Updated: May 10, 2024 | Has affiliate links

10 Simplest Rules for Using Debit and Credit Cards in Europe

Wells Fargo debit card

The convenience of ATM cards and Credit cards extends worldwide, including Europe, thanks to a few global cash networks. These networks allow debit and credit 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. In addition, if you apply a few simple rules you can also save a bit of money as well when you travel to Europe. This article will outline these few things you need to know before you use your ATM and Credit Cards in Europe.

Can I use my debit card in Europe? Can I use my credit card in Europe? Do I need a pin for my credit card in Europe? These are the most common questions I get about using debit and credit cards in Europe. The simple answer is yes, your debit card and credit card will work in Europe. Using your credit card and debit card in Europe is very easy these days thanks to global financial networks. While it easy to access your money abroad, learning a few simple rules for using your Debit and Credit Cards in Europe, will make your travel experience much better.

Understand Your Debit and Credit Cards

To start very simply, modern Debit and Credit cards differ only because of where the money is coming from. You pay for your Debit Card transactions directly from your checking account while for Credit Card transactions you pay via monthly payments. However, in day to day operations, Debit and Credit cards behave the same way. They both allow you to take cash out from an ATM machine and also make purchases in stores. The coolest thing is that you can take cash out and make purchases all over the world including when you travel to Europe.

Each major payment network (VISA, MasterCard) manages their own global cash network as well. VISA’s network is called PLUS (also known as Visa PLUS) while MasterCard manages two networks: Maestro and Cirrus. These cash networks allow you to access your checking account money anywhere in the world, whether to pull cash out or make purchases. In recent years, both VISA and MasterCard have simplified their operations, so that accessing your money in Europe is very easy and simple.

All modern debit and credit cards issued in the United States allow you to pull cash out and make purchases anywhere in the world. These days Debit Cards behave just like Credit Cards in terms of day to day operations.

Now, take your debit card out of your wallet and take a look at it now. Look on the front side first. You should see either a VISA or a Master Card symbol.

Now flip your card on the back side and take a look. In addition to the symbols on the front, your debit card may have a few more symbols on the back side. These days however, ATM cards don’t have any symbols on the back, but some older ones still have them.

VISA Plus logoFor a VISA branded debit card (or credit card) on the front you could see the Plus symbol on the back.
Cirrus cash network logoA Master Card branded debit card (or credit card) on the front may have the Maestro or Cirrus symbols on the back.

As VISA and Master Card have simplified their operations, the newest debit and cards have only one symbol on the front of the card, whether VISA or Master Card and no other symbols on the back.

Before setting off on your trip to Europe, it is important to look at the debit and credit cards you plan on taking with you and know what symbols are on the front and back. When you are in Europe, and need to take cash out, make sure you match the symbols displayed on the ATM machine with the symbols on the card you are planning to use.

Know what cards you’re bringing to Europe and match the symbols on your card with the symbols on the ATM machines in Europe.

Let’s take a look now at my simple rules for using your Debit and Credit Cards in Europe so you can access your money safely and cheaply while travelling in Europe.

Simple Checklist for Using Your Debit and Credit Cards in Europe

Here is my complete checklist that I use before leaving on any trip to Europe. Having used it for so many years now, this list is more a mental checklist now. If this is your first trip to Europe, it will help you to print it out and follow it, step by step.

1. Call Your Bank Before Leaving to Europe

Check your banking application and look for setting up a travel plan. Set a travel plan before leaving on your trip to Europe. If you don’t see a way to create a travel plan electronically, contact your bank and set one up over the phone.

This rule applies both to your Debit Card and Credit Card issuing banks will save you lots of headache. It is the most important rule! If you don’t inform your bank, your card may be rejected when you try to use it abroad. This is the only way financial companies can protect you against fraud…so help them out.  Make sure you include date and countries that you plan on visiting, including countries for your flights layovers. Some companies, like Capital One, don’t require setting up a travel plan anymore.

Also ask about what fees they charge for foreign transactions and compare them with the best travel credit cards.

2. Ensure Your Debit Card’s Pin Number Has 4 Digits

Even though banks in Europe have been allowing 5 digits for their debit cards, most banks still limit debit card pin numbers to only 4 digits. In the US, most banks allow for 5 digits as well. Before you travel to Europe, make sure you go to a local branch and change your pin to 4 digits. Don’t forget to test the new pin! 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. Barclays Bank in the UK suggests using 4 digit pins for their own customers if they have to create a new PIN number. So, be safe and use 4 digits.

The safest way to make sure your ATM card works in Europe is to have 4 digits only as your PIN number.

3. Withdraw Cash Only With Your Debit Card

Can you use American debit cards in Europe? The simple answer is yes, you can. However, in order to not pay any extra fees, withdraw cash from an ATM machine bearing one of the symbols found on the front or back of your Debit Card. These days, many European ATM machines show both the VISA or MasterCard and none of the cash networks symbols.
Best Debit Cards for Europe.

4. Know Your Cards’ Fees

Call your bank and ask them how much they charge you for 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.

5. Increase Your Daily Cash Withdrawal Limit

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. If you have a good debit card for travel in Europe, these fees will be minimal.

6. While Abroad, Use Only a Local Bank ATM Machine

Don’t take money out from shopping malls or train stations. These ATM machines most likely will charge you extra money. If the ATM has the brand of a local reputable bank, then you can use it safely and cheaply.

7. Always Have Some Cash With You

Even if you have a good travel credit card, a number of places in Europe still only accept cash. These days this rule mostly applies in Eastern Europe as credit cards are still not accepted everywhere.

8. Don’t Withdraw Cash Using a Credit Card

Using your credit card to withdraw cash from an ATM machine incurs lots of fees. This is valid in the US as well, but even more so abroad. You will pay dearly!

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 traveling to Eastern Europe, a pin number may be required for a credit card transaction (note: I have not encountered this situation in my last few trips).

10. Don’t Change Your Purchase Currency While in Europe

When using an ATM or credit card to make a purchase in Europe, don’t accept merchants’ suggestion to change your purchase currency to your home country’s currency when making credit card purchases.

When using a credit card in Europe, the credit card machine or the shop keeper will ask this seemingly benign question: “Would you like to pay for that in US Dollars or Euros?” You may think that it makes sense to simply answer US Dollars! However, it’s the wrong answer!  You should always answer that you want to purchase in the local currency, in this case Euro.

When you say you want to purchase in your own currency (US Dollars) instead of the local currency (Euro), the local (European) merchant will send the transaction for currency conversion to another provider (not your own bank) which will perform the currency conversion for you at a much higher cost than your own bank. They can set their own rates and it still counts a  foreign transaction on your credit card.

Just choose to perform the transaction in the local currency (Euro for example) in the normal way!

European ATM machine showing dynamic currency conversion which is very common while using your debit and credit cards in Europe
European ATM machine showing extra currency conversion
You want to choose the left option to allow your own bank to do the conversion, which is much cheaper.

When using an ATM machine abroad, this question is even more subtle. Starting late 2019 (due to financial legislation being passed in Europe), ATM machines display an exchange rate and might also inform you about the markup on foreign currency conversion (usually 8 to 10%) if you want your bank account to be charged in your home currency (US Dollars) instead of local currency (EUR in this case). Then they ask you if you accept or make a choice. The information on the ATM machine screen varies from country to country.

The message is deceiving and makes it look like you have no choice but to say yes (usually the big button on the right), but choose “No” (the button on the left usually). When you choose “No”, the transaction will go through and your home bank will make the foreign currency conversion which has very little markup usually. If you choose “Yes”, the transaction will be going through a third party foreign transaction processor and will be marked up a lot and you will pay dearly like I did. Based on my calculations it looks like you would lose about 10% of the transaction amount.

Getting the Best Exchange Rate

Should I Use Debit or Credit Cards 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.

ATM Daily cash withdrawal limit

Each bank in the US has a different limit for ATM daily cash withdrawal. US banks vary a lot in their limits but most banks allow you to increase your daily limit for a given period of time. You just have to check with your bank and ask to increase your ATM daily cash withdrawal limit.

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 ATM daily cash withdrawal limit was imposed by my bank here at home in the US. So, if you want 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!

Foreign currency cash withdrawal fees

Your ATM card has several foreign currency withdrawal fees. Usually it is a combination of a Flat Rate and/or a percentage of the total sum taken out. Again, it really depends on your bank. You’ve got to ask them so you will not be surprised.

Using a Wells Fargo debit card in Europe, will cost you $5 fee for each ATM cash withdrawals made outside the United States. If you use your Wells Fargo debit card to purchase things in Europe, you will pay 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 international withdrawal you pay $5 in fees, while for each $1000 international withdrawal you still pay $5 in fees.

Using a Bank of America debit card in Europe will cost you $5 fee for ATM cash withdrawals made outside the United States plus an International Transaction fee of 3% of the withdrawal amount. If you use your Bank of America debit card to purchase goods in Europe it will cost you 3% of the purchase amount.

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

You can avoid the $5 fee if you use an ATM from one of Bank of America’s partner bank in Europe.

Using a Chase debit card in Europe costs you $5 for each ATM cash withdrawal plus 1% of the amount withdrawn. These fees do not apply to Chase’s premium banking accounts like Chase Sapphire Banking which wave any ATM fees including foreign ATM machines.

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

Foreign currency purchase fees

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

American Express logoIf 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 inter-bank 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 costs 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.

How to Best Use Your Debit and Credit Cards in Europe

There is a lot of hype everywhere about getting the right credit and debit cards for traveling. A good travel credit card only saves you only about $30 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.

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

Here is my simple rule for using debit and credit cards in Europe. I use my Debit Card for all cash withdrawals from ATM machines abroad. For all purchases, I use my current travel credit card. In other words, I use my Debit Card only for cash withdrawals and not for purchases. On the other hand, I use my travel credit card only for purchases and not for cash withdrawals.

Get Your Wallet Ready for Europe

Get the best travel credit card which can save you up to 5% when you travel and offer you a generous sign up bonus. I love that I can apply all my points whether to can cover the entire travel purchase or part of it.
Get a small fanny pack so you can fit your money, passport and phone, and easily hide it under your shirt as you walk around. This is a must have for international travel. Bringing a large fanny pack that sits on top of your clothes is very dangerous as it clearly labels you as a tourist and make you a target for pickpockets.
Know what you have in your wallet! Call your banks and find out what fees you will be paying by using your Debit Card for cash withdrawals and Credit Cards for purchases. Write them down!
Know your rough budget! Knowing this can save you a lot of frustration. For example, if you budget for spending in a foreign currency is $2000, then getting a better credit card may save you only $100, while getting a better debit card may also save you a max of $100. Ask yourself the question if it’s worth switching banks for a better credit or debit card.

  1. Use your Debit and Credit Cards in Europe
  2. Best travel credit cards
  3. Best travel debit cards
  4. Get the best foreign exchange rate
  5. Using Debit Cards in Europe
  6. Using Credit Cards in Europe

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