You’re excited about your trip to Europe. But right now, you have money on your mind. Specifically, you’re wondering whether you can use your credit card or rely on cash abroad.
The answer lies somewhere in between. Credit cards are widely accepted in Europe, especially at large establishments such as hotels. That said, you may encounter merchants who only accept cash. In general, it’s a good idea to carry both cash and credit cards.
If you’re taking along a variety of cards, debit cards and cash, read our full guide on spending money while traveling in Europe.
Credit card acceptance isn’t uniform throughout Europe. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, accept credit cards pretty much everywhere. Others, such as Germany and Italy, will mostly only take cash.
For Europe in general, you’ll typically rely on cash for everyday spending for things such as buses and taxis. Be sure to carry enough cash to get you through each day, but don’t be afraid to use your credit card whenever you can.
International travelers often uncover a nasty surprise: Using a card overseas can be expensive. The main culprits are foreign transaction fees and currency conversion fees.
Credit card fees to avoid
Foreign transaction fees
A foreign transaction fee is assessed when you use your card abroad, and it’s typically 3% of each transaction. However, all good travel cards come with no foreign transaction fees.
Currency conversion fees
A foreign merchant may offer to convert your bill into US dollars instead of charging you in the local currency. This is called dynamic currency conversion. It’s expensive because you pay a currency conversion fee for it. If a merchant offers it, pass.
Before jetting off to Europe, consider getting a travel card without foreign transaction fees. This can save you a lot of money overall. Compare the cards below to find the best credit card for European travel.
Over the past few years, your card providers have probably upgraded your existing credit cards to one with a chip inside. These cards are called chip cards.
In the United States, we mostly have chip-and-signature cards — you must provide a signature during a transaction to verify your identity. Meanwhile, 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.
Can I use my chip-and-signature card in Europe?
You’re not out of luck if you own only a chip-and-signature card. If you don’t have a PIN, an attendant will collect a signature from you during each transaction.
However, you may run into situations where your chip-and-signature card won’t work. For example, you might find yourself at an unmanned train station kiosk.
To avoid this, carry cash or ask your bank to provide you with a PIN, so you could freely use your credit card in Europe.
What if I don’t have a chip card at all?
If you’re still stuck with a magstripe card, call your provider and get a chip card. You can get by in Europe with a chip-and-signature card, but many retailers simply don’t accept a magstripe card.
For the most part, you’re quite safe from credit card fraud in Europe. You’ll rarely be on the hook for fraudulent transactions. Even if you owe money, US law states you can only be charged a maximum of $50.
As with all destinations, however, using the following safety tips is always a good idea.
- Keep your PIN safe. Whenever you enter your PIN, use your other hand to cover your inputs. This helps cut down on spying — both from hidden cameras and people looking over your shoulder.
- Use ATMs selectively. Avoid decrepit ATMs and those in isolated locations. Instead, use ATMs attached to banks.
- Cancel your ATM transaction if anything seems awry. Don’t use an ATM if your card doesn’t slide smoothly into the card slot or if the keypad is difficult to press. The machine may be compromised by a credit card skimmer — a device that steals credit card information.
- Avoid letting your credit card out of your sight. Out of view, someone can easily take a photo of your credit card. At restaurants, consider paying for your meals in cash so that servers won’t have to take your credit card elsewhere. (European restaurants often use portable card readers that servers take directly to you, but you can simply use cash as a precaution.)
Credit card fraud, skimmers and keeping card information safe
Keeping your credit card (physically) safe
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.
Before going to Europe, ensure that you can use your credit card with no problems.
- Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. Foreign transaction fees can be easily avoided with the right travel credit card.
- Highly consider getting a Visa, Mastercard or American Express. These brands are more likely to be accepted abroad — especially Visa and Mastercard. You may be able to use Discover cards at some locations, but many merchants won’t accept it.
- Give your card provider a heads-up. If your bank sees a foreign transaction on your card, they may put a hold on your account for suspicious activity. Let your provider know where you’ll be traveling to avoid this.
- Know who to call if you have a problem with your card while traveling. If your card is lost or stolen, or something else happens to it, call a local number to resolve the issue.
- Know where you’ll get cash once you arrive. See if your bank has international partnerships that allow you to use some ATMs for free.
You’ll definitely need cash in Europe, but if you use your credit card to make a cash withdrawal at an ATM, you will incur a cash advance fee as well as a higher interest rate for cash advances.
Check out this card’s pricing information table. As you can see, the cash advance APR is 25.74%, which is higher than the APR you’ll get for purchases or balance transfers.
You’ll also see that a cash advance comes with a high fee. You’ll pay the fee that is the greater of $10 or 5% of your transaction. If you take out a $300 cash advance, for example, you’ll pay the 5% fee — that’s $15.
Of course, credit card ATM withdrawals may also be subject to foreign transaction fees. The implication is clear: Limit credit card use at ATMs.
Pick up a debit card instead
Most debit cards have no cash advance APR or cash advance fees since you’re using your own money to make a withdrawal.
A debit card from the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account is one excellent pick. It reimburses you for any fees you may incur at ATMs. The card also doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.
Using your credit card in Europe is generally safe. Just make sure to keep an eye on your card. To avoid unnecessary fees, look for a card with no foreign transaction fees. Also, consider carrying a backup card in case something happens to your primary card; This can be a debit card, which you can use to make cash withdrawals to avoid cash advance fee or a cash advance APR.
Before deciding which card to get, compare your credit card options.