Using Money In Europe: ATMs, Credit Cards, Debit Cards, Exchange Rates, Currency Confusion and More

money in Europe

You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches by understanding the best ways to use your money in Europe. This guide will explain how to get access to your cash and the best ways to purchase goods and services.

The Basics

Currency: The Euro is the most prevalent currency in Europe, but there are still a few countries that use their own currency. These unfamiliar currencies can be a little confusing. Small bills (1€/2€ and £1/£2) have been replaced by coins, so don’t be surprised when you get a bunch of coins back.

  • The Euro: The Euro is currently used in:

Austria // Belgium // Finland // France // Germany // Greece // Italy // Luxembourg // Netherlands // Portugal and Madeira // Republic of Ireland // Spain

euros

  • The British Pound Sterling: The Pound is used in the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

pounds currency


  • Other Countries That Don’t Use The Euro:

Iceland // Norway // Russia // Belarus // Ukraine // Moldova // Sweden // Denmark // Poland // Estonia // Latvia // Lithuania // Czech Republic // Slovakia // Hungary // Romania // Bulgaria // Switzerland // Liechtenstein // Albania // Serbia // Croatia // FYR Macedonia // Bosnia Herzegovina

Exchange Rates: The exchange rate is a way to show how much one currency is worth in terms of the other. The rates change daily (although in tiny increments). You want to make sure you know the current exchange rate so you’re aware of what you’re spending. It is pretty simple with the Euro and Pound.  It gets more confusing in Eastern Europe because each country uses their own currency and the number values on bills are very high.

For example, in Hungary 4,049.82 HUF = about $20. This doesn’t mean that you can live like a king. It just means that you can buy a souvenir t-shirt for about 4,000 HUF. It can be pretty startling when your bottle of coke rings up as 900 HUF. Conversely, that £3 bottle of coke is costing you about $5. Make sure you know how much you are paying in your own currency.

The Euro to the US dollar is currently 1 : 1.37 (This means 1€ = $1.37).  So when you buy something in Euros you should multiple the amount by 1.37 (I would just multiply it by 1.5 to make it easy). For example, a 10€ meal costs you $13.70 (or $15 if you estimate with 1.5x). Exchange rates change all the time so be sure to write down the current rate before your trip.

Go to xe.com to find the current exchange rates. There are multiple smart phone apps that will also show you the current exchange rate.

The Mighty ATM – How to Get Cold Hard Colorful Cash

ATM in europe

The ATM is easily the best way to get cash. There are ATMs everywhere in Europe (airports, train stations, scattered across cities, etc). Pretty much every ATM has an English language option so you don’t have to worry about knowing the local language. You will also be given the exact current exchange rate (money change offices often give you a bad conversion rate). You’ll still want to be aware of a few things:

  • Use A Debit Card: You do not want to use your credit card at the ATM. Using a credit card will be treated as a “cash advance” and you will be hit with huge fees. Make sure you only use an ATM or debit card.
  • 4 Digit PIN Code: Your ATM card has to have a 4 digit numerical PIN code. European machines won’t accept longer numbers. Unlike American keypads, European pads don’t have letters on them so make sure you know your number.
  • cirrus and plus cardsHave The Right Kind Of Card: Make sure your debit card/credit cards have the cirrus or plus logo on them (pretty much every Visa or MasterCard will have one). Cards with this logo will pretty much work all over Europe.
  • Bank Fees: Your bank probably charges a fee when you use another bank’s ATM — this applies to international ATMs too. The fees will either be a flat fee (usually between $1-$5) and/or a small percentage of the withdraw (1-2%).
    • If your bank charges a flat fee it is wiser to withdraw large chunks at a time. This way you’ll reduce the amount of fees charged.
    • Members of Bank of America (USA), Barclays (United Kingdom), BNP Paribas (France), China Construction Bank (China), Deutsche Bank (Germany), Scotiabank (Canada) and Westpac (Australia and New Zealand) can use each others ATMs without being charged transaction fees.
  • ATM Cards To Consider (be sure to check with your bank to double check the terms):
    • Capital One: No currency conversion charge and $1.5 per ATM transaction.
    • Citibank: 2% currency conversion charge and $1.50 per ATM transaction.
    • Bank of America: 1% currency conversion charge and $5 per ATM transaction (if you don’t use one of the banks listed above.)
  • Have A Backup Card: Every time I put my card into an ATM I had the sinking feeling that it would eat my card. I never had any problems, but card eating machines are not unheard of. If it does get eaten cancel the card ASAP. Some machines are tampered with.
  • Big Bills Are A Hassle: That great little crepe stand won’t take your 100€ note for a 3.50€ crepe. Try to withdraw uncommon amounts so you’ll get smaller bills. If you withdraw 200€ you’re likely to get two 100€ notes.  So withdraw 190€ so you’ll get some smaller bills. If the ATM won’t give you the amount you want, you can always go into the bank and they’ll exchange for smaller bills.
  • Check Your Withdrawal Limits: Some banks put a daily limit on how much cash you can withdraw. Sometimes the ATM limits how much you can withdraw. If you’re on a budget you probably won’t reach this limit, but it is good to keep in mind. You can sometimes request to have your withdrawal limits raised.
  • Know The Lingo: If you ask for an ATM you might get a blank stare. They are called cashpoints in the UK, a distributeur in France, or a Bankomat for the rest of Europe.
  • Stick To Bank ATMs: There are a decent amount of third party ATMs that aren’t affiliated with banks. I would avoid these because they might charge higher fees. I recommend just sticking to ATMs that are owned by major banks.
  • Security: Be aware when you’re using the ATM. Make sure people are not looking over your shoulder and use your hand to cover up the keypad when keying in your PIN. If there is a shady character hanging out near the ATM it is probably best to look for another one.

Using Your Credit Card/ Debit Card For Making Purchases

Most European businesses take credit/debit cards, but there are still a few smaller places that only take cash.

  • Call Your Credit Card Company Before You Leave: You need to inform your bank that you’ll be using your card in Europe. If you don’t tell them, they’ll probably put your account on hold because they’ll assume the charges are fraudulent.
  • Bring A Few Credit Cards: If a card gets stolen you can just use one of your other cards. Just don’t carry all your cards in the same wallet/bag.
  • Always Use A Credit Card/Cash When Making Purchases: It is very easy to copy (aka clone) a credit/debit card. All the thief (usually a waiter or a shopkeeper) needs to do is swipe your card with a special card reader and it copies all the information off the magnetic strip. The info can then be copied onto a blank card or saved on a computer to be used later. They can then rack up tons of charges without you even knowing.
    • With a credit card it is much easier to dispute these charges, close the account, and use another card.
    • Your debit card is tied right to your checking account. The money is gone as soon as the card is used. A thief can easily drain your account (usually racking up tons of overdraft fees in the process) and it is much harder to reverse the charges. It can take weeks to get your money back.
  • Get A Card With No Foreign Currency Conversion Fee: All these little fees can add up. I believe Capital One doesn’t charge a fee and some others might as well. Check with your bank.
  • Not Everyone Accepts American Cards: Much of Western Europe is now using Chip-and-PIN cards. These cards have a little magical microchip in them. American cards don’t have these chips, so you could be out of luck. Most places can still swipe your card (you might have to be persistent) but you could run into problems at self-service machines. You probably won’t be able to use your card at the ticket machines at train/subway stations (you can still go to the ticket window), bike rental stations, self-serve gas stations, etc. There have also been reports of American cards being rejected multiple times before it is accepted (not really sure why). Make sure you carry extra cash.
  • Always Pay In The Local Currency: Some places (I’m looking at you Harrods) will ask if you want to be billed in US dollars (or whatever your home currency is). This sounds like a good deal but it is a total rip-off. You’ll usually be charged 5%-7% more for this “convenience.” Some merchants will do this for you (without asking first) so be sure to check your receipts for anything that references your native currency.  Tell them to redo the transaction if this happens.
  • Cash Is King: Always have some cash with you. Some places only accept cash. One time I was in Bruges and for whatever reason none of the ATMs would take foreign cards. All us Americans, Brits, and Aussies were standing around scratching our heads. The cheap food places wouldn’t take credit cards. I ended up eating at a Pizza Hut… don’t let this happen to you (I got pineapple and pepperoni – in case you were wondering).
  • Surcharges: Some places charge an extra 2-3% if you use a card. I think this is technically against their contract, but it doesn’t really stop them.

Other Ways To Get Money & Make Purchases

Pre-Paid Debit Cards: Pre-paid cards are becoming more popular, but I don’t recommend them. There are multiple extra fees — You have to buy the card, pay to add money to the card, fees for canceling and cashing out your card. Then there are usually fees for just using your card. You should read the terms closely before you choose this option. One nice thing is that someone back home can add money to the card (although you can do this with debit cards too), so it might be useful in emergencies.

Travelers Cheques/Travelers Checks: Travelers Cheques are kind of a hassle these days and not many people really use them. It can be difficult finding a place that will accept them. They might be fine as a backup payment method, but they are impractical for frequent use.

The Ol’ Greenback: A CRISP $100 bill is still a welcome sight in Europe so it doesn’t hurt to carry one or two around for emergencies. No shop or restaurant will accept them but there are plenty of money exchange offices in any European city. You can always just deposit the money back into your account if you don’t use them.

Currency exchange boardMoney Exchange Offices:Every major airport and train station will have a currency exchange booth/office. You “sell” your currency and they’ll exchange it for the local currency. These places charge a commission and the exchange rates are always in their favor.

  • Try to avoid changing money at the airport/train station. You’ll get the worst rates here. If you can, look for exchange offices or local banks in the city.
  • I’ve always tried to avoid currency exchange offices that look sketchy. You’ll see many. Just use your spidey sense.
  • Never change your money on the street. A “helpful” local will offer to do it for you but there is a 100% chance you’re getting ripped off. They’ll often use slight of hand and confusion to replace large bills with small denomination bills.
  • Always count the money before you leave the exchange office — some might “forget” to give you the correct amount.

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  • Sly Stone

    i forgot to tell my bank that i was going to be traveling and they flagged my card for “suspicions” activity. it took me a bit to figure out why my cards didnt work. i got it fixed but it was a real hassle.

  • http://www.moneyihub.com/ Financial Calculators

    I was looking for the post that can help me in using the money in European countries…and this article solved my problem…Thanks to author for sharing it..

  • John

    What about making a grocery store purchase with a debit card and getting some additional case like we can in the US, will that work in France and Switzerland?

    • TSB

      I don’t believe you can get cash back like you do in the US.

  • Ryan

    Is this up to date? I got off the phone with Capital One and was told I would have at least a 3% conversion rate for withdrawing money over there. Im looking to find the cheapest ATM/Debit card for my trip in 40 days and Its looking like Capital One may no longer be it. Unless they fed me the wrong information.

    • savvybackpacker

      They may have changed their terms. I’ll have to look into it.

    • Gerardo

      Capital One 360 did not charge me any ATM fee. I only paid a foreign conversion fee charged by the foreign bank. I was in Hungary, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine.

  • Harvey

    Ryan,
    Thanks for the info! Called my banks and tied up loose ends and now can’t wait to go to Europe. Your site is very helpful and had us think of things that we took for granted! Again, thanks a million!

  • Guest

    The Euro is currently used in Slovenia as well.

  • ohsomotley

    Thanks for the useful tips, Ryan. Here’s one from an ancient English teacher – it’s sleight of hand – yeah, with an “e.” I’ll check out your amazon link and salute you with a beer in Prague.

  • Jon

    What about opening an account in a bank that has branches in Europe (for example Bank of America) then deposit an amount in Euros, not dollars before leaving on the trip? Would this still incur the 2-3% fee when I withdraw in Europe?

  • Guest

    “Thanks for this interesting article.I am interested in following up the story”

  • Guest

    Be careful, quiet outdated information information about countries using Euro. Czech Republic and Estonia are using it for couple years already, Latvia has joined recently. Croatia is going to join soon

  • jbelle

    in reference to converting dollars to Euros, do you think it would be less expensive to convert them through my bank (they charge a $10 flat rate and 1% of the transaction ) or wait until I get to Europe and exchange them at a bank there?

  • Lana Pals

    We are taking a tour to Denmark, Sweden and Norway. We plan to use the local currency via ATMs for cash, but we will need Euros to pay for optional excursions. What is our best option for obtaining Euros in these countries? Is it possible to purchase Euros from banks using our ATM card?

    • savvybackpacker

      Humm. That’s an interesting one. Can you not pay for excursions with a credit card? I’m a little confused why they’d want Euros in the first place?

      • Lana Pals

        We have to pay 30% in Euros (cash) to the tour director; the remainder (paid to Globus) can be charged to the credit card. I suspect the 30% is the tour director’s commission and is not paid by Globus to maintain contract employee status. I have read (via the internet) there may be some multiple currency ATMs at the Copenhagen airport, but I have no idea.

        • savvybackpacker

          Ok, that’s a bit annoying. Any major airport will have a money exchange office that will sell you multiple currencies — but they don’t give the best rates. How much cash will you need?

          • Lana Pals

            560 Euros — any suggestions other than the money exchange office?

  • Natasha

    I live in the us but want to put money on my cousins phone account who is in Ukraine. I created a profile for the phone company (I have the same one for my Ukrainian phone) but anytime I tried to add money from my debit/Visa card It wouldn’t allow me.. Do you know why? Would it let me if I use a pre paid Visa card? Or would I have to go to my bank, chase, and talk to them about it? Please help!!

  • Gkatie

    Another tip. If you are near a US military installation, you will probably get the best rate at ATMs close to base. Or, if you have a buddy with a connection, see if you can get on base to the BoA there. As long as we withdraw on base, we don’t pay any fees. Even on a card from another bank. However, DO NOT ASK A RANDOM MILITARY MEMBER TO GET YOU THROUGH THE GATE. That will result in super bad juju.

  • citizenontherun

    You should add in Bitcoin. Some counties have Bitcoin ATMs (BTM’s) that convert the digital currency into paper money on the spot. All you do is just buy bitcoins in your home country via another BTM or website, store them on the mobile app (many available for all OS’s) then in your destination country use a BTM to convert to the local currency. It only works well if there’s a BTM or a local buyer, but other than that you get a super low exchange rate.

  • izyan

    Instead of 4 digit pin, my country use 6 digit pin. Can I still withdraw my money?