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Euro mortgage now, but long wait for real change.

Surrounded by hype about the debut of Europe's single currency, some consumers may be disappointed to find they will have to wait until 2002 to actually use the new coins.

But those who are eager to be pioneers in Europe's brave new monetary world will be able to experiment with a variety of transactions in euros once they recover from their New Year celebrations.

Those transactions include bank accounts, bank transfers, mortgages, credit card payments, traveller's cheques, personal cheques - just about anything, that is, that doesn't involve cash.

The number of merchants who will accept euro payments is likely to be small at first, with the percentage growing as consumers become more comfortable with the new currency.

Mr Jim Murray, director of the European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC) in Brussels, is one of the adventurous ones.

He said he has already asked his bank to open a euro account for him, joking that he wanted to be a "leader of fashion".

"I wanted to start the process, to get into it early," he said.

The EU has decided to introduce the single currency in stages to avoid an abrupt switchover.

But the eleven countries taking part will not ditch their own currencies until mid-2002. Euro notes and coins will be issued from January 1 of that year.

During the transition period, euro-zone residents will find a growing number of chances to try out the new currency.

For example, Bass Hotels & Resorts, saying it was "ahead of the game", announced in September it would allow guests at more than 300 Inter-Continental, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn hotels to pay in euros from January 1.

It said they could make credit card or other electronic payments or use "eurocheques", the system that already allows Europeans to write cheques in multiple currencies.

Based on a quick survey of banks in July, Europay International estimates that about 10 per cent of merchants will begin accepting euro payments in 1999, with an additional 40 per cent signing on in 2000, said Dominique Bichut, the company's euro program me coordinator.

Europay operates the Eurocard-MasterCard, Maestro, Cirrus and eurocheque payment systems, all offering the euro option from January 1.

The consumers who are most likely to dip into the new currency are those who do a lot of travelling, experts say.

"When they get their statement, they can see what they paid in one currency instead of 11 different currencies," Mr Alemdar said.

Visa, the Thomas Cook Group and American Express are among companies that will be offering traveller's cheques denominated in euros from January 1. Officials said the option should appeal to individuals who are travelling to several euro zone countries a nd want to carry only one set of cheques.

Customers from outside the euro zone - say, from Britain or the United States - might also prefer euros to sterling or dollars because they will not have to worry about exchange rate fluctuations, they said.

During the transition period, the exchange rates between the 11 participating currencies - and between them and the euro - will be fixed. That will make it easier for travellers to know exactly how much they are spending and to avoid getting ripped off w hen they change their money.

Until 2002, euro zone residents will be able to do their banking in either euros or their national currencies.

Major European banking groups have pledged not to charge customers for switching accounts from national currencies to euros or to convert payments from one currency to the other.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 30, 1998
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