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Money Tips for Italy: How to Use Italian Bank Machines (And Why You Should Always Carry Cash)




Euro banknotes and coins || public domain photo

Euro banknotes and coins || public domain photo

There used to be a commercial on TV, years ago, that implied paying for anything with something other than a credit card was not only behind the times – it was actively making life difficult for everyone else. In the United States, this is an easy idea to get behind – I rarely carry cash when I’m at home, because even a coffee or a pack of gum or anything else that’s less than $5 is something I can buy with a card without getting dirty looks from the person behind the counter.

This is not the case in Italy.

In Italy, cash is king. Italians pay for all kinds of things with cash, from the morning coffee to a fancy dinner. And although some businesses accept cards, they almost always prefer cash – and they’re not shy about doling out a glare when faced with a card, or about telling you the credit card machine is broken when it’s not.*

The bottom line is that whatever you’re used to at home, in Italy you’ll need to carry cash.

When I first started traveling during college, I brought traveler’s checks with me to convert into the local currency. I’m thankful those days are behind us, and I suspect many of you are already familiar with taking money out of foreign banks when you travel. Just in case, though, here’s a little overview about how you get that oh-so-necessary cash when you travel in Italy.

Getting Money in Italy: What to Do Before you Leave Home

Euro notes in a wallet || public domain photo

Euro notes in a wallet || public domain photo

Well before you’re finished packing, tell your banks that you’ll be traveling. Whatever debit and credit cards you plan to use, or think you might use, those banks need to know when you’ll be gone and where you’ll be going so that they don’t think someone has absconded with your card and taken off to Italy without you. Let me tell you, from personal experience, it is just as much fun as you’d expect to have to spend hours on the phone with your bank back home when your card gets put on hold in the middle of your trip. Sure, it’s a “free” collect call, but whatever – it is not how you want to spend your time, trust me.

In addition to notifying your banks of your upcoming travels, find out what numbers you should call if there is an emergency. Keep this information separate from the cards, along with photocopies of the card numbers, just in case.

Also inquire about what their fees are for using their card in Italy. Sometimes there are two charges per transaction – a per-use fee and a percentage of the actual expenditure that’s an exchange fee. If you’ve got multiple cards, use the one with the lowest fees.

Another thing to do before you leave home is make sure you know your 4-digit PIN. The keypads on Italian bank machines do not have letters on them, so you’ll need to know what your PIN is in numbers – not a 4-letter word you spell out.

Sidebar: I always exchange some dollars into euro before I leave home, so that I have a little cash when I land. I still try to get a taxi on arrival day that will accept a credit card, but in the event that you get to (for instance) your rental apartment and want to put a few things in the fridge then you’ll have some cash to bring to the local grocery store without also having to hunt for a bank. I usually use Travelex, but check with your bank first – many banks don’t charge a fee for getting foreign currency if you have an account with them.

How to Use Bank Machines in Italy

Bancomat sign in Gardaland || creative commons photo by Simone Ramella

Bancomat sign in Gardaland || creative commons photo by Simone Ramella

Most of you have probably used your debit card at your bank at home to withdraw cash, yes? You’ll do the exact same thing in Italy to withdraw euro bank notes, with a few adjustments.

  1. The word in Italian for ATM or bank machine is “bancomat.”
  2. You need to match the symbols on the back of your card with the bancomat – including Visa or MasterCard, but also symbols for things like “Star,” “Cirrus,” or “Plus.” Look for matching symbols, not necessarily words. Matching symbols tells you your card will communicate with a bancomat.
  3. In many cases, the bancomat will not be on the outside wall of the bank building, but rather inside a sort of vestibule between the sidewalk and the main bank lobby, with locked doors on both sides. To get into this vestibule, you’ll need to insert your card into a slot so that the exterior doors open – this is simply a security measure to make sure you have a reason to be in there. It helps ensure would-be thieves or homeless people don’t hang out there. Make sure the door closes behind you when you get inside the vestibule. If someone else hurries in on your entry, feel free to exit and use another bank. Don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable.
  4. Choose the English language option on the bancomat screen.
  5. Type in your PIN and follow the on-screen prompts to withdraw the amount you want.

Now, because you’ll likely be getting charged a per-use fee every time you withdraw cash from a bancomat, it makes sense to withdraw larger sums than you might ordinarily – say, a couple hundred euro as opposed to just the €50-100 you need in the next day or so. (This is the part where I tell you to have a money belt and use it properly.) Most Italian banks have a withdrawal limit, which might be €250-300 per withdrawal, so that shouldn’t be an issue for most of you.

Here’s the part where Italy’s cash-centric culture and its bancomats clash – the smallest bill that is given out at most bancomats is €50. Anyone who has tried to break said €50 bill on something that costs less than €20 knows the agony involved in that exchange. There’s not much you can do about it, I just mention it so you’re prepared. Plan your post-bancomat outings wisely so you’re breaking large bills at a restaurant over dinner and not at the bar over coffee.

Also, it’s worth noting that most of the time you’ll want to withdraw cash using your debit card – not your credit card. The interest rates charged on cash withdrawals from credit cards are typically astronomical, so it’s best to save that for emergencies only.

Bank Machine Safety When Traveling

Euro notes in a wallet || public domain photo

Euro notes in a wallet || public domain photo

As mentioned above, there are some security measures in place with some bancomats – if they’re inside a separate vestibule that can only be accessed by inserting a credit or debit card – but of course that’s not foolproof. Thieves have cards, too.

I’m someone who’s generally cautious when I’m in an unfamiliar place, and that’s doubly true when I’m dealing with money. If I feel the slightest bit uncomfortable at a bancomat, I will not use it. Use bancomats during the day rather than after hours when it’s dark. If your gut tells you something is weird, cancel the transaction (or don’t start it) and use another machine.

The issue of ATM skimmers is one that’s been covered before – this article shows some examples of skimmers, and this one shows another batch of examples – and it’s not just something you’d run into when traveling, either. The problem is that a bancomat in Italy won’t always look like our bank machines at home, so we’re not sure what to look for to spot something that might be out of the ordinary. To keep your bank card information safe, it’s important to hide your PIN from any potential spying eyes (or cameras) when you’re typing it in.

Put your card into the bancomat || public domain photo

Put your card into the bancomat || public domain photo

Cover the keypad when entering your PIN || public domain photo

Cover the keypad when entering your PIN || public domain photo

I don’t want you to think that using a bancomat in Italy is inherently dangerous, or any more dangerous than it is to use your bank machine at home – it’s not. And? You need to make sure you’re paying attention to your surroundings no matter where you are, covering the keypad as you type in your PIN, and stashing your money in a money belt – all the usual things I’d encourage when you were traveling anywhere.

Learn more about travel safety in Italy

What to Do if You Have a Problem With a Bancomat in Italy

Euro notes and coins || public domain photo

Euro notes and coins || public domain photo

In addition to having an account frozen by my bank when I neglected to tell them ahead of time of my travels, I’ve also had cards rejected by bank machines (though they’re later accepted at the next machine) and eaten by a bank machine while traveling in Italy. The latter was – well, let’s just say that was another series of not-so-fun phone calls back home to my bank.

At any rate, what I’m saying is that sometimes your card may not work, for what seems like no reason. And even when you’ve switched the language on the bancomat to English, the “error” message may still basically seem like gibberish. This is when you’ll want to go into the actual bank and find a human being to speak with.

Banks keep what seem like irregular hours in Italy, so plan your visits for weekday mornings whenever possible. Afternoons are hit or miss, and if there’s a pattern to the afternoon hours I’ve not yet discovered it – so mornings are your best bet. To save an overnight (or weekend) of anguish, plan to visit the bancomat on a weekday morning so that if something does go wrong, you can walk right into the bank to try to get it sorted out.

* I’ll warn you now that the “but they shouldn’t do that,” or the “but they should treat customers better” arguments won’t get you far – with me or the Italians. We’re visiting someone else’s house when we travel, and we as the interlopers don’t get to dictate how they do business. I’m here to help you navigate what might seem like weird cultural quirks when you visit Italy so that you’ll be prepared – not so that you can scoff at the Italians.


10 responses to “Money Tips for Italy: How to Use Italian Bank Machines (And Why You Should Always Carry Cash)”

  1. Peter R says:

    Great tips that people should adopt especially if this is their first trip to Italy. Being scammed is no way to remember your vacation to this awesome country.

    Luckily we haven’t fallen victim to any of these types of money crimes. We stay aware of what’s going on around us and we don’t make it easy for the opportunistic thieves to lift our wallets!

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for the comment, Peter – and I’m glad you’ve not had any money issues! You’re right, it’s a terrible thing to have happen in a foreign place.

  2. Oh-so-right-on, Jessica! It has taken us awhile to get used to being able to use a debit or credit card again now that we are back in the U.S. We used to go to the bank in Rome and get a few hundred Euro for the week. Here we take maybe $60 cash a week, and oh-by-the-way we can do it at Safeway when we spend $7.96 for a small grocery purchase.

    The other funny thing about cash in Italy is the relentless pursuit of exact change by the cassa in a store. Apparently getting rolls of change is not easy so they are always looking for 1-and-2-Euro coins. Give them a 10.00 Euro note for a 6.00 Euro purchase and they want to know if you have a 1 Euro coin so they can give you a 5.00. I have seen Italians give up and just hold out their hand full of change and let the cassa take what he/she wants. In fact, I have done it myself!

    • Jessica says:

      Yes! I forgot about the hunt for perfect change. That always makes me think, “Jeez, if the locals have problems going to their banks for things like change, I certainly don’t want to have to deal with the banks if I don’t have to!”

  3. All so true! And I’ve had instances of bank machines not working one after the other – wandering from street to street, one bank to another, then calling my credit card company assuming there must be a problem with my card. They tell me that there is nothing wrong with the card. Finally, the 4th or 5th machine, success! I haven’t ever experienced such inconsistencies in the U.S., but then again, as you say, I use my credit card as a credit card here, I rarely take out cash and when I do, it’s from my own bank.

    • Jessica says:

      Yeah, and although there might be a “logical” explanation for what machines will work, it seems more likely to me that it’s the perfect time to just shrug and say, “Boh.”

  4. will.douglas.english@gmail.com says:

    Great, useful article, Jessica. I’ve two more points to add:

    1 – Often when you withdraw from a Bancomat, you’ll get a screen offering to convert your withdrawal into euros. This is an extremely dubious “offer” – because you’re going to receive euros anyway (duh), second the exchange rate is usually much much higher than the official daily one. And finally your bank statement will already show a debit/charge that uses the global conversion rate already. In other words, you will see a charge in dollars, already converted! I fail to see any value in selecting this option, and I only saw myself overcharged the one time I chose it. So now I always choose “no conversion” ie: just give me the euros and let my bank figure it out. Looks to me like just another profit margin for the foreign service provider with no benefit to the customer.

    2 – This might sound like a commercial, but shop around for a card that doesn’t charge anything extra for ATM withdrawals abroad. In my case CapitalOne 360 fits the bill. No fees. Ever. Not for “foreign” ATM’s in the US, nor for truly foreign ones outside America.

    • Jessica says:

      Oh, that’s interesting about the exchange “offer,” Will – I haven’t seen that. And yes, frequent travelers would do well to look for cards with low (or no) exchange fees, etc., though I still never use my credit card for cash withdrawals.

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