Chip-and-PIN debit and credit cards

This item appears on page 36 of the May 2010 issue.

In Europe, Canada, Latin America and parts of Pacific Asia, the Middle East and Africa, retailers use an “EMV” credit card verification system that requires a computer chip embedded in the card. The cardholder must enter a Personal Identification Number (PIN) to complete a purchase. This EMV (aka “chip-and-PIN”) system is being increasingly used because of its effectiveness in combating fraud. ITN confirmed with MasterCard, American Express and Visa that, currently, no financial institution in the United States is issuing credit cards that use chip-and-PIN security technology.

Travelers abroad sometimes run into vendors who refuse to accept payments made using US credit cards which still use magnetic-stripe readers. The vendors may be within their rights to do so, depending on that country’s laws. Some retailers will run a manual transaction (physical impression) of a card as a favor, but it is at their discretion as it does make more work for them and leaves them open to fraud.

ITN asked you American travelers among our subscribers to share any experiences, solutions and suggestions regarding using your credit and debit cards overseas. We requested that, in each case, you state WHEN and where you were overseas and at which establishment you used your card. We also were curious about using ATMs or kiosks in those same areas.

Responses appear below. Those of you with something more to add, write to Chip-and-PIN, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (include the address at which you receive ITN).

We visited friends in Islington, London, about three miles (as the crow flies) from the Tower of London, in September ’09. We invited our hosts to dinner. The check arrived and my husband, Dave, presented his Visa card. It was rejected.

We were dismayed. One of our friends handed her card to the waitress. It was processed in a flash. Fortunately, we had enough cash in pounds to pay her back immediately.

Upon returning home, I called Chase to ask what we could do to avoid further embarrassment. The lady who answered, obviously herself from the British Isles, could only commiserate. She had gone home to England during the summer and found several places where her card was not honored.

She said the vendor can type the card number into his credit card machine and it will work fine, but some don’t understand or refuse to try.

When buying most items, you can back off, go to an ATM for cash and complete your transaction. But when you have already eaten the dinner, it is more difficult, especially late in the evening when you might not want to visit an ATM even if there was one nearby.

Hereafter, we will rely on ATMs for cash to cover all our necessary transactions, and we’ll probably spend less, overall.

Jean Gosse

Shoreline, WA

My husband, Pete, and I spent all of September ’09 in Europe. When we tried to rent bikes at a bike stand in Paris near the Campanile Hotel in the Bastille area, the machine would not take any credit card that we had. We even walked to the train station to see if the bike rentals there had a live person from whom we could rent, but we didn’t find anyone.

After a few days in Paris, we picked up our leased car. Since they give you only enough gas to get out of town, a few miles down the road we stopped at an Auchan store to get gas. We put our credit card in the machine and it spit it back out. Again, the machine wouldn’t take any card we had.

I asked a young girl filling her car up if she would help us. She tried with our card, to no avail, then she offered to put 50 euros’ worth of gas on her card if we had cash to give her. We were in luck, as we always order $2,000 worth of euros before we leave on a trip to Europe.

So what should we do, carry our bikes with us on the plane? Get gas only at stations with an attendant?

Aside from the card problem, our trip was wonderful.

Linda Lemieux

Elk Grove, CA

I had never encountered a problem using my Visa card overseas until October ’09 in Amsterdam.

For the past 15 years I’ve always purchased a weekly tram pass at the GVB tram office using my credit card. This time, I swiped the card and was asked to enter a PIN. I explained to the counterperson that this was an American card, not a chip-and-PIN card. After a minor dispute, I paid cash.

I later learned from a merchant that if the card number is entered manually, the magnetic-stripe card will work.

Michael L. Evangelista

Dillwyn, VA

We were in Australia and Tasmania in February, November and December ’09 using credit cards. While everyone asked us to put in a PIN, when we said we didn’t have one they had no problem with having us sign and then checking the signature on the back of the card. Sometimes they would say, “You must be American.”

We used our credit cards at hotels, the car rental agency, restaurants, a B&B, for tours, in ATMs — everywhere. We never had a problem.

The first time we were asked for a PIN was in 2007 in Scotland, but, again, there was no problem with our not having one.

Liz Peotter

Sparks, NV

During a road trip of seven Balkan states in August and September ’09, we encountered the chip-and-PIN requirement. Luckily for us, we had taken cash as well as our debit and credit cards. Between the cash and the two cards, we had no problem.

In the larger cities like Budapest, Hungary, and Bucharest, Romania, and even the smaller Sibiu in Romania, as well as in Kotor in Montenegro; Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Dubrovnik in Croatia, we had no problems with credit cards in the larger hotels, where we usually had our meals. In the small B&Bs we had to use cash.

We had a problem twice with an ATM machine, but, upon our going into the bank they swiped our card and gave us the cash.

Gas stations would not take a credit card, so whenever we could we used the debit card, paying in person, but on numerous occasions we had to pay cash.

The most interesting thing that we found was we never paid in US dollars. We always had to convert to local currency. This was the first time in our 30 years of traveling anywhere in the world that we could never pay for anything in dollars.

Jean Yake

Las Vegas, NV

As a regular traveler to Scotland and England, I have in the past been embarrassed by not knowing about the need for a PIN, which, of course, is not required or even provided with a credit card in the USA.

One solution is to actually save money by prepaying all anticipated services — such as hotels, meals, transport, sightseeing, entertainment and entrances — obtaining promotional rates through your travel agent before leaving home.

For any ancillary expenditure or what cannot be prepaid, use your ATM debit card (you know the PIN for that) to obtain local currency from any bank.

It should be noted that many banks now charge a foreign-transaction fee on all charges made outside the USA, so by prepaying for services you avoid paying those fees.

I cannot emphasize enough the benefit of prearranging and prepaying as many services as possible to avoid the “privilege” of being charged by banks for spending your own money!

Charlie Newton

Carrollton, TX

I take four to five international trips per year. So far, I have not had a major problem with not having a chip-and-PIN card, since I take a reasonably generous allowance of cash with me and have had no trouble using my Visa debit card at bank automatic teller machines if I needed more.

I tend to use credit cards sparingly on my trips, but the only time my card was not accepted was on Faial in the Azores in September ’08 when trying to pay for a whale-watching trip. I paid with cash instead.

Gary Mockli

Chesterfield, MO

We experienced a problem with our credit card at the Hilton Hotel and casino in Douglas on the Isle of Man, UK, in September ’09. They said our card had to have a chip. They directed us to their ATM and we were able to get Manx pounds (the island’s local currency).

We didn’t think about our Manx money as being any different to spend until we heard a lady ask a clerk to give her change in British pounds, as she was leaving the island the next day. We went to a bank and changed our Manx pounds into British pounds.

W. Mastin

Huntsville, AL

Traveling without a “chip” credit card is getting more difficult, judging from experiences on two trips we took to Leeds, England, in April ’09 and December ’09. The Queens Hotel in Leeds was no problem on either trip, but more restaurants, especially the smaller ones, are not taking cards without the chip.

We went on to Scotland on the second trip and had no trouble, although they sometimes took our credit card to the front in restaurants, as is done in the US, instead of completing the transaction at the table.

Before our trip, I checked with all financial institutions to which I’m linked without any luck in getting a chip-and-PIN card. Most disappointing was USAA (United Services Automobile Association), a financial services company for lots of US military personnel stationed abroad. They said they “heard of the system” and are “looking into it but have no plans yet.”

Milton Lilie

Rye, New York

My first encounter with the chip-and-PIN problem was in May ’07 at Schiphol airport. I attempted to buy train tickets to Amsterdam using the ticket machines near the airport’s train station. The ticket machines would not accept either my MasterCard or Visa. I had to buy the tickets from an agent at a nearby ticket window (after standing in line) and pay a €1-per-ticket fee for the privilege.

It’s ridiculous that ticket machines in a major international airport won’t take American credit cards. Of course, it’s also ridiculous that American credit card issuers won’t issue a credit card that is accepted worldwide.

The obvious solution is for American credit card issuers to provide cards with chips upon request.

Stephen O. Addison, Jr.

Charlotte, NC

For many years I have been going to France regularly, mostly to Paris. Compared to Western Europe, the US is way behind in so many ways! The chip-and-PIN card is just one of them.

The US needs to update to the chip-and-PIN type of card. How do we get the credit card companies to do it? I wrote to both Visa and MasterCard and received essentially the same answer from both companies.

MasterCard wrote, “MasterCard does not issue cards and, as such, does not dictate the technologies used. Actually, MasterCard is a leader in EMV technology, and our issuers in Europe, Asia, Canada and Latin America use our technology to support millions of cardholders. Unfortunately, the US issuers have not adopted EMV as yet (as you know), which does put consumers in the US at a disadvantage. We would recommend that you contact your bank and let them know of your perspective. If more consumers do that, we can all expect EMV adoption sooner than later.”

It is common knowledge to regular travelers in many countries overseas that you cannot use a US card for tollbooths, vending machines, gas stations, etc. For instance, to refill my Navigo Découverte Métro/bus card in Paris, I have to go to a manned booth and pay cash instead of using a vending machine. And if you are renting or leasing a car and doing a lot of driving, you need to carry more cash. It’s just that simple.

I can get by in Paris for six weeks with €600-€800 in cash; for other things I use my credit card.

Some smaller stores are now asking for ID if the customer is using a so-called “dumb” card. (Chip-and-PIN cards are known as “smart cards.”) On a six-week stay in Paris, Nov. 3-Dec. 14, 2009, I was asked for my ID only once, in a small shop.

By the way, Capital One credit cards are the only ones I know of that do not charge a foreign-transaction fee. (I called to check on March 18, 2010, after the new federal credit card rules went into effect on Feb. 22, and that was still the case.) I always take a Capital One card, along with several other cards in case of an emergency.

I take one card that works in ATMs but do not use it. ATMs are the cheapest and most popular way of obtaining cash, but I prefer to not have to bother with ATMs, instead ordering foreign currency, usually from AAA, before leaving the US. The small amount that it costs to do this through AAA (5.5% over the average standard market rate) I willingly pay for the convenience, as I need such a small amount of euros. For some needing a large amount, it may not be the best way.

AAA does this as a service for its members and doesn’t charge the additional flat fee for getting foreign currency — $30 in some cases — that some banks charge on top of the exchange rate, only a shipping fee of $12 ($15 for nonmembers). In my state, I can order euros at AAA in person, writing a check; in some other states, members can order foreign currency only on AAA’s website,, meaning the charge would come up as a “cash advance” on their credit card statement.

Joan N. Grace

Asheville, NC

On several recent trips to Ireland, I have observed chip-and-PIN in action. Having an old-fashioned magnetic-stripe card has not given me any trouble, but I have felt I was inconveniencing merchants and restaurateurs.

In anticipation of spending several weeks in France, I took the chip-and-PIN article in ITN to my bank, a branch of Chase, where a bewildered employee said she’d see what she could do. About 10 days later I received a new Chase Slate card with a chip, which Chase calls a “blink,” but no PIN. (A Slate, incidentally, allows the cardholder to break various charges into different categories with different rates of interest.)

The Slate card carrier need never let the card out of his or her hand; a mere wand of the card is all the contact needed.

I suppose, if asked for my PIN in France, I’ll just give them a blank look like the girl in the bank gave me!

I did meet someone with a Chase “blink” card like my own and he was very unhappy, expressing concern that a hacker could obtain the personal information off said chip while it was in his pocket. I have heard the same complaints about the new US passports and have seen ads for ‘hacker-proof’ wallets for passports. Oh, the problems we can find with any new technology!

May Targett

Cleveland, OH

With a trip planned to Benelux and France in April-May 2010, where much of my travel would be by train, I worked on a plan to ensure little or no difficulty in using a debit card at the stations, in ATMs and for routine purchases.

I live near Washington, DC, and have access to area HSBC banks (Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, the worlds’ largest banking group); HSBC USA has international affiliations with HSBC offices in the United Kingdom. I opened a Premier account in a Washington branch (there are minimum-amount conditions), which made it possible to also open an account in the UK.

HSBC offers a credit card (MasterCard) and debit card (Visa), both with chips. From the UK, I was mailed a chip-and-PIN debit card that has Visa purchase power and can be used in ATM machines.

The UK account has to be in British pounds; euro accounts using debit cards are not available in the UK. With the UK account in pounds, using a debit card in euro countries (such as France and Benelux) means that the euro-to-pound conversion rate must be kept in mind to avoid overdrafts. That problem doesn’t exist with the credit card, but credit card use in ATM machines means cash advances and their resulting bank fees.

Prior to departure, I plan to conduct an online transfer of funds from my US account to the UK account and then debit from that account as needed using my new chip-and-PIN card.

I was told that my chip-and-PIN card also carries a magnetic stripe, so it can be used in the US and other countries not employing the chip.

David Harris

Silver Spring, MD

In January I called American Express and MasterCard as well as HSBC regarding chip-and-PIN cards used in Europe and their availability to those holding conventional credit cards in the US. After speaking to several different individuals at each of the above, I was advised there are no plans to issue this type of card in the US.

If enough people show a concern, hopefully, credit card companies will take note and offer dual cards to those who want them.

The person at HSBC said I should look into purchasing a “set-amount” debit card (like those for sale at many stores in supermarkets, convenience stores, etc., in the US) in Europe that would have the chip-and-PIN, although he did not know if they were even available in that format and could provide no information as to where to purchase such a card.

On another issue, the person I spoke to at MasterCard said it is important to provide them with the dates and countries of any upcoming travels to avoid any issues of the card’s being suspended due to out-of-the-norm activity.

I have never had a problem with this, but, with increased problems with stolen credit cards, they said that when suspicious activity is noted you are contacted. Of course, if you’re traveling, a phone call would serve no purpose and e-mail may not always be available or regularly checked.

One more thing — mainly for obtaining cash in local currencies from ATMs while traveling, I have an HSBC debit MasterCard (with a PIN). As long as I keep a balance, there is no fee for this card and no minimum use required. The account does not pay any interest.

Most recently, I used this debit card at HSBC locations in Turkey two years ago, in Germany a year ago and in Argentina nine months ago without any problem and no ATM fee. There is a normal currency-conversion fee. (For a locater of branches worldwide, go to

I obtained my card at the local HSBC bank. When requesting this card, you have to be specific; my previous one required one transaction every 90 days or a service fee was applied.

And I just obtained online a similar debit MasterCard (with a PIN) from Citibank, without any fees. Citibank had a promotion (now expired) offering 10,000 AAdvantage miles for opening the account with a minimum deposit of $1,000 and keeping the account for six months.

John Heberle

Rochester, NY

An easy solution to the chip-and-PIN card problem is to get a card in Europe. I’ve had a Barclays account with an “Electron” ATM chip-and-PIN card for years.

After doing some work in the UK, I walked into a London branch of the bank and opened a checking account. It came with a chip-and-PIN debit card, which was mailed to me in the US. All the records and statements for the account are sent to me in the US.

It’s a standard checking account, and I fill it with cash as needed at any Barclays branch when I am in the UK.

I’m sure many overseas banks will open such an account.

Ed Graper

Goleta, CA

Most places we’ve traveled to have been kind enough to accept our magnetic-stripe swipe cards. We used the card extensively on a trip to England, France, Switzerland and Italy in 2007 and on a two-week stay in England in 2005.

In England we used the card at the supermarkets, and one alert clerk noticed that I had not signed the back. After signing, she accepted it. And I had used that card many times in the US without anyone saying anything!

Wondering if any of the foreign banks here in the US were issuing chip-and-PIN cards, I called a couple in January and struck out.

In the process, I stumbled on the Smart Card Alliance (Princeton Junction, NJ; 800/556-6828,, a nonprofit organization that promotes adoption of chip-and-PIN cards, and asked them if there were any banks in the US issuing such cards.

“Not at this time,” they said, “but we are working on it.”

Optimistically, they said we may have some banks issuing the cards by the end of this year. Whoever I talked to said that if they are successful, he would be “the first in line!”

John Putman

Sun City, CA