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.
Understand Modern Credit and Debit Networks
Each major credit card network (VISA, MasterCard and American Express) 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.
Take your debit card out of your wallet and take a look at it now. Look on the front side first.
All modern debit cards issued in the United States are working as credit cards as well. This means that you can see the VISA or Master Card symbol on the front of your Debit Card.
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, most new ATM cards don’t have any symbols on the back, but some older ones still have them.
These symbols represent the cash networks your card works on. For a VISA branded debit card on the front you could see the Plus symbol on the back. A Master Card branded debit card on the front should have the Maestro or Cirrus symbols on the back. The newest debit cards however, might not have any symbols on the back. If this is the case, use the symbols on the front (VISA or Master Card) to determine which cash network your debit card is working with.
The important thing is to know what symbols are on the front and back of your Debit 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, pay attention to the symbols on the front and back of your ATM/Debit card. Match these symbols with the symbols on an ATM machine in Europe, and you can be sure you are getting cash the safest and cheapest way. What if you don’t see any symbols on the back of your ATM Card? Look at the front then! If it says VISA then it will be on the PLUS cash network. 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
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
Contact your bank before leaving on your international trip. This rule applies both to your Debit Card and Credit Card issuing banks. This one rule 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 purchase things abroad. This is the only way financial companies can protect you against fraud…so help them out. Also ask about what fees they charge for foreign transactions and compare them with the best travel credit cards.
2. Your ATM card’s pin number must have 4 digits
In Europe pin numbers still have only 4 digits allowed. In the US most banks allow for 5 digits as well. Before you travel abroad, 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.
Yes, even in 2020, the safest way to make sure your ATM card works in Europe is to have 4 digits only as your PIN number. 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.
3. Withdraw cash only by using your ATM 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 Card for travel in 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 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.
6. While abroad, withdraw cash only from 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. Never withdraw cash using a credit card
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 (2019 note: I have not encountered this situation recently).
10. Don’t change your purchase currency.
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, 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’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!
When using an ATM machine abroad, this question is even more subtle. Starting late 2019, ATM machines display an exchange rate and will 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). Then they ask you if you accept. The message is deceiving and makes it look like you have no choice but to say yes (usually the button on the right), but please 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.
Should I Use My 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.
Daily cash withdrawal limit
Each bank in the US has a different limit for 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 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 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.
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
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 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.
US Bank Visa fees for purchases made in foreign currency
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 Are the Best Travel Credit Cards ?
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. Recently however, banks are 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.
My current favorite travel credit card, is the Capital One Venture 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. It also helps save on rental car costs by covering the extra insurance cost.
The simplest and cheapest travel credit card is Capital One Quicksilver. It doesn’t charge ANY foreign transaction fees and gives you cash back. 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 Visa Signature or Master Card Elite travel benefits.
Lower on the preference scale, would be American Express credit cards. There are two reasons American Express provides good travel cards. Firstly, foreign transaction fees are 2.7% which are slightly lower than the vast majority of credit cards which charge 3%. Secondly, American Express provides a lot of extra travel services with their cards. However, the big drawback of these cards is that American Express is accepted in fewer countries and stores.
My favorite travel credit cards.
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 Wells Fargo Debit Card for all cash withdrawals. 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.
Remember that the symbols on the front of your ATM card are for purchases. 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.
Simplest Steps for Maximizing Your Travel Budget
Get the Capital One Venture credit card. This is my favorite travel credit card with the most flexible travel rewards and a very generous sign up bonus. The Venture card is the only travel credit card that allows you to book your travel anywhere you want. Super simple and straightforward.
Get a money belt. Or, if you’re like me and need more space, you might prefer a fanny pack that you can carry everyday. This is a must have for international travel. I use a small and comfortable fanny pack to keep my passport and money always safe with me. It’s a lifesaver when traveling.
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 $60, while getting a better debit card may save you a max of $100. Ask yourself the question if it’s worth switching banks for a better debit card.
Do you need a better travel credit card? If it makes sense, get a better credit card for Europe travel. Credit cards are easy to get and obtaining a good travel credit card is an easy way to save money on foreign transaction fees.
Do you need a better travel debit card? Do some research about the best debit cards for Europe travel and see if it makes sense to switch banks. Depending on how long you will be traveling, this might not make sense.
Article Series: Maximize your travel budget
- 10 simple rules for using your Debit and Credit Cards in Europe
- Best travel credit cards
- Best travel debit cards
- Get the best foreign exchange rate