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Can I use my ATM/Debit card for purchases?

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On several trips to France I have used my ATM/Debit card (Visa "Check Card") to withdraw money from ATM's but have always used my MBNA Visa credit card to pay for hotels, restaurants, gas and other purchases. Is it possible to use my "Check Card" for purchases as well and have the money taken directly from my checking account? Can it be used in autoroute toll booths? (I know from experience that gas station pumps won't take either of these cards.) Are there advantages or disadvantages to using one over the other?

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