Cash-only for visitors to the Vatican
A ban on electronic payments has left thousands of Vatican visitors and pilgrims scrambling to find alternate ways to pay for popular sites. (Joanot/Getty)
A word of advice to Vatican visitors: bring cash.
Earlier this week, Italian authorities banned electronic payments – including credit and debit cards – as well as most ATM withdrawals in the tiny city-state.
According to news reports, the Italian central bank, Banca d’Italia, suspended electronic payments at the start of January because the Holy See has not yet complied with European Union (EU) regulations to combat money laundering. As such, Italian banks, including the Vatican’s main operator, Deutsche Bank’s Italian unit, are not authorized to transact in Vatican City.
The move has left thousands of Vatican visitors and pilgrims scrambling to find alternate ways to pay for popular sites, including Vatican Museums, as well as souvenirs, gifts and meals. Besides investments and donations, memorabilia and ticket sales are the main source of revenue for the city-state; museums and shops in Vatican City typically enjoy yearly sales of more than 76.6 million euros, and Vatican museums accounted for another 91 million euros in sales in 2011, according to the Holy See.
In recent years the Vatican has come under scrutiny for tax evasion and money laundering , prompting the inquiry that resulted in this ban. The privately-held Vatican bank, Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), located inside Vatican City, has been at the centre of several financial scandals in recent years, and has been under investigation since 2010 for allegedly omitting data in wire transfers from an Italian account.
As a result of the investigation, Italian authorities have pressured the city-state to enforce EU financial regulations and boost transparency. EU officials have said the Vatican is making progress, but until Vatican City is compliant with European financial regulations, Italian authorities have instituted the electronic payment ban.
Vatican authorities are working to lift the suspension as soon as possible, but until they do, tourists, many of whom are travelling with limited cash, are being left in the lurch. What options do travellers have in light of the credit card ban?
• Purchase tickets online now. Tourists can buy tickets for Vatican museums, including Pinacoteca Vaticana, Museo Pio-Clementino and Museo Chiaramonti, online using a credit card until 15 January. Officials aren’t saying yet what happens after that – if the ban is not lifted, they may extend the online ticket purchase period or it may simply be that visitors have to pay in cash in person.
• Until further measures are taken to lift the ban, cash is king in the Vatican. Bring cash, but for safety reasons, divide large amounts of cash between family members and stow in safe areas, like money belts and inside pockets.
• Though ATM withdrawals from most banks are impossible under the current ban, cash withdrawals from machines operated by the independent Vatican bank IOR are not affected. The Vatican operates three IOR ATMs, the most convenient of which is located outside the main post office in St Peter’s Square. Keep in mind instructions for all ATMs in Vatican City are in Latin.