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ATM, Debit, and Credit Card Fees for Americans in Europe: Know before you go!

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ATM machine in Paris
Do you know how much those euros will cost? Photo: Nicolas Nova

May 27, 2010. Like a good Cheapo, you’re planning to avoid currency exchange counters and head for the ATM upon arrival in Europe. But if you’re American, we have a couple of questions for you.

How much does your American bank charge to withdraw money from a foreign ATM? Do they take a percentage? What’s the foreign transaction fee applied by your credit card? How about your other credit card?

I know, just about anything would be more fun than an hour spent on the phone with your bank and credit card companies before leaving on a trip. But ignorance is not bliss, dear readers! Before heading to Europe there are a number of questions about foreign transaction charges and ATM fees that American travelers should absolutely ask their banking institutions.

This information is quite dynamic, as US banks have recently been changing their fee structures in an attempt to recover lost profits following a couple of rocky years. Thus, even if you called before your last trip, call again. Things may have changed.

Ready to call? Here’s our “cheat sheet” for what to discuss with your bank:

Tell your bank about your trip.

First, the basics: Call your bank and credit card companies to tell them that you’ll be traveling abroad. This is important for them to know, as foreign charges and ATM withdrawals may signal an internal “red-flag” and could result in your account being frozen. That’s really not something you want to deal with from, say, the cobblestone streets of Florence.

Your bank will probably ask for the duration of the trip and may ask which countries you’ll be visiting. It’s a good idea to ask them for a phone number to call from abroad, should any banking concerns arise (many cards have this information printed on their back).

That’s the easy part. Now let’s get into the fees.

Q: Does your bank charge a foreign ATM withdrawal fee? Do they charge a percentage of the withdrawal? Both?

This will vary widely among banks, however many charge between $1.50-$5 per withdrawal AND add a foreign transaction fee of 1-3%. However, some banks will only charge a flat fee and others may only charge a percentage. To illustrate how widely these charges differ between banks, we hunted down the ATM withdrawal charges yesterday  at some of the country’s most popular banks. Here’s what we found:

Bank of America: $5 fee per ATM withdrawal plus 1% currency conversion fee (or no ATM fee plus 1% for withdrawals from Global ATM Alliance). Read more on Bank of America’s Web site.

Citibank: 3% currency conversion fee per withdrawal. For more information, see Citibank’s Web site.

Chase: $3 ATM charge plus 3% currency conversion fee per withdrawal (or no ATM charge plus 3% fee for premium accounts). For basic account charges, read the small print on Chase’s Web site.

HSBC: $1.50 ATM charge per withdrawal. No currency conversion fee (and no fees at all for premium accounts). For more information, try to digest this PDF from HSBC’s Web site — or call and speak to a representative.

Wells Fargo: $5 ATM fee per withdrawal. No currency conversion fee. More information on Wells Fargo Web site.

These rates were found on May 26, 2010 and could change at any time. Please check with your bank to find current fees and charges.

Q: Does your bank charge a foreign transaction fee for debit card charges?

Just as ATM fees vary widely, debit card charges are all over the place. For the most part, however, the bank will assess a foreign transaction fee and most hover around 3%. In some cases, it’s slightly less. We’ve also heard of banks charging both a foreign transaction percentage AND a flat-fee for debit charges.

After talking to your bank, call and ask your credit card company the same questions.

Q: Does your credit card charge a foreign transaction fee?

For most credit cards, the answer will be yes. It’s often around 3%, but, like everything else, it varies from card to card.

Notably, the Capital One credit card does not charge any foreign transaction fees for purchases abroad, which has made it quite popular with travelers. (For more information, see Capital One’s Web site.)

Q: What does your credit card charge for cash advances?

Most cards will charge a percentage of the cash advance, plus any other fees that your card would normally charge for an advance. Some banks also set a minimum cash advance fee.

Some more points to keep in mind

* Many US banks have now started charging foreign exchange fees for purchases made with foreign companies even if you’re still in the US. For example, if you purchase a Ryanair (based in Dublin) flight online from your office in Detroit, you may still pay a 3% foreign exchange fee, even though you hadn’t left the country.

* Many foreign ATMs have only numbers on their keypads. If your PIN (security code) also uses letters, figure out the numerical equivalent before you head over.

* Foreign ATMs may only permit you to withdraw cash from your checking account, and may not allow access to savings or other accounts. It’s wise to beef up the checking account before heading over — and know how to log in to your account online, in case you need to transfer more cash into your checking account.

Choose wisely

These calls are a bit tedious, but, as many of us travel with multiple credit or debit cards, it’s vital that you know the terms for each card.

You’ll probably find that your cards have different fee structures that you can work to your advantage. For example, if an ATM card charges a flat-fee without a percentage for each withdrawal, make fewer withdrawals and take out more euros each time. If one of your credit cards has a lower foreign transaction fee, it’s an obvious choice to use on the road.

The bottom line is this: Call your bank and credit card companies before heading over. When you get your statements later, there won’t be any surprises. (Well, at least from the fees… Impulse purchases are another story.)

Your questions and money advice

What other questions do you ask your bank before leaving? What have you learned from your ATM and banking experiences abroad? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

About the author

Tom Meyers

About the author: Tom Meyers created and launched EuroCheapo from his Berlin apartment in 2001. He returned to New York in 2002, set up office, and has led the EuroCheapo team from the Big Apple ever since. He travels to Europe several times a year to update EuroCheapo's hotel reviews. Tom is also a co-host of the New York City history podcast, The Bowery Boys. Email Tom. [Find Tom on Google Plus]

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18 Responses to “ATM, Debit, and Credit Card Fees for Americans in Europe: Know before you go!”

hiddeneurope Nicky says:

Great post, Tom. I would just chip in one more thought. If visitors from the US do encounter problems using their cards while here in Europe, it is really worth bearing in mind that the problem (and thus the solution) is more likely to lie with their card provider back home in the US, rather than with the system used by the retailer or service provider here in Europe. Banks and other card providers are ever anxious to minimise their own risks, no matter how much their security procedures might inconvenience the card holder. Insisting to a hotel receptionist that your card works perfectly at home won’t help pay the hotel bill. If the card isn’t accepted, it is surely not the receptionist’s fault. Hence, the importance of advising your bank in advance about your trip.

This problem is not peculiar to US banks, though they are possibly more vigilent in monitoring spending patterns than their European counterparts. I occasionally run into problems when I use my card in a manner that seems at odds with my normal spending patterns.

@AlexBerger says:

Great list, my only other tip would be to remind readers that there are a lot of card skimmers out there. Always make sure the ATM you’re using hasn’t been tampered with.

This is an awesome post! A must read for anyone headed to Europe that is on a budget. I’d like to note that if you have one of the above banks you might want to switch to Charles Schwab checking. It’s awesome.

1. it’s free, no monthly fee or minimum balance
2. they actually pay you interest. I used to get 5% month, now i only get .50 but it’s still something
3. They pay ALL atm fees back to you, including foreign ones
4. They don’t have a foreign transaction fee or anything like that. it’s totally free!

Honestly, they are a great bank!

Great list. If you can join USAA, they have the best options for international travelers that I’ve seen. You or someone in your family has to have been in the military though.

Jeff says:

It seems that the credit/debit cards preferred in many European countries are Visa and Mastercard. Has anyone using a Capital One or simlilar credit card run into any difficulties?

wintersweet says:

Jeff: Capital One is a provider of Visa and Mastercard credit cards, just as Chase and Citibank, etc., are. It’s not a credit card itself.

Stella K says:

I’ve used Capital One Platinum card in Europe. They do not charge foreign transaction fees. I had no difficulties using it. Before you leave for your trip, you just need to inform customer service the countries you are visiting and the time period for your stay. Fidelity Smart Cash (checking account) also offers the same thing as the Charles Schwab checking mentioned above.

Susan Trudeau says:

I just returned from France and was able to use my Bank of America ATM card at BNP banks in France for no fees at all. The two banks have a relationship and therefore, there were no service charges. It was like using a BOA machine at home. Also, my relationship with Smith Barney allows me to have foreign service fees and ATM machines waived up to $200.00 annually. I had called all my banks to let them know where I would be travelling. That way I wasn’t embarrassed as some were when the fraud department of their bank disallowed a transaction because they thought it was an unusual purchase. Always make arrangements with your bank before leaving, just as you should get direct dial phone numbers since 800 numbers will not work when calling from abroad. Thanks again for your article. Very helpful for all.

Dick Jordan says:

I’ve made four trips to Europe in the last decade.

Here are my three tips for using debit and credit cards aboard:

1) Take two credit cards (plus at least one debit card) with you when you travel to Europe. If one card is lost or stolen, or the account is frozen, you’ve still got one card that you can use. (A friend recently had his only credit card “skimmed” in Italy forcing him to make frequent use of ATMs).

2) You may need a PIN to use your credit card to get cash advances from a European ATM. When you call your bank to let it know you will be traveling in Europe, ask about obtaining a PIN. Call well in advance of your departure: Some banks will let you obtain a PIN via the Internet, but others will require you to phone in your request (or make it on-line) and will send you the PIN by mail and you won’t receive it sooner than 5-10 business days.

3) Use your ATM and credit cards when convenient or necessary. Remember: You’re going to Europe to have fun, so don’t lose sleep fretting over card fees!

Barbara says:

USBank has a new prepaid travel card. Is the travel card a good deal and are they accepted in Europe?

Joanne112564 says:

Anyone have any experience with Chase Debit Cards? Which banks are they affiliated with in England and Spain (London and Barcelona respectively)?

Sean says:

Extremely helpful suggestions. If anyone can help with my situation, I would appreciate it.

I called my bank and they told me I would get a $6.00 fee for using my debit card plus maybe an additional fee from the European bank. I’m worried that each ATM withdrawal I make will cost me $10 – $15.

My card is a Debit Mastercard through Sovereign bank. Sovereign is a Santander member. After doing some research, I’ve found that Santander is a pretty big European bank. Does that mean I won’t get charged a fee if I find other Santander banks? Does anyone know if there are many in France, Germany, Netherlands, Czech Republic and Hungary?

I’m going to call my bank to have my withdrawal limit increased so I can take out a decent amount and not have to go to the ATM every day.

I thought about putting money on a Travelex card to avoid the fees and as a back up, but much of what I’ve read says these cards give you a terrible rate and the math still favors using my debit card even with the fees.
We leave in two days so i don’t have a lot of time to make arrangements. As someone said earlier, I’m not going to let a few fees ruin our European experience, but I would appreciate any helpful thoughts on my situation.

Marco says:

Hello! How you did in your travel?

I am looking for the same answers you did years ago. I am going to Hungary and Czech republic. My card is Santander. Did you have any trouble? You found the ATMs?

I would thank you very much if you answered!
Marco

Amy says:

Is it possible to get a cash advance at a European bank through the teller? I have a functional debit card but my pin hasn’t arrived yet. My bank said I could get a cash advance inside a bank without needing a pin. I have never done this before and was curious how this worked.

freda says:

Do not leave on your trip without a PIN – a four digit one – European Bank machines like 4 digit PINS. They will not deal with you unless you have a PIN- that is unless it is a branch of your home bank. You can’t do debit or cash advance without a PIN.

Suzanne Petrucelli says:

Has anyone had any problems with an ATM card from a Credit Union?

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