Last Updated on
As an American abroad, one of the most common questions that I’m asked by visiting friends and family what is the best way to get cash out in Europe. It depends a bit on your country, but this post will discuss European currency, what you need to do before your trip, best practices for getting cash out at the best rates, whether you need to carry around lots of cash, using ATMs in Europe, how to get the best exchange rates, and some tips for various European countries.
Within the European Union, the euro is the dominant currency used, however, the euro is not the only currency. Certain countries within the EU have chosen to keep their own currency. Similarly, there are countries within Europe that aren’t part of the European Union that do not use the euro. (Kosovo is not part of the EU, but they choose to use the euro as their currency.)
These countries use the euro: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands (my home!), Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.
These countries in Europe do not use the euro: Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, FYR Macedonia, Moldova, Hungary, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Poland, Norway, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and United Kingdom.
Both one and two euro are coins, however beyond that, you’ll receive bills for the various denominations: 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500. In terms of coins, some European countries do not use the penny coin (e.g. the Netherlands), so your amount might be rounded to the nearest even amount.
What you need to do before your trip
Notify your bank and credit cards
This is the most important notes that I have for travelers visiting Europe! If you don’t put on a travel notice for your cards, you won’t be able to use your cards. It’s disappointing and it’s happened to family members of mine. Inform your bank/credit card companies of travel plans.
Set your withdrawal limit
One pro tip of mine is to set your withdrawal limit a bit lower by default in case your card is stolen. I have my withdrawal limit at 150 euros per day and it can be updated easily if I had an emergency. As a traveler, I’d recommend maybe 200 euros if you’re concerned about needing to pay for a hotel in cash.
Do you need to carry a lot of cash on you?
No, you do not. Carrying a lot of cash on you is a liability whether it’s leaving it vulnerable in your hotel room and carrying it around with you on the street (making you more prone to pickpockets). It depends on your travel style, but you will be surprised how many European establishments will accept cards.
Some European countries like Germany and Albania tend to be more cash-based. Similarly, some countries (like the Netherlands) prefer a card system that is not used by many other countries (Maestro debit card). Generally, larger capital cities tend to be more oriented towards tourists, but you might see a shift once you visit smaller cities. Similarly, regional transit may not accept cards.
Bring a wallet or change purse that can handle more coins
Not everyone thinks about this,
Check the ATM withdrawal policies of your bank
Find out how much it will cost you per ATM visit. I recommend looking for a bank that has no ATM fees, which will make it easier to take out cash more often. In terms of US banks, I use Charles Schwab, which doesn’t charge ATM fees anywhere.
If you’re in a similar situation, I’d recommend visiting the ATM every few days (or as needed) to take out 100 euros (or 200 as needed) to minimize how much you’re carrying on you. If you have higher fees, I’d limit your cash to 300 euros at one time.
Avoid taking out cash before your trip for when you arrive
Although it seems natural to go to your bank to get some money, you’re going to get a less ideal exchange rate than if you use an ATM in Europe! There are generally ATMs (described as cash machines/cash points depending on the country) within most major airports, so don’t worry too much!
Best practices for getting cash out in Europe
Avoid traveler’s checks
Although traveler’s checks have long been sold as the safest choice for paying for travel in Europe, however, you might be surprised how many places do not take them anymore. Save yourself the effort of gathering traveler’s checks and look into credit cards that do not charge foreign transaction fees before your trip to pay for hotels (and other extras).
Know the rough rate for conversion
On my first trip to Europe, I obsessed over the currency exchange rate, but unless you’re making a very large purchase in the thousands, you don’t need to check the currency rate obsessively. It will change a bit, but most likely not as markedly as you’d expect.
Even checking the rate every couple days or before you travel to a country that doesn’t use the euro will save you some hassle and help you figure out how much you’re spending in your home currency. This is particularly helpful in terms of using cash machines (
Ensure you have at least one debit card with Visa or Mastercard, if not more.
You never know when your cards will stop working, an ATM eats your card, or you forgot to clear your card for travel. It’s always good to always have a backup card. Visa and Mastercard are the two most popular card types in Europe, so if you have more than one, you’ll save yourself a lot of effort!
Make sure your card is chip and pin
European cards by default are chip and pin, so if your debit or credit card is not set up with chip and pin, you might want to check how to use it and/or replace it with a chip and pin card.
Without a chip and pin card, you might have some issues with card machines specifically designed for this purpose. (Many card readers in the Netherlands where I live are not designed for swiping.)
ATMs in Europe
ATMs in Airports are
convenient, however they usually have high fees attached to them
One of the most convenient places to find an ATM is at the airport, however I recommend checking for the relevant fees as well as the exchange rate as these ATMS tend to be less than ideal. I sometimes take out a small bit of cash (40 euros) to allow me to get into the city center and/or my hotel before finding an ATM at a bank.
Try to look up banks, rather than ATMs, as these ATMs will have lower fees
Whenever you’re looking for a cash machine/ATM, I recommend searching for banks! There’s usually an ATM run by the bank itself and compared to third-party items, their fees might be lower (beyond your own international banking fees). Avoid Euronet ATMs at all costs!
Be aware of your surroundings and try to use ATMs within residential neighborhoods
This is a big one! When I was in Paris, someone on the free walking tour with me chose to use an ATM at a heavily trafficked corner near the Louvre. While he was using it, a man tried to extort him to take the cash while another lingered nearby.
I try to use cash machines in residential neighborhoods (where it’s quieter) and if I have to use an ATM in a popular area, I try to ensure that nobody else is close to me prior to quickly putting the money away.
Check the ATM before using it
Before using a cash machine, I generally will pull on the card reader portion. A skimmer is a device put on top of a card reader (for a restaurant or an ATM) in order to read your card and save that data for thieves. They’re harder to spot, but since watching this video of removing a skimmer in Vienna, I always tug a bit on the ATM and inspect the machine a bit before using it.
Other tips for money in Europe
Large bills may not be broken in many shops
If you’re taking out quite a bit of cash, be warned that many smaller shops and even commercial shops may refuse to break your bill that is 100 euros (and more). It’s frustrating, so avoid getting bills more than 100 euros (beyond paying for accomodation). I generally recommend getting out your money in twenties or fifties.
Avoid exchanging money
Although it seems like a good ideal to have some extra cash on you, the exchange rate at most money exchange booths is far less favorable than using an ATM. I recommend leaving your home currency money at home and waiting until you arrive. You’ll get more money to keep!
It’s generally cheaper to pay in cash for small items and meals. I typically use a credit card for hotels.
You’ll have an easier time paying for smaller meals as well as small items in cash. I typically use a credit card (that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees) to pay for hotels, car rentals, and large purchases (e.g. flights).
Americans: Avoid keeping excess US dollars, most places will not accept them
Although it used to be that you should carry some US dollars just in case, I can tell you that people will think you’re an idiot if you try to pay in US dollars. Pay in euros (or the applicable local currency). You’ll get a better exchange rate and they’ll be readily accepted.
In countries that don’t use the euro, you might be able to use euros in some cases*
In not all countries, the euro is accepted (at a markup) on the local currency at shops. I saw this at Cesky Krumlov, which is very close to the Austrian border, as well as in Albania. In Albania, most tours and hotels quoted the price in euros and would give you a more favorable exchange rate if you paid in lek.
Be careful about handing off your cards to be run in the back
If you’re paying with a card, I generally prefer to pay at the front where I can watch my card be run. If your card is taken to the back, you don’t really know what they’re doing with it and it might provide someone the opportunity to write down your card information. I generally request that I come to the front desk to pay, which is a good precaution.