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A New Development in Currency Conversion Fees

For years, both Visa International and MasterCard International have called attention to the value in their currency exchange rates. When making purchases abroad, cardholders usually receive a better exchange rate using their credit cards than if they use cash or traveler's checks. This is about to change.

Both Associations have traditionally charged a 1% fee for converting purchases made in a foreign currency. However, as of April 2005, Visa will add on the 1% for all foreign purchases, even if they are made in U.S. dollars. MasterCard will follow suit in October.

The Associations charge these fees to issuing banks and not directly to cardholders. Yet the banks, for the most part, pass this charge along to cardholders and then add their own charge on top of it. Some banks assess the fees across the board, while others will do so only if cardholders made the purchase in foreign currency.

Bank of America Corp. (BofA) spokesperson Betty Reese said the fee is for currency conversion. BofA passes on the 1% Association fee as well as an additional 2%.

"We have been charging this fee for years," Reese said.

While BofA only assesses the fee on purchases made in foreign currencies, Reese declined to elaborate on what the 2% fee covers. "We don't get into the specific components of our pricing," she said.

MBNA Corp. also recently added a 2% fee to these types of transactions. "The fee helps cover the cost of fraud related to overseas transactions, which is about five times more expensive than domestic fraud," said Jim Donahue, an MBNA spokesman.

"Even with the fee, most experts agree that using a credit card for an overseas transaction is still less expensive than converting cash."

Donahue said that other benefits include protection against fraud and theft. MBNA assesses the fee on overseas transactions in both foreign currency and U.S. dollars, he said.

Before making a purchase, to help cardholders determine the total purchase price, including fees, Visa launched a currency conversion Web site: .

The rates available to Visa's customers are much better than if they were to take cash to a currency dealer at the airport, said Simon Barker, Director of Global Corporate Relations for Visa International. This is the first time that Visa has made its internal rate tables available to the public.

"The information provided to the consumer is based on the wholesale currency market," Barker said.

One of the tools on Visa's Web site enables consumers to factor in the additional markups charged by the issuing bank. If they don't know how much this is, or if an additional fee is charged at all, they can contact their bank.

The rate determined on the Web site is for that day only. The rate applied to a transaction is for the day it is processed, not the day it occurred. In the past, banks did not itemize these fees on monthly credit card statements. However, in response to consumer complaints and action groups, they now note them as separate charges.

Discover Financial Services and American Express Co., which have traditionally issued their own cards, charge fees on overseas purchases, but add no extra bank fees. Now that banks are beginning to issue these card brands as well, this might change.

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