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Using Debit Cards in Italy

One of the biggest headaches about foreign travel used to be figuring out the whole money thing. I remember the things I used to have to consider when I’d travel years ago: Should I get some of the local currency before I leave home? How much should I get in travelers checks? What are the best places to exchange travelers checks? These days, however, travelers to most countries around the world have a much easier time of it – and that includes those of you going to Italy. Still, there are a few things to think about before you leave home, so I thought I’d go over the important points about using debit cards in Italy.

>> Read about how to detect ATM skimmers when you travel so your card details don’t get stolen.

Cash or Credit? In Italy, Cash is King

When I’m in the United States, I’m accustomed to paying with just about every purchase, almost regardless of how small it is, with a debit or credit card. I, like many Americans, carry plastic at all times, but am often found without any cash at all in my wallet (and some marketing campaigns tell us this is the only way to go). This kind of thing doesn’t fly in Italy, however. While most hotels and bigger restaurants – especially the ones catering to tourists in tourist-infested cities – will accept credit cards to pay the bill, more often than not you’ll be met with reluctance or face outright rejection of your credit card in many of the shops, cafes and smaller restaurants throughout the country.

This means that you’ll need to carry cash in Italy. But how do you get that cash? Well, smart travelers these days have moved beyond the travelers checks of yesteryear and are instead armed with debit cards. Your debit card from your bank back home will work just fine in bank machines all over the world, and instead of dispensing money in your home currency, Italian bank machines will give you euros – lovely, valuable, colorful euros. Using debit cards helps you eliminate the sometimes excessive service charges banks levy for actually walking into a branch and making an actual human being process the exchange for you, and they also give you the convenience of withdrawing money even when banks are closed (which is not uncommon in Italy).

Using Bank Machines in Italy

Luckily, Italy is one of the countries where bank machines are ubiquitous in any city or town of any size – if they’ve got a bank, they’ve got a bank machine. In Italian, it’s called a “bancomat,” and the sign you’ll want to look for is this:

Keep in mind that in some cases, the bancomat won’t actually be outside on the sidewalk but inside the bank – or at least inside the first set of doors to the bank. This is mainly a security issue, and with some banks you’ll even need to temporarily insert your debit or credit card into a slot in order to make the doors to the bancomat room open so you can get in! Don’t worry if you have to do this – your card isn’t charged or eaten or anything. It’s just one method to keep out vagrants or would-be thieves (it’s not fool-proof, obviously, but it’s something). Be sure to pay attention to your surroundings when you’re entering one of these bancomat rooms, and if someone else tries to enter the enclosure with you – without inserting their own bank card – go back out the door and find another bank machine or come back another time.

Before You Leave Home

But I’m getting ahead of myself… If you intend to use your debit or credit card in Italy to get money out of a bank machine, the first thing you’ll need to do – before you leave home – is call your banks (both for your debit and credit card) and let them know. Tell the bank where you’ll be going and what dates you’ll be gone. And even though there are plenty of people who’ve neglected to do this and not had anything bad happen, please trust me when I say you don’t want to be that one person who has a hold put on a card in the middle of a trip. Yes, I’m speaking from experience, and it’s not fun. Spending time on the phone to your bank while you’re supposed to be on vacation – even if it’s a free collect call – is not ideal. (Although you should still ask them what number to call if you do run into a problem.)

And while you have your bank on the phone, ask them what they charge for using your debit or credit cards in Italy. They may have one of two charges per transaction – one that’s a percentage of the amount you’re withdrawing or charging, and one that’s a flat per-use fee – and it’s likely that they’ll charge both. If you’ve got more than one credit or debit card, call all the banks involved and ask the same question – and then use the cards with the lowest fees. Better yet, shop around for the lowest fees before you even sign up for a card!

One more pre-trip note about using bank machines is that while the keypad for typing in your PIN will look awfully familiar, most countries have only numbers on the keys and no letters. This means that if your PIN is a word instead of a four-digit number so that it’s easier for you to remember it, you’ll need to memorize the corresponding numbers before you leave home. And that’s another point – if your PIN is anything but four digits, you’ll be in trouble. Make sure it’s a four-digit PIN.

Matching the Symbols on Your Cards & the Bancomat

Now, you’re in Italy, you’ve told your banks that you’re traveling, and you’re ready to withdraw some money from an Italian bancomat. This is the part where you’ll have to take a look at your card for some symbols. The first symbols you’ll notice are things like the Visa or MasterCard logos on the front of your cards – not the words, but the logos (the words may be different in Italy). Next, you’ll see symbols on the back of your cards that say things like “Plus,” “Star” or “Cirrus.” All of these symbols are important to pay attention to, because they’ll identify which bank machines will be able to read your card’s information and give you money. In other words, you’ll need to match at least one of the words/symbols on your card with the words/symbols shown above the bancomat screen in order to proceed.

I say “words/symbols” because sometimes, for instance, the word “Cirrus” will be in the middle of what looks like a MasterCard logo, so you’ve got to be a little lenient with your strict image hunting.

Italian Bank Machines Speak English

By this point you may be thinking, “Holy crap, this is going to be such a pain! And I don’t speak any Italian anyway, so how am I going to understand the blasted machine in order to get money out?” All I can say to the first part is that I know it seems like this is a lot to go through to get money out of an Italian bank, but it’s really easy (I’m just laying out all the steps here so it seems long). As for the second part, that’s no trouble at all – every bancomat session begins by asking you what language you want the transaction in, and English is always one of the options. Language problem solved.

Other Important Bancomat Notes

The rest of the bancomat process should be self-explanatory once you’re using the machine, but here are a few more things to keep in mind:

  • Most Italian bancomats have a maximum withdrawal limit. This could be around €250-300, which may never be an issue, but if you need a particularly large wad of cash for something you may need to withdraw it over a period of time or from different bank machines.
  • Because your bank may have a per-use fee attached to your debit card, it’s probably cheaper to withdraw larger sums of money less frequently as opposed to withdrawing €50 every time and having to go back often. Just remember to carry most of your cash in a secure place, like a money belt, rather than leave it all in your purse or wallet.
  • Generally speaking, while it’s possible to withdraw cash from credit cards, it’s so outrageously expensive to do this that you should avoid it at all costs. It’s good to know your credit card’s PIN in case of an emergency, but you should rely on your debit card first. This was actually the reason my mother first got a debit card – which she still only uses when she travels!

What to Do if You Have a Problem

Of course, even the most savvy travelers can have problems with foreign bank machines. I’ve never had a card eaten by a bancomat, though I can imagine it’s happened to someone somewhere. I have had a card rejected, despite that very card having worked perfectly in that very machine before – and the “error” messages on Italian bank machines might as well be Greek, even when they’re in English. What I’m saying is that they’re decidedly unhelpful. So if your card isn’t working (and if you’ve already called your bank at home and they say everything’s just ducky and they can’t imagine why you’re having problems), your only recourse may be to actually go into one of the Italian banks and see if they can sort out the issue. Bank hours can seem erratic, especially in the afternoon, so try to go in the morning – and either bring someone who speaks Italian, or ask the teller if there’s someone in the bank who speaks English.

Short Recap: Getting Cash in Italy

To review, here are the main points to remember about dealing with money in Italy:

  1. Using credit and debit cards in Italy is the easiest and cheapest way to get local currency.
  2. Make sure to notify your banks that you’ll be traveling to Italy before you go.
  3. Be sure your PIN is both four digits long and numbers rather than letters.
  4. Identify the symbols on your cards in order to match them to the symbols on Italian bank machines.
  5. Withdrawing larger sums of money less frequently is generally more cost-effective.
  6. Italian bank machines allow you to choose English for the transaction.
  7. If you’ve had a problem with the bank machine and it’s not your home bank’s issue, visit the Italian bank during the morning.