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Should I bring a lot of euros with me from home?
The first thing to know is that when visiting Rome, bringing a lot of money with you is a very bad idea.
- By buying euros in advance, you will get ripped off on the exchange rate in your home country.
- By buying a lot of euros in advance, you will get ripped off exponentially.
- By carrying a lot of cash when in Italy, you will make yourself incredibly vulnerable to theft, either from your person, or from your accommodation.
- Almost every store and restaurant in Italy accepts credit or debit cards.
- Throughout Rome there are internationally connected ATMs on almost every street corner (tip: ATMs are popularly called Bancomat). Use them and you’ll enjoy the exchange rate of your own bank, which will work in your favor.
Do businesses in Italy take credit cards?
Italy is a developed country with a modern and sophisticated international banking system.
By law, every business in Italy must be able to take cards. In practice about 95% of them do. You hardly need any cash at all.
You can use your credit or debit card wherever there is a PoS (point of sale) machine. Your card needs to be on the Mastercard or VISA international network to function. (Most businesses in Italy refuse Amex and Diners because they charge too much commission.)
If your card is chip-and-pin or is enabled for contactless transfer, then this is the preferred way of making the transaction. However if your credit card is signature-only, most places still accept them.
Apple Pay and Google Wallet are also accepted anywhere with a PoS.
So how much money should I bring to Rome?
- Don’t bring any more cash with you than you’d normally carry with you in your own country on a daily basis.
- Bear in mind the increased pickpocketing risk for a tourist in Rome.
- When you get to the airport, get one or two hundred euros out of one of the ATMs in the baggage hall just in case (they don’t charge fees). Local hack: it’s better to get an amount that isn’t divisible by 50, such as €180, so you force the machine to distribute smaller bills rather than the ‘unbreakable‘ fifties.
- Use your credit/debit card whenever you can in stores and restaurants.
- Get more cash out from an ATM whenever required.
If you are the kind of person who gets uncomfortable about not having some local currency in your wallet before you arrive, then order around €100-200 (in tens and twenties) from your home bank or exchange bureau in your home country and bring it with you so you can use it to pay for a cab or accommodation in an emergency – but you really don’t need any more than that for the reasons outlined above.
Also bring at least one backup credit or debit card, preferably two, and leave it/them apart from your luggage and billfold – in the hotel safe, in a safe box at reception, or just hidden in your suitcase. Don’t forget to inform that bank before you go as well.
Absolute best hack: if you have time, and are in an eligible country, apply for a Wise (formerly TransferWise) account. With this you can apply for a debit card and a ‘borderless account‘, then add a euro balance to your account, and use the debit card at ATMs in Italy. Withdrawing cash incurs zero charges until you hit €300, then it’s 2% after that, but you will still get the best possible exchange rate and there is no fee for paying in stores with the card.
And don’t whatever you do try to hand out wads of US dollar bills. We earn euros, we spend euros – we want euros!
When do I need cash?
What you do need cash for will be: most taxis, markets, cafés, and small convenience stores. Bear in mind that many of these outlets have problems in breaking large bills (€50s or even sometimes €20s), so preferably carry as many small notes (€10s and €5s) and as much loose change with you as you can.
By law all of the above businesses are meant to accept cards for all transactions, no matter how small, but many places will mysteriously find their POS (point-of-sale) machine ‘broken’ when you go to pay. If you insist you absolutely don’t have any cash on you, these machines often heal themselves. Che miracolo!
If you don’t have cash and are getting a taxi, make sure you tell the driver you want to pay with a card not cash before you engage the driver. It’s not legal that they could refuse you and claim their pos doesn’t work, but it will save a lot of hassle not having to deal with the situation should it arise.
It’s also handy to have coins if you want to leave a tip. Europeans are used to carrying a lot of coins, so bring them with you – don’t discard them in your hotel room every night.
ATM tips for Italy
- If you arrive into Fiumicino airport there are several ATMs in the baggage hall in Fiumicino airport. These are ‘honest’ and don’t charge a fee to withdraw euro.
- The best deal is an ATM attached to a Post Office (Ufficio Postale) as they do not impose any fees on foreign transactions. You can withdraw €250 per day from these machines.
- Alternatively use an ATMs that is attached to a bank. These charge minimal fees on foreign transactions, if at all. Though avoid the BNP Paribas network as it has recently started imposing high charges for foreign accounts.
- If the ATM asks you if you want to be charged in dollars (or pounds, or whatever your home currency is) or euros, always choose euros! This seems counterintuitive but it means that you will get your bank’s exchange rate rather than an arbitrary exchange rate charged by the ATM you’re using, which will likely not be in your favor.
- Finally do NOT use the ATMs you find attached to convenience stores, tourism businesses, or standalone ATM kiosks: these ATMs are businesses in themselves, and always charge a high fee. Euronet is the most popular brand for these, and as you can see from this video, they don’t give good value for money.
Where is the best place to exchange foreign cash in Rome?
From the airport to the city center, every exchange bureau is waiting for another sucker. If it advertises “no fee” it means the exchange rate will be absurdly biased in its favor. If it advertises “fair” exchange rates it will impose a huge fee. Some manage to do both!
If you’ve already brought your home currency, write it off to experience, just store it safely, and bring it home with you. You will lose 20-30% on an exchange.
If you have time, it is far better to start a Wise Borderless account before you leave, open a euro balance, do exchange to EUR within that account – at market rate and a tiny fee – then use the VISA card they provide you with to pay for stuff and withdraw cash from ATMs.
Should I bring US dollars?
There is a persistent myth that Italian businesses hungrily accept US dollars. This gained currency (pardon the pun) after the war nearly 80 years ago, and persisted during the devaluations of the lira in the 1960s and 70s when foreign cash was seen as more stable than the rapidly shrinking local currency, but it’s certainly not true fifty years later – particularly not since Italy switched to using the euro more than 20 years ago. The euro is a robust international currency with huge backup, and dollar bills have no advantage over euros in Italy. In fact it’s a complete pain for an Italian business to exchange foreign cash, and they will also lose a lot of money on the exchange.
Provided they’re part of an international circuit (Visa, MasterCard) you can use your home country’s bank’s debit or credit cards all over the country in most businesses and to withdraw cash pretty much all ATMs – standalone, banks, and post offices. Just make sure you inform your home bank/s that you’ll be travelling abroad. And provided your bank doesn’t impose crazy ATM fees, it will also likely give you a much better exchange rate than if you used a bureau. Alternatively open a Wise Borderless account before you go.