10 simple rules for using your Debit and Credit Cards in Europe

The convenience of ATM cards and Credit cards extends over the ocean in Europe as well thanks to a few global cash networks. These networks allow cards to be used in different countries just as you would used them at home in the US. You should have no problems using your American cards anywhere in Europe provided you check a few things before you leave. This article will outline these few things you need to know before you use your ATM and Credit Cards in Europe.

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Understand modern cash networks

Each major credit card network (VISA and MasterCard) manages their own global cash networks. VISA’s network is called PLUS (also known as Visa PLUS) while MasterCard manages two networks: Maestro and Cirrus.

These days all ATM/Debit Cards are working as credit cards as well, either VISA or Master Card. Most likely you will see the VISA or Master Card symbols on the front of your ATM card (or debit card).

In addition, your ATM/Debit card will have a few more symbols on the back side. These symbols represent the cash networks your card works on. If you don’t see any of these symbols on the back of your ATM/Debit card then your bank is probably very small and is not using any of the major card networks. You can also check the back of your VISA or Master Card credit cards and you will also notice one or more of these symbols. Sometimes you can see a Cirrus logo on a VISA credit card. I’m not really sure why but the cash networks are separate from the Credit Card networks, so you can see some odd combination.

Maestro MasterCard logoThe important thing is to know what symbols are on the back of your ATM and Credit Card that you’re planning to take with you. You will need to know these symbols when you want to get cash in Europe. Not all ATM machines in Europe support all cash networks. You might see some debit cards bearing the PLUS sign but not the Cirrus and vice versa. It doesn’t really matter.

Therefore, remember that you must know the symbols on the back (not the front) of your ATM/Debit card. If you can match these symbols with the symbols on an ATM machine in a foreign country, then you can make sure you are getting cash the safest and cheapest way. If you don’t have any symbols on the back of your Debit Card, look to the front…if it says VISA debit then it will be on the PLUS cash network, and if it says Master Card debit it will be on the Maestro/Cirrus network.

Simple checklist for using your debit and credit cards in Europe

RULE 1: Call your bank before leaving on your international trip. This one rule will save you lots of headache. It is the most important rule! If you don’t inform your bank or your credit card company, most likely your card will be rejected when you try to purchase things abroad. This is the only way financial companies can protect you against fraud…so help them out.

RULE 2: Your ATM card’s pin number must have 4 digits. In Europe pin numbers have a max of 4 digits allowed. In the US most banks allow for 5 digits as well. So, before you travel abroad, make sure you go to the local branch and change your pin to 4 digits…and also make sure you test it before you go. Europe has been moving to 5 digit pin numbers lately but there are still many older ATM machines that only work with 4 digit pin numbers.

RULE 3: Withdraw cash only by using your ATM card from an ATM machine bearing one of the symbols on the back of your card. The symbols on the front (VISA or MasterCard) are important only for purchases. Many ATM machines show the sign VISA or MasterCard only and none of the cash networks signs. If you don’t see one of the signs on the back of your card, then look for another ATM machine.

RULE 4: Know your cards’ fees. If you’re taking a credit card with you, call your bank and ask them how much they charge you on international purchases. Regardless if it’s a VISA or MasterCard, each bank that issues a credit card has its own fees and they are required to tell you what fees they are charging. Remember that your bank’s fees include the VISA (or MasterCard) foreign transaction fees. The typical foreign transaction fees are 3% of the amount.

RULE 5: Increase your daily maximum cash withdrawal. Depending on the fees charged by your bank, it makes a lot of sense to withdraw the maximum allowed in one transaction. The reason is that many banks charge a flat fee per withdrawal, regardless of the amount. Take a look at ATM card fees charged by most banks.

RULE 6: While abroad, withdraw cash only from a local bank ATM machine and not from shopping malls or train stations. These ATM machines most likely will charge you extra money.

RULE 7: Always have some cash with you. Even if you have a good credit card, many places in Europe only accept cash.

RULE 8: Never withdraw cash using a credit card! This is valid in the US as well, but even more so abroad. You will pay dearly!

RULE 9: Setup a pin number for your credit card. Even though American credit cards have started having a chip in addition to the magnetic band, the American credit cards do not require a pin. However, especially when travelling to Eastern Europe, a pin number may be required for a credit card transaction.

RULE 10: Don’t change your purchase currency. Don’t accept merchants’ suggestion to change your purchase currency to your home country’s currency when making credit card purchases. Their question seems benign: “Would you like to pay for that in American Dollars or Euros?” You may think that’s a good thing but it’s not! They can set their own rates and it still counts a s foreign transaction on your credit card. Just answer no!

Should I use my ATM/Debit or Credit Card in Europe?

Using the right card for the right purpose can add up to significant savings when traveling to Europe. Back to my question: should you use your ATM or Credit Card in Europe or both? The answer is a bit more complicated but I’ll try answering this question from a pure financial perspective.

You might have a preference for one card over another but for me it really comes down to the fees I pay for every international transaction.

In order to choose the right card for your international trip you must know a few important things about the cards you already have.

Know and increase your daily cash withdrawal limit

Each US bank has a different daily limit on cash withdrawal limit. US banks vary a lot in their limits and with some banks you can even ask for an increase in the daily limit for a given period of time. You just have to check with your bank.

Wells Fargo for example, allows $500 maximum daily (which can be increased by a simple phone call), so you would have to do a mental conversion before entering the sum you want to withdraw in the foreign ATM machine. I have not encountered any ATM machine in Europe that would limit the amount you can withdraw (unless they are running out of cash).

This limitation to the daily cash withdrawal limit was imposed by my bank here at home in the US. So, if you want to be able to increase your daily limit for cash withdrawal you have to call your bank and request it. They will usually increase it without any further questions. It’s your money anyway!

Know your ATM/Debit cash withdrawal fees

A combination of a Flat Rate and/or a percentage of total. Again, it really depends on your bank. You’ve got to ask them so you will not be surprised.

Wells Fargo, for example will assess a $5 fee for ATM cash withdrawals made outside the United States and an International Purchase Transaction fee which is 3% of the transaction amount for each purchase made with your debit card in a foreign currency that has been converted into a U.S. dollar amount by a network. 

With a Wells Fargo debit card, for each $100 withdrawal you pay $5 in fees, while for each $1000 withdrawal you still pay $5 in fees.

Bank of America will assess a $5 fee for ATM cash withdrawals made outside the United States and an International Transaction fee which is 3% of the transaction/withdrawal amount for each purchase/withdrawal made with your debit card in a foreign currency that has been converted into a U.S. dollar amount by a network. 

With a Bank of America debit card, for each $100 withdrawal you pay $8 in fees, while for each $1000 withdrawal you pay $35 in fees.

Chase charges 1% of the amount withdrawn. In addition, Chase will charge $5 per Withdrawal and $2.50 for any Transfers or Inquiries at ATMs outside the US. 

With a Chase debit card, for each $100 withdrawal you pay $6 in fees, while for each $1000 withdrawal you pay $15 in fees.

The bottom line is that you have to know what your bank will charge you. So call your bank and ask.

However, just like home the US where you get charged extra by getting cash from ATM machines in shopping malls and some grocery stores, in Europe also you have to be careful where you get your cash from.

The safest place to withdraw money in Europe, in terms of not being charged extra, is an ATM machine of a local bank.

Know the fees for your ATM/Credit card international purchases

The fees your bank charges for foreign transactions include 1% charged by VISA or MasterCard for converting to US dollars and a percentage of the transaction total after converting to US dollars. 

Again, call your bank so you won’t be surprised. And for fun, just ask them why they charge you on top of what VISA/MasterCard charges you. It’s always fun to see how banks try to explain that they’re just trying to take advantage of the increase in international travel and make lots of money.

American Express foreign currency conversion fees

If you look at the back side of the first page of your American Express statement you will see a somewhat clear statement with regards to transactions made in foreign currency. Transactions Made in Foreign Currencies: If you incur a charge in a foreign currency, it will be converted into US dollars on the date it is processed by us or our agents. Unless a particular rate is required by applicable law, we will choose a conversion rate that is acceptable to us for that date. Currently, the conversion rate we use for a Charge in a foreign currency is no greater than (a) the highest official conversion rate published by a government agency, or (b) the highest interbank conversion rate identified by us from customary banking sources, on the conversion date or the prior business day, in each instance increased by 2%. This conversion rate may the rates such establishments use.

What does this mean? Well let’s just take a simple example: Let’s say you purchase something in France that is 100 euros. American Express, when they receive the transaction, converts the price from Euros to U.S. Dollars using the highest conversion rate they can find (at least that’s what they’re saying…it’s hard to really check). Let’s say that they find 1.5 US Dollars to 1 Euro. That means that they will charge you $150 U.S. Dollars for the 100 Euro item you have purchased. Now, the finance charge is 2%, which means that that they would add an extra $3 (2% from $150). So, your total for that item would be $153 US Dollars.

US Bank Visa fees for purchases made in foreign currency

US Bank Logo Here’s an example of what US Bank says about foreign transactions on my VISA credit card statement: As a reminder, we may charge a foreign fee of 3% on transactions that occur in a country other than the U.S. Now, this is interesting! As if they will ever NOT charge me 3% on transactions that occur in another country. This 3% consists of 1% VISA foreign transaction fee and 2% US Bank Usage fee. Using the example I have used for American Express, the same 100 Euro item would cost me $154.50 if I would use my US Bank Visa credit card.

What’s the best credit card to use for foreign transactions?

The answer to this question used to be very easy. A cash back credit card without foreign transaction fees used to be the obvious answer. However in recent years banks have started issuing great credit cards packed with lots of travel rewards for an annual fee. So it really depends on what kind of traveler you are. You can learn how to pick the right travel credit card for you and see my two favorite travel credit cards by reading What is the best credit card to use while traveling?.

The simplest and cheapest travel credit card is Capital One Quicksilver. It doesn’t charge ANY foreign transaction fees but it also swallows all the fees Master Card charges for any foreign transactions. To put it simply, you don’t pay anything extra for using the card outside of the United States. In addition you also get 1.5% cash back on all purchases and you get Master Card Elite travel benefits. See my review of the Capital One Quicksilver credit card.

Second in line, in my opinion is the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card for its generous sign up bonus and Visa Signature travel rewards. It does come with a $95 annual fee which is not cheap. See my review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card

Third in line would American Express credit cards. American Express credit cards are the third best choice for making purchases abroad. The reason is simple: there is no VISA organization on top of them to charge something else on top of what they for foreign currency exchange. In the example above, the difference between American Express and a US Bank VISA credit card is 1% but US Bank will also charge another 1% because it’s a VISA credit card. So the difference is 2% between the two cards. So, on a $1000 purchase made abroad you would be saving $20 by using American Express instead of US Bank Visa card. In addition, American Express is well known for their great travel benefits.

How should you use your Debit and Credit card on an international trip?

There is a lot of hype everywhere about getting the right credit and debit cards for traveling. But unless you’re talking about getting lots of miles as a sign up bonus, a good travel credit card only saves you between $20 and $50 for each $1000 spent on your trip overseas

If finding the right card causes you too much stress, then use whatever credit card you have (following the rules above) and enjoy your trip.

However, if you really want to squeeze every dollar out when you travel, like I do, here is my simple rule. When traveling internationally I try to simplify everything. So, when it comes to the debit and credit cards I take with me I have only one simple rule.

Here is my simple rule I use when traveling to Europe. I use my Wells Fargo ATM/Debit card for all cash withdrawals and I use only my Capital One credit card for purchases where credit cards are accepted.

And remember that the symbols on the front of your ATM card are for purchases while the symbols on the back are for cash withdrawals. Following this simple rule saves me between $20 and $50 for every $1000 spent in Europe.

My best resources for saving money on your trip to Europe

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37 thoughts on “10 simple rules for using your Debit and Credit Cards in Europe

  1. “VISA or MasterCard charge 1% for converting to US dollars plus a percentage of the purchase total after converting to US dollars”.

    I am no expert but wouldn’t the ATM you use absorb the 1% fee in their charge? So is that 1% of the 3% really going to the credit card network or to the bank?

    When using out of network ATMs in Country, you still use the debit network but are just charged a flat rate from that ATM provider.

    I am surprised you did not also mention Charles Schwab debit card. Zero fees of any kind when overseas. I use that with my Capital One credit card.

    I never use a debit card as credit. I like having a space cushion for fraud and my money. Newer accounts don’t allow you to have just an ATM card (no credit logo) which I prefer. Banks are more likely to help when its their money on the line.

  2. In the past I have tried to use American credit cards in Europe. Sometimes they just work, but other times the merchant or checkout terminal seem to not understand that American cards are not on the Chip-and-pin system.

    If you call an American bank and ask for a PIN, they’ll give you a special pin that allows you to use your credit card like an ATM card and get cash advances at an ATM.

    So my question is: Now that American credit cards have chips, do I still use that same PIN (the PIN I would use to make a cash withdrawal) as the PIN for a “Chip and pin” credit card transaction in Europe?

    Thank you.

      1. My experience has been that once they insert the American credit card in the European machine, it will start the transaction without waiting for a pin. I was never asked though…they just put it in and then after the transaction went through I was asked to sign the receipt which surprised some of the clerks. But I never had to explain anything before the transaction…only after…a few times. I never had to enter my cash advance pin.

        1. Thanks, Vlad!
          That was mostly my experience too, however this was all pre 2015 when Chips were not prevalent in US Credit cards, so it was all magnetic swipe. Most of the time it just went through, but occasionally it seemed that they wanted a PIN.

          So are you saying that you have recent experience using US Chip-enabled credit cards and it did not even ask for a PIN?

          1. Yes that has been my experience in late 2016! Used both Capital One Master Card and United/Chase Visa in Holland,France and Romania. Both have chips/signature technology…no pins. They worked fine.

  3. What about using a AAA Travel Money Card. It has a chip for security, and is not connected to your personal accounts. You fill it up with money before you leave, so you can make cash withdrawals as needed along the way. Is this a smart move?

    See link attached. Thanks!

    1. David…the Aaa Money card is essentially a gift card. As such it looks like it has 3% transaction and ATM use fee. In addition, there is no protection from a bank in case it is stolen. Over the years I found that an ATM card with reasonable fees is the best option. If however you don’t want to use your bank account overseas then the aaa money card might work ok…provided you are willing to pay the fees. For a couples of weeks vacation the fees are not that much anyway.

  4. Why isn’t my US credit card or debit card accepted for online purchases in Madrid? I have contacted my bank and they said the problem is on the Spanish side of the transaction.

    1. Normally if you let your us bank know that you are traveling or making an online purchase where the server is in another country…so if the bank knows prior to the transaction then it should work. So your bank is probably right, maybe there are limitations on the Spanish vendor site. They usually have an email address on their site…you can ask them…they will help…usually.

  5. I read ALL this and my question was not answered. well, not directly anyway. Using a credit card they ask ‘Dollars or Euros’, I should say Euros, but at ATM it ask for “conversion” or no conversion… is that the same thing? NO Conversion is the right answer?

    1. Roderick…at the ATM machine always ask for local currency even if the ATM can dispense US Dollars. When you take out dollars in an euro denominated country it will still appear as a foreign transaction and you will pay fees.

  6. Why is america so behind the times with chip and pin technology? Cannot use the cards at petrol stations, TGV trains, nada. The US is archaic.

    1. Sara….good question! I am not sure but one of the reasons is that banks in America make it very easy for people to have many credit cards. So, if you have many then you must remember many pins which is hard. The newer credit cards however have chips and a signature instead of a pin…for the same reason.

  7. Rule number 10 for using Credit Cards in Europe as I see car rental as a “foreign transaction”. Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best card to use for car rental. No countries are excluded and it offers primary car insurance which means you can decline the Collision Damage Waiver fee among a few other insurance fees. Many other credit cards offer secondary insurance coverage. Plus this card also offers several benefits for flight and bagage delays. Make sure you pay all car rental expenses through this card.

        1. Debbieh…the simplest answer would be to check with the bank that issued your ATM card. You have to contact them anyway to let them know you are traveling to Switzerland. My educated guess is that it will work fine as long as your PIN number is 4 digits. You can also look on the front of your ATM Card and see what symbols you have: VISA or MasterCard. If it’s VISA then it will work on ATM Machines that display the PLUS sign while if you have MasterCard on the front, your card will work on ATM Machines that display the CIRRUS sign. Hope this helps.

  8. Nice article. Fidelity offers a cash management account ATM/Debit card for no fees and will reimburse you for ATM transaction fees in the Plus,Interlink and Star networks. For overseas there is 1% currency conversion charge. Not as good as Schwab but close. For using a credit card overseas, Capital One Visa has no currency conversion charge and no fees for holding the card.

    1. Michelle…yes Capital One credit cards are my favorite travel cards for their no-fee policy and travel rewards and cash back. Great cards to have when traveling internationally. As far as ATM Cards go, Charles Schwab, Fidelity and then Wells Fargo top my list.

  9. I recently just got a debit card from Charles Schwab, they wave all foreign transaction and ATM fees while abroad.
    I thought it would be good information to add to your website.

    1. Jack….these are the current fees charged by credit card companies for foreign transactions. Pretty much 1-3% unless you have a fee free credit card.

    1. Justin…if you are asking what the name of these networks are…they are called cash networks and they are part of the VISA and MasterCard corporations. If you are asking how you call them on the phone? Well…you don’t directly call them…instead you call your atm/credit card company on the number listed on the back of your card.

  10. I was in Finland, Amsterdam, London last year, my MasterCard/debit card did not work in the ATM machines, as I will be there again next month, I hate to ask my family for cash.

    1. Tuula…I have never had trouble with my debit card from Wells Fargo. I have used in Amsterdam this year and England and Switzerland last year…no issues. I know that for some US credit unions, their debit cards don’t really work overseas. Not sure what bank issued your ATM card, but any of the major banks should work ok.

  11. I believe some of your information on credit cards is outdated. Other sources indicate that only chip+pin credit cards are guaranteed to work in Europe in places such as gas stations, parking garages and train stations where unattended kiosks are involved. I recently got a Bank of America chip card, only to discover when it arrived that it is a chip+signature card, which will not work with European kiosks that do not have provision for a signature..

    1. Pete…it is true that the new “chipped” cards in the USA are chip and signature. Personally I was able to use my new Amex card which is “chip and signature”, everywhere I needed to both in England and Switzerland in a recent trip.
      The regular swipe cards still work fine in Europe even paying toll on a recent trip in France where I did not have to sign. However, you are right that there are a few limitations to using “swipe” credit cards in Europe. I did not encounter these limitations however on any of my trips.
      This being said, I really do not understand why we do not convert to chip and pin since we are converting to “chipped ” cards. I can’t understand why we need to be different…maybe still make it very easy for people to spend money.

  12. I travel to Ireland and the U.K. carrying groups to play golf once or twice a year. The best way to save money on exchange rates is to open an Irish or UK current account (in my case the Bank of Ireland (they have Euro banks in the Republic and Pound Sterling banks in Northern Ireland which is a part of the U.K.) Each carries an ATM card which they refer to as a “Laser” card in the Republic and “Switch” card in Northern Ireland. I watch the currency exchange during the year and when it is advantageous I purchase the currency and have it wired to my Irish accounts. I get the currency at slightly higher rates than inter bank rates and there is no charge for withdrawal when I use my cards in “Euro land” or Great Britain.

  13. Thanx for the comment Adam…yeah this post is old but very useful apparently. Thanx for the good info on Capital One Visa Card. That seems like a great choice if they don’t charge any foreign transaction fees…amazing!

  14. I know this is post is a bit old, but I just stumbled across it and thought I’d add my two cents. Whenever overseas, I use my Capital One Visa Cards…not only do they not charge a foreign transaction fee, they absorb the fee passed down by VISA. :)

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