The Low-Down on Chip-and-PIN Cards
By Rick Steves
Europe — and the rest of the world — is adopting a new system for credit and debit cards. While handy for locals, these chip-and-PIN cards are causing a few headaches for American visitors, since some machines that are designed to accept chip-and-PIN cards simply don't accept US credit cards. This news is causing some anxiety among American travelers, but really: Don't worry. While I've been inconvenienced a few times with automated machines that wouldn't accept my card, it's never caused me any serious trouble. Here's the scoop:
Chip-and-PIN cards are embedded with an electronic chip (rather than the magnetic stripe used on our American-style cards). Much of Europe is adopting this system, and some merchants rely on it exclusively. You're most likely to encounter chip-and-PIN problems at automated payment machines, such as those at train and subway stations, toll roads, parking garages, luggage lockers, and self-serve gas pumps.
But don't panic. If a machine won't take your card, find a cashier who can make your card work (they can print a receipt for you to sign), or find a machine that takes cash. Most travelers who are carrying only magnetic-stripe cards never encounter any problems. Still, it pays to carry plenty of euros (you can always use an ATM with your magnetic-stripe debit card). Memorizing your card's PIN lets you use it at some chip-and-PIN machines — just enter your PIN when prompted (if you don't know it, ask your bank for the number before you leave).
Most hotels, restaurants, and shops that serve Americans will gladly accept your US credit card. During the transaction, they may ask you to type in your PIN rather than sign a receipt. Some clerks off the beaten track may need to be reminded to swipe your credit card instead of insert it in the card-reading machine.
In a few cases, you might need to get creative; drivers in particular need to be aware of potential problems when filling up at an automated gas station, entering an unattended parking garage, or exiting a toll road...you might just have to move on to the next gas station or use the "cash only" lane at the toll plaza.
Those who are really concerned can apply for a chip card in the US, but I think this is overkill. Major US banks, such as Chase, Citi, Bank of America, US Bank, and Wells Fargo, are beginning to offer credit cards with chips — but most of these come with a hefty annual fee or are exclusive to corporate accounts.
Also, while these cards have chips, they are not presently configured for offline transactions (in which the card is securely validated for use without a real-time connection to the bank). So although these American chip cards will work for most European transactions, such as in the Paris Metro or the London Tube stations, they might not work at an out-of-the-way gas station in Provence, where the gas pump is probably offline.
If you really want a chip card, ask your financial institution if it plans to offer one soon, and if their cards are offline-capable. If you're still concerned, you can apply for a chip card in the US (again, I think this isn't worth the bother or cost). While big US banks offer these cards with high annual fees, a better option is the no-annual-fee GlobeTrek Visa, offered by Andrews Federal Credit Union in Maryland (open to all US residents).
In the future, chip cards could well become standard issue in the US. Visa and MasterCard have asked US merchants to start making chip-based transactions by late 2015 or assume the liability for fraud. Over the next three years, when your bank renews your credit card, it's likely there will be a chip in it.
Updated for 2013. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.