How easy is it to use a credit card in Italy?
You’ve bought the ticket, planned the itinerary and even made a Facebook post about how excited you are — you’re ready to visit Italy (and eat all the delicious Italian food that you can get your hands on).
Of course, if you plan on using a credit card in Italy to buy that second bowl of pasta or those extra-special guided tours at the Coliseum, here are some things you should know.
Cash is king
It’s an excellent idea to carry euros with you during your trip. Big tourist locations and hotels will often accept credit cards, and sometimes even US dollars. But, if you plan on exploring the beautiful farmer’s market in Venice, you should keep in mind that they probably won’t accept plastic, so plan on carrying some cash with you. Plus, while some places may accept US currency, they’re likely to give you poor exchange rates.
Magstripe and chip credit cards
Your credit card provider has probably sent you a new credit card with a chip inside to replace your magstripe card. The chip card has a chip inside of it and you insert it into a credit card reader, while a magstripe can only be swiped.
In the US, most stores use chip-and-signature cards, meaning that you insert your chip card and sign for it. However, in Europe chip-and-pin cards (where you insert your chip card then enter your PIN) are more common.
Using a chip-and-signature card in Italy usually won’t be a problem. The attendant will often just ask for a signature. However, if you are in a place where there aren’t attendants – like a train station late at night – then you may be facing a bit of a conundrum.
You can avoid this problem either by simply carrying cash or by calling your card provider and asking for your credit card PIN. Make sure that you leave a few weeks to receive your PIN by mail.
If you’re still worried about using your chip-and-signature card, you can cover your bases by 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.
Should I use my credit card to get cash?
ATMS are everywhere in Italy – just as they are in the United States – only they’re called Bancomats. Don’t let the Italian name fool you, by the way. At the beginning of your transaction, you’ll be able to select English as your language of choice and they operate just like American ATMs do.
If you decide to use an ATM to get cash, it’s a good idea to use your debit card. Credit cards will often charge you a cash advance fee when you withdraw money. You’ll also immediately start accruing interest on your transaction until you pay back the amount withdrawn.
What’s a cash advance fee?
A cash advance fee is assessed 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, the cash advance fee for the Chase Sapphire Preferred is either $10 or 5% of the amount of each transaction, whichever is greater.
Don’t forget that you might still pay an ATM fee when you use your debit card, but you’ll avoid paying interest. Choose a low-fee card like the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account. It reimburses you for any fees you may incur at ATMs, doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and won’t stick you with cash advance interest because it’s not a credit card.
What other credit card fees should I look out for?
Foreign transaction fees
When you use your card abroad, you can incur a foreign transaction fee that’s usually 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 World Elite and BankAmericard Travel Rewards.
Currency conversion fees
A merchant may offer to convert your bill into US dollars instead of charging you in euros. This is called dynamic currency conversion, and it’s expensive because you’ll pay a currency conversion fee for it. If a merchant offers it, take a hard pass.
How to prepare before traveling to Italy
Before arriving in Italy, make sure you can use your credit card there easily.
- Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. Most credit cards will charge a 3% foreign transaction fee if you try to use it internationally. However, cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Barclaycard Arrival Plus and American Express Platinum Card don’t charge foreign transaction fees.
- Highly consider getting a Visa or Mastercard. Visa and Mastercard are pretty universally accepted in Italy. AMEX and Discover are not always accepted.
- 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 charges, let your provider know you’ll be traveling to Italy.
- Know who to call if you’re having problems with your card. 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. Ask your provider for an Italian phone number you can dial in a pinch.
- 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 Bancomats for free.
You’re almost ready to leave for Italy! Before you take off, know your answers to these questions.
- Which credit cards will I take? Consider bringing at least two, preferably chip cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees.
- Have I called my card provider? Keep your card provider in the loop, and know what number you’ll call if you run into trouble abroad.
- Do I understand the possible fees? Knowledge is power — and it can save you a lot of money on your travels.
- What’s my plan to get cash? Have a debit card ready, and know which ATMs you’ll get cash from.
- How can I keep my card safe? Keep your credit card with you at all times, cover your PIN with your hand when at an ATM and cancel your ATM transaction if anything seems off.
Once you’ve made these arrangements, you’re all set to use your credit card on your next trip to Italy. Safe travels!