The Best Debit Card for Getting Cash in Italy

In this post, I’ll tell you the best debit card to use if you’re planning a long-term stay in Italy (or anywhere with an ATM). It’s the most efficient and cheapest way to get cash during your stay. My recommendation does not give me a commission or referral fee if you sign up. I just want to share this because it’s useful to others (I know, how nice of me).

Note: I am from the United States, so my recommendation is for someone with the ability to open an account in the United States.

Background

In March of 2022, I moved to Italy for a year to get my Italian citizenship recognized and have a new experience. During that time, I made it a goal to travel to all 20 regions of Italy, a goal which I’m happy to say I achieved. But that’s not why you’re here. 

I knew that while living in Italy, I would need easy access to cash. Long story short, I researched it quite a bit and found what I think is the best solution.

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Why You Need a Debit Card in Italy

Life in Italy is still heavily dependent on cash – and the easiest and usually cheapest way to get cash is from an ATM using a debit card.

Can’t I Just Use a Credit Card in Italy?

No. Will you die without cash? Probably not. But you need a way to get cash.

Most restaurants, stores, and pubs will happily accept credit cards for amounts over 5 to 10 €. But for small things like coffee, bottles of water, street food, or walking beers, it’s better and sometimes required to have cash. Plus, trying to use a credit card for a 1.60€ cappuccino is just offensive to an Italian bar owner.

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Some independent stores or restaurants will be cash only – why? Well, it’s cheaper in the sense that they won’t pay processing fees. It’s also cheaper because they can keep the transaction off the books and avoid paying taxes. This is very common, and it is well-known that the Italian government is notoriously bad at collecting taxes.

Some other cases where cash is necessary:

Paying in a group: if you’re going out to dinner with non-Americans, you should know that “I’ll Venmo you” doesn’t really work here. You should have cash.

Small/independent hotels or hostels sometimes only accept cash payments. Even private owners of AirBNBs will expect the city tax to be paid in cash and left on the kitchen table.

Paying city tax for when you stay at small hotels, AirBNBs, hostels, etc. In Italy, you typically have to pay a city tax per person per night that you stay somewhere (usually 1.50 to 3 € per person per night) and this is often requested in cash.

Summary

When a credit card is OK:

  • Chain hotels and hostels
  • Most grocery stores, especially chains (COOP, Conad, Pam, Despar, etc.)
  • Most restaurants
  • Most stores
  • Car rentals

When you should have cash:

  • Independent hotels/hostels
  • Coffee shops
  • Street markets or street food
  • Small/independent stores
  • Paying city tax for lodging
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The Best Debit Card for Long Term Use

The best debit card that I found for long-term use for my stay in Italy is the Charles Schwab Bank Debit Card. Again – Schwab offers no commission or referral bonus to me if you sign up for this. I truly believe this is the best option, based on my research.

Why? This card has no foreign transaction fees and gives you rebates on all ATM fees. 

Example: you go to any ATM and withdraw 40€, and the ATM will charges a service fee of 5€. You get debited the current exchange USD equivalent of 45€ (calculated by the bank behind the ATM). At the end of the month, you will get a rebate of the USD equivalent of 5€.

After a few ATM withdraws over the course of the month, here’s what the rebate will look like on your statement:

Schwab rebate line item
Example of ATM fee rebate at the end of the month (not a round number because all fees were in Euros)

To get this card, you need to open a Charles Schwab Investor Checking Account. Don’t worry though – you don’t actually have to use the investor account. I use another company for that, personally (though if you aren’t investing, getting some low cost index funds in Charles Schwab probably isn’t a bad idea).

Charles Schwab Account Overview
Charles Schwab Bank account overview. Investment (unused), and Bank (for checking account and debit card)

You can find out more about opening a Charles Schwab Investor Checking out here to get one of these debit cards. Terms and conditions apply.

How to Get Cash for a Short Vacation

The above recommendation really only makes sense if you’re going to be in Italy for an extended period of time. If you’re only going to Italy for 2 weeks, then signing up for a new account and getting a new debit card doesn’t make much sense.

If you’re just going on vacation, I suggest just using your current debit card and making cash withdrawals from any ATM. Be mindful of foreign transaction fees from your bank, and before you go check to see if you need to put a travel notice on your account so there are no surprises. Just be aware that with each withdrawal, you will have to pay a commission to the ATM.

ATM at Fiumicino airport in Rome
A fine ATM at Rome Fiumicino Airport.
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What about a currency exchange booth?

No, no, no, no. They will charge you an absurd commission. If it weren’t for the person working the booth, whose livelihood depends on the ignorance of tourists, I would stand next to one of these booths and steer people away. There will be ATMs at the airport when you arrive.

currency exchange booth at Rome Fiumicino airport
Currency exchange booth at Rome Fiumicino Airport. Stay way.

Pro tip: Decline ATM Conversions

ATMs in Italy, if you access them with a foreign card, will almost always offer a conversion to your home currency. This will add a fee (on top of the ATM fee). I’ve seen as low as 5% and as high as 13%. Unsuspecting tourists (I have been one of these) think that they have no choice but to accept the conversion. But you can just decline it and get your money at the current exchange rate. 

It’s important to note that if you choose to withdraw cash in the local currency, your own bank may charge a foreign transaction fee or ATM withdrawal fee, but the exchange rate should be closer to the standard exchange rate, and you’ll likely save money overall.

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A post shared by Anthony Calvanese (@quasitalianotravel)

Disclaimer

As is the case with ATMs in your home country, use discretion. I’m no expert on money fraud, but I try to choose ATMs from well-known companies while in Italy (Bancomat, Poste Italiane, Intesa Sanpaolo, and Unicredit to name a few). For some suggestions on how to spot a skimming ATM, here’s a good article by Forbes.

In my year in Italy, relying exclusively on ATMs for getting cash, I never had any issues, for what it’s worth.

That’s All For Now

I sincerely hope you found value in this article.  If you have recommendations of your own or have suggestions on what else you would like to see covered here, please write in the comments below. Additionally, if you’re planning a trip to Italy and need one-on-one support or guidance, check out my services page where you can get in touch with me.

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4 thoughts on “The Best Debit Card for Getting Cash in Italy”

    1. Hello Liam! Who do you mean exactly? In general, yes debit is accepted. For getting cash, I would only do this in Italy with a debit card, from an ATM – personally.

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