to get replacement checks locally, and the issuer needs to know which checks are potential fraud risks.