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

Although credit cards are widely accepted in Europe, in some corners (Greece, for example) cash is still king. Here an overdependence on plastic can shape the Europe you experience. Pedro's Pension, the friendly guide at the cathedral, and most merchants in the market don't take credit cards. Going through the Back Door often means using hard local cash. And having a stash of cash as a backup is always smart.

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. To avoid getting into a bind, make sure you have some cash before heading to a small-town or rural destination.

When possible, withdraw cash from a bank-run ATM located just outside that bank. Ideally, use the machine during the bank's opening hours, so you can go inside for help if your card is munched. 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, Your Cash, Cardpoint, and Cashzone. These have high fees, can be less secure, and may 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. Their machines may even have signs that scream "Free Cash Withdrawals" — don't believe it.

Withdrawing Cash

European cash machines 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. They always have English-language instructions.

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 €275 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.