Using the Euro in Europe  

by Galen Berry


The greatest advancement to travel and tourism in Europe within the last many years has been the adoption of the euro as the monetary unit in many of the countries.  That one event has done more to relieve stress, hassles, and irritation than anything in decades, including even the abolishment of most national border controls between countries.  In the bad old days, you had to change your money for every single country you went to -- your dollars had to be converted into francs, marks, liras, punts, schillings, escudos, pesetas, and drachmas; a day's drive in Europe, which could easily cross 3 or 4 countries, would involve changing your money in each one, then either trying to spend it all before leaving the country, or changing the leftover money into the next country's money, thereby losing a certain percentage of it to the bank each time you got it converted.  If you arrived in a country after the banks were closed, and couldn't find an ATM, which weren't so common then, you were sunk.

But now, the great dream, long imagined and cherished for centuries, of one great common currency for the whole continent, has happened -- or almost.  Eighteen countries have adopted the euro as of 2014, with several more working toward that goal.  There are still a few holdouts, such as the United Kingdom which is not about to give up its pound sterling, but some day even they may come around.  Certainly, there have been some serious, major problems with the use of the euro, since some countries are much richer and more advanced than others, and inflation or devaluation in one country can badly affect other countries; unlike the US, where the currency is controlled by one central agency instead of by each state, in Europe each country has its own monetary agency, and they don't necessarily always work so well with each other.  But for a traveller, the euro is a magnificent achievement.  It saves an enormous amount of time and trouble to be able to use the same money throughout 18 countries.  However, it is very important that you familiarize yourself with the money and the coins before you even go on your trip, to avoid the possibility of making quite a fool of yourself.  Here is why:

Unlike in the US, where we only have 4 kinds of coins in daily use (pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters), in the Eurozone they have 8 different coins, all of them in common use -- coins of 1’, 2’, 5’, 10’, 20’, 50’, €1, and €2.  (Notice there are no "quarters".)  They also have bills of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, and €500 -- but no bills for €1 or €2, because they have coins for those amounts.  This makes some interesting differences in getting change for your purchases, which is when you are quite likely to suffer great confusion.

Let's say you go to a store in America and make some small purchase of $5.06.  You hand the clerk a $10 bill.  For the $4.94 in change, you will probably get four $1 bills, three quarters, a dime, a nickel, and four pennies; that's quite a handful: four bills and nine coins.  But with the euro, if you make a similar purchase of €5.06 and give them a €10 bill, you will receive a mere seven coins in return, and no bills -- two coins of €2, a 50’ coin, two 20’ coins, and two 2’ coins.  That's all.

You will most likely react to that, if unfamiliar with the currency, in one of two ways.
1.  You will walk away from the store confused, then angry and muttering, "I've been gypped!  Cheated!  These people think I'm some dumb tourist that they can rip off!  These people are crooks!  Stupid foreigners!  My first day here, and I'm already robbed!  I hate this place!!"
    2.  Or instead, you will immediately challenge the poor clerk behind the register, who most likely knows no English and has no idea what you're protesting about while you're examining the sales slip and demanding to be given the "correct" change, thereby holding up the line, making yourself look like an Ugly American, only to have it eventually proved to your own deserved embarrassment that the change was correct after all, and therefore you have made yourself look quite foolish to a line full of locals who will then go home telling everybody about the dumb American who couldn't count.



Where the Euro is Used

The European Union (E.U.) consists of 28 countries.  Nineteen countries within the European Union have officially adopted the euro:  Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.  This group of countries is referred to as the "Eurozone".

Four of the European micro-countries are allowed to also use the euro:  Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican.  They are not considered large enough to qualify as full members of the E.U., but are considered as part of the Eurozone.

The euro is also used in the small Balkan countries of Kosovo and Montenegro, but they are not allowed to mint their own coins, since they don't belong to the E.U.

The E.U. countries that have chosen not to use the euro are:  Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.  The E.U. countries that some day plan to use the euro, but are not financially developed enough yet to qualify, are:  Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania; these countries still use their traditional national currencies.  Lithuania was the latest to adopt the euro, in January of 2015.

The countries of western Europe which are not in the E.U., and therefore also do not use the Euro, are:  Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.  Countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Armenia, which were formerly members of the Soviet Union, also do not use the euro, and neither does Turkey.



The Euro Coins

Each country that uses the euro can mint its own coins.  However, any coin from any country can be used in any other country in the Eurozone; so an Irish coin is just as legal in Finland or Greece as in its home country, and you can happily use a coin from Portugal in Estonia, Belgium, or Austria.  It can be fun to look through a handful of change and see where each coin comes from.

Instead of referring to coins as having "heads" or "tails", the euro coins have the "common side" and the "national side".  On the common side, the coins from any one country look exactly like the coins from any of the other countries.  This side shows the amount, which will be 1’, 2’, 5’, 10’, 20’, 50’, €1, or €2.  It also shows a small map of Europe, plus some stars and lines.  The coins of 1’, 2’, and 5’ are of copper-coated steel; the coins of 10’, 20’, and 50’ are of a golden metal (a copper/aluminum/zinc/tin mixture); the coins of €1 are silver-colored within a ring of golden metal, and the €2 coins are golden-colored within a ring of silverish metal.  The 20’ coin has little indents around the edge so it can be identified by feel.

The coins shown below are pictured larger than in real life, to show the details better.  Actually, the 1’ coin is smaller than a US penny; the 5 cent coin is identical in size to a US nickel; the 50’ coin is the same size as a US quarter, but thicker.


The coins from every one of the Eurozone countries look like this on the "common" side:



However, on the "national" side, the countries can put any design they want.  These designs represent things, places, or people that are significant to the country.  Countries with a royal monarch (Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, and Spain) will have his or her likeness on some or all of their coins, and of course the Vatican has the pope's head on its coins.  The date is on this side, and the name of the country is also supposed to appear, though Germany, Finland, and Austria apparently forgot to put their name on theirs; Italy just has RI for "Repubblica Italiana", and France has RF for "Rιpublique Franηaise".


Some countries, such as Italy, have a different design for each of their 8 coins:



Ireland has the same design, a harp, on every coin:



Finland has the same design on six of its coins, but different ones for the €1 and €2 coins:



Slovakia has one design on the 3 copper coins, another for the 3 golden coins, and another for the two-tone coins:



Portugal uses the same three-design scheme as Slovakia, showing royal seals that have been in use since the 1100's:



San Marino's beautiful designs show various castles and the coats-of-arms of this tiny country, plus an image of Saint Marinus on the 20’ piece:



Austria also has a different design on each of their 8 coins.  The official rules state that the value of the coin is not to appear on the national side, since it is already on the other side -- but for some reason, Austria put it on every one of their coins anyway, and got away with it:



Lithuania joined the Eurozone at the beginning of 2015.  All their coins have the same design:



All 8 coins from the Vatican used to have the same design on each.  From 2002 till 2005, it was the head of Pope John Paul II (first coin shown below).  After his death, in 2006 it was changed to Benedict XVI (second coin).  Since 2013, they show three different views of Pope Francis (next 3 coins).  The coins are made mainly for collectors and tourists, and are hardly ever encountered in daily use.



A few other beautiful designs from various euro countries (enlarged):



The Euro Paper Money

The paper money comes in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, and €500.  All of the countries use the same identical bills, therefore there are no national symbols or names of countries on the bills.  Each type of bill is slightly larger than the one before it, so that the blind can learn to identify the value of a bill by its size.  The €5 bill measures 120x62 millimeters, and the €500 bill is 160x82mm, with the others in between being of proportionally increasing sizes.

The front side of each bill has a drawing of a window, arch, or door; this symbolizes openness.  The reverse has a map of Europe, plus a drawing of a bridge, to symbolize the linking of separate lands.  None of the pictures is of a real, existing structure (so that no particular country would be favored over others), all the designs are simply generic, stylized versions of typical structures that would represent the time period appropriate for the bill, as you will see below.  (Ignore the word "specimen" on each bill, it does not appear on the real thing.)


The €5 bill is basically grey in color, and the designs represent the architecture of the Ancient World, around 2000 years ago:

File:EUR 5 obverse (2002 issue).jpg



The €10 bill is basically red in color, and the designs represent the architecture of the Romanesque period, from more or less A.D. 1000 to 1200.  

File:EUR 10 obverse (2002 issue).jpg


File:EUR 10 reverse (2002 issue).jpg



The €20 bill is basically blue in color, and the designs represent the architecture of the Gothic period, the 1200's and 1300's.  

File:EUR 20 obverse (2002 issue).jpg


File:EUR 20 reverse (2002 issue).jpg



The €50 bill is basically orange in color, and the designs represent the architecture of the Renaissance, the 1400's and 1500's.  

File:EUR 50 obverse (2002 issue).jpg


File:EUR 50 reverse (2002 issue).jpg



The €100 bill is basically green in color, and the designs represent the architecture of the Baroque period, the 1600's and 1700's.  

File:EUR 100 obverse (2002 issue).jpg


File:EUR 100 reverse (2002 issue).jpg



The €200 bill is basically yellow in color, and the designs represent the architecture of the Industrial Age, the 1800's and early 1900's.  

File:EUR 200 obverse (2002 issue).jpg


File:EUR 200 reverse (2002 issue).jpg



The €500 bill is basically purple in color, and the designs represent the architecture of the modern age.  

File:EUR 500 obverse (2002 issue).jpg


File:EUR 500 reverse (2002 issue).jpg



As you can see, it is a fairly elaborate, but very sensible system.  Spend some time, long before you arrive in Europe, to familiarize yourself with the various coins and bills from pictures such as these... it will certainly save you some difficulty and even embarrassment later.  Then as soon as you get a handful of change in Europe, examine the coins carefully until you can identify them by sight and shape, in order to be able to make change and purchases quickly without needing to flip each one over, trying to read the value when you are in a crowded store or in dim light.  A sure sign of a foreign tourist is one who just trustingly holds out a fistful of change to a store clerk, hoping she will pick out the appropriate amount of coins for the purchase; obviously not the smartest move -- remember, their largest coin is worth more than ten times as much as the largest coin we use in the US.  A €2 coin is worth around $2.70, not something you would want to lose or toss into a fountain.  

The best place to change your dollars into euros is at an ATM, rather than at a bank or a foreign exchange window.  You will get better exchange rates that way.  Before you even leave the airport after landing in Europe, find an ATM; there will be lots of them.  They will have a dozen or more languages available on them, just punch the button for English (or punch the American or British flag symbol on the screen).  Put in a credit or debit card, and follow the easy directions after that.  It will ask how many euros you want, so just choose a round number and it will spit out your bills.  It will automatically calculate how much to deduct from your card, including the small exchange fee, so you don't have to worry about that.  Carry several credit or debit cards with you!  You never know which ones will be accepted, sometimes a card will be mysteriously rejected even though other machines or other countries accept it just fine.  You can also use your American cards at practically any stores, hotels, or restaurants all through the continent; again, the purchase will automatically make the conversion from your card, plus the exchange fee.  It will show up on your bank statement back home in the appropriate amount of dollars, even though the purchase was in euros.  

The exchange rate varies by the day of course, but one euro is usually worth between $1.30 and $1.40.  So if you get 100 euros from the ATM, it will deduct something like $135 from your American account; or the other way around, if you exchange $100 in cash for euros, you will get about €75.  This does not mean you are losing or gaining money -- something that costs $10 in the US may only be marked €7.50 in Europe; it often evens out.  But many things actually are considerably more expensive in Europe, and their sales tax is over 15%.  However, things that are manufactured in Europe and imported to the US will be cheaper over there.  

Toll roads and bridges very conveniently all accept credit cards in Europe; just make sure you are in the proper lane.  There will be a credit card symbol over the correct lane, or the letters CB in France (carte bancaire).  Some self-serve gasoline pumps only take European credit cards.  If yours does not work in the pump, they can often accept the card inside at the counter; or use cash.  

If you are just passing through a country such as Switzerland or Hungary that does not use the euro, not planning to stay long, you might wish to simply use your card for everything you buy and not convert any money at all to cash.  If you do get cash, you'll either have to spend it all before leaving the country, which can be wasteful, or convert it back to euros or dollars, which would mean you'd be paying an exchange fee twice. 


A Map of the Eurozone