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Using a credit card in Europe
Use our guide to get the best out of your plastic, and your cash, on holiday in Europe.
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Whether you’re visiting Paris, the city of love, or Spain, where you’ll see some of the most beautiful beaches, you’ll need to spend money. So you’re probably wondering whether you can use your credit card, or if you need to stick to cash the whole holiday.
The answer is: you’ll need both. Credit cards are widely accepted in Europe, but there will be some smaller shops and stalls that will only accept cash. However, paying for a hotel room or rental car will be much easier with a credit card.
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Cash machines in Europe
ATMs are dotted all around European countries, but the safest to use are those in large banks, or airports. Avoid decrepit ATMs and those in isolated locations, as these are more commonly linked to fraud, and card theft. When using an ATM you will need a 4 digit PIN to withdraw cash, so make sure you know this, and keep it safe.
And the best news? You can use most ATMs in cities and large towns in English!
Cash in Europe
You may need to pay for some small purchases in cash. For example, at a local coffee shop, bakery, or gift shop. Having cash on hand can help you avoid a stressful predicament if you find yourself in a place that won’t accept your plastic.
Chip and PIN
Europe has moved from magnetic-stripe to chip cards, and all banks in Europe now issue the latter. In Europe, chip-and-PIN cards are standard; with this type of card, you enter a four-digit personal identification number to verify your identity.
If you use a chip-and-signature card, you can use it in Europe just about everywhere you find a staffed credit card machine. If you don’t have a PIN, an attendant will collect a signature from you. However, you may run into situations where your chip-and-signature card won’t work. For example, you might be in a pickle at an unstaffed train station kiosk.
Is it safe to use my card in Europe?
By exercising some caution when using your credit card in Europe, you’ll have a relatively trouble-free experience.
- Keep your PIN safe. Use one hand to enter the PIN and the other to shield it from prying eyes and hidden cameras.
- Select ATMs with care. Try and stick to ATMs in banks and avoid using ones in the street.
- Watch out for “skimmers”. When installed in an ATM, a card skimmer works by stealing information from credit and debit cards. If you feel the card slot is not as smooth as it should be or if there’s a problem with the keypad, cancel your transaction and look for another ATM.
Keeping your credit card (physically) safe
Remain alert to street crime, especially where two or more people work in distracting victims before decamping with their valuables. Thieves don’t just steal credit card information by recording your card number — they can also steal the card itself.
Pickpockets in many European cities heavily target tourists. The bigger the tourist destination, the more pickpockets there tend to be.
To decrease the chances your credit card will be stolen, consider keeping it in a money belt. This is a fabric pouch that you wear around your waist and hide under your shirt or in your pants. Also consider neck pouches, hidden pockets or a belt with hidden pockets.
Potential credit card fees
Credit card fees can leave a noticeable dent in your pocket when you’re travelling overseas, so know what you’re up against well in advance and choose a card with no or low fees.
Foreign transaction fees
British credit card issuers typically charge a fee equivalent to 1% to 3% of your transaction, so carefully review your card’s fine print to avoid statement surprises. Some cards designed for travel come with no foreign transaction fees, so this could be a good time to switch.
Currency conversion fees
If a retailer offers to bill your credit card in sterling, dynamic currency conversion comes into play. While this might sound like a good deal, you’ll actually end up getting a worse exchange rate, and you might also end up paying currency conversion fees. Whenever you’re presented with an option, choose to pay in euro.
Cash advance fees
Using your credit card to withdraw money from an ATM won’t make sense unless it’s a bona fide emergency. Each time you withdraw funds from an ATM, you’re likely to pay a cash advance fee. Your APR for cash advances is typically higher than your purchase APR, and you’ll typically get no grace period on interest — instead, you start paying interest immediately. Again, some cards designed for overseas spending will waive the cash advance fee.
The table below serves as an example of how much extra you may pay to use your credit card in Europe.
What is a cash advance fee?A cash advance fee is calculated (and charged) when you withdraw cash from your credit card. It’s usually the greater of a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction. For example, “2.5% of the transaction, minimum £3.00”.
How to prepare before travelling to Europe
- Go with Visa or Mastercard. Carry at least two cards on your trip to Europe, preferably connected with Visa or Mastercard. If you just take an American Express card, you won’t get to use it in many places.
- Think no foreign transaction fees. When there are cards that come with no foreign transaction fees, using ones that charge 2% or 3% of each overseas transaction does not make sense. Some of these cards don’t charge an annual fee, either.
- Keep your bank posted. Banks, in their efforts to thwart fraudulent transactions, block credit cards if they detect suspicious activity such as unexpected overseas transactions. To make sure this does not happen to your card, let your bank know about your travel plans before you leave the UK.
- Keep the emergency number handy. Know which numbers you’ll need to call if you end up losing your card or if you need an emergency replacement.
- Know where you’ll get cash from. Consider using your debit card to withdraw cash from ATMs. If you need to exchange money, stick to banks or official money-exchange offices because possessing counterfeit money in Europe is a serious crime. Try to avoid exchanging money at airports and popular tourist destinations because of typically poor exchange rates.
Ask yourself these simple questions before you leave so your spending in Europe does not hit any roadblocks.
- Which cards will I take? Visa and Mastercard are the favourites. If you’re planning a trip, check out cards which give you complimentary airport lounge access. If you’re planning well in advance, consider earning air miles for your trip with a frequent flyer credit card.
- Have I let my bank know? If you don’t inform your bank about your travel plans, you may end up with a temporarily suspended card.
- What fees do I need to pay? If your existing cards come with foreign transaction fees, look for one that does not. Paying in sterling outside of the UK might come with currency conversion fees.
- How will I get cash? Using your debit card at an ATM is the simplest way to access your own money. You can carry cash and traveler’s cheques with you. Exchanging sterling to euro is easy and you’ll get several options.
When you’re in Europe, you don’t have to worry about where and when you can use your credit card. Just keep some cash handy to pay for small purchases.
How to use a credit card in …
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