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Using American ATM cards in Germany

My wife and I are Financial Peace University students heading to Berlin, Germany in mid-October for a couple weeks. We don't have or use credit cards and are wondering what are our other options might be for accessing / bringing along travel expenses? We understand that DeutscheBank allows Bank of America folks to use their ATMs fee-free; but would like to hear from you experienced travelers out there any helpful suggestions. Thank you from Chris in NC!

Posted by
9363 posts

No idea, either, Michael. It's not like FPU is an actual university. It's just a nine week class. And it has nothing to do with how to use debit cards in Germany.

Posted by
4535 posts

I would suggest bringing some Euro cash reserve with you, since you won't have a credit card backup in case for some reason you can't access cash from an ATM. Buy a few hundred Euro at the bank before you leave. Then hold onto it throughout your trip. In the last couple days, spend it down so that you don't have much leftover cash on your last day. It'll take a bit more planning to avoid a last minute ATM run or having too much cash when you leave, but many people survive Europe without credit cards. FYI - you likely won't be able to rent a car.

Posted by
5837 posts

Travel without credit cards could make for difficulties with establishments that ask for credit card guarantees for advanced bookings. Fortunately travel in much of Europe without a car is possible and in many cases more convenient. I had a coworker who refused even a company credit card. The firm would have to provide him with cash for deposits and letters of company credit for him to travel. Also fortunate in that Germans prefer cash. I could not find Deutsche Bank branches/ATMs in some of the smaller towns. When you do, take out the max amount. Consider asking BofA for a temp higher daily w/d limit.

Posted by
9363 posts

Asking BofA for a higher withdrawal limit might not help you if you can't find a partner bank. ATMs have their own limits, too. If you have a $600 BofA limit and the ATM is $300, you will have to make a second withdrawal. If you aren't at a partner bank that would mean twice the fees. But on my recent trip I bought advance rail tickets, and reserved and paid for rooms in advance with my debit card. Ticket machines also take cash.

Posted by
9363 posts

You can use a regular debit card from your bank at any ATM. European ATMs won't charge you anything - any charges will be from your own bank. BofA has some of the biggest fees around (3% currency conversion fee and a per-use fee) if you don't use a partner bank. You would get a better deal using a debit card from a credit union (mine charges absolutely nothing, but some are 1%). My suggestion would be to carry debit cards from two different institutions so that of one fails you can use the other. Of course, notify your bank when and where you will be traveling so they don't freeze your cards.

Posted by
7500 posts

Although it is an unpopular post-meltdown company (!), I have been using my BofA ATM card in Germnany for years, and I have never had any difficulty making no-fee withdrawals at Deutsche Bank ATMs. If you have never done anything like this before, you need to read an FAQ on a site like this, or maybe TripAdvisor, to learn about four-digit PINs, chcking vs. savings, daily limits, and advance travel notifications to your bank.

Posted by
23431 posts

You can get along very well in Europe not using credit cards BUT you have to have convenient access to cash. Using cash will often gain you a discount especially at hotels. Just ask. A debit card at a bank owned ATM is the cheapest and most convenient way to obtain local currency. About the only time we use a credit card is when we may be short of cash or managing the cash or we cannot get a discount at the hotel. Is not using a credit card and financial peace related?

Posted by
5837 posts

Potential complication with debit cards is that they draw against your bank account. If the merchant puts a hold of a certain amount on your debit card, it will tie up that amount until the merchant releases the hold. For example, in filling a gas tank of a US car, the gas station, not knowing how much your American car will take, may place a $100 hold on your account even if you only took 5 gallons, and it could take a day or three before the hold is taken off. In the case of a car rental, would the rental agency put a multi-thousand US dollar hold on your debit card?

Posted by
9106 posts

In the case of a car rental, would the rental agency put a multi-thousand US dollar hold on your debit card? Yes. Maybe not thousands but the hold will be significant. Hotels use holds also.

Posted by
9363 posts

I would just plan on using your debit card to obtain cash and pay for things with cash, not use the debit card for purchases. You can also avoid a hold when using a debit card to buy gas if you prepay, or use the debit card to pay inside - don't put it in the pump. I can tell you that some hotels won't take a debit card in place of a credit card. When I was in Madrid last week, I accidentally pulled out my debit card instead of credit (to have on file for misc. expenses, since the room was already paid for) and it was refused just because it was a debit card (there were plenty of funds available).

Posted by
7500 posts

Nancy, I am the last guy in the world to defend Bank of America. But it is not correct that they charge 3% currency conversion for ATM transactions. Their credit cards do, but an ATM uses a 1% conversion fee. I don't know about a debit-card transactions with the ATM card because I don't do them.

Posted by
9363 posts

You're right, Tim, I misspoke. The conversion fee is 1% on a withdrawal, plus the $5 per withdrawal fee. Debit cards used for purchase do have a 3% conversion fee, just like a credit card.

Posted by
6898 posts

Chris, to answer your question a bit further, Bank of America has a Global Alliance with several European banks as well as a bank in Canada and in mainland China. You can google Bank of America Global Alliance. Wikipedia lists them all. In England, its Barclays. In Germany, its Deutschebank. In Canada, its Scotia Bank. The rule is that ATM card holders of a global alliance partner bank can use the ATM of another partner bank in the home country of that bank only. Thus, a Bank of America account holder with an ATM card can use the Deutschebank ATM in Germany free of charge. I have done this with Barclays in England, BNP Paribas in France, Scotiabank in Canada and once at China Construction Bank in China. Supposedly, if I were to try and use my ATM at Scotiabank in Lima, Peru, I would not be able to do so.

Posted by
7500 posts

I'm not exactly embarrassed, but rather, I just opened my post-vacation mail. From Bank of America, I got a paper flyer that I imagine everyone else will get too. It's titled "Changes to your account services", document ARF7EFAF. Of course, that actually means, "New Fees, to support our Executive Compensation." as of November 8, 2013 " International Transaction Fee If you withdraw foreign currency from an ATM in a foreign country, Visa® or MasterCard® will convert the transaction into a U.S. dollar amount. We charge this fee on the converted amount. " 3% of the converted U.S. dollar amount ... "... If you use an ATM that is not an international partner ATM, a $5 Non-Bank of America ATM fee also applies." Nancy wasn't wrong, she's a prophet! I have to find a new way to get cash when travelling. This is strong argument for getting a credit card that has no foreign transaction fee, or at least, only 1%. They aren't the most common, but they do exist.

Posted by
9363 posts

Lots of credit unions charge 1%, and some charge nothing at all (mine doesn't). You just have to shop around. But I did call BofA and they told me it was 1% (and she didn't mention the coming increase). It's the per-use fee that would drive me off, frankly. And the 3% definitely would, too.

Posted by
2 posts

Wow! Thank you all so very much. I've been losing sleep over this; it's 2:30 AM now and I got up to check these replies - that's how freaked I have been on this. Just out of curiosity (not a crucial question) I have read elsewhere mention of Cirrus, Star, and Maestro labels on the backs of debit cards to be accepted; but then - isn't that from the eighties or nineties before VISA and Mastcard logos showed up on debit cards? I thought these old logos were long gone. Then at the Atlanta airport I saw on an International Currency machine that these logos and others were required to use the machine. Corn-fuzed. Cheers from Chris in NC!

Posted by
609 posts

Chris, I would recomend that for the trip (and only for the trip) that you get credit cards, one for each of you, that do not charge foreign transaction fees (like Capital One) for big purchases. After the trip you can cut the cards and cancel the accounts. Otherwise you will have to carry a lot of cash or hope you do not exceed your daily limit at the ATM. I feel that carrying a lot of cash is a bit more risky in case you loose it and you will not get a good exchange rate for cash. You know how much money you want to spend because that is what you would have in your debit card account. So just treat your CC purchases as if you were using your ATM card and deduct them as you go. Once the bill comes you can pay it off right away without interest. For me I think that the ATM fees are "relatively" negliable compared to the transaction fees.
Happy travels.

Posted by
23431 posts

I don't know the purpose of your courses or the university or the opposition to using a credit card. Just another financial tool like personal checks, Travelers Checks,debit cards, etc. Some more readily acceptable than others. Since it was mostly a barter economy with little cash and no credit cards 2000 years ago, I am not sure how the bible can address a modern economy based on credit and money exchange. When traveling you need a system to access cash or credit that is acceptable to most of the people you deal with at a financial level. And today, that is cash, credit cards, or debit cards. Pretty simple. The bases to all credit and debit cards are the networks (Plus, Cirrus, Star, etc.) that tie all ATMs and point of sales hardware together so that it works as a system when you use it in Turkey or NC. Cirrus and Plus are the names of the networks for VISA and Mastercard while STAR is mostly in North American (some in Europe)used by some CUs, Discover, and Diner. These are the guys that gets the transaction started and talks to your bank or card issuer. Maestro was the European name for Mastercard. The are other smaller networks in Europe and Far East but the big boys are Plus and Cirrus (VISA and Mastercard). For maximum flexibility your debit card needs to be either a VISA or Mastercard. Some cards will work with a couple of networks. For example my credit union debit cards works both on a Star network and Plus network (VISA).

Posted by
23431 posts

To continue...... For your situation, as I stated earlier we get along very nicely with cash about 98% of the time using a debit card at a bank owned ATM. We have done this for years and only use a credit card during the last couple days as we manage the last of our Euro so we don't come home with a lot of extra Euro. We try to bring home about 150 to 200E for the next trip. Debit cards work well but as back up you should have a second card tied to a second account. We have never (knock on wood) encountered a problem with our primary debit card but you should have back up. And, I really think you need a credit card both as back up and convenience in managing your expenses. In extreme emergency you can always get a cash advance on your credit card - have to know the PIN for your credit card. Expensive, yes, but cheap if you have no other resource available.

Posted by
19151 posts

In my last five trips (over two months), I have only used cards four times in Germany, all for Bahn tickets. One occasion was by choice, at a ticket counter, when the fare was a fairly big number, and I didn't want to "burn" cash. Once was at a Bahn automat, when the line at the ticket counter was long. The other two times were when the only automat that sold the ticket I wanted only took plastic. (Once was for a ticket across the river from Freilassing to Salzburg. The ticket counter wasn't open yet. I had to charge a $3 ticket!). Today, none of those charges would have been absolutely necessary, as all the new Bahn automats take cash. "how do you rent cars, reserve rooms, take advantage of rail tickets" In over 4 month of travel in Germany, I've never needed a rental car to get to where I wanted to go, and public transportation has always been less expensive. Only once have I needed to use a card to hold my room for late arrival. On two occasions, I've purchase Savings Fare tickets online from the US. I suspect any of those could have been done with a debit card. I have a debit card attached to an account in which I usually keep less than $100 (with no cash advance feature). I use it just for internet purchases. My United Explorer credit card has no currency exchange fees, so I will probably use it in the future, but the credit card is not absolutely necessary, just cheaper.

Posted by
19151 posts

I thought the OPs question was how to pay expenses it you don't use credit cards. But, if you are only paying $105 in fees for a $7000 (is that in Europe or does it include airfare) trip, that's 1½%. You're already doing pretty well. You shouldn't look for something else to carry.