While credit and debit cards are widely accepted in France’s major cities, there may be times when paying in cash is your only option. As a savvy traveller, you’ll want to have at least some Euros for such an occasion.
Luckily, getting cash money for these emergencies is simple. All you need is a bank card and an ATM.
Here’s where to find ATMs in France and how to use them.
ATMs - called distributeur automatique de billets in French - are widely available at airports and in France’s major cities and towns. There’s an ATM inside or outside most bank branches, often below an eye-catching sign that says retraite - the French word for “withdrawal”. Post offices also have ATMs.
France’s four major banks as well as the post office have online ATM locators you can use to find the closest ATM.
- BNP Paribas ATM locator
- Crédit Agricole ATM locator
- Crédit Mutuel ATM locator
- Société Générale ATM locator
- La Poste ATM locator (Post Office)
ATMs are harder to find in rural areas and it’s also unlikely they’ll accept credit cards. So, if you plan on visiting the French countryside, it’s best to withdraw money beforehand.
French ATMs accept chip-and-pin cards and cards with only a magnetic strip on the back. You can use any MasterCard (Cirrus and Maestro) or Visa (Plus) card. Most bank-issued cards are compatible with one of these networks, but it is a good idea to confirm this with your bank.
That said, do remember these two important rules.
Always let your bank know you’ll be abroad. If you don’t, they might consider your transactions suspicious and freeze your card, leaving you without access to your money.
French ATM keypads don’t have letters, so you’ll need to know your PIN numerically. PINs must be four digits long. You’ll need to change your PIN if it’s longer, or you won’t be able to use it at ATMs.
Most French ATMs don’t have daily withdrawal limits.
However, your home bank may also have limits; and these may be lower for overseas transactions. It’s worth enquiring if you can increase your daily limit. This will allow you to make larger, less frequent withdrawals, which can save money in comparison with smaller, more frequent ones.
French banks don’t charge foreigners any fees to use ATMs. Privately-owned ATMs, on the other hand, do charge expensive fees and should be avoided. You can recognise these machines by the absence of any identifiable bank branding.
Some ATMs will ask whether you prefer to be charged in your home currency. When this happens, always choose to be charged in the local currency; i.e. in Euros. Withdrawals in the local currency are worked out at the mid-market rate, so you’ll get the real exchange rate. When you choose to be charged in your home currency, the ATM will make up an exchange rate for you. This is often a rip-off.
Your home bank may charge a range of fees. Depending on your bank, the type of account and your card’s terms and conditions, you can expect to be charged at least a withdrawal fee and a foreign currency transaction fee. This can be either a flat fee per transaction or a percentage of the amount withdrawn.
Withdrawing with a credit card is often more expensive than using a debit card. Credit card companies treat withdrawals as cash advances, or loans. Withdrawal and foreign currency transaction fees may be more expensive. You’ll also be charged interest.
Discouraged by ATM fees? Don’t be. There are ways you can avoid, or at least reduce them significantly.
Many banks partner with foreign banks to offer customers fee-free or significantly reduced ATM fees. It’s worth checking if your bank has such an arrangement in France.
BNP Paribas, one of France’s biggest banks, is part of the Global ATM Alliance. This is a network of banks that offer their customers fee-free withdrawals from each other’s ATMs worldwide. Members include Barclays, Bank of America, Scotiabank, Deutsche Bank and Westpac.
Not all cards attract the same fees. Debit cards, for instance, are often a lot cheaper to use than credit cards. Credit cards used on ATMs are often seen as a loan, so fees are much higher.
Also, some banks don’t charge foreign transaction fees on particular types of cards. If you’re a frequent traveller, this may be worth looking into with your bank.
If you or a friend have a French bank account, consider sending your money ahead of time and using TransferWise for the cheapest way to fund your adventure in France. Not only does TransferWise’s real mid-market exchange rate generally beat the banks, but because your money is received and sent locally in both your home country and in France, all those nasty international fees magically disappear. Give it a try.