Expat Card Combo

The goal of this guide is to review the best combination of US credit cards. In this context, we want to maximize credit card rewards (cashback, reward points), while not needing to handle or coordinate a large number of cards. We also discuss how to avoid to avoid the Foreign Transaction Fee of certain Chase cards and how expats can apply for and use new credit cards, while living abroad. If you do not travel much, we still got you covered with simple single card combo. Keeping US cards is also beneficial for your credit score, in case you want to return to the US in the future.

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Introduction

US credit cards offer high rewards, comprehensive insurance packages and generous signup bonuses. However, many cards are particularly designed for the US market and difficult to use when travelling or living abroad. In particular, American Express and Discover are much less frequently accepted outside of the US. Consequently, an optimal card combo should consist of widely accepted cards with useful benefits to international travellers and expats. Moreover, most people do not have the time to sort through a large number of cards, so an optimal combo should also not include too many cards.

Single card combo (infrequent traveller)

If you do not travel much and want to keep things simple, you may not need a US card at all and just have a card in the country where you spend most of your time. However, even in this situation it may be good to have a single US card for occasional travel (and whenever you return to the US). For this, it's best to have a single fee-free card with the highest possible cashback and no foreign transaction fees.

There are other credit cards with a similar package, i.e., 1.5% cashback, no Foreign Transaction Fee and no Annual Fee, that work equally well. We prefer Capital One Quicksilver because the cashback shows up and can be used immediately, as the transaction posts.

Advanced card combo (frequent traveller)

The following 4-5 cards

  1. Chase Sapphire Reserve (effectively 900 USD signup bonus, annual fee: effectively 250 USD). This is the go-to travel card with lots of benefits for international travellers, but also works out as a worry-free standard card for all purchases. It gives 1.5-4.5% rebate, access to airport lounges, free Global Entry to the US (expedited US immigration) and a comprehensive insurance package.

  2. Curve Card* (5 GBP bonus, annual fee: none). This card is available in Europe and is not really a credit card in itself, but rather links through the other cards (i.e., you pay with the Curve card that passes the charge through one of the other cards as selected in the app and converts currency based on your choice). This card is required to use the next few cards internationally!

  3. Chase Freedom Flex / Unlimited* (effectively 300 USD signup bonus, annual fee: none). This card is an excellent all-rounder with up to 2.25% rebate on all purchases (worldwide) and an additional perk of giving up to 7.5% rebate on travel booked through Chase. However, it works best in combination with the other two cards, as you need the Chase Sapphire Reserve to increase the value of your rebate and the Curve card to avoid the Foreign Transaction Fee of this card, when using it outside of the US.

  4. Citi Custom Cash (200 USD signup bonus, annual fee: none). This card is an excellent way to get additional 5% rebate on one of the categories Restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, select travel, select transit, select streaming services, drugstores, home improvement stores, fitness clubs, live entertainment. However, again you need to use this card in combination with the above mentioned Curve card to avoid the Foreign Transaction Fee.

We will now explain in further details the advantages of each of the mentioned cards and how to use it effectively. We also discuss how to pay off your cards with other currencies and how expats can apply for new cards.

Applying for a new card as expat

As long as you have access to a US address, you will be able to apply online for US credit cards, which will be sent to the respective address. Note, however, that you will only be approved for the respective card if your credit score / history is good enough. It is therefore imperative for expats to either already have a credit history or build a credit history using the steps outlined here. You should check your credit file (using free services as explained there) and ensure that you have access to mail at the address listed in your file. Otherwise, you should update your address on your existing accounts and it should take 1-2 months, until the new address appears on your credit file. Some application websites check your IP address, so in some situations you may also need to use a VPN (such as the free ProtonVPN) to apply for a new card from outside the US.

Keeping US cards is often beneficial for your US credit score, which can continue to improve over time, even if you live abroad. If you think that it is a lot of work to keep things organized with your US card issuers, check out this article on leaving the US and keeping on top of everything.

Using a new card from abroad

Here comes another advantage of owning the Curve Card* (see below), because it allows you to use your new credit card without having it shipped to you. You only need to know the card number, expiration date and security code to add it to the app. It therefore suffices if your family/friends at your mailing address send you a picture of the new card and you are ready to use it. Depending on if there is a Foreign Transaction Fee or not, you should select USD or the respective currency of the country where you intend to use the card (if there is no fee, you may want to update the currency when you travel). Alternative, you can also just add the new card to Google Pay or Apple Pay, so you can use it contactless without having the physical card.

Chase 5/24 rule

Let us mention that you should only apply for a new Chase card if you have strictly less than five new credit card accounts opened over the last 24 months. This is known as the 5/24 rule and is well documented: If you have opened five or more US cards over the last two years, Chase will decline your application. You can, however, apply for more than one card within a few days (or potentially even on the same day), as submitting the application does not immediately open a new account.

1. Travel Card: Chase Sapphire Reserve (1.5-4.5% cashback)

The Chase Sapphire Reserve is the flagship travel card by Chase. Flagship cards of other card issuers include American Express Platinum, Capital One Venture, US Bank Altitude Reserve, Citi Prestige, Bank of America Premium Rewards and Barclaycard Arrival+ (discontinued/paused). However, the Chase Sapphire Reserve provides arguably the best benefits for comparably low annual fee.

Summary of savings

This card is optimal if you expect to travel internationally with regular flights, hotel bookings, rental cars and restaurant visits. The following conservative estimates should give you an idea how much money the card can save per year:

  • (600-900 USD signup bonus). Technically, this amount should not be counted as a regular savings, as it is only paid in the first year when meeting the respective conditions (like spending 4,000 USD within the first three months after opening the card). We mention it nonetheless to emphasize that even trying out this card is usually profitable, provided that you meet the bonus requirement - and it covers the annual fee for several years.

  • 450 USD in cashback. Assuming that you spend of the order of 10,000 USD per year on travel (hotels including airbnb, flights, rental cars and restaurants), the 4.5% cashback on travel already amount to 450 USD. Note that we assume 4.5% cashback on travel based on 3 points per USD spent which is then converted into cash based on one of the various options where each point is worth 0.015 USD.

  • 400 USD through lounge access. Assuming that you fly a lot, such as 20-40 flights per year, you will likely save quite a bit of money through the airport lounge access provided by Priority pass. You will not need to pay to access lounges and most of them provide food and other amenities. Buying food at the airport often costs 10-20 USD per meal, which can be fully replaced by having a meal in the lounge. Some lounges offer better meals and Priority Pass sometimes even covers the cost of just ordering at a restaurant.

  • 200 USD through the insurance package. The insurance package includes primary car rental insurance, so you if you rent a car you will not need to buy a damage waiver to cover your car (you may still need liability insurance, see here), which often costs 10 USD per day. Moreover, the card provides insurance to cover expenses if your travel is cancelled or interrupted, which includes accommodation, food and other incidental expenses. Also, your luggage is covered. Together, this is often worth 200 USD and more.

  • 25 USD through Global Entry coverage. If you travel regularly to the US, you will tremendously benefit from Global Entry (US citizens, permanent residents and citizens of several other countries, including Germany, are eligible) which expedites immigration and also security checks within the US. Even if you only visit a few times per year, this saves you time. The Chase Sapphire Reserve card covers the 100 USD membership fee every four years (so you save 25 USD per year - not so much, but nice to have).

  • Other benefits. The full list of benefits can be explored here. It includes a concierge service via phone (for making restaurant bookings, organizing tickets etc.), purchase/return protection and additional warranties (when buying certain items), emergency evacuation and transportation (when things get messy) and some partner discounts (currently: Lyft, DoorDash, Peloton and a luxury hotel and resort collection). While this might be nice to have, we expect that most expats living outside of the US will not be able to take advantage of most or all of these other benefits.

In summary, typical travellers can easily save 500-1,000 USD per year from the additional card benefits. This covers easily the effective card fee of 250 USD (see below). Depending on your personal situation you may be able to save quite a bit more (such as when using your rewards points as airline miles for first class and business tickets rather than cashback) or a bit less (if you do not travel at all). Either way, above numbers should allow you to get a rough idea if the card is worth it for you.

Annual fee of 550 USD (effectively 250 USD)

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with an annual fee of 550 USD per year. However, this fee is largely compensated by a 300 USD travel credit that is automatically applied against any travel related purchase in a given calendar year, making this fee effectively 200 USD. While credit card fees for regular can typically be avoided, a premium travel card, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, can be well worth the annual fee if one can take advantage of the additional cashback / rewards points and the additional perks (insurance cover, airport lounge access etc.).

No foreign transaction fee

The Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card does not have any foreign transaction fee, so it can be used internationally without much problem. Note, however, that the exchange rate used by Visa is typically not exactly the current interbank rate, but rather 0.3%-.7% more expensive. Luckily this difference in exchange rate is fully compensated by cashback in the form of rewards points. Moreover, this fee is still lower than or similar to many other credit cards from other countries, so having a travel card that provides other benefits and significant rebates (in the form of award points / cashback) is likely the cheapest option.

Ultimate Rewards

Rather than getting a fixed amount of cashback money, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card is part of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. You receive Rewards points based on the following rules:

  • 3 Ultimate Rewards Point per 1 USD spent on travel and restaurants (4.5% rebate). This includes airlines, car rentals, bus tickets, parking, hotels, holiday flats (including airbnb), restaurants, bars, bakeries, cafés and similar purchases (but not gas!). As you can often convert Ultimate Rewards Points into cash at a rate of 1.5 cents each, this gives an effective rebate of 4.5%.

  • 1 Ultimate Rewards Point per 1 USD spent on everything else (1.5% rebate). This is the default rate that you receive for any other purchases that do not fall into above categories. As you can often convert Ultimate Rewards Points into cash at a rate of 1.5 cents each, this gives an effective rebate of 1.5%.

While this sounds complicated, Ultimate Rewards points are actually quite valuable and relatively easy to convert into cash or use them otherwise (listed from best to worst):

  • Transfer them 1:1 to airline or hotel rewards programs. As owner of a Chase Sapphire card (Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred), you have the option to transfer your points to rewards partners, which effectively converts them into airline miles or other rewards points. If you like to book first class flights or luxury hotel packages, this option can give your tremendous value for your points, sometimes up to 4-10 cents per point (leading to an effective 6-30% rebate on travel purchases). However, if such offers tend to lure you into booking something that you would not have paid for with money, you may not actually be saving. Therefore, you should carefully evaluate if the respective deal is really worth it. Either way, being able to move points around gives additional flexibility also increases the value of other rewards programs, as they are now easier to use as you top up points (adding optionality).

  • Pay yourself back at 1:1.5 for certain credit card purchases. Chase recently introduced the option to pay yourself back for certain purchases (such as your annual fee, dining, grocery stores etc.) at a rate of 0.015 USD per point. This very attractive and we would recommend to use this option whenever possible for the majority of your points (only leaving a few points for special opportunities).

  • Use them at 1:1.5 for travel purchases. You can get 0.015 USD per point if you use your Ultimate Rewards points for booking travel through the Chase travel portal, which allows the booking of flights, hotels and rental cars. In most cases, the prices are pretty close to the equivalent prices on other websites, so you effectively convert your points into cash at a rate of 0.015 USD per point. Note, however, that bookings paid with points will not earn you Ultimate Rewards points (as you do not pay with your card), so it is typically better to pay yourself back and then book your travel with your card (also to give you insurance cover).

  • Convert them 1:1 into cash. You can always just redeem each Ultimate rewards points into cash, such that one points corresponds to 0.01 USD, which are credited towards your card balance or directly deposited into your bank account. This is the worst option, but puts a lower bound on the value of points, i.e., you can always just convert your points to cash. In some sense, the above options are offered to lure you into saving up your points, which may very well be worth it. However, do not forget the opportunity cost of money sitting around. At an annual interest of 7% (achievable with stocks), your money will worth 1.5 as much after six years, so if you expect that it will take longer to use one of the above options, it might be better to just get cash now and invest it.

While the first option may be the most attractive, it really depends on your circumstances. Therefore, we rather made the realistic assumption that you will be regularly able to convert your money into cash at a rate of 0.015 USD per point leading to the 1.5-4.5% rebate rate. Note that the next two cards will only maximize your reward if you also have the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

2. All cards in one: Curve card

The concept of the Curve Card* (5 GBP bonus) is simple: All credit cards that you own combined in a single card! Whenever you use your Curve card, the charge (and merchant code!) just gets passed through to one of your regular credit cards. You can always choose the respective card in the app and even decide if Curve should exchange currency for you or rather charge the original currency. Moreover, you can even "go back in time" and decide after a few days that another card should be charged (to optimize cashback etc.). Note that Curve only works with Visa and Mastercard, but those will be the typical cards accepted outside of the US anyway.

For most expats the free version Curve Blue is completely sufficient, which provides above features and allows you to exchange up to 500 EUR per month without additional fees / markups (note that there is always some markup when using currency conversion on the weekend due to markets being closed).

Why should you own a Curve card and how should you use it?

  • Not needing to carry several cards. Curve gives access to all Visa and Mastercards that you have. You can keep them save at home and choose in the Curve app, which one you want to use. As long as you do not want to change your selection, you do not need to carry your smartphone with you. Even better: If you applied for a new card sent to a US address, while you are abroad, you can use the card immediately if somebody sends you a picture with the card details (so you can link it in the app).

  • Saving Foreign Transaction Fees. Many non-travel credit cards charge a Foreign Transaction Fee of 1-4% for using your credit card in a different currency. If you link your card with Curve and select USD as the card's currency, Curve will convert any charge into USD and there will often not be any Foreign Transaction Fee (applies to Chase cards and some other issuers). Converting an amount equal to 500 EUR per month is free (for the free Curve Blue card), while there is a charge of 2% on converting larger amounts. While this should be avoided, it is still cheaper than most Foreign Transaction Fees. Let us note that there are card issuers that even charge a Foreign Transaction Fee if the card is charged in USD, but from a foreign merchant. In this case, the Curve Card may not help you to avoid the Foreign Transaction Fee.

  • Saving Optional Payment Fee in Europe. While European laws highly restrict additional fees for the use of credit or debit cards, there are two exceptions: Companies are allowed to charge additional fees for business credit cards and for non-European cards. This means that some merchants (such as Lufthansa) charge an additional fee if you use a foreign card. You can avoid this by linking the respective card through Curve, as this is a European card, so merchants cannot charge an additional fee. If you use a US card without Foreign Transaction Fee (such as Chase Sapphire Reserve) make sure that you change the card's currency in the Curve App to the currency you will be charged in, so that there is no currency conversion.

In summary, the Curve Card is free and a useful tool for expats that can be used in combination with any other Visa or Mastercard.

Additional remarks

You should be aware of the following details:

  • Chargebacks. If there is an unjustified charge, you can go through both Curve and your actual credit that was actually charged. In most cases, it should be easy to get your money back when you have proof that the charge was unjustified. However, things may get messy if Curve and your other card issuer disagree, which may lead to some hassle.

  • Always choose the appropriate card currency. When you add a new card to Curve, it will usually automatically recognize what its base currency is (like USD for all US cards). If you this card has a Foreign Transaction Fee, this is the correct setting. If it does not and you want to use Curve only to avoid an Optional Payment Fee or to use the card (without carrying the other card), you should change the currency to whatever currency you pay in (e.g., EUR if you are paying in the eurozone). The app will show a message that this is different from the recognized based currency, but it will work and Curve will not do any currency conversion, but it will just pass the charge through (and your card provider will convert with markup of maximally 0.3-0.5% if there is no Foreign Transaction Fee). Make sure that you update this information. If you had the setting on EUR and then you travel to Denmark and charge in DKK, Curve will first convert your charge from DKK to EUR and then your card issuer will convert EUR to USD potentially leading to some small additional fees (not a huge deal, but better avoid this).

  • Keep below the free limit. If you have the free Curve Blue card, you can convert up to 500 EUR (or equivalent currency) for free per month, so you get pretty much the current market rate without additional fees. However, once you go above this limit, Curve Blue will charge a fee 2%, which makes it less attractive for larger purchases. This limit can be increased to 15,000 EUR per year if you pay for a Curve Black card, but this does not seem to be the best option. Note that your partner may be able to also get a Curve card to double the free limit to 1,000 EUR per month.

  • Avoid using the Curve card on weekends (for currency conversion). During the weekends most currency exchanges are closed, so the exchange rates of the Curve card are based on the previous week. However, as there can be larger currency fluctuations when markets open on Monday, Curve protects itself against this by charging a fee of 0.5% (if the currencies involved are only USD, GBP or EUR) or 1.5% (if any other currency is involved). You can read more here. There is no such fee if you only use Curve as an intermediary without exchanging currency (e.g., when you use Curve with card that does not have a Foreign Transaction Fee). A fee of 0.5-1.5% is still much lower than Foreign Transaction Fee of 3% or more, but it is easy to avoid this fee by just making your purchase during the week.

  • Going back in time. This function is super useful if you just realized that the wrong card was charged, when there would have been a better option (e.g., much larger cashback). Note, however, that you there are limitations on the currencies, so you cannot always change the card to a different card, if this other card has a different currency than your original choice. See this page for more details.


3. Bonus combo: Chase Freedom Flex / Unlimited (1.5-7.5% rebate)

The Chase Freedom card lineup* (200 USD bonus, no annual fee) are well-known as some of the most generous credit cards by US banks. Unfortunately, both cards have a Foreign Transaction Fee, so they are usually not a good choice for travellers / expats. Luckily, this can be avoided by linking them to the Curve Card (reviewed previously, explained further below).

For most people, it will not hurt to get both cards

Summary of savings

Both cards give 5 Ultimate Rewards Points per USD spent on travel booked through Chase (7.5% rebate) and 3 Ultimate Rewards Points per USD spent on dining and drugstores (4.5% rebate). The key difference is that Chase Freedom Unlimited gives 1.5 Ultimate Rewards Points for everything else, while Chase Freedom Flex only gives 1 Ultimate Rewards Point for everything else, but has rotating categories with 5 Ultimate Rewards Points per USD spent in those categories (7.5% rebate) up to 1,500 USD.

Let us give a summary of potential savings

  • (300 USD signup bonus for each Chase Freedom card). Technically, this amount should not be counted as a regular savings, as it is only paid in the first year when meeting the respective conditions (typically this is spending 500 USD within the first three months after opening the card). Note that we assume that you can convert 20,000 Ultimate Rewards Points to 300 USD (as explained above).

  • 150 USD on travel booked through Chase. If we assume that you only spend 2,000 USD per year on travel booked through Chase (yielding 7.5% rebate), you will save 150 USD. Note that we assume that you can convert 10,000 Ultimate Rewards Points to 150 USD (as explained above).

  • 100 USD on general purchases (Chase Freedom Unlimited). Assuming that you spend around 4,500 USD per year with your credit card on general purchases, you will be able to get 100 USD. Note that we assume that you can convert 6,750 Ultimate Rewards Points to 101.50 USD (as explained above).

  • 225 USD on rotating category purchases (Chase Freedom Flex). Assuming that you can take advantage of just half of the category and spend 3,000 USD per year on these categories (which may include purchases through Paypal when this is part of a category), you will be saving 225 USD in total. If you are able to take full advantage of all categories, you can save up to 450 USD. Note that we assume that you can convert 15,000 Ultimate Rewards Points to 225 USD (as explained above).

In summary, depending on your purchase preferences, the Chase Freedom cards may be an excellent addition to your card combo, which are particularly attractive when combining them with the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Curve Card.

Combo with Curve card

Both Chase Freedom cards come with a Foreign Transaction Fee of 3%, which makes them usually unsuitable to be used by expats outside of the US. While it is true that the 7.5% rebate is even after subtracting 3% attractive, the Foreign Transaction Fee clearly diminishes the high cashback rate. Luckily, Chase will not charge a Foreign Transaction Fee if you pay in USD, which can be easily achieved by linking your Chase Freedom cards to your Curve card, as explained above. This is imperative to maximize your earnings.

Combo with Chase Sapphire Reserve

Let us emphasize that the two Chase Freedom cards only have the above mentioned high rebates if you are able to convert Ultimate Rewards Points into cash at a rate of 0.015 USD per point. This can be done by using the Pay Yourself Back feature or by booking travel through Chase as explained above.

4. Grocery and more: Citi Custom Cash

This card is very easy to explain. You receive 5 ThankYou Rewards Points per 1 USD spent (for up to 500 USD total per billing cycle) in the category where you spent the most (during that billing cycle) out of Restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, select travel, select transit, select streaming services, drugstores, home improvement stores, fitness clubs, live entertainment.

In most cases this is a great to addition to save on grocery, as you are effectively saving 5% on all grocery purchases (if you spend more than 500 USD on groceries per month, maybe another family member can get a second card). This corresponds to 300 USD in savings per year (maybe slightly less due to occasional Curve weekend fees, see above), but as it does not require much thinking, it is an excellent way to save in one of the top categories.

Let us mention that ThankYou Rewards Points could be more valuable when one also has a Citi Premiere or Citi Prestige card, but those come with an annual fee and are overall a less attractive package than the Chase Sapphire Reserve, so for most people it does not make sense to have several annual fee travel cards.

Paying off your cards

As discussed at length in our advice on credit building, attractive rewards cards come with high interest rates and should be paid off in full every month in order to avoid any type of interest charge. This leads to the question how this is done most efficiently, while living in another country and potentially even receiving a wage only in a foreign currency. The simple answer is to use Interactive Brokers Lite (opened with a US address) to exchange currency whenever needed, as explained here, which is to our knowledge the cheapest way to exchange and move currency internationally.

This works particularly well if one also uses Interactive Brokers to save for retirement (and general wealth building) and invest in US domiciled ETFs, as it typically preferred for US persons anyway, as discussed here. Monthly investments thus require currency conversion to USD anyway, so converting an additional amount to cover US credit card spending does not come with additional cost and can even be done automatically. For practical purposes, it is best to always have a certain amount of USD in US accounts available to pay off credit cards whenever necessary. However, as payment usually only comes due 20-50 days after the transaction (depending on the statement closing date in relation to the transaction date), there should be plenty of time to exchange and transfer any required funds, even for larger purchases. In dire emergency situations, it should even be possible to borrow some funds on margin (against sufficiently large investments in the brokerage account) at a much lower interest rate to pay off credit cards. This should be done with great caution only for a short period of time (such as for a few weeks or months) and only for a small fraction of the total investment account value (maximally 5-10%).

The standard setup and process could therefore be as follows:

  • During each calendar month, US credit cards are used for the majority of everyday purchases, whenever credit cards are accepted. In rare situations, other cards or cash can be used if this is the only option or if it avoids additional card fees. In the case of EU foreign card fees, one can use the Curve card (see above) to avoid these fees.

  • The statement closing dates of all cards are chosen to be as close to the first of each month as possible, so at the end of each month the statement periods close and the required credit card bills are determined.

  • Around the same time, any salary or similar payments should arrive in the respective (potentially foreign) bank accounts. At this stage, one can determine how much should be invested (for retirement or wealth building), how much is needed to pay off the credit cards and whatever other payments are necessary.

  • The respective amount (credit card payment + monthly investing amount) is then be transferred to Interactive Brokers, exchanged into USD and either invested or withdrawn towards a US bank account.

  • If the credit card's statement closing date is close to the first of each month, the payment due date will around the 20th to 28th of each month, so there should be plenty of time to pay the previous month's bill in full, while using the cards in the current month.

Of course, a large part of this process can be automated by setting up regular payments. Still, it may be a good idea to set up a monthly reminder to check the overall status of payments and account values. Using third party providers, such as the free MINT account, one can do this within a few minutes by checking all cards simultaneously.

Final thoughts

The reviewed combo Chase Sapphire Reserve + Chase Freedom Unlimited + Curve Card is arguably the best choice for expats who travel a lot internationally and can take advantage of the significant benefits of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which justifies the annual fee of 250 USD and at the same time increases the value of Ultimate Rewards Points earned by the Chase Freedom Unlimited.

If you are not an international traveller, but just an expat living permanently in another country, the described setup may not be worth it at all. However, if you already use Interactive Brokers Lite for retirement savings, so that exchanging money is not a problem, you could also go with an alternative solution that is even simpler, namely getting the Capital One Quicksilver* with 1.5% cashback without Annual Fee or Foreign Transaction Fee. Even if the currency conversion costs 0.3-0.5%, you are left with at least 1% in cashback on all purchases. Your find a longer list of attractive credit cards for expats in this overview on credit building.