Money In Paris

When I started my career as a global warrior, way-back-when, arriving everywhere lugging an overstuffed backpack with a ridiculously-cheap bottle of red wine and a stinky, smashed wedge of brie inside, the only thing one needed to make sure one had were traveler’s checks, which were easy-to-buy and widely accepted no matter where one went. You’d simply waltz up to any change booth (well, maybe not waltz, since you’d get a funny look doing that on a sidewalk in Paris), cash ‘em (after paying a commission), then walk away with a wallet-full of the local currency. But times have changed and the advent of ATM machines, where you can access money directly from your bank account back home, have changed everything. And credit cards, which most of us migrated to, which offered the best exchange rate, are now socking people with large fees, so they do have their drawbacks too.

moneyparis.jpg

So here’s my tips for getting money when visiting in Paris.


Please note!
Your bank, credit card company, or credit union, may have a good deal and if so, you can share it with others in the comments sections. And remember that rules change often and without notice. Policies seems to change more frequently than currencies and it’s best to telephone and seek information from your particular financial institutions well in advance of your trip.

And speaking of calling financial institutions, always carry the numbers to contact your credit card companies and bank with you. Especially if they have overseas numbers. But even though they have toll-free numbers which you can supposedly access from abroad, you need to go through a foreign telephone operator, like AT & T, to get connected, so have those numbers too.

In addition to carrying those numbers, if you use a web-based email service, like Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail, email yourself those numbers so you can access them from any cyber café in Paris. Scan and email yourself your passport in case it’s lost or stolen, too. Then you can print it from anywhere in the world, which will make it easier to replace if necessary.

Credit Cards

Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted, but few merchants or restaurants will accept them unless the amount is over 15€. Otherwise you’ll need to have cash. Rarely do taxis take credit cards, and not so many places take American Express due to the commission, so you should bring another card along as back-up.

One frustration to guests, which happened to a whole group of mine just yesterday (of 9 people), you’ll find your US-based credit cards denied for no reason.
You can prevent this by calling your credit card company in advance and telling them your travel plans. But sometimes it just happens and your card gets denied for absolutely no reason at all. (Usually it’s when there’s 6 people lined up behind you at the supermarket.) And in those cases, it’s good to have a second back-up card, or cash.

If you use your credit card to pay in restaurants, should you wish to leave a little extra for a gratuity, leave it in cash on the table instead of adding it to the credit card receipt.

Always call your bank before you leave and let them know you’ll be traveling. My US-based bank requires you to call only within 3 days of your departure, no further in advance, for some reason. (As if you don’t have enough to do three days before you leave on your trip…)

Virtually all US-based credit cards add 3% or more points to purchases made abroad, called a “currency conversion fee”. It used to be included in the conversion and not shown on your statement, but a lawsuit forced them to separate it out, and it shocked many consumers to find out they’ve been getting hammered by fees. But you’re on vacation, and it may be worth it for you to pay a little extra for the safety and convenience. So even though you may be chasing miles, unless you have a special deal (like double miles) consider if it makes sense to use it. Many travelers use Capitol One credit cards since, at the time of this writing, they don’t charge any percentage points for foreign transactions.

If your wallet is stolen, it’s often recovered with everything intact sans the cash. That’s because there’s less credit card fraud in Europe, since it’s illegal to sell personal financial information about you (unless it’s negative) and credit cards in Europe use a puce, not an info-loaded magnetic strip. A friend had her purse rifled by a neighboring diner at a restaurant, who hurried out afterwards. Moments later she realized he lifted her wallet, but it was found on the ground just outside the restaurant intact (sans the cash, mais oui).

ATM Cards

Although you might think Paris is a popular, world-class tourist destination, anyone who’s arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport knows what a nightmare that place is; I sometimes think I’ve landed in a third-world country by accident! Unlike other cities, getting cash there is often a dicey proposition since cash machines (les guichets automatiques) are surprisingly scarce, broken, or just don’t work.

Don’t believe me?
Here’s an account from a travelers bulletin board I read recently:

“… we tried to get cash…our ATM cards didn’t work at the only ATM in the arrivals area. We then went to the departures area – same story. We ended up buying euros at the American Express desk, but even there, we had problems – my Amex card and my husband’s Visa card were both rejected. My Visa worked. So, now with some cash, we made our way to the RER to catch the train into Paris. We decided to buy a 5 day Paris Visite pass – now we find that both our Visas are rejected, but my Amex card worked. Go figure.”

Most banks, on both ends, take a hefty chunk when making ATM withdrawls.
But you can do a few things to soften the blow: Check with your bank to see if they have an affiliated bank in Paris. Bank of America, for example, has a deal with BNP Paribas and Barclays so you don’t pay ATM fees. Also asking if your bank will raise your cash withdrawl limit means you’ll need to make fewer transactions and can save some fees, although you may feel uneasy traveling with a large amount of cash.

There are ATM’s on just about every street in Paris, and at La Poste, which in France, serves as a bank as well. But note that most European PINs don’t use letters, just numbers. So if your PIN is in letters, have it changed before you leave. And be sure to try your new PIN out before you leave since once you’re here, there’s not much you can do if it doesn’t work except get a costly cash advance from your credit card company. And in French ATM’s, you get three tries: Should you fail, the machine eats your card and you get to experience the famous bureaucratism de France for yourself. Also, I recommend using ATM’s during bank hours; in case there’s a problem and your card gets eaten, you can go inside and (try to) retrieve it.

Unlike credit card fees, ATM fees are fixed. See if your bank will increase your limit, since you’re paying the same amount to withdraw 20€ as you pay for 200€. Some banks will let you take out up to $1000 per day. The downside is having that much cash on hand, so you should weigh saving money against the peace-of-mind. The other thing to know is that even if your US bank says you’re entitled to $500 per day, the bank here may not allow it. That’s especially true in heavily-touristed areas, which often limit the amount of withdrawls to protect themselves from fraud. Yet in another neighborhood, you may be able to get your maximum.

Like your credit card, call your bank and let them know you’ll be traveling. I went to London recently, made and ATM withdraw one day, went back the next, and found out my card was ‘blocked’ by the bank.

Travelers Checks

It’s hard to find places to cash travelers checks anymore since many European countries adopted the Euro. The places that are still around to change them charge commissions (in addition to the percentages your financial institution may charge to get them in the first place) so they’ve fallen out of favor. So if you plan to use them, having them in Euros will make them easier to use, but check the exchange rate before purchasing them outside of Europe. There is an America Express office in Paris at the Place de l’Opera, but the lines are long and they’re not winning any awards for their efficiency.

Recently introduced is the Travelers Cheque Card which allows you to load money onto a card, then use it like a debit card, although American Express doesn’t recommend them for French travel for some reason. You can find more information on their handy chart.

Cash Before Arrival

While there are ATM’s at the airports in Paris, they’re few and far between (see above). And just like the decrepit elevators, out-of-service bathrooms, and filthy, broken chairs at Charles de Gaulle Airport, most of them seem to be eternally broken. So you may want to have cash when you arrive. You can get euros in advance from various sources, although the exchange rate is likely to be lousy. Still, it’s comforting to arrive with some cash in your pocket. Order it well in advance since it can take some time to arrive if you do it by mail.

Lastly, although it’s tempting to try to spent all your money before departing, I advise keeping some extra cash at the end of your trip for the next time you come.

Or leave it with me, for safekeeping…


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28 comments

  • Hello David…I was just given the tip about your blog and am looking in for the first time. We are coming to Paris for Christmas this year and am looking forward to a great visit. What I like to do and have done in the past is visit my local bank before we go and convert a sum of money to Euros so that we don’t have to worry at all about having cash on hand for several days after we get settled in. By then we will have been able to find an ATM where we can get additional money. It is just much more pleasant to know that you can pay for the taxi and get a bite to eat without any hassle when you get there. My bank’s fees are not too exhorbitant…at least not much more than what we will get hit with by the ATM’s, so it seems like the best solution. You just have to give them a few days heads up.

  • The last time my mother came to France, she brought cash. We went to my bank to change some of her cash dollars for euros. The clerk wanted a copy of my bank statement, and wanted to know what was the number of the branch where I opened my account. He got mad at me when I asked why he wanted to know that. He then set abbout copying both my mother’s passport and my identity card. This was done in about 5 minutes. He had a conversation with someone in the back, then he looked at them both very carefully in the light by the window, for a long time, and after a few minutes he went to the copy machine, staring out the window while the machine slowly did its work and for some time afterwards, then coming back to the counter and staring down at the counter for a long time. My mother and I looked at each other quizzically during this time. The phone rang, and he picked it up and turned his back. There was a long conversation, in muted tones. Then, finally, the euros were brought out, and they were counted slowly three times. It was about 400 euros. They then slid them across the counter to my mother, not before she was asked to sign a paper. We were both a bit suprised by the experience.

  • If you must get traveler’s checks, it’s better to get them already converted to Euros. I did so and was able to cash them at the post offices (La Poste) for free.

    I also got them exchanged at currency exchange offices (usually a rip off if converting US traveler’s cheques) and they didn’t charge as large of a fee for the exchance. Students can show ID at these places and get a discount on the fees sometime.

    I AMEN the advice on cash before arrival. At least have enough to get from the airport to your hotel, plus maybe enough cash for food & the hotel for one night. It always comes in handy!

    Once I ran out of traveler’s checks in Paris, I relied on the ATMs. I was charged a $5 total fee (by my bank and the other bank) per transaction, no matter which ATM I used. I bank with Wells Fargo Bank, which has no affiliates there. So another tip I have is to take out the maximum if you think you’ll need it to avoid multiple fees. Also remember that your limit is in US dollars, so you’ll need to mentally estimate how many Euros that is, as they probably use yesterday’s exchange rate at the machine.

  • Another thing to note is that European “cash point machines” (ATMs) only accept 4-digit pin numbers. If your American card’s pin number is longer than 4 digits then arrange to change it to a 4-number pin before you leave the USA.

  • My Italian bank uses a 5 digit number, so there’s another difference of experience.
    I have to email my US bank when I go back to the US. So far they’ve not been stymied by any European withdrawals. It’s any unusual use that can trigger a refusal.
    Either direction, I have 100 whatevers under the lining of my shoe. Someone will always change cash.

  • Ah, yes, bank exchange fees. It wasn’t until fairly recently that banks figured out that this was an easy and risk free way to make extra money. For many years the only exchange fee charged on a foreign transaction was VISA’s (or Mastercard’s) conversion fee, typically 1%. Then the banks that actually issued your card jumped in and decided to charge their own fee, though I don’t believe they have any actual role in the process. Most seem to charge 2%. Some charge nothing (I’ve found that, last time I looked, that was the case for Charles Schwab Bank.) The fees are laid out in the cardholder agreement (you kept that, right?) in a paragraph called “using your card in a foreign country,” or words to that effect.

  • Hi David – Thanks for posting this. My husband and I are coming to Paris next week, so this has been very helpful to read. When we went to Italy last year, I called each of my credit card companies and my bank (ATM) to figure out who offered the best exchange rate and lowest fees. I couldn’t agree with you more about bringing some cash with you. After a long flight, we were in no mood to wait in long lines at the exchange window. While we had a copy of our passports in another section of our suitcase, we also gave a copy to the folks – just in case. Thanks again!

  • Another reason to have some cash along is the métro cashiers are being phased out and converted into automatic machines; the city of Paris is getting rid of ‘real people’ selling tickets whose job is just to dispense information (so now they can just sit behind the window and talk to their co-workers without being disturbed by pesky people trying to buy tickets.)

    And the machines don’t take US credit cards either. Zut!

  • It has been my experience with the French (in and out of France) that when something is broken, or not working correctly, it will remain in that condition interminally.
    Luckily, I have never had a problem using ATM machines in France (other than the inability to get the amount I wanted) and my credit union does not charge a fee for usage out of the US.

  • this information is great! thank you! i went to paris a couple of years ago (may 2004)and was able to withdraw money using my atm card for the most part with no problem. i did want to mention that if you haven’t been able to get euros in advance from your bank and you are traveling to paris from jfk in new york, there are exchange booths operating at the gates. also, there was a booth renting cellular phones for you to use on your trip if you hadn’t arranged that through your own wireless provider. it wasn’t really cheap, but not too expensive. it might be worth it depending on what you plan to do.

  • Errrrr….I come from a “third world” country (Thailand), and my country’s airport is an opulent palace when compared to CDG.

  • Boy, I remember that Rome’s Fiumincino airport made CDG look like the Ritz three years ago…has Paris’ gotten that bad?!

  • Thanks a lot for the info you’ve given here for the traveller. I’m going to be travelling soon and this info will come useful then :)

  • I usually use ATM machines when I travel, but last month I needed cash up front to pay for my Paris lodgings. When I reluctantly went to Citibank to get euros (I hate carrying large amounts of cash), it turned out that they charge no commission to change more than $1000, which sweetened the deal somewhat. This may well be the case with other banks. It was nice not having to forage for cash at CDG.

    I had no problem using my Citi card at BNP and Societe Generale ATM machines, nor did I have trouble using my Master Card (I did call the credit card company before traveling) EXCEPT at the Metro ticket machines. It’s always something, isn’t it?

  • Yes, it there is one money travel tip to observe it is that you must must must call your bank and credit card company and let them know you are traveling. After cursing around Asia for 4 years I have learned the hard way (having my card denied with 6 people lined up behind me to pay). It may take 10 minutes out of your time, but is totally worth saving the embarrassment of having to mutter “that’s weird, can you try it again,” as you dig for change.

  • When I went to Europe this past spring, Scotia Bank (Canadian) offered no-charge ATM withdrawals from BNP Paribas – very convenient, and worth opening a Scotia account if you’re travelling in France for more than a short while.

  • I don’t know if it’s the case in France yet, but in London, where I live now, there’s been a swithc to chip-n-pin credit cards. You put your card into a machine which scans the chip, and you enter your pin. The point is that more and more places do not accept old-style credit cards (signature required) at all.

  • Really great information here, thanks. I learned a few of these things the hard way in China where you can only get cash at the nationalized banks.

  • Really great advice, as usual! Derrick’s & my system is just like you describe: call the banks & credit card companies ahead of time, have some Euros (usually about 50-100) in pocket that we’ve either saved from the last trip or changed from USD locally, & then we use the Bofa affiliate atms.

    I see some people have mentioned the need of a 4 digit pin. Derrick ran into that problem many years ago when he had a 6 digit pin. Luckily he was able to bum money off friends attending the same conference, and change the pin when he got home.

  • We will in future ring our credit card company before travelling overseas. Recently we were overseas when the bank put a hold on our card, thinking it was stolen after we made a large purchase on it. They had our best interests at heart and it was sorted out after a phone call from us to the bank.

  • even the bank I use has finally changed to charging me for everything!!!
    that makes a big difference.
    Will be looking for a new bank!

  • The advice given so far seems to be pretty spot on for the most part. The percentage charged by banks and credit cards is pretty annoying IMHO, but it’s usually cheaper than the commission for exchange.

    Re: London

    As long as you’ve got a foreign (ie non-UK) card, you shouldn’t really have to worry about not having a chip. All merchants who take credit cards are supposed to be able to take the old mag-stripe kind. Because of the heavy push toward chip & pin, some people might be hesitant to run your card, but usuallly if you ask nicely, they’ll “try” your card and magically…it’ll work.

    I’ve got sort of a different problem, I have a U.S. AMEX card with a chip. Since it was released before the whole U.K. chip & pin thing, and because I’d never used the chip in the U.S., I figured it wouldn’t work in the U.K. (it doesn’t work in France either). But…and it’s kind of annoying…it does work…about half the time. And since it’s a “chip & signature” card…it just confuses the clerks even more…oh well.

  • It doesn’t hurt to keep US dollars with you, either. You never know! I always keep US$100 in my money belt, just in case.

    In addition to emailing yourself your passport and credit card numbers, make a photocopy of your passport and bring it with you. Leave your passport number and your CC numbers with your mom or a friend, too, because internet cafes (based on my experience) are not easy to find in Paris. They are very easy to find in 3rd world countries where not everyone is wealthy enough to have his own computer, but when I was in Paris a year ago staying in the 7th, I found only one. Although the sign on the door indicated they opened at 10, the manager sauntered up at about 11. Open on time?! Bah! That is so, so Americaine!

    (NB They mean it when they say arrive three hours early at CDG. Bring your own food and your own toilet paper, too!)

  • Great tips David! I am now glad that we always come by Eurostar and have never had to forage for cash at CDG… I fully endorse calling your bank to let them know you are travelling – we have on occasion had our cards frozem especially after a big foreign transaction (like the amount they put on hold on your credit card when you rent a car). If you travelling with a partner or friend, make sure you have at least two (but preferably more) different debit/credit cards between you in case one of the cards is frozen. I also endorse briging enough cash to get you from the airport to the hotel and possibly a meal on the first night – it just makes things less stresful on arrival and means the next morning you can ask the hotel where the nearest ATM is (although I must say I’ve never had a problem finding ATMs in Paris). Our bank charges something like £1.75 per foreign withdrawal, so if you take out £100 at a time, that’s not too bad. Before you baulk at your bank’s charges, work out what percentage the fees will be if you withdraw the max – you’ll find it’s still a lot better than most Bureaux de Change. Oh, and unless you are desperate, avoid the Travelex booths in airports – their exchange rates are almost without fail abysmal!

  • PS – was that photo taken at the coffee shop where we had coffee this summer??

  • My card was once swallowed by the ATM in France.Retriving it???Yeah good luck with that!!!I have never had a more hellish experience with stupid french arrogant bastards…I survived 5 years in France-thank God I came to my senses and left!My blood pressure is now stabil and my overall feeling of well being has highly increased…Miss the food thou!;-)

  • When my wife and I went to France earlier this year, we found the entire commerce experience to be incredibly pleasurable.

    Only once did I have my credit card denied (when buying some pants), but otherwise everything was smooth sailing.

    The exchange rate at the ATMs was much better than any other place in the city, and I was never charged a fee by my bank or the French bank to pull out money.

    But I guess I’m the exception.

  • Hi Dave…my daughter, Kate and I just got back from France – the Perigord region. I was shocked at the fees on the credit cards this time. Even two years ago when I was there in Burgundy the charges weren’t showing up like now. Your site is doing a service for sure calling attention to this and explaining it. It is very true that cash is king now. VERY few places took credit cards. I also saw more ATM machines in CDG around where the shopping was rather than in the arrival and departure places. I also enjoyed your pics and comments on the Rue Tatin this year…it looks like it hasn’t changed much at all since we did the class in 02 and first met you. The dishes you prepared looked really intriguing and now that I’m retired maybe I’ll come again. Its hard to resist.