ATMs in Europe: Avoiding Exchange Rate Scams and Navigating Options
I’ll start this article by stating that ATMs in Europe are *mostly* *safe*. *Mostly* meaning that you shouldn’t use questionable machines in alleyways susceptible to identity theft technology. *Safe* meaning that your identity won’t be compromised, but your bank account may be emptied more than it honestly should. Trusted Private European companies include: Euronet, EC, Bankomat, and Your Cash. That being said, it is ALWAYS better to use ATMs inside of banks during business hours as they are the safest against thieves, your card can be retrieved if the machine malfunctions, and they have the lowest usage rates.
If you need cash soon or travel on days that banks aren’t open, your only option might be one of the private companies listed above. Their ATMs will try to deceitfully squeeze more money from your transaction; they often prey on tourists who are confused or rushed, desperate for cash in local shopping areas with cash-only vendors. In some cases, the machines are programmed to respond differently to foreign cards. Don’t worry, though, sailor! There is a way to ensure your fast cash comes without extra exchange fees.
Firstly, when you put your foreign card in, the machine will likely prompt you to withdraw absurdly large quantities of cash. Even with a European card, the machines we use while travelling give us similar prompts. These specific examples are from Poland. If you know anything about Poland, 3000PLN will buy you, roughly, 1500 bottles of beer from a store (more or less depending on the brand/city). However, this isn’t as bad as some machines in Prague reportedly asking users to withdraw 20,000 Crowns.
You can simply select “other amount” until you reach a screen that physically allows an input of smaller numbers.
Next comes the tricky part. After you accept the amount to withdraw, another screen shows (two examples below). The latter is more deceptive as it insinuates the entire transaction will be declined. Nope! You’re just declining THEIR conversion on the screen. No need to waste your data or time checking the internet because their conversion is ALWAYS worse. In fact, we did an experiment with our N26 cards to see how much of a difference it can make. It shocked and angered us because the amount was so drastic. (I foolishly lost a few more dollars than anticipated).
We both took out 400PLN with an ATM fee of 16.95PLN (which is about €3.80) and the difference between us with and without the conversion was ALMOST 13 EUROS. Our N26 accounts showed, in real time, what was taken from the accounts and the exchange rate at which is was taken so the comparison was instantaneous. Keep in mind that 400PLN is, dependant on the exchange rate of the day, around €94. If you wanted to take out cash for a week’s worth of dining and shopping, the conversion would be even worse! These machines try to scare tourists into using their terrible exchange rates by stating “they cannot guarantee the rate” and if you don’t accept their rate, the market may change and they cannot control it. Companies may also mention the fee is “included” in their rate to sweeten the deal. The likeliness of the PLN paring with the Euro in a matter of minutes is not very high. Move along, Euronet!
We’ve often found it more economic to bring our local currency (currently the Euro) and exchange it at local conversion offices rather than withdraw from ATMs. These businesses normally post their rates out front so you can compare the market rate with theirs and also decide what establishment has the best deal. Try to find non commissioned businesses. This method can be risky as tourist areas tend to be expensive in general, but at times it is competitive to what local banks offer when ordering foreign currency. We recommended checking online to see if local currency exchange offices take your currency and if the exchange rates are comparable to what your bank offers. RESEARCH IS LIFE. To extend, NEVER exchange at bus stations or airports. If you need cash for transit, exchange a MAXIMUM of $10. Honestly, they’re terrible.
Most machines have multiple languages. However, we recommend downloading the google translate app and dictionary of the host country’s native language before departure so if you need a short word translation, like conversion rate etc, you can plug it into the dictionary to ensure you understand SOMETHING in the case of language inaccessibility.
Often, bank machines give you the highest denomination possible. If you’re withdrawing from a machine, try to choose different numbers (i.e $140 instead of $150) to get varying bills. If that doesn’t work, head straight inside the bank to switch denominations as many local shops and vendors can’t break larger ones. If you’re not at a bank, the best places to break large bills are tour companies (if you plan to attend), restaurants, and hotels.
Be aware of your personal debit card limits. For example, if my limit is 500CDN per day, that would be equivalent to (sad day) €340. Think about this before you travel and avoid issues while abroad! Look into the rates at which your card will be charged by your bank. Most banks in Canada charge a flat rate of $5 per foreign withdrawal (on top of the ATM fee), so it’s worth budgeting and planning accordingly to avoid unnecessary fees.
If using a foreign card, make sure the ATM matches the international symbols on your card. This means the machine and your account are compatible. Don’t worry, though, globalization has taken care of this for the most part 😄 Try to avoid using Visa or Mastercards, etc, though because the tend to be a lot pricier no matter where you withdraw cash from.
Happy travels, fellow sailors! Keep working hard 💪