Most people use checking accounts for purchases larger than a few dollars. Students are advised to open a checking account at a local bank as soon as possible after their arrival.
Credit cards are widely used in the US. They are also required for reserving hotel rooms or renting cars. The most commonly used cards in Des Moines are American Express, MasterCard, or Visa. It may be difficult to use other types of cards. Qualifying for a credit card while studying in the United States may be difficult, so it is better to get one at home, if possible.
Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) and Debit Cards
Most US banks offer customers a card that makes it possible to deposit or withdraw cash from ATM machines. Banks often have ATM machines located throughout Des Moines (and depending on the bank, throughout the US). Please note that you may be charged a fee for using an ATM not associated with your bank (in Des Moines or elsewhere).
ATM cards are activated by a Personal Identification Number (PIN), which you must enter to make a transaction. You should never give your PIN to another person or write it down where it may be seen by others (a person who knows your PIN can withdraw money from your account using your ATM card). When used properly, ATM's are very convenient. There is even an ATM located in the Olmsted Center on the Drake campus.
Most ATM cards also function as debit cards. Debit cards are directly linked to your checking account and are widely accepted to make purchases in the US. To make a purchase with your debit card, you will use the same PIN as you would use when withdrawing cash from the ATM (making a purchase with your debit card is essentially like using cash). Please note that when making online purchases, it is safer to use a credit card as credit card companies offer better protection to consumers that are victims of fraudulent purchases.