Using a credit card in Portugal
Use our guide to get the best out of your plastic, and your cash, on holiday in Portugal.
Portugal attracts millions of tourists every year, particularly to its capital city Lisbon, the Algarve or the island of Madeira. The great news for travellers is that local businesses make it easier for overseas customers to spend money. It means you shouldn’t have problems using your credit card while you’re in Portugal.
Visa and Mastercard credit cards find widespread acceptance and you might be able to use your American Express card in some places too.
Compare cards with fee-free currency conversion in Portugal
Cash machines in Portugal
You’ll find cash machines linked to the Plus or Cirrus systems so using your Visa or Mastercard card will be easy. ATMs are in all Portuguese cities and towns, at train and bus stations, petrol stations, shopping centres and popular tourist destinations. Bank-affiliated ATMs don’t usually impose additional fees to those your bank may levy.
The best news is you can use most ATMs in cities and large towns in English!
Cash in Portugal
You may still need to pay for small purchases up to €20 in cash, although this is becoming rarer. Keep around €75 to €100 in cash to pay newspaper vendors, cafes, restaurants, bars and small souvenir shops. Don’t be surprised if you are looked at strangely when you ask to pay by card at a local bar when your bill is under €20. You may also come across shopkeepers who aren’t particularly comfortable using the card machines they have.
Chip and PIN
Portugal has moved from magnetic-stripe to chip cards, and all banks in Portugal now issue the latter. You’ll still be able to use your magnetic-stripe card in Portugal, although you can expect some confusion. In the switching of technology, some retailers falsely believe that they can no longer accept magnetic-stripe cards while some others will not let you use them, to do their bit in reducing credit card fraud. All they basically need you to do is swipe your card instead of inserting it into the machine, and then get you to sign for the purchase.
If you use a chip-and-signature card, you can use it in Portugal just about everywhere you find a manned credit card machine. However, some businesses are hesitant in accepting them because they are not sure if it’s allowed and some others don’t accept them to cut down on credit card fraud. If you are getting tickets from a machine, you will need to enter a PIN, in which case your chip-and-signature card won’t work.
Is it safe to use my card in Portugal?
By exercising some caution when using your credit card in Portugal, 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 is 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. Instances of theft at airports are not uncommon, so stay vigilant while arriving and departing. There have been numerous instances of thefts from hired cars so don’t leave your wallet or purse in a parked car. In some cases, thieves pose as police and ask to see wallets for identification purposes. In such a scenario, make sure you are speaking with genuine police officers. It is very unlikely that a real officer will want to sift through your wallet.
Potential credit card fees
Credit card fees can leave a noticeable dent in your pocket when you are 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 will actually end up getting a worse exchange rate, and you might also end up paying currency conversion fees. Whenever you are presented with an option, choose to pay in the 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 are 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 this fee.
The table below serves as an example of how much extra you may pay to use your credit card in Portugal.
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 Portugal
- Go with Visa or Mastercard. Carry at least two cards on your trip to Portugal, 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 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 ATMs. If you need to exchange money, stick to banks or official money-exchange offices because possessing counterfeit money in Portugal 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 Portugal 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 traveller’s cheques with you. Exchanging sterling to euros is easy and you’ll get several options.
When you’re in Portugal, 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.
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