Prague Essential Tips: Czech Currency and Related Woes

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Prague is an amazing place to visit, and the world knows it. In 2017, 6.5 million people visited Prague from abroad, along with more than a million Czechs. But while there’s a lot to enjoy about the beautiful city, there are a few things that could ruin your experience.

In this article, we’ll be looking at money, the sorts of problems that you could come across during various kinds of financial transactions, and the essential tips to help you avoid any potential problems.

Prague Grosch
Prague Grosch created in 1300, not currently in use

Even though the Czech Republic has been a part of the EU since 2004, and a part of the Schengen open borders zone since 2007, we’re not a member of the eurozone, meaning our official currency is still the Czech koruna (or the Czech crown, CZK).

This means that the euro is accepted by many shops and restaurants, but in an unofficial manner and every place can set their own rates. ATMs around the country almost exclusively dispense only Czech crowns. Inevitably then, a foreign visitor comes across exchange issues. When that happens to you, you should…

Never forget to count the zeros on an ATM screen

Using an ATM in the Czech Republic, you should of course follow the usual precautions – make sure nobody is looking over your shoulder, cover up the keypad when entering the PIN… But you should also make extra sure that you’re aware of how much money you’re actually withdrawing.

It’s not universal, but many ATMs around the country will offer you absolutely mad amounts – often the smallest number is 10,000 CZK, or the equivalent of about 400 EUR.

Maybe you’re a big spender and that’s exactly what you’re looking for before you stop by Louis Vuitton, Hermes or Jimmy Choo down on Pařížská street. If so, good for you!

But if you’d rather not max out your credit card by accident, please, count the zeros and press the “Other amount” button to manually enter some reasonable value instead.

Why would they be doing this, you wonder? Because of what happens when you don’t know that you should…

Never let the ATM exchange your money or use “your account’s currency”

Moving past the ludicrous amounts suggested, many visitors are surprised by the question of conversion or currency when using an ATM.

Since your account is not in Czech crowns but the ATM has no other cash currency available, there will invariably be a conversion at some point. But who converts and under what conditions?

Generally, your bank is your best bet. So, if a local ATM asks you whether you want your money exchanged, you don’t. You want your account to be charged in the local currency only, not in your account’s currency.

This way, when your account is charged in CZK, your bank converts to your account’s currency, and usually this happens using a decent, standard rate.

On the other hand, the local ATM will convert at a rate worse by between 5 and 20 %. Not a great deal by any standards.

And remember the staggering suggested withdrawal amounts? This is where it all comes together – 10 % of 10,000 is a sweeter deal than 10 % of a measly 1,000.

You should apply the same caution when using your credit or debit cards, because even there you might be asked about conversion in a different way – “Which currency to use: yours or local?” The safe option here is again to use local currency, CZK, and let your bank convert for you.

If this makes you feel like maybe using cash would be the safer option, you should know to…

Never exchange money in the street

Let’s say you brought along some cash in a currency that’s convertible worldwide. British pounds, United States dollars, euros. It’s a good idea to convert some of it into Czech crowns, and so you approach the nearest money exchange office.

As you walk towards the door, a man comes up to you and, with a heavy accent, warns you about the terrible rates the place offers. You confirm this by looking at their signs and doing the math and you’re thankful for the good advice.

But the man continues: “I will give you a better rate, 26 crowns for 1 euro, what do you say?”

You should say no and walk away immediately. If you don’t, there’s a 100 % chance you’ll end up with old Belarusian rubels (worthless, except as an unhelpful reminder of past mistakes).

Currently valid Czech banknotes
This is what actual Czech currency looks like, no Cyrilic alphabet there. One note: the word “SPECIMEN” doesn’t actually appear on the money. Unless someone made a big stamp and was feeling particularly cheeky.

But when you walk into the office afterwards, you should…

Never just hand over your cash in a money exchange office

Brick-and-mortar money exchange offices are seen by many as a guarantee of a certain degree of trustworthiness. Unfortunately, in the Czech Republic, that is not the case, unless by “a certain degree” you mean “a very small degree”.

That is not to say they’re all bad and you have no choice but to be ripped off. But the difference between a decent place and a terrible one is hard to spot.

Some places conveniently forget to mention there’s a commission. Or the rates listed on the board are the Czech National Bank rates which, however, have no relation to the rates offered by the actual exchange office. Or they abuse the “VIP” system, so that the good rates only apply to the handful of frequent fliers but certainly not you.

There’s only one thing you can do to be careful here: before you hand over any cash at all, insist on a receipt. For example, say: “Hi, I’d like to exchange 100 euro, can I get a receipt before?”.

The receipt is actually called “pre-contract information”, and the money exchange office is legally obligated to give it to you before the transaction.  On it, you should be able to clearly see the currency you’re converting, the rate offered, the total amount converted, the commission or service fee charged, and the total pay-out you receive.

Read this information carefully, as it is your last chance to back out of a bad deal. If it looks good, feel free to proceed by giving your cash to the clerk. You should receive a second receipt as well.

If you just hand over your cash without asking anything, you’re automatically accepting whatever the rates and commissions may be, and the transaction cannot be reversed. You’re essentially playing Russian roulette with your money.

Maybe having read all this you’re thinking you might be better off not converting at all. After all, if you brought euros, those will surely be accepted readily here, right? Oftentimes that’s true, but…

Never pay in EUR before learning the rate first

Many shops and restaurants in the centre of Prague understand that there are many who appreciate the convenience of using the euro without converting. But that doesn’t change the fact the euro is not an official currency in the Czech Republic and there is no binding conversion rate.

For you that means that every time you’re paying in euro, the place of business can set their rate completely arbitrarily. By law they have to inform you of the rate – either by listing prices in EUR alongside prices in CZK, pre-converted, or by posting the conversion rate they use.

Very often the rate will be 25 CZK for 1 EUR. That’s a very convenient conversion rate for both you and the business, because it means a 100 CZK note is worth exactly 4 EUR. On top of that, it’s very close to the rate you could get in a decent exchange office (at the time of writing, October 4th 2018, about 25.3 CZK for 1 EUR).

But the rate could be lower. Much lower, in fact, and there are places that offer between 22 and 20 CZK for 1 EUR. That means that you’re paying 18 to 20 per cent for the convenience of not converting yourself. Perhaps a small price to pay on a two-euro bottle of coke, but if you’re buying a bunch of souvenirs or paying for a group meal, it’s borderline daylight robbery.

Borderline, though – it’s legal. Unethical, but legal. Unlike the last tip which you may already be aware of, but…

Never get careless with your belongings

Pickpockets are, it seems, an inevitable by-product of tourism. After all, an average tourist is just about the perfect target. Distracted by new and exotic sights, moving around in crowded areas, and carrying expensive equipment and significant amount of cash.

Prague is not an unsafe city and when theft and pickpocketing occur, it’s rarely ever violent. In fact, most of the time the victim doesn’t even know about the crime until much later.

The only way to avoid this unfortunate mess, then, is to be pre-emptively a bit careful. Back pockets are less safe than front pockets, similarly the outermost pocket on your backpack is a lot less safe than the one close to your body, deeper in the bag.

Especially critical are the hot-spots where distractions and crowds converge, creating the perfect conditions for petty theft. Public transport, especially tram number 22 (which goes past the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle), is one of them. The Charles Bridge itself, with large crowds and beautiful pictures to be taken, is another. You should also stay on your toes during the show of the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square.

I hope these tips will help you stay safe when it comes to all sorts of monetary machinations. For more tips like these, check out their dedicated section!

Stay safe!