Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Chip and Pin Credit Cards

The USA has long been a worldwide holdout on buying into the Chip and Pin technology.  I subscribe to International Travel News, a longtime publication for savvy international travelers, and Chip and Pin cards have been a hot topic of discussion for at least the last ten years.  The Chip and Pin card is one element of a broad technological standard known as EMV Cards.  EMV stands for Europay, MasterCard and Visa, the three founding companies that originally defined the standard. 

Since the 1970’s credit cards have had a black magnetic strip on the back to store electronic data (in a not-so-secure form) about the cardholder. If you are interested, there is a good article charting the progress from Zip-Zap machines to the modern EMV technology at Creditcards.com.  This same magnetic strip is still in use on US credit and debit cards today.  Swiping your card to make a purchase has been the norm for years and has served us well, unless you are an international traveler.

I first realized my magnetic-strip credit card was second-rate when I attempted to purchase a booklet of M├ętro tickets from an automated machine in Paris.  My fancy and supposedly high tech credit card was denied right then and there. That was back in 2005!  Since then, I’ve encountered the same problem at European toll roads, unmanned gas stations and more recently, when attempting to rent a bike in Dublin.  To me, it is irritating that as citizens of the biggest and most technologically advanced nation in the world we cannot get a credit card to work in another country.  I could rant for hours, but let me press on to what this means for you and your international travel.

Change is not so bad

This new EMV technology has caused a bit of anxiety among American travelers.  Most American credit card companies have issued new credit cards containing imbedded chips (IC) over the past few months. As with any change, there is a learning curve, because these new cards require a different procedure than our old magnetic strip cards. But don’t worry, the bottom line is that 99% of the time your new chip-imbedded card will function exactly as your old magnetic strip card has for years.  As long as there is a sales clerk, a cashier or attendant on duty you’ll have no problem.

How a Chip and Pin card works 

The credit card readers (point-of-sales machines) in Europe use the Chip and Pin verification method. When making a purchase, the cardholder inserts the card into a slot in the card reader payment machine.  While the card is still in the slot a PIN is entered.  The imbedded chip verifies the PIN and the transaction, and the cardholder goes away without a receipt. Next time you are in Europe notice the locals will dip their card, punch in their PIN and be on their way in seconds.  

US Chip Cards are different

The new EMV cards we are receiving in the USA are actually chip and signature cards and require no PIN at all to function.  When using it to make payment at home or in Europe, you’ll insert the card in the slot and leave it there until directed to remove it on the payment screen. You’ll have to stand there and wait until the clerk gives you the sales slip to sign and then presents you with a duplicated copy.  As mentioned, the chip and signature cards work just as well as the old magnetic strip cards anywhere there is a cashier, at home or in Europe. The only time you’ll run into problems and maybe have your card denied is at unattended kiosks. 

How to use your US chip card in Europe

It is quite possible that a payment machine might ask for a PIN.  Credit card companies do not routinely issue PIN’s, but you usually can have one issued if you ask.  This requires jumping through some hoops and listening to lots of disclaimers from your credit card company, but the bottom line is you should be able to get a PIN.  Your best bet is to give them a call, and be sure to do this with plenty of time to receive the PIN by mail.  Also, make sure you understand the fee schedule and interest rates associated with a PIN transaction. Finally, when making initial contact with your credit card company it will help to tell them you want a PIN for cash advances just to simplify the process of getting one issued.

Even with a PIN, you might run into some problems. Cards issued in the USA are not set up to handle “offline” transactions.  These are transactions that do not immediately validate with a real-time connection to the bank.  Occasionally, I still encounter this problem when attempting to purchase fuel at unmanned stations and at French toll plazas.  In this case, I always have a supply of coins and bank notes available to complete the purchase. I can think of few things worse that getting stranded in a busy toll plaza and not being able to make payment!

Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) is a service offered to credit cardholders that offers to convert a foreign transaction at the point of sale into the home currency of the cardholder.  This is never a good idea for the consumer because it comes with inflated exchange rates that benefit the merchant.  An unsuspecting cardholder can lose up to 7% by opting in to this feature. Since DCC works against the purchaser, never say you would like your purchases to be converted to dollars. (read more about this in my article: Dynamic Currency Conversion: Just Say No!).

Want an authentic Chip and Pin Card?

If you are a frequent international traveler, or just want to be up to date on the modern EMV technology, there are a few banks the offer Chip and Pin cards.  Most cards have the default authentication as signature and if that fails (or is not available) a PIN is required.  

I use the Barclay Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard which offers Chip and Pin capabilities with signature being the default verification method. The card has served me well in my travels except at a few remote offline gas stations. This card offers great rates, 2x miles that never expire for travel, 40,000 bonus miles at signup and low yearly fees. Additionally, travel miles really build up fast and there are no blackout dates. 

In my research I’ve also found that these card providers offer Chip and Pin features designed for international travel:  USAA, Andrews Federal Credit Union, State Department Credit Union.  Perhaps the only true offline Chip and Pin card can be found at the United Nations Federal Credit Union.  You have to jump through some manageable hoops to join but I understand for cardholders this card does the trick even with offline purchases.


In this article, I discussed that the US has been resistant to Chip and Pin technologies, which sometimes causes traditional magnetic strip credit cards to be declined. The new American credit cards with an imbedded chip are accepted in nearly all locations, but may still require a signature. Depending on your card provider, you may be able to request a pin for your chip-imbedded card. If that fails, I mentioned several card providers that offer Chip and Pin cards designed for international travel.

If you found this article informative, please share it with your friends, family, coworkers and associates. If you have something to add, just leave a comment in the box below.

Do you want to learn more about traveling to Europe? There is a wealth of information and special discount pricing on my tours at http://davidmcguffin.com/.

David McGuffin is Founder and CEO of David McGuffin’s Exploring Europe, Inc., based in Middleburg, Florida. You can connect with him on  Twitter,  Facebook,  Google+,  LinkedIn and YouTube. David spends his time in Europe organizing and leading small group and independent tours to European destinations. In business since 2001, David has provided exceptional travel opportunities to several thousand satisfied customers. You can find out more about David and his European tours at his website, http://davidmcguffin.com.


  1. What's amazing is I have seen local consumers struggle to make a transaction using their chip cards. I can only imagine how their frustration multiplies on foreign shores.

  2. The only thing constant is change. We all have to get use to the new cc cards. A couple of years from now the frustration will be a memory.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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