Tips on Using ATMs in Europe

Guy with Euros at ATM
How to use a European cash machine: Insert card, pull out cash. (photo: Dominic Bonuccelli)
By Rick Steves

Throughout Europe, cash machines (ATMs) are the standard way for travelers to get local currency. European ATMs work like your hometown machine and always have English-language instructions. Using your debit card at an ATM takes dollars directly from your bank account at home and gives you foreign cash. You'll pay fees, but you'll still get a better rate than you would exchanging cash dollars at a bank.

Ideally, use your debit card with a Visa or MasterCard logo to take money out of ATMs. Before you go, confirm with your bank that your debit card will work in Europe and alert them that you'll be making withdrawals while traveling — otherwise, they might freeze your card if they detect unusual spending patterns.

ATM transactions made with bank-issued debit cards come with various fees. Your bank may levy a flat $2–5 transaction fee each time you use an ATM, and/or may charge a percentage for the currency conversion (1–3 percent), on top of Visa and MasterCard's 1 percent fee for international transactions. Most bank ATMs in Europe don't charge a usage fee, but watch out for "independent" ATMs, which have high fees. Run by companies such as Travelex, Euronet, or Forex, these machines are often found next to bank ATMs in the hope that travelers will be too confused to notice the difference.

If your US bank charges a flat fee per transaction, make fewer visits to the ATM and withdraw larger amounts. (Some major US banks partner with European bank chains, meaning that you can use those ATMs with no fees at all — ask your bank.) Quiz your bank to figure out exactly what you'll pay for each withdrawal.

Since European keypads have only numbers, you'll need to know your personal identification number (PIN) by number rather than by letter; to determine this, just take a close look at your hometown bank's keypad. Plan on being able to withdraw money only from your checking account. You are unlikely to be able to dip into your savings account or transfer funds between accounts from a European ATM.

Bringing an extra ATM card provides a backup if one is demagnetized or eaten by a machine. Make sure your card won't expire before your trip ends. You do not need a chip-and-PIN card to use a European ATM — your standard magnetic strip card will work fine.

Ask your bank how much you can withdraw per 24 hours, and consider adjusting the amount. Some travelers prefer a high limit that allows them to take out more cash at each ATM stop, while others prefer to set a lower limit as a security measure, in case their card is stolen. To avoid excess per-transaction fees, I usually go with a higher maximum. Either way, it's a good idea to monitor your account while traveling to detect any unauthorized transactions.

Be aware that many foreign ATMs have their own limits. If the ATM won't let you withdraw your daily maximum, you'll have to make several smaller withdrawals to get the amount you want. Note that few ATM receipts list the exchange rate, and some machines don't dispense receipts at all.

In some countries (especially in Eastern Europe), an ATM may give you high-denomination bills, which can be difficult to break. My strategy: Request an odd amount of money from the ATM (such as 2,800 Czech koruna instead of 3,000). If the machine insists on giving you big bills, go to a bank or a major store to break them.

If you're looking for an ATM, ask for a distributeur in France, a cashpoint in the UK, and a Bankomat just about everywhere else. Many European banks have their ATMs in a small entry lobby, which protects users from snoopers and bad weather. When the bank is closed, the door to this lobby may be locked. In this case, look for a credit-card-size slot next to the door. Simply insert or swipe your debit or credit card in this slot, and the door should automatically open.