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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.