Help! My bank account is locked overseas

Tim Falk 9 November 2016

Far from home and can’t access your bank account? Here’s how to unlock your bank account when overseas, and how to prevent it from being locked in the first place.

It’s a nightmare scenario that many Australian travellers have had to face: you’re overseas, a long way from home in a country where you barely understand a word of the local language. You need cash to pay for your travels but when you go to an ATM to withdraw funds, you discover with horror that your bank has frozen your account.

Why does this happen and how can you make sure you can always access the funds you need anywhere in the world? Read on to find out.

How to “unlock” your account

If you need to “unlock” your account when overseas, you’ll need to contact your bank as soon as possible. In most cases, the only way to do this is by phoning your bank’s emergency assistance or help line. You can’t just login to Internet or mobile banking because you may have to undergo identity checks.

You can make a reverse charges call from overseas to find out what is going on and regain access to your account. Just remember that it’s a good idea to use a landline if possible, as overseas calls from mobiles can be ridiculously expensive. The contact details of some of Australia’s “Big Four” banks are listed below:

Contact numbers for Australian banks

BankPhone NumberWorking Hours
Commonwealth Bank+61 2 9999 328324 hours a day, 7 days a week
Westpac+61 2 9293 927024 hours a day, 7 days a week
ANZ+61 3 9683 999924 hours a day, 7 days a week
NAB+61 3 8641 912124 hours a day, 7 days a week

If your bank is not one of the “Big Four”, do a little research before you go overseas and make sure you have your bank’s contact info on hand during your trip. This could save you a lot of time and stress if something goes wrong when you’re abroad.

Why might my account be locked when I’m overseas?

In the modern world of online banking, mobile payments, ATMs and PINs, banks need to be more vigilant than ever to protect their customers against fraud. Phishing, email scams, online hacking and good old-fashioned identity theft are just some of the risks banks must monitor and provide protection against.

As part of this protection, banks have systems in place to monitor customer accounts for any suspicious activity, such as a rarely-used credit card all of a sudden being used to rack up thousands of dollars of spending. Another telltale sign of suspicious account activity is when your Australian credit or debit card is, without warning, used to make a range of purchases overseas.

As far as your bank is aware, you’re still at home in Australia going about your day-to-day life. The logical conclusion is that there are unauthorised transactions being made on your account and in order to prevent any further losses, your bank will lock your account. This means that you won’t be able to make any purchases or withdrawals using your card and you’ll also usually be locked out of Internet and mobile banking.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that your bank may have frozen your account due to suspicious transactions unrelated to the fact that you’re overseas. Whatever the case may be, you’ll need to get in touch with your bank to straighten things out.

Tell your bank before you go overseas

Have you ever received an email, letter or Internet banking message from your bank urging you to let them know if you’re going overseas? The reason banks send out these communiques is so that if foreign transactions start showing up on your account, they can be sure you haven’t been a victim of fraud, you’re just using your card to make purchases on your holiday.

Every Australian bank, credit union and building society will have a system in place for customers to notify them before heading overseas. The exact process varies from one bank to the next, but the easiest way to do so is typically to login to your Internet banking account. Alternatively, you could phone the bank directly or maybe inform the bank of your travel plans through its mobile banking app.

You can specify the countries you will be visiting and the travel dates, and you can also provide details of the best way for the bank to get in touch with you while overseas. You can log back into Internet banking at any time, even if you’re already overseas, to make changes to your travel plans.

Once your bank has been informed that you’re heading overseas, it will expect some overseas transactions and can also monitor your account more closely for signs of suspicious activity.

Other tips for accessing money overseas

There are plenty of other useful money tips that can make things easier for you when travelling overseas:

  • Get travel insurance. Comprehensive travel insurance can provide protection against lost or stolen credit cards and the theft of cash, including cover for credit card fraud. Of course, it also offers a long list of other benefits, such as cover for trip cancellations and overseas medical emergencies.
  • Use cash and cards. Make sure to take a combination of cash and cards with you so you can pay for all your purchases. There are some situations overseas where cash will be the only payment option, while cards add extra flexibility and security.
  • Don’t exchange currency at the airport. Airport foreign exchange bureaus have you right where they want you and can therefore get away with offering poor exchange rates. You’ll get a better deal if you purchase your foreign currency in advance or even when you arrive at your destination.
  • Check card expiry dates. You don’t want to get halfway around the world only to discover that your credit or debit card is about to expire. Check all card expiry dates before you leave to avoid any nasty surprises.
  • Lock it or block it. If you’re worried about falling victim to thieves or fraudsters while overseas, you can take some simple steps to ensure this doesn’t happen – or at least to minimise the damage. If you contact your bank before you go you can lock or block your credit card, or perhaps lower your transaction limit.

Check out our travel money guide for more tips on how to make your money go further overseas.

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