By Rick Steves
Throughout Europe, ATMs are the standard way for travelers to get cash. 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 leave on your trip, 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 out-of-network 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.
When possible, withdraw your cash from bank ATMs located outside banks — a thief is less likely to target a cash machine near surveillance cameras, and if your card is munched by a machine, you can go inside for help.
Most bank ATMs in Europe don’t charge a usage fee, but stay away from “independent” ATMs, which have high fees and may try to trick users with “dynamic currency conversion.” These ATMs (labeled with names such as Travelex, Euronet, Moneybox, Cardpoint, and Cashzone) 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. 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 stripe card will work fine.
Before you go, 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.
Remember that you’re withdrawing a different currency than dollars; for example, if your daily limit is $300, withdraw just 200 euros. Many frustrated travelers have walked 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 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.