By Rick Steves
Despite some differences between European and US cards, there's little to worry about: US credit cards (Visa and MasterCard) generally work fine in Europe. I've been inconvenienced a few times by self-service payment machines that wouldn't accept my card, but it's never caused me serious trouble.
European cards use chip-and-PIN technology: Europeans insert their chip cards into a payment machine slot, then enter a PIN. Most chip cards issued in the US instead have a signature option.
Although US cards no longer require a signature for verification, don't be surprised if a European card reader generates a receipt for you to sign. Some card readers will accept your card as is, but others may prompt you to enter your PIN — so it's important to know the code for each of your cards, including your credit card.
At self-service machines (transit-ticket kiosks, parking, etc.), results are mixed, as US cards may not work in some unattended transactions. Your US cards should work in many kiosks, including those in the London Underground, but may not in others, such as the Paris Métro (though it's always worth a try, as the situation is constantly changing).
Drivers beware: Drivers in particular need to be aware of potential problems using a credit card to fill up at an unattended gas station, enter a parking garage, or exit a toll road. Be prepared to move on to the next gas station if necessary (don't let your tank get too low, especially if driving at night or on Sundays). When approaching a toll plaza, err on the easier (if slower) side by using the "cash" lane.
What to Do if Your Credit Card Won't Work
If you don't know your credit-card PIN, try the following:
- Press the "Continue" button without entering any numbers; you may be able to skip the PIN step.
- Use your debit card, as you probably have that PIN memorized.
If a payment machine won't accept your card — even with a PIN code — you'll have to find an alternative way to pay.
- Look for a cashier who can process your card manually. For this reason, it's a good idea to allow a little extra time at train stations and the like, as staffed service windows almost always have longer lines than ticket machines.
- Pay in cash. Since most payment machines take coins (and possibly small bills), it's smart to keep spare change handy (especially for highway toll booths, parking garages, luggage lockers, bike-rental kiosks, etc.).
- Use a mobile phone app to make your payment.
- In a pinch, you could ask a local if you can pay them cash to run a transaction on their card.
If your card is rejected by a cashier, you'll likely need to contact your bank — you may have forgotten to authorize the card for use overseas.
Some European merchants and hoteliers — capitalizing on the fact that some Americans are intimidated by unusual currencies — cheerfully charge you for converting your purchase price into dollars. If it's offered, refuse this "service" (called "dynamic currency conversion," or DCC). You'll pay extra for the expensive convenience of seeing your charge in dollars. The price is usually based on a lousy exchange rate set by the merchant's bank — and even though you're paying in "dollars," your credit-card issuer may still levy its standard foreign-transaction fee.
DCC charges are common all over Europe; in some countries major banks require merchants to offer it. If you're handed a receipt with two totals — one in the local currency and the other in US dollars — circle the amount in the local currency before you sign.
According to Visa and MasterCard, consumers have the right to decline DCC service: If your receipt shows the total in dollars only, ask that it be rung up again in the local currency. If the merchant refuses to run the charge again, pay in cash, or mark the receipt "local currency not offered" and warn the clerk that you will be disputing the charges with your bank.
Some ATM machines also offer DCC, often in purposefully confusing or misleading terms. If an ATM offers to "lock in" or "guarantee" your conversion rate, choose "proceed without conversion." Other prompts might state, "You can be charged in dollars: Press YES for dollars, NO for euros." Always choose the local currency.
Using a Payment App
Europe is speeding ahead with payment apps such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, and PayPal. Instead of inserting your credit card into a machine, you hold your phone near a contactless reader (look for a Wi-Fi-like logo). The app then uses your fingerprint — or even your face — to verify your identity and authorize the payment. While this may sound risky, it's actually more secure than a credit card. Instead of recording your credit card number, a "token" — a one-time encrypted number — is used to make the purchase, and expires shortly afterward. And you don't have to worry about curious eyes watching you as you enter a PIN.
Some public transit systems, such as the London Underground, have integrated their payment machines with mobile-phone apps, making riding the bus or taking the subway even easier.
But banks in some countries — such as Germany and the Netherlands — may be slow to adopt these systems, and older phones may not support contactless payments, so it's not time give up on plastic yet.