Credit Cards Abroad: How the World Charges

Cole Mayer  | 

Credit cards are ingrained in the American culture. They make up the majority of transactions, and credit card offers seem to appear every day in your mail or as commercials during your favorite shows. But what about the rest of the world? Are they as enthralled by paying with plastic as we are? Let’s compare the US with countries across Europe and Asia to get a better sense of how the world charges.


The first major, obvious difference between the US and Europe is the chip-and-PIN card. While the EMV card is a recent development in the US, it’s old hat for Europeans. For the most part, credit cards in America are chip-and-signature vs. chip-and-PIN. Here, it’s mostly debit cards that use a PIN, while both types of cards now use PINs in Europe. With 781 million cards issued in the EU, each person has an average 1.5 payment cards for the population of about 510 million.

In 2015, according to the European Central Bank, about 47 percent of all transactions in the EU were on cards. Of this, 26 percent was credit transfers, while 21 percent was direct debit.

In total, in 2015, the EU saw about 28.8 billion credit transactions, about 56.6 credit transactions per capita, resulting in 258.3 billion (about $281 billion) just using credit cards, or about €48.8 ($53.26) per transaction. Credit and debit combined added up to €2.6 trillion with 53 billion transactions.

The UK

Taking a look specifically at the UK, the British spent £15.8 billion ($20.4 billion) on credit cards in September 2016, with 283 million transactions. The average charge was £55.68.

As of the end of March 2017, the average British household had about £2,500 ($3,228) credit card debt, up 10.5 percent from the previous year, the highest growth in 11 years. Brits are spending £20 million ($25.8 million) per day via credit cards.

Of the EU 28, eight of the countries have a greater proportion of non-cash transactions, including credit and debit cards.

For the most part, then, Europe uses cash. Travel expert Rick Steves suggests relying mostly on cash while in Europe, but you can still use your credit card overseas for convenience. Be warned, however, that you will be charged a transaction fee, which differs from lender to lender. Also, if you are not in a large city, credit cards may not be accepted. Some vendors may also set minimums, such as requiring the purchase to be at least €20 before you can use a card to pay.


Let’s look at few major examples from this region, including some that that are nearly polar opposite: Japan and South Korea.


According to the Japan Consumer Credit Association, ¥49 trillion ($436 billion) in credit card transactions took place in 2015, more than double the transactions a decade prior. A Japanese citizen owns an average of 2.5 cards.

However, the amount of yen notes and coins in circulation has doubled in 20 years, and cash comprised 80 percent of transactions in 2014. About 70 percent of consumers used cash  in transactions in 2016, while digital payments trailed in second with 28.2 percent.

Interestingly, many Japanese prefer a uniquely Japanese way of paying with cash: the konbini. Konbini, the generic term for a convenience store, allows users to order an item online, which is then shipped to the konbini, and then pay in cash at the store when picking up their purchase.

Much like Europe, you are safer having cash for travel expenses and in smaller stores in Japan. Shrines, often popular tourist destinations, usually only accept cash. Again, check with your bank for foreign transaction fees.

South Korea

Almost exactly opposite of Japan, only 20 percent of transactions in South Korea were made with cash as of March 2016. The Bank of Korea aims to go completely coinless by 2020.

Korea, much like Europe and the chip-and-pin card, surged ahead in technology in 2004 with t-money, a type of e-commerce for transportation. T-money lives on a chip, which can fit in credit or debit cards, or on a SIM chip on a phone.

T-money was used in 43 million transactions daily by the end of 2014, with more than 15 million users in Seoul. It’s used in most convenience stores, echoing the trend from Japan,  as well as some retail shops and restaurants.

With the success of t-money and its integration into credit cards, other companies, including Samsung, are developing their own mobile payment methods to compete, taking even more of the market share away from cash.

To promote the use of cards and t-money, coins are being removed from circulation, with change coming in the form of larger denominations of coins mixed with putting the “change” as t-money. Yet, South Korea is still spending 50 billion won ($44 million) per year in minting coins.

At the end of 2016, Koreans had about $1,200 outstanding credit card debt per capita.

The United States

How, then, does this compare to America’s spending habits? There were 33.8 billion credit card transactions in 2015, with a value of $3.16 trillion, far outpacing the European Union’s figures. By the end of 2015, the average credit card debt per capita was $5,199, not quite $2,000 more than the average UK household.

We can break it down further. The average debt per borrower from California was $5,236, while a New Yorker had $5,397 in credit debt. North Dakotans saw the largest change, using their credit cards more to add 0.9 percent to their per capita debt, to $4,322. Meanwhile, Colorado saw the highest positive change at 2.2 percent, from $5,6663 to $5,541.

While Europe adopted the EMV chip in the ‘90s, it has only been within the past few years that America’s credit cards saw the chip embedded. Even with the chip, we still use a signature instead of a PIN.

Like Korea, Americans have adopted contactless payment methods — from RFID chips in credit cards to Apple Pay — but not nearly as widespread as Korea’s t-money.

While Japan still mostly uses cash, with credit cards to occasionally supplement, Americans used cash for 32 percent of transactions in 2015, still in the lead. Credit cards came in third, at 21 percent. But, the gap is closing, as the numbers were 40 and 17 percent, respectively, only three years earlier. Plastic as a whole won, however, with debit cards adding 27 and 25 percent in 2015 and 2012, respectively.

However, only 26 percent of Americans preferred to use cash as a payment. A total of 70 percent preferred plastic, with 43 percent as debit and 27 percent as credit cards. Cash, however, is the preferred backup — the exact opposite of Japan.

Is it better to use a debit or credit card abroad, as you would in the US? The answer depends on where you are going. Cash will always be a safe bet, but it could be more convenient to have a card instead. Do research before you travel, and you should always have a way to pay.

Before your trip, brush up on your credit card knowledge at our credit card learning center.

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A former newspaper journalist, Cole spends his free time reading, writing, playing video games, watching movies, and learning about every subject under the sun. He lives with his wife and daughter in Idaho. Follow Cole on Twitter: @ColeMayer42

This post was updated February 28, 2019. It was originally published May 10, 2017.