Your existing MasterCard and Visa will be accepted in most sizeable shops, service stations and restaurants for purchases over €15 but it’s always better to double check before ordering. Note that you may be asked to present further identification (passport, driver’s licence, carte de séjour) when using a credit card in some establishments, although now with the pin number system this is becoming rare.
Note that not all French card reading devices or ATM machines are designed to read the magnetic strip on your card. This is because the French cards have a micro-chip (puce) not a magnetic strip (piste).
Contactless payment, where you don’t need to insert your card but just hover it near the reader using NFC Near Field Communication, is already available in most supermarkets and larger stores for small transaction under €20, and is being adopted all around the country. Your card must be equipped with the NFC chip for this purpose. Contactless payment made by way of a compatible smart phone which eliminates the need for a card is also being gradually rolled out.
If you wish to use plastic to pay for something and have the funds drawn from your French bank account you will need to apply for a Carte Bleue (CB). Your bank will charge you about €30 to €50 per year for the first one and less for a second carte. This is not a credit card, it is a debit card meaning that it draws funds from your bank account in real ttime..
Anything you pay for or any cash you withdraw from an ATM machine with your Carte Bleue is immediately debited from your account. It is possible to have the debits made once each month to help manage your monthly cash-flow – but you will need to arrange this with your bank.
There are different types of Carte Bleue that permit different levels of cash withdrawal and spending e.g. a Gold card provides higher levels. Your bank will advise you which type you are entitled to have.
You will be issued with a PIN number for your Carte Bleue. This not just for cash withdrawals but also for paying for goods and services. You will be asked to tap in your PIN to authorise the payment – no signature is needed with this system. Check with your bank beforehand if there is a limit on your card. These limits are usually counted on 7 rolling days, and it is also useful to know that when you are using your card at the pump, the card will authorise a transaction that may be higher than what you actually consumed, meaning that it may cause your card to hit the maximum rolling limit event though in fact you haven’t used up the amount, good to know if you are planning a long road trip.
The CB is almost universal in France; you can pay for almost anything including train and metro tickets, petrol, péage on the autoroute, internet and telephone payments etc. – most shops and many restaurants are becoming equipped with the terminal connections to accept CB but you will still find some small shops and restaurants that will only accept cash or cheques.
With a Carte Bleue you can withdraw cash from any ATM (guichet automatique) but the amounts you can withdraw and the associated charges will vary depending on your bank and the agreements they have with other bank networks.
Once you’ve set up your French bank account (see opening a French bank account), you will be sent a cheque book (carnet de chèques). If you are from the UK you will find a number of important differences with French cheques.
It is a criminal offence to write a cheque that would cause your account to become overdrawn. There are fines for the first offence and harsh consequences for anyone who makes this mistake more than once. You can obtain a short-term overdraft facility for a small monthly fee – this might prove to be a wise move if you may be writing cheques without checking the exact monthly balance.
If you find yourself in the situation where you have written a cheque that your account cannot cover, it is likely that you will receive a letter forbidding you to write another cheque for 5 years. This happens regardless of the amount on which the cheque was drawn.
What you must then do immediately is send sufficient funds to the French bank to cover the cheque and any other cheques you may have written. In serious cases, your bank may apply to the Bank of France to have you blacklisted by an interdite bancaire by all French banks, blocking you from conducting all bank transactions until the non-payment has been satisfied. Largely because of the previous point, there are no cheque guarantee cards. Your cheque is considered to be as good as cash. Note that you may be asked for supporting identification when writing a cheque for larger amounts, in some cases you may be asked to produce two forms of identification.
Finally, don’t expect to earn any interest on funds in your cheque account – it’s against the law for the banks to offer this. You can set up a savings account (compte d’épargne) or deposit account (compte à terme) to obtain interest on larger sums. There are various tax-free and incentives savings schemes if you are a French resident.
If someone pays you with a French cheque you can deposit it into your account by going to any bank, filling in the deposit form (remise de cheques), counter-signing the cheque on the reverse and handing it over to the cashier. The same applies to cash deposits. In most cases, the amount on the cheque becomes available on your cash balance almost immediately.