Money tips for Italy: How to use Italian Bank Machines (and Why You Should Always Have Cash)

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A TV commercial used to show that paying with anything other than a credit or debit card was not only outdated but actively made life more difficult for everyone. This is a common American idea. I don’t carry any cash at home and can purchase anything I need with my card.

It is not the case for Italy.

Cash is the currency of Italy. Cash is the currency of choice in Italy. They pay for everything, from morning coffee to fancy dinners. Although some businesses will accept credit cards, most Italians prefer cash.

It’s important to remember that in Italy, you will need to have cash.

Traveler’s checks were essential for me when I started to travel during college. They could be converted into local currency. I am thankful that those days are gone and many of you will be familiar with how to withdraw money from foreign banks while traveling. Here’s a quick overview of how to get the cash you need when traveling in Italy.

How to Get Money in Italy: Before You Leave Home

Before you pack, let your banks know that you will be traveling. You should tell your banks which debit and credit cards you intend to use or what you think you might use. This will help them avoid thinking that someone stole your card and has taken off to Italy. It is as fun as it sounds. I can tell you that it is as enjoyable as the hours you spend calling your bank to confirm your travel plans. It’s not a free call, but it is not the way you want to spend your time.

Notifying banks about your travel plans is a good idea. Also, you can find out which numbers to call in an emergency. This information should be kept separate from your cards. You can also keep photocopies of the card number for future reference.

Ask about the fees for using your card in Italy. There may be two fees per transaction: a per-use fee, and a percentage for actual expenditure. You should use the lowest fee card if you have multiple cards.

Before you leave your home, make sure that you have memorized your 4-digit PIN. Italian bank machine keypads don’t have letters, so you will need to know your 4-digit PIN in numbers and not the 4-letter words you spell.

Sidebar Before I leave for work, I always convert some dollars into euros to have some cash on the ground. Although I try to find a taxi that accepts credit cards on my arrival day, if you do get to your apartment and need to store some food in the fridge, you will have enough cash to go to the grocery store. Travelex is my preferred method of currency exchange. However, if you have an account with your bank, many banks won’t charge any fees for foreign currency.

How to use Bank Machines in Italy

You’ve probably used your debit card from your bank to withdraw cash at home, right? With a few modifications, you can do the same thing in Italy to withdraw Euro bank notes.

  • Italic for ATM/bank machine: bancomat.
  • Match the symbols on your card with the bancomat. This could include Visa or MasterCard symbols as well as symbols such “Star”, “Cirrus”, or “Plus.” You should look for matching symbols and not necessarily words. If you match symbols, your card will communicate with the bancomat.
  • The bancomat is not usually located on the exterior wall of the bank building. It will be inside a type of vestibule that lies between the sidewalk and main bank lobby. There are locked doors on both ends. You will need to insert your credit card into the slot to gain access to this vestibule. This is a security measure to ensure you have a valid reason to enter it. This helps to ensure that homeless people and would-be thieves don’t have access to the vestibule. When you enter the vestibule, make sure that the door is closed behind you. You can leave if someone else rushes in to your entrance and use another bank. Do not do anything that causes you discomfort.
  • Select the English language option from the bancomat screen.
  • Enter your PIN, and follow the prompts to withdraw any amount you desire.
  • Because you will likely be charged a per use fee each time you withdraw cash from the bancomat, it is a good idea to withdraw more than you would ordinarily. This is where I tell to keep your money in a wallet and use it correctly . The withdrawal limit for most Italian banks is EUR250-300 per withdrawal.

    Here’s where Italy’s cash-centric culture clashes with its bancomats: the smallest bill given at most bancomats in Italy is EUR50. Anyone who has ever tried to break a EUR50 bill for something less than EUR20 will know the pain involved in this exchange. It’s impossible to change it. I only mention it to make sure you are prepared. You want to avoid paying large bills at a bar or restaurant after a bancomat.

    It’s important to remember that cash withdrawals using your debit card are more common than your credit card. Cash withdrawals from credit cards can be expensive. It’s best to keep that money for emergency situations only.

    Travel Safety: Bank Machine Safety

    There are security measures for some bancomats, as mentioned above. If they are inside a separate vestibule, you can only access them by inserting your debit or credit card. However that is not foolproof. Thieves also have cards.

    I am cautious in unfamiliar places and doubly so when it comes to money. I won’t use a bancomat if I feel even the slightest discomfort. Bancomats should be used during daylight hours, not after dark. If you feel something is not right, cancel the transaction or don’t start it.

    ATM skimmers are a topic that has been discussed before. this article shows examples of skimmers and this another group of examples. This is not something you would encounter when traveling. A bancomat in Italy might not look the same as ours at home. This makes it difficult to know what to look out for when identifying something unusual. It is important to conceal your PIN when entering bank card information.

    It’s not my intention to make you think that bancomat use in Italy is necessarily dangerous or more dangerous than using your home bank machine. And? And?

    Find out more about safety when traveling in Italy

    What to do if you have a problem with a Bancomat from Italy

    My bank has also frozen my account because I didn’t tell them before I travel. I have also had my cards rejected by banks machines, though they are later accepted at the next machine, and my card stolen by a bank machine in Italy. Let’s just say the latter was a series of not-so-fun phone conversations back to my bank.

    Regardless, I am merely stating that your card might not work sometimes for seemingly no reason. Even if you have changed the language of the bancomat from English to English, the error message can still seem gibberish. You will want to visit the bank to speak to a person.

    It seems that banks keep irregular hours in Italy so it is best to plan your visit for weekday mornings. Evenings can be unpredictable and I have yet to discover a pattern in the afternoon hours. Mornings are better than afternoons. You can save yourself an entire weekend of pain by visiting the bancomat on weekday mornings. This way, if anything does go wrong, you will be able to walk straight into the bank to have it fixed.

    * I will warn you that “but they shouldn’t do that” or “but they should treat customers more favorably” arguments won’t get you very far. This is true with me and the Italians. When we travel, we are visiting another person’s home and can’t dictate their business practices. I am here to help you navigate the cultural quirks that might appear when you travel to Italy. Not so that you can laugh at the Italians.

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    11 Responses to “Money Tips For Italy: How to Use Italian Banking Machines (And Why you Should Always Keep Cash)”

  • Pete R has the following:

    These are great tips, especially for those who are visiting Italy for the first time. It is not a way to make your trip to Italy memorable.

    We have not fallen for any of these money crimes. We are aware of the world around us and don’t allow opportunistic thieves easy access to our pockets.

    • Jess has the following:

      Peter, thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you haven’t had money problems! It’s terrible to see this happen in another country, you’re correct.

  • Oh-so-right-on, Jessica! We have had to adjust to being able use a credit or debit card again since we returned to the U.S. It took us a while to get used the idea. Before that, we used to go to Rome to get a few hundred euros for the week. We take $60 cash per week here, and Safeway allows us to do the same for $7.96 on small grocery purchases.

    Another funny thing about cash is that it is impossible to find exact change in Italy. They are constantly looking for 1- and 2-Euro coins because it is difficult to get rolls of change. They will give you a 10.00 Euro banknote for a purchase of 6.00 Euros. If you do not have a 1 Euro coin, they will ask you to show them so they can give your 5.00. I’ve seen Italians just give up and hold out their hands full of change, and then let the cassa decide what they want. It’s something I’ve done myself.

    • Jess has the following:

      Yes! The hunt for perfect change was something I had forgotten about. It always makes me think, “Jeez! If the locals have trouble going to their banks to get things like change, I sure don’t want them to have to deal avec the banks if they don’t.”

  • It’s true! There have been times when I found myself wandering from one bank to the next, and then calling my credit card company to check if there was a problem. They assured me that the card is in good condition. The fourth or fifth machine was a success. Although I have never experienced inconsistencies like this in the U.S. I will say that I don’t use my credit card as a card here. I also rarely withdraw cash from banks and I don’t take out any money from them.

    • Jess has the following:

      Yes, there may be a “logical” explanation of how machines work. But it seems to me more likely that this is the time to shrug and just say “Boh!”

  • Great, useful article, Jessica. Two more points:

    1 – You’ll often get an offer to convert your withdrawals into euros when you withdraw from Bancomat. This “offer” is extremely questionable. First, you will receive euros regardless (duh), and second, the daily exchange rate is often much higher than the official one. Your bank statement will show you a debit/charge already using the global conversion rate. This means that you will see a dollar conversion charge. This option is not worth my time and I didn’t see any benefit. Now I choose “no conversion”, which means that I just give my bank the euros and it will work out. This seems to me to be a profit margin for foreign service providers with no benefit to customers.

    2 – Although it might sound like a commercial you should shop around for a card that does not charge extra for ATM withdrawals overseas. CapitalOne 360 is the right card for me. There are no fees. Ever. It’s not for ATM’s that are “foreign”, nor for truly foreign ATMs outside the USA.

    • Jess has the following:

      Will, that’s very interesting about the exchange offer. I haven’t seen it. Frequent travelers should look for cards that have low (or zero) exchange fees. I don’t use my credit card to withdraw cash, but I do not think it is unreasonable.

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