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I've been living virtually entirely cashless in Sweden for the past 10 years. I'm visiting USA at the end of this month for a weekend (primarily just attending a conference); can I manage cashless if I'm paying for hotel, rental car, restaurant food? I’m traveling light: cabin luggage only.

I have a Visa credit card.

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There's a few places where you may encounter difficulties:

  • Lots of people expect tips in hotel, especially bellhops (the people who will carry your luggage to your room or into your car). I'm not sure about valets (those who park your car for you), I don't drive. Having a small quantity of one-dollar bills is always useful for those cases. In most other situations were tips are expected (restaurants, bars...) you can just include it on the receipt (when they don't do it for you).

  • Gas stations often have automated systems which are not always compatible with foreign cards (they may ask for things like your ZIP code for security, and that gets lost in translation, for instance). But you should be able to pay at the counter in that case.

Other than that, I believe in most places a credit card will work (when it's not actually required).

However, I strongly recommend you have at least two independent cards. See this answer for the many reasons why.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please go to the chatroom to add your comments. The comments here have been closed for some days or weeks. – Willeke Mar 11 at 17:37
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Almost. I also live cashless at home but usually bring some cash while travelling, either exchanged before hand or via an ATM if needed.

For the US, it is mostly easy to pull with two exceptions:

  • As @jcaron mentioned: Tips. Cash tips are often expected for help that has no other transaction. For tips with a transaction, you can usually add the amount on the bill itself when there is a separate line for that, which is seen frequently in restaurants. Taxis with machines now allow you to enter the tip as well. Still, it leaves some cases where people expect a tip for service but they is no way to pay it electronically.
  • Tolls: Some highways, bridges and tunnels in the US require tolls. While there are many that can be paid electronically via an automated system, it may not be available on your rental car and the only other way to pay is cash. I passed along several a little over one year ago in the Northern US.

Gas stations were a problem until several years ago but I have no encountered any issues in the last 5 years with about 2-3 trips to the US annually.

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    Here, you must imagine me sneering like a Ferengi.... Don't worry... you won't have any trouble paying tolls with a rental car. The moment you pass any sort of PayPass/EZPass/Fastrak/whatever scanner, it will automatically opt you into the rental agency's toll plan, which covers all tools for a measly $20/day for the entire rental even if you only ding a tollbooth on the last day. A trifling expense and a bargain at any price! – Harper - Reinstate Monica Mar 11 at 2:54
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    I have to disagree. I've needed cash at food trucks, buses (local or regional), and to enter the US from Canada in the first place. – gerrit Mar 11 at 9:12
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica The rental cars I have used don't automatically opt you in. The toll device mounted on the windshield has an on/off switch on it. If you turn the switch on, even momentarily, you'll trigger the $20/day charge for your entire rental. But if you leave the switch off, you won't be charged. – Dan A. Mar 11 at 16:00
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    There are some toll roads (Chicago in particular) where you can pass through the automated toll lanes without an electronic toll device. You simply go online afterward, enter the date of travel, the license plate of the vehicle and the toll booths you passed & pay once online for the whole thing with a CC. You do have to pay attention to the toll bridges you've passed. – FreeMan Mar 11 at 16:53
  • @gerrit small vendors like food trucks are increasingly turning to mobile solutions like Square in the US to capture the credit card market they're previously missing out on, but your point about needing to pay the fee to enter the US in the first place in cash is very important. – TylerH Mar 11 at 19:29
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Some things not mentioned by others about using your credit and debit cards in the US:

  • Maestro cards don't work for purchases. You'll only be able to use these at ATMs to get cash.
  • If you have a Visa Debit/Debit MasterCard and you use it at a payment terminal in the US, in some cases the terminal may ask the question "Debit or Credit". Always select Credit in this case (which actually means Visa/MC/AMEX/Discover/etc). "Debit" here refers to an old US-specific debit card network that predates Visa/MC debit cards.
  • Most payment terminals accept contactless (though in many places the merchant won't even be aware of this, and most Americans don't even have contactless cards yet) so you may find this more convenient than using the chip in various situations.

I also feel the need to reiterate the advice to bring two different cards issued by two different banks. On rare occasions a card will inexplicably fail at a specific merchant for some obscure technical reason, and you will want to have another card to use if that happens.

If you're in a major city, or a minor one, or even in a small town, you'll have no problem finding places to eat where you can pay with your card. Cash only restaurants and food trucks do exist but they're uncommon and they generally warn everyone with some sort of signage.

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    Beware that many gas stations, convenience stores, small restaurants etc. don't have contactless and don't even have any vague awareness that they don't have contactless and that's why "foreign credit cards" mysteriously get declined, and moreover may trigger an antifraud block on your card, then you get to spend 30 min on the phone to your antifraud dept - if they're even open. "Most payment terminals accept contactless" is only true for hotels, airlines, car rental, larger stores, restaurants. So, unless you entirely avoid them, carrying a small amount of backup cash is recommended. – smci Mar 11 at 8:14
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    Maestro cards don't work for purchases? Is that still true now that chip cards are accepted? I used my Maestro chip card in Iowa City back in 2014, although there was only one shop that took it. I'd expect it to have risen considerably since then. – gerrit Mar 11 at 8:58
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    I would say most places don't accept contactless and places that do are often really Apple/Google/Samsung Pay only. – pboss3010 Mar 11 at 11:20
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    @pboss3010 I've been using contactless all over the US for a few years now, after having gotten a rare American contactless MasterCard. It actually does work in most places I've been. The only place I've had it fail in three years would not accept the card's chip or magstripe either, so I blame the payment processor. – Michael Hampton Mar 11 at 17:12
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    @pboss3010 though I'm not certain, everything I've read indicates apple/android pay operates using the same NFC a contactless credit card does. If it works, so should a physical card. – mbrig Mar 11 at 20:51
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Take out some cash. Cash-free living may be harder for visitors than for residents, although it depends a lot on your spending pattern. As a visitor, your spending pattern is different than as a resident, and you might do some things that some residents who have lived cash-free for years rarely or never do. You may need more cash more frequently than a resident, or less frequently. Some examples of when I needed cash as a visitor follow. The situation may have changed, so I added timestamps.

When I was visiting the USA for a workshop in May 2019, most workshop participants would fetch lunch at food trucks parked out in the street. Some food trucks took cards, most didn't. I seem to recall one Nordic participant sought out those food trucks that took cards because he had no cash at all.

When I was on vacation in Texas in December 2014, there was a major power outage and shops were without electricity. At this time they accepted only cash. Unlikely, but can happen.

Some urban transit may be de facto cash only, exact change only. Perhaps there are machines where you pre-pay a ticket electronically, but not at your stop. Perhaps most commuters use a transit card you don't have. Note that I have experienced this in Sweden as well (Summer 2012, Luleå).

I took a long-distance bus in California in May 2013, payments (which were in the order of $50) were cash only (Eastern Sierra Transit Authority, Bishop CA to Reno NV, incidentally the technically worst bus I've ever been on, very old, very noisy, no seatbelts). They also didn't issue any receipts so I could not claim this money back from my employer.

When I entered the US by a land border in 2014, I had to pay cash.

It also happened at least once to me (I think Iowa 2013) that my Swedish Visa Electron card wasn't working in a restaurant, I didn't have enough cash, the in-store ATM didn't take my European card, and I had to run to a nearby bank to get cash.

Note that even if you can live cashless, per-transaction fees for many payments with a Swedish card may accumulate, and it may be cheaper to use cash for small payments. Check how your foreign transaction fees work: is it strictly a % or is there a per-transaction fee as well? With my Dutch card, I paid at least €0.15 (IIRC) per POS transaction, which is OK when paying $50 for groceries or restaurant but wasteful when paying $1 5 times a day for small items. If all your costs are reimbursed this is SEP.

Apart from carrying at least two sufficiently different payment cards, I would recommend to carry at least some cash as a backup, probably the amount for a restaurant meal. Electronic payments can fail, and not everybody accepts them.

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  • Good advice. I have also been asked at the airport from Heathrow to use "How do you expect to fund your trip?" and was told "cards dont count". Luckily I had $250 dollars in cash. And when travelling internationally you should always have 200-300 dollars or euroes in emergency cash, imho.... – vikingsteve Mar 13 at 8:13
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A lot of people here from Americans. We don't use ATM cards in Sweden; we use Visa/Mastercard (Credit or Debit), with youths offered Maestro instead.

There is one thing they have not mentioned that affects some of us Swedes (myself included). If you have any special letters in your name, you might not be able to pay with your card in some stores. My surname contains the letter ö, which when I swiped my card at a Target crashed all POS machines causing a long holdup while they had to reboot their system (and a second crash when they asked me to swipe the same card again). Luckily, my second card stored my surname using an o instead.

I would bring 3 or 4 different cards (Visa/MC from different banks).

Note for Americans: typically withdrawing cash from a Swedish debit card carries larger fees than the foreign exchange rate from using credit card (and you will pay the exchange rate, too). If you exchange cash for US dollars, the exchange rate will be even worse. The usual exchange rate on credit cards is 1.5% (at least on cards issued by mainstream banks), with several free alternatives available (such as the Revolut card which also offers limited free withdrawals).

I have always had a little extra cash with me while traveling to the US, but I did not end up using much of it (I still have cash left over from my first trip to the US more than 10 years ago).

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    Ahahahah that was the laugh of the day! How to crash a US system 101: use diacritics. – jcaron Mar 11 at 11:16
  • The problem is that many European cards do not work well on many American terminals: 6 digit pins often fails (also on large hotel chains). European banks requires chips usage, but many terminal in US are still magnetic only. – Giacomo Catenazzi Mar 12 at 16:57
  • Swedish banks still issue magnetic strips on the cards, and use 4-digit PINs (I was really surprised 6-digit Chinese PINs worked in Swedish terminals). What's funny is that many US stores have slots for chipped cards in the payment terminal (but the slot does not work and you have to swipe anyway). – sjoelund.se Mar 13 at 9:00
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Aside from hotel tipping, and a small number of government-driven fees (like park entrance fees), you can live in the US without cash.
Although I typically carry about 25 $ in cash, just for emergencies, it turns out to be the same bills since years, as I never need them.

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  • Yes, that's exactly my experience with the $17 CDN in my wallet. 'Course, I was in the American Southwest the whole time... – Harper - Reinstate Monica Mar 11 at 2:57
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Late last year we spent two weeks on a roadtrip through FL and in San Francisco, from that experience I'd say you can live cashless 98% of the time. The only time we needed cash was:

  • tip in the hotel
  • one "hipster" restaurant
  • booking the airport express in SF

One important note I'm missing in this thread:

Your VISA may be capped at a max no. of transactions per day!

We experienced that our VISA is capped at 10 transactions per day. According to our bank this is a restriction from VISA directly and cannot be changed. So better bring one or two spare credits cards.

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    Your bank is most probably lying, it's most probably something they control directly or indirectly. But indeed, many different cards, issuers and networks have all sorts of limits, either hard, or which trigger security blocks which require you to call to restore things. – jcaron Mar 11 at 13:20
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Locally: Public transit is cash only (unless you have a weekly or monthly pass), exact change required. Taxis take credit cards but charge you an extra $3 to do so.

The closest national park accepts cards but the link is poor enough that they have a sign up about cash being faster. In the not too distant past I have seen cash only signs at some park gates--the basic problem is they are often remote. Don't be confused by people apparently using cards at such gates--passes are credit card sized and are merely checked against one's ID, not processed. (Don't try to get one--if you somehow managed it would be useless.)

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In most establishments this is perfectly acceptable and is increasingly so. Some "mom and pop" style restaurants may still be cash only, but that seems to be fewer and fewer. If you are gambling in a casino they typically prefer cash.

Rental car and hotels tend to prefer credit.

With the advent of square and fast mobile internet the barrier for accepting virtual payments has been all but eliminated. Given that you are going to a conference you are likely to be in a place that most merchants will accepting credit. Some more rural locations may still prefer cash, but they typically do not host conferences.

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    Disagree about the conference. I've seen lots of food trucks line up near conference locations and many of them only take cash. – gerrit Mar 11 at 9:10
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    Indeed, but at some US meetings I've been most participants were getting their food at food trucks. – gerrit Mar 11 at 11:35
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    @gerrit as an American, in my limited experiences with food trucks (Milwaukee, Washington DC, Chicago) they generally have Square now to accept credit cards. You still get the occasional food truck or "hole in the wall" restaurant that is cash only, but those are few and far between, I'd assume especially in a major conference city. – kuhl Mar 11 at 12:34
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    @gerrit Keep in mind in America there are two kinds of food trucks: a) nasty-ass roach coaches selling burritos and warm sodas for $5 (typ. cash only), versus hooty tooty artisanal food trucks selling $5 cupcakes or $12 plates (takes credit, if not credit-only). – Harper - Reinstate Monica Mar 11 at 14:35
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    Every food truck in Chicago that I've been to takes Square, no matter what the level of food (I eat from them regularly, the taco trucks in particular that have $3 tacos). – Joe Mar 11 at 17:27

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