How to convert cash, use cards, and reduce fees
One of the great benefits of traveling around Europe is the ease of use when it comes to currencies. On much of the continent, you don’t need to worry about keeping different bills and coins or making mental-math conversations between one currency to another to figure out the price of something—thanks, Eurozone! Of course, there are still a few things to keep in mind as you plan and enjoy your travels, especially if you wish to visit European countries that have maintained their national currencies. So read this guide to be ahead of the curve!
Did you know: some 341 million people use the euro each day? That makes it the second most-used currency in the world.
Currencies in Europe—how they work
A good way to think about currencies in Europe is to split them in two: on one hand, you have the euro, which is used in 19 countries around the continent, and on the other hand, you have countries that still use a national currency. The euro (€) exists in the monetary union that covers a significant geographic portion of the European Union. Major countries using the euro include Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. This means that the cash you withdraw in Spain works in exactly the same in Germany—it’s all harmonized into one single system. To learn more about the Eurozone and the countries in it, explore this webpage.
Tip: it might be helpful to familiarize yourself with the euro currency before departure. The most frequently used coins and bills are:
- Coins: 1c, 2c, 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, €1, €2
- Bills: €5, €10, €20, €50, €100
For countries beyond the Eurozone, you will need to exchange currencies—more on that later. Major countries using national currencies include Poland (złoty), Sweden (krona), Norway (krone), and the Czech Republic (koruna).
A few important notes:
- Starting on January 1st, 2023, Croatia will adopt the euro.
- Even though some countries in Europe do not use the euro, you can enjoy the same border-free travel from a Eurozone country to a non-Eurozone country within the Schengen zone.
How to change your currency to Euros before and during your trip
Europe has a highly advanced digital payments network, which means in many countries, you can almost always pay with a card. That said, it’s always good to have cash with you just in case, and some countries still maintain cultures of cash payments, especially for small goods. For example, at a bakery in Lyon, you might have trouble buying a €1.5 euro croissant with a card; the same goes for buying cherries at a vegetable market in Sopot.
There are probably two times when you will need to convert a foreign currency to a European one: before you arrive and while you are here. It’s always a good idea to arrive in your first country with some cash.
Before your depart
- We recommend contacting your local bank a few weeks before traveling.
- Most banks will be able to order euros and other currencies at a far more favorable conversion rate.
- If that’s not possible in your case, coming to Europe with American, Canadian, or Australian dollars in cash is the next best thing. Dollars can be easily and affordably converted at exchange houses across the continent.
When you are in Europe
The best way to approach how much cash you need is to think about where you will be and what you will do.
- Always keep some cash on you.
- Do some research about the money culture in the place where you will visit. Sweden, for example, uses almost no cash anymore, so simply using your regular credit or debit cards is the best way to proceed (though make sure to check about foreign transaction fees before you leave). Greece, on the other hand, relies more heavily on cash.
- Consider whether your activities will be card or cash friendly. Museums and restaurants will almost always be card friendly. Small stores and bakeries might, however, be cash-only.
- If you do need to convert cash, try to find reputable exchange houses. A few tips: look up an exchange place before patronizing it (you can often find reviews online), make sure the place has visibly posted its rates, and ask about fees upfront.
Value-added tax (VAT)
Most European countries impose a VAT or sales tax on consumer goods. Though the rates vary, it’s often about 20% and is automatically included in the price of things. If you are just visiting Europe, you can sometimes apply for a VAT refund on certain types of goods. This typically occurs in two ways: either directly at the store or at the airport when you leave. The best approach to VAT refunds is to ask local sales staff, keep receipts, and make sure you file the proper paperwork. Here’s a good breakdown of VAT refunds.