The Ultimate Guide to Using Credit Cards, Debit Cards, and ATMs in Europe

Credit cards, debit cards, and ATMs in Europe have gotten simpler, easier to use, and more secure over the past few years – but there are still some quirks you should know so you don’t run into any trouble. In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about using money in Europe so you can avoid fraud and excessive fees, as well as ways to ensure you always have the money.

Visa and Mastercard most widely accepted credit cards

Both Visa and Mastercard are accepted almost everywhere in Europe that uses credit cards.

American Express is accepted in many places but you can still find quite a few places that don’t accept Amex, so it shouldn’t be your primary card.

Discover is not widely accepted in Europe and in some countries, it is hardly ever accepted.

Make sure your debit and credit cards have the Cirrus or Plus logo on them – pretty much every Visa or MasterCard will have one. Cards with these logos will work pretty much all over Europe.

Bottom line: Use either a Visa or Mastercard when traveling in Europe.

Contactless Payment for Chip-and-PIN Cards for Swipe & Sign

Contactless card payments are becoming the norm in Europe, so retail employees will be far behind in offering you that option.

Chip-and-PIN cards are also widely accepted, so you’ll want a Chip-and-PIN card at a minimum (so you’ll also need to know your own PIN).

Paying by swiping your credit card and signing the receipt is not done in Europe (basically only the US does and it is finally phased out). Some credit card terminals can still take magnetic cards, but many newer devices are not designed to accept them.

Using your smartphone (Apple Pay and Google Pay) is the safest way to make purchases in Europe

Credit Card Use in Europe - Apple Pay

The safest way to pay for things in Europe is via your smartphone using Apple Pay or Google Pay.

This is because Apple Pay and Google Pay encrypt all your data so there is no way for fraudsters to steal/intercept your card details when making purchases. In fact, your card details aren’t actually stored on your phone – instead, a unique one-time-use encrypted code is generated for each transaction and that code (not your account number) is sent to authenticate the transaction.

Physical credit and debit cards can be easily scanned (i.e. copied) because the information stored on the card’s magnetic strip is not encrypted and can therefore be instantly copied using a card reader.

Furthermore, physical cards have a built-in chip that transmits card information wirelessly and can be read using a simple scanner that wirelessly scans the victim’s payment card. That’s why you should keep your cards in wallets, purses, RFID-blocking bags, etc.

Additionally, you can set up two-factor identification for all mobile phone transactions (including your fingerprint or face ID plus a passcode) to add another level of security.

You can also load your debit card and ATM card on your phone so you can use your phone to withdraw cash from most ATMs (the majority of European ATMs are contactless).

As an added bonus, on my last trip I had a fraudulent charge on my debit card so my bank canceled my debit card and sent me a new one to my home address. But they were able to update my debit card automatically in my Apple Wallet, so I can still withdraw cash from ATMs with my debit card via iPhone/Apple Payment. The whole process took about an hour and I didn’t have to do anything.

is being Apple Pay and Google Pay widely accepted in Europe?

Yes, a very large percentage of retailers of all sizes across Europe have switched to contactless payments, so any of these retailers should be able to accept both Apple Pay and Google Pay.

According to Visa, more than 80% of Visa in-store payments in Europe are now contactless.

On my recent trip to France, I think I used Apple Pay 99% of the time – even on small purchases.

Even many automated machines such as subway/train ticket kiosks and vending machines accept contactless payment.

Of course, there are still some companies that still accept cash only and a minority may have a minimum purchase limit for credit card purchases.

However, always keep a physical card on hand to be safe.

FUN FACT: You don’t need any kind of internet connection to use Apple/Google Pay because they use an NFC (Near Field Communications) chip to transmit payment information to the store terminal – which doesn’t require an internet connection.

Only use debit cards at ATMs and only use credit cards to make purchases

credit card skimmer
Example of a credit card skimmer

Never use physical debit cards to pay for things. Use only your debit card (Or Apple / Google Pay) to withdraw money from ATMs – that’s all.

And only use credit cards (or cash or Apple/Google Pay) to pay for things when you travel.

but why?

Because European tourist hotspots have a big problem with skimming card (For example, waiters and shop owners use card readers to make instant copies of your cards.) But you also have to be careful about using ATMs because thieves can install hidden scrapers on the ATM that will copy the card details for anyone who uses it.

Your debit card is directly linked to your bank account so scammers can drain your checking account very quickly. Moreover, it is very difficult to get this money back and it may take days or weeks for you to deal with your bank.

Your bank will then cancel your debit card if it sees fraudulent purchases – which means you won’t have access to the cash because you won’t be able to use your card to withdraw money from an ATM.

However, if your credit card is hacked, you will still be able to get the cash via your debit card/ATM. Additionally, credit card companies will not be held liable for fraud.

Avoid Credit Cards With Foreign Tansaction Fees

Many credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee anywhere from about 2%-3% of each transaction – which can add up quickly.

There are a number of credit cards that do not charge any fees Foreign transaction fees so this is something to consider.

However, some of these cards charge an annual fee that may offset the no-charge feature Foreign Transaction Fees So look for a card that doesn’t charge an annual fee either.

Avoid overpaying foreign ATM fees

Unless your bank gives you free ATM withdrawals, be aware that your bank will charge you for withdrawing cash in Europe.

Fortunately, most European ATMs do not charge a fee on their end but for you The home bank probably will.

Expect your bank to charge you a fee of $2-5 per withdrawal – which can add up if you make multiple small withdrawals. That’s why I recommend taking larger amounts of cash so you pay less fees. Personally, I usually withdraw about $100 to $150 at a time and try to avoid using cash until the last part of my trip, so I don’t have to withdraw cash as much.

Furthermore, don’t be shy about asking your bank to refund one or two of these foreign ATM transaction fees as most will often do so. Learn more about foreign ATM fees.

Keep your cards separate and get a backup credit card

I always travel with a backup credit card in case something happens and the bank cancels my primary card due to theft or fraudulent purchases.

I keep this card separate from my other cards so if my wallet gets stolen I still have access to the money.

Call your bank before you travel

I’m surprised that many banks these days don’t ask you to contact them ahead of time to let them know that you plan to use your card while traveling to Europe – I think their algorithms have become so good that they can better detect fraudulent purchases. Personally, both Chase and my Apple Card said I don’t need to tell them that.

But it’s still worth looking into just to be safe.

ATM scams and cheats

Use of debit cards in Europe - ATMs

The best way to get cash is through ATMs and fortunately they are everywhere in Europe. But there are some things you need to know that will help you save money.

Use ATMs of large banks

First, only use ATMs from large banks (HSBC, BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole, Banco Santander, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, etc.) as these banks are less likely to withdraw scams. Typically, these banks will give you the current rate of change and not charge you to use their ATM.

For added security, use ATMs inside the bank during business hours because the machines are less likely to be tampered with and less likely to be targeted by pickpockets.

Avoid Euronet, Eurobank, Alpha Bank, other special Networds for ATMs

Using debit cards in Europe - Euronet

There are a few private ATM networks like Euronet, Eurobank and Alpha Bank that are not connected to the big banks. These ATMs are notorious for doing simple things like charging withdrawal fees and tricking you into accepting a terrible exchange rate.

In fact, once you add up all of these fees, it is not uncommon to pay 15%-30% in fees.

These ATMs are ubiquitous and are often found in airports, train stations, and tourist hotspots to target people who don’t know any better.

These ATMs are usually standalone units, so this is an easy way to see that they are not connected to a large bank.

Never choose “Accept Transfer” when withdrawing funds

Transfer ATMs - Use of credit and debit cards in Europe

Some ATMs (especially Euronet and the like) will ask you if you want to convert the withdrawal to your local currency. This is a scam that gives you a bad exchange rate and you will usually pay around 10%-15% extra for no reason. Always decline the transfer and you will be charged at the current exchange rate.

Beware of excessive withdrawal amounts

Use of credit and debit cards in Europe

Some ATMs will default to giving you large amounts of cash, so you will have to look for the option to withdraw a smaller amount. For example, an ATM may default to 200 EUR 300 EUR 500 EUR 800 euros and 1000€ as withdrawal options, so you will have to click to get a lower amount.

This is more common in countries that do not use the euro or the pound because the currencies are unfamiliar to visitors. For example, $100 equals 31,168.915 Hungarian Forints, so it’s hard to make the conversion in your mind when you see such large numbers. You might go to an ATM in Hungry and they ask you if you want to withdraw 150,000 HUF and you probably have no idea how much in your local currency.

Why do some ATMs do this?

Currency conversion fees (see previous point).

These ATMs know that some users will “accept the transfer” when they withdraw cash and this means that the ATM company will make about 15% of the fee.

Filled ATMs

Thieves and scammers tampering with ATMs has been a problem for a long time.

Typical scams include installing external card scrapers on the card entry slot that copies the card, installing hidden cameras to record PIN codes, and sometimes just pickpockets waiting to grab your cash when you’re not looking.

So walk around the ATM before using it and move if something doesn’t look right.

Do you need to have EUR, GBP, etc in the US before you travel?

You likely won’t need to get any foreign currency from your home bank before traveling to Europe because any international airport will have ATMs where you can withdraw cash.

If you really want to play it safe, buy about $100 in Euros, Pounds etc just in case you have a luck problem at the ATM and your credit cards don’t work when you arrive.

But you definitely don’t want to buy a large amount of foreign currency with you because your bank will charge you terrible exchange rate + other fees and having a bunch of cash is not very safe.

no funny business

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Thanks for reading! – mosques

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