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 if you need to stick with tried-and-true cash.
The answer lies somewhere in between. Credit cards are widely accepted in Europe, but you’ll sometimes encounter merchants that only accept cash. You’ll also make purchases that can be easier to pay for with a credit card, such as a hotel room. In general, it’s a good idea to carry both cash and credit cards.
As it turns out, there’s a lot more you should know about using a credit card in Europe. Before you go overseas, soak up a few more tips so you’re well prepared.
Consider which country you’re going to
Credit card acceptance isn’t uniform throughout Europe. In some countries, you can use credit cards pretty much wherever you go. In other nations, you’ll have to get by mainly on cash.
In such European countries as the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, cashless transactions rule. Some retailers may not accept cash, even if you want to use it.
Other countries — Germany and Italy, for example — heavily rely on cash, so you should make it a point to it.
For Europe in general, you’ll typically rely on cash for everyday spending like 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.
A few credit card fees to avoid
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 (though can be more, depending on your card).
Most credit cards have foreign transaction fees. However, all good travel cards come with no foreign transaction fees. For a few excellent cards, look into the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Barclaycard Arrival Plus and BankAmericard Travel Rewards.
Like many travel cards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred charges 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, and it’s expensive because you pay a currency conversion fee for it. If a merchant offers it, take a hard pass.
Should I use my credit card to get cash?
You’ll definitely need cash in Europe. Unfortunately, it can be very expensive to get cash from your credit card. That’s because your card provider charges you 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.
Not only that, but you’ll see that a cash advance comes with a high fee. At a minimum, you’ll pay $10. But you might pay more, because the fee 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: Don’t use your credit card at ATMs.
Pick up a no-fee debit or ATM card instead
Instead of relying on your credit card to get cash, look for a low-fee debit or ATM card.
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. And because it’s not a credit card, you won’t have to worry about cash advance interest.
Even better, the card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. That means you can avoid the 1% to 3% fee that credit and debit cards often charge.
Compare credit cards
Magnetic stripe and chip credit cards
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, unsurprisingly, 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 be in a pickle at an unmanned train station kiosk.
To avoid this conundrum, carry cash: You may be able to use it at the kiosk or simply buy a ticket from an attendant. Additionally, ask your card provider if you can get a PIN for your card. A PIN could let you complete transactions if a signature doesn’t suffice.
To cover your options more completely, consider picking up an actual chip-and-PIN card. Two such cards often recommended by travelers are the State Department Federal Credit Union Visa Platinum and the Andrews Federal Credit Union Visa.
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.
Is it safe to use my credit card in Europe?
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, there’s the possibility your credit card information could be stolen. Here are a few ways to avoid it.
- 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.
- Be careful about which ATMs you use. 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 bring directly to you, but you can simply use cash as a precaution.)
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.
Clockwise from top left: Money belt, hidden pocket, neck pouch, belt with hidden pocket.
How should I prepare before my trip?
Before going abroad, ensure that you can use your credit card with no problems.
1. Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. Foreign transaction fees can be a downer on vacation, but they’re easy to avoid if you pick the right card.
2. 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 you’ll find that many merchants don’t accept it.
3. Give your card provider a heads-up. Your card company hates fraud because it loses them money. If they see a foreign transaction on your card, they may put a hold on your account for suspicious activity. To avoid declined harges, let your provider know where you’ll be traveling.
4. Know who to call if you have a problem with your card while traveling. Your card might be stolen while you’re traveling, or you could lose it. In both cases, you’ll need the right number to call for a replacement card. Make sure the number is local to your destination.
5. Know where you’ll get cash once you arrive. So you don’t waste time, plan out beforehand where you’ll get cash. See if your bank has international partnerships that allow you to use some ATMs for free.
Before you head out to Europe, answer these questions:
- Which credit cards will I take? Consider taking at least two. Make sure they’re chip cards and don’t come with foreign transaction fees.
- Do I understand the fees I might encounter? Knowledge is power — and it can save you a lot of money on your travels.
- Have I called my card provider? Keep your card provider in the loop, and know what number to call if you run into trouble abroad.
- What’s my plan for cash? Have a debit card ready, and know which ATMs you’ll get cash from.
Once you’ve made these arrangements, you’re all set to use your credit card on your next European trip. Safe travels!