Hungary is a popular holiday destination for Brits with over 700,000 travelling each year. Budapest in particular is a big draw for those seeking culture, history, relaxation in its spa baths, or for stag and hen dos.
To enjoy all that Hungary offers, you will need a combination of cash and credit cards while travelling. Plastic is accepted throughout Budapest, the Lake Balaton region and other popular tourist hotspots.
Although credit and debit cards are widely accepted, some smaller towns and establishments accept cash only. You might even entice a discount from market vendors or in low to mid-range accommodation if you pay in Hungarian forint (HUF) cash.
Mastercard and Visa are the most commonly accepted card network in Hungary under Maestro and Cirrus for both paying in-store and withdrawing cash. American Express is accepted in some places, but this is less common.
Cash machines are readily accessible in most parts of Hungary, especially in tourist centres. They can be found in supermarkets, airports, post offices, train stations and banks. You will need a four-digit pin to operate an ATM in Hungary.
When withdrawing cash, it’s better to use the Hungarian banks’ cash machines, rather than the smaller independent machines, which could charge extra fees. Euronet ATMs are particularly renowned for giving poor exchange rates.
It’s worth knowing that some cash machines at branches of one of the main banks, Országos Takarékpenztár (OTP), often give out large 20,000 forint notes, which can be tricky to get change from.
Cash in Hungary
Cash is still popular in Hungary and you’re advised to have some on you at all times. Make sure your bills aren’t torn or damaged as they are unlikely to be accepted.
Some tourist businesses, such as hotels and guesthouses, accept euros, but their exchange rate isn’t very favourable so you’re recommended to pay in forint or a credit card instead.
Exchange bureaus throughout the country, including those in banks, all charge a mandatory 0.3% commission, but usually won’t charge any more fees. However, exchange bureaus in Hungarian airports are renowned for giving poor rates, so an ATM may be a better option when you first arrive. Never exchange money with street money changers as this is illegal.
Chip and PIN
Chip and PIN debit and credit cards are widely accepted in Hungary and are issued by Hungarian banks so are the norm throughout the country.
If you use a chip-and-signature card, you can use it in Hungary 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.
Potential credit card fees
Credit card fees can leave a noticeable dent in your pocket when you’re travelling abroad, 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 small 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.
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 will 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 local currency.
Cash advance fees
Using your credit card to withdraw money from an ATM may not 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 normally 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 Hungary.
Additionally you can get an idea of costs by using these online currency conversion tools from Mastercard and Visa.
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”.
Is it safe to use my card in Hungary?
By exercising some caution when using your credit card in Hungary, you will 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 cash machines with care. Try and stick to ATMs in banks and avoid using ones in the street.
Watch out for “skimmers”. When installed in a cash machine, 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 is a problem with the keypad, cancel your transaction and look for another ATM.
Keeping your money (physically) safe
Remain alert to street crime, as bag-snatching and pick-pocketing are common, particularly in Budapest’s tourist areas. You’re advised not to carry large amounts of cash so consider how much you need on a daily basis and consider leaving the rest in a safe at your hotel.
Always make sure to check the prices of food and drink before ordering as some less reputable businesses have been known to charge tourists extortionate rates. Check your bill carefully before paying.
How to prepare before travelling to Hungary
Go with Visa or Mastercard. Carry at least two cards on your trip to Hungary, preferably connected with Visa or Mastercard. If you just take an American Express card, you may not find it as easy to use.
Keep your bank informed. In their efforts to thwart fraudulent transactions, banks 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 will 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 cash machines. If you need to exchange money, stick to banks or official money-exchange offices because possessing counterfeit money in Hungary 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 Hungary 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. Exchanging sterling to forint is easy and you’ll get several options.
When you’re in Hungary, 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.
We use banks to take care of all our other financial needs, so surely we should use them when sending an international money transfer, right? Not necessarily. While major UK banks offer money transfer services, they typically present less competitive exchange rates coupled with high transfer fees. Learn how to send money to Hungary the smart way.
Visa and Mastercard are almost on a par. American Express follows at a distant third.
Most Hungarian banks accept travellers’ cheques, but you may find it hard to spend them in shops and restaurants. Even exchange bureaus may give you a poor rate as travellers’ cheques are becoming increasingly uncommon. You’ll probably find it easier to stick to a mix of cash and cards.
There are no currency restrictions if you’re arriving from another EU member state. Otherwise, you’d need to declare anything over €10,000 or its equivalent.
Chris Lilly is a publisher at finder.com. He's a specialist in credit-based products including business and personal loans, mortgages and credit cards, and is passionate about helping UK consumers make informed decisions about their borrowing. In his spare time Chris likes forcing his kids to exercise more.
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