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Using Credit Cards in Europe

Tips and warnings for travelers

credit-card reader photo

ABOVE: In many European businesses, credit-card readers have keyboards for entering the PIN numbers used with "smart cards." INSET BELOW: In some countries, such as France, cards with embedded microchips are required by ticket machines, self-service fuel pumps, and other newer vending devices.

Credit cards are used widely in Europe, but if you're a visitor from abroad, read these tips and warnings before arriving in a European country with nothing but plastic in your pocket:

  • Some businesses say "no" or set minimums. Street vendors, hole-in-the-wall cafés and restaurants, and tiny old-fashioned shops don't always accept Visa, MasterCard, or the local equivalent. Also, some businesses won't accept cards for smaller purchases (e.g., under 20 euros). To avoid getting caught short, carry at least some local currency.

  • International brands and networks work best. Just about every business that does accept credit cards will take your Visa, MasterCard, or EuroCard, and businesses that cater to well-heeled tourists and business travelers usually honor American Express. (Diners Club may also be accepted; Discover is a U.S.-only brand, although that could change with Discover's acquisition of Diners Club Europe.)

  • 'smart card' microchip photoMicrochips can prevent--or cause--headaches. "Smart cards," also known as "chip and PIN cards," are increasingly commonplace in Europe. Such cards incorporate microchips that can be programmed with user information and security data. Normally, you'll need to enter a four-digit Personal Identification Number, or PIN, when you make a purchase. (See photo at top of page.) This makes it tougher for thieves to use stolen cards or card numbers.

    Most European merchants can swipe older, cheaper magnetic-stripe cards, such as Visa and MasterCards from the U.S., but such cards may not work everywhere. In France, for example,  magnetic-stripe cards aren't recognized by newer railroad ticket machines and self-service gasoline pumps--which is why you'll see long lines of frustrated travelers at the RER ticket machines in Charles de Gaulle Airport. And we've read reports of American travelers being unable to use their cards at some businesses in other parts of Europe where PINs were required.

  • Watch for hidden fees. Increasingly, banks and credit-card companies are charging hidden "foreign transaction fees" of 2 to 5 percent on purchases outside the cardholder's home country. Often, such fees are charged even on transactions in the cardholder's own currency. See our Credit-Card Surcharges article for more information (including how to avoid such fees).

  • Avoid cash advances. Instead of getting cash with your credit card (and paying fees plus interest for the convenience), use your bank ATM card--but watch out for the exorbitant ATM conversion fees that many banks are charging these days.

  • Call your credit-card company before you travel. In the U.S., especially, xenophobic banks and credit-card companies may reject overseas transactions unless they've been notified of your trip ahead of time. (As long as you're calling, ask about "foreign transaction fees" so you'll know if it's time to take your credit-card business elsewhere.)

  • Carry a backup card, and bring photocopies of cards with you. If you own more than one credit card, carry a backup card just in case your primary card doesn't work. If you can carry the backup card in a different place from your main card, such as a hidden "neck safe," so much the better.

    Also, it's wise to make photocopies of your cards (including the customer-service phone numbers on the back) so you can report any theft or loss of your card immediately. Keep the paper copies separate from your cards, and if you're traveling with a companion, let the other person have a copy of your card information.

Finally, and most important:

  • Guard your cards! Don't carry credit cards in a backpack, a carry-on bag, or a suitcase, and don't keep your wallet in a hip pocket or a belt pouch. Pickpockets and purse snatchers know that tourists are often careless, so they'll be watching you.

For more advice about money and travel, click the navigation links below.


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