In the past ten years, it has become increasingly common to use credit cards in Italy. As of 2019, many brick and mortar businesses (including stores and restaurants) now accept most international cards.
Visa and MasterCard are the most commonly accepted credit cards in Italy, and while American Express is accepted in some places, there are retailers who cannot accept it due to the higher fees that they incur. (Or, I know of one restaurant owner who refuses American Express because he explained to me that the company once made commercials in the 1980s and 90s that portrayed Italians as crooks and he vowed never to support the company).
Small Italian businesses like coffee bars and market stalls will probably not accept credit cards because they deal with relatively small sums per transaction and do not have the machines needed to accept cards.
Things to Know about Using a Credit Card in Italy
- The Italian for “credit card” is pretty easy: carta di credito. Some businesses advertise that they accept cards with small logo stickers in the window – but if you see a “no carta di credito” sign, you should plan to pay with cash.
- Alert your credit card company that you plan to travel to Italy to avoid having any attempted purchases instantly declined. Ask about foreign transaction fees to find the best deal and avoid unexpected charges on your next bill.
- When you pay with a credit card in Italy, your credit card will be charged in front of you. This means that if you are paying at a restaurant, for example, the waiter will bring the small device to your table so you can see that you are being charged the correct amount and that you are only being charged once.
- If you are paying with an American credit card in Italy, you may be asked to select if you want to pay in euros or dollars. I almost always select euro because my card has a favorable exchange rate. The exchange rate offered automatically may not be the best deal but you should check with your credit card company about foreign transaction fees in order to make an informed decision yourself.
- If you a renting a car in Italy, make sure you bring a credit card in the same name as the person whose name will be the main driver on the rental contract. (One time I forgot my credit card and my husband forgot his license and we were scrambling to find a solution).
- Rome taxis are technically required to accept credit cards, but they may tell you that their machine is broken and ask for cash.
- For most purchases on credit cards in Italy, you will more than likely NOT be asked for ID.
- You may not even be asked to sign anything when you pay with card. (So should you lose your credit card, report it as stolen as soon as possible).
- Chip and tap cards are both accepted in Italy. If this is not working for some reason, they can also swipe the card.
Debit Cards and ATMs in Italy
Speak with your bank before you travel in order to be able to use your debit card in Italy. As long as there is no block on your account, you can use foreign debit cards in Italian ATMs and in any shop that accepts credits cards (because the handheld card reader accepts both). Your debit card must have a chip in it because debit cards will not work with only a magnetic strip to swipe.
Fees to use your debit card in Italy depend on your home bank, so check with them to be sure. However, using a debit card to take out cash from an official ATM is the best way to get euros. Exchanging dollars to euros at somewhere like a Western Union or airport exchange desk is a sure way to lose a lot of money in commission fees.
When I am taking money out using my American debit card in Italy, I always take out the maximum and I recommend you do the same. My bank charges a flat fee per withdrawal, plus a currency conversion fee, so I try to minimize the number of transactions of this kind that I need to make.
Having cash is always a good idea because while credit cards are widely accepted in Italy, you cannot use them everywhere. Mobile payments are also extremely rare, so bringing a debit card as a way to obtain cash is highly recommended.
Super quick side note, I swear: but have you ever noticed that Euros differ in size based on the amount on the bill? The bigger the value, the bigger the bill! Blew my mind when I figured that out! All our money in the US is one color and one size.
Anyways, it’s hard to find small merchants in Italy that accept credit cards. Italian banks are starting to push for more credit card use, but it’s not catching on very quickly. Italy does have one of the lowest citizen debt rates in the EU, so maybe cash-only is a good cultural policy.
I’ve got no problem with cash.
I DO have a problem with Italian ATMs. Italian ATMs are out of service about 80% of the time. They are either out of money (yes, out of money. They just run out. No one reloads them), or simply broken for some inexplicable reason.
So here are my tips to making sure you get cash since credit cards aren’t as widely accepted as you might expect (and yeah, sure, good luck with those traveler’s checks, bud).
- Go in the morning right after the bank opens. It is less likely that the machines will have run out of cash if you go earlier in the day.
- Walk a couple of blocks, shaking your head and muttering to yourself about how much simpler life would be with credit cards until you find a working ATM.