Tips on Using ATMs in Europe

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

Throughout Europe, ATMs are the easiest and smartest way for travelers to get cash. You'll pay withdrawal fees, but you'll still get a better rate than you would exchanging dollars for local cash at a currency exchange booth (terrible rates).

Finding Cash Machines

In most places, cash machines are easy to locate — ask for a distributeur in France, a "cashpoint" in the UK, and a Bankomat just about everywhere else. Small towns may have a limited number of or even no ATMs. Consider stocking up on cash before heading to a small-town or rural destination, to avoid getting into a bind.

When possible, withdraw cash from bank-run ATMs located just outside that bank. Ideally use them during the bank's opening hours; if your card is munched by the machine, you can go inside for help. Bank ATMs usually do not charge usage fees and are generally more secure, as a thief is less likely to target a cash machine near surveillance cameras. Many European banks place their ATMs in a small entry lobby, which protects users from snoopers and bad weather. To get in, look for a credit-card-size slot next to the door and insert your card.

Avoid "independent" ATMs, such as Travelex, Euronet, Moneybox, Cardpoint, and Cashzone. These have high fees and may try to trick users with "dynamic currency conversion." Note that these "independent" ATMs are often found next to bank ATMs in the hope that travelers will be too confused to notice the difference.

Withdrawing Cash

Cash machines are easy to use. They always have English-language instructions and work just like they do at home — except they spit out foreign cash instead of dollars, calculated at the day's standard bank-to-bank rate.

It's best to use a debit card that charges low fees for international ATM transactions. To further reduce fees, limit the number of withdrawals you make by taking out larger sums.

Remember that you're withdrawing cash in the local currency. If your daily limit is $300 in US dollars, you may be able to withdraw just €270 or so (depending on the exchange rate). Many frustrated travelers get an "insufficient funds" message and walk away from ATMs thinking their cards were rejected, when actually they were asking for more cash in euros than their daily limit allowed.

Be aware that ATMs themselves have withdrawal limits. If the ATM won't let you withdraw your daily maximum, try several smaller withdrawals to get the total amount you want. (Or, to avoid excessive per-transaction fees, try another cash machine — maximum withdrawals vary by bank and location.) Note that few ATM receipts list the exchange rate, and some machines don't dispense receipts at all.

In some countries (especially east of the eurozone), an ATM may give you high-denomination bills, which can be difficult to break. My strategy: Request an odd amount (such as 2,800 Czech koruna instead of 3,000), and/or head right inside a bank to exchange your withdrawal for smaller bills.