Real credit cards (which allow you to pay the balance over a period of time) have been slow to gain acceptance in Italy, where many people still prefer to pay for purchases in cash or with a debit card. However, in the last decade there has been a marked increase in the popularity of credit cards, particularly due to their usefulness in shopping via the telephone or Internet or abroad.
Most so-called ‘credit’ cards issued in Italy function more like charge cards, in that payments for purchases are due when billed and cannot be paid over a period of several months or years. The most common credit cards in Italy are CartaSì, MasterCard and Visa, which are available from most banks. You can also obtain an American Express or Diners Club card direct from these companies.
All Italian banks issue debit/ATM cards known as Bancomat cards, for which there’s an annual fee of between €10 and €20; most banks also charge you between €0.80 and €2 for each purchase you make with the card, which explains why most Italians prefer to use cash.
A credit card in Italy costs between €35 and €110 per year, depending on the type of card and the level of service you choose. Some cards include travel or other forms of insurance, either as part of the annual fee or as an add-on feature.
When you apply for a credit card, you’re required to indicate the bank account you wish to use to pay your monthly balance, and the contract includes a standing order payment to permit the card company to debit payments automatically from your account. You receive a statement of your monthly charges around ten days before the date that the amount due is debited from your account, so you have an opportunity to review the statement and dispute any incorrect payments or charges.
Most credit cards allow you to withdraw cash from ATMs that are part of their network, although there’s a charge for each transaction. It’s sometimes possible to make deferred payments on travel costs (mostly air fares and hotel bills) charged to your card, but only over a few months (normally two or three months maximum). Before obtaining a credit or charge card, compare the costs and benefits.
If you maintain a bank account abroad, it’s wise to retain your foreign credit cards. One of the advantages of using a credit card issued abroad is that your bill is usually rendered or your account debited up to six weeks later, thereby giving you interest-free credit – except when cards are used to obtain cash, when interest starts immediately. You may, however, find it more convenient and cheaper to be billed in euros than in a foreign currency, e.g. US$ or GB£, when you must wait for the bill from outside Italy and charges vary with exchange rate fluctuations.
If you lose a bank or credit card, you must report it immediately to the issuing office, or within 24 hours at the latest. You also need to report the theft to the police and obtain a copy of the report ( dununcia). If the theft isn’t reported and the card blocked within 24 hours, insurance cover no longer applies and any purchases made by a thief won’t be reimbursed. If you lose a Visa, CartaSì or MasterCard (all operated by Servizi Interbancari), you must report it within 24 hours (Tel. 800-018 548 within Italy or +39-02-3488 4001/2333 from abroad).
If you lose a card abroad, you must report the loss to the local police and fax the police report within 48 hours to Servizi Interbancari (Tel. +39-02-3488 4140 or +39-02-4141 4110) or send it by registered post with proof of receipt. A free replacement card is sent to you by Servizi Interbancari or your bank within a few weeks, or you can request an emergency replacement within 24 hours, for which there’s a fee of €10.
Even if you don’t like credit cards and shun any form of credit, they do have their uses. For example, no-deposit car rentals, no pre-paying hotel bills (plus guaranteed bookings), obtaining cash 24-hours per day, simple telephone and mail-order payments, greater safety and security than cash, and above all, convenience. They’re particularly useful when travelling abroad and you need some form of credit card if you wish to make purchases over the Internet. Note, however, that not all Italian businesses accept credit cards, particularly small businesses, and you should check in advance.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy from Survival Books.