Using Your Debit or Credit Cards in Europe

Shops and bistrots in Petits Carreaux Street, Paris, France

Bruno de Hogues / Getty Images

There was a time when everyone used to travel with Traveler's Checks or big wads of cash they'd exchanged at their home bank, but the world has moved on, and ATM use is easier and cheaper than ever. Visa and Mastercard are both widely accepted in Europe; American Express is less widespread. Germany, surprisingly, is one of the slowest countries to widely accept credit and debit cards, particular in bars and restaurants. Eastern Europe, on the other hand, is one of the best places in the world for card transactions, while in Iceland, even vending machines take cards.

Be aware of Citibank's claim that you'll find a Citibank branch wherever you go. You won't.

Potential Charges to Watch out For

  • Foreign transaction fees: These might be a flat fee or a percentage.
  • Inflated exchange rates: Don't get hung up on "No foreign transaction fees!" Banks often make it up on exchange rates. Look out for banks that offer the 'inter-bank' or 'bank-to-bank' rate.
  • Dynamic Currency Conversions (DCC): This is when the machine offers to make the currency conversion for you. The conversion will always be unfavorable. Always ask to be charged in euros (or whatever the currency is in the country you are visiting) and let your home bank make the conversion, they will always give you a better fee.
  • One-off fees charged by the machine itself: These are exceptionally high at convenience stores and in bars (particularly in the UK).

Banks change their charges frequently, so double-check with the bank before applying.

Citibank ATMs

Citibank in the US doesn't guarantee their cards will work in non-Citibank machines outside the US. Their website only says it can be used for free in 45,000 ATMs in 30 countries. If they can be used in other machines, it would presumably be for a fee that the bank seems unwilling to put on its website.

Use Find My Citi to find where Citibank ATMs can be found: you'll be disappointed to see there really aren't many in Europe (there's only four in London, for example). You also need a Citibank Gold card to avoid fees.

Wells Fargo, JP Morgan, Bank of America and Capital One ATM Fees

  • Wells Fargo allows you to use any Visa ATM anywhere in the world. However, they charge $5 for every withdrawal and 3% on any transaction in a shop.
  • Bank of America has partner-banks around Europe, including Barclays in the UK, Deutsche Bank in Germany, and BNP Paribas in France, which are three of the biggest banks in Europe. Withdrawals from these banks will be for free. Withdrawals from other machines cost $5.
  • Chase Direct charges $3 per international transaction.
  • Capital One and their online-only 360 accounts are not very clear on how much they charge to make withdrawals abroad. Other websites suggest the 360 account has no fees overseas.

Before You Travel

  • Notify your bank via the 800 number on the back of your card that you'll be using your ATM card in Europe.
  • Write down the foreign phone numbers to contact your bank in case of problems (800 numbers, as are reported in the back of your ATM card are seldom free in Europe).
  • If you depend on the ATM card for all your cash needs, make sure you have two of them, and that the PIN number is four digits, no more.

Tips and Strategies

  • Write down the phone number of your bank: The number is usually on the back of your card, but if your card has been stolen, you'll need to call and report it.
  • Take a second card from a different bank: Sometimes, particular cards just don't work in certain countries. Have a back-up card just in case. There is a list of easy cards you can obtain at the bottom of the page.
  • Shorten your PIN: If your PIN is longer than four digits, you may need to get a new number. Many foreign machines don't like longer codes or letters in a PIN. You can get letters translated into numbers by asking your bank.
  • Tell your bank you'll be traveling: This is very important. Before you go, make sure you call the number on the back of your credit or debit card and inform the company of your dates of travel. Otherwise, they'll allow you the first transaction and possibly reject others on suspicion that your card is being used by a stranger in a strange land.
  • Max it out: Making many small withdrawals increases the number of per-transaction fees. Get as much as you can and stash it in a safe place.
  • Know your numbers: Make sure someone at home who's accessible while you're on vacation has your credit card info. Someone you trust, of course. Make a copy of your card and take it with you, and keep it in a different place from where you carry your card.

Alternatives to the Credit or Debit Card

These services are easy to join and are a good alternative to using your normal bank card.

  • Simple: An American online-only bank that charges nothing to withdraw abroad.
  • Visa Prepaid: Most have no fees for overseas transactions and withdrawals.
  • Cash Passport: Load it up with the currency of your choice and pick it up at the airport.
  • Revolut: Store your money in a UK-based account with three built-in denominations (US dollar, British pound, and euro). Free withdrawals worldwide and no transaction fees. 
  • N26: If you're in Europe for a while and have an address for a week or two, consider starting an N26 account. They're very easy to set up and completely free if you stick to the fair-use agreement. Note that this needs a smartphone for setup.
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