The Low-Down on Chip-and-PIN Cards

Chip and Pin Card Machine, Europe
When Europeans buy something with their chip-and-PIN card, they insert the card in a machine like this one, then type in their PIN.
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 on American-style cards). With this system, the purchaser punches in a PIN rather than signing a receipt. Your American-style card might not work at automated payment machines, such as those at train and subway stations, toll roads, parking garages, luggage lockers, and self-serve gas pumps.

If you have problems using your American card in a chip-and-PIN machine, here are some suggestions: For a debit card, try entering your ATM PIN when prompted. For a credit card, try entering its PIN. (This is not the same as your debit-card PIN; you'll need to ask your bank for your credit-card PIN.) If your cards still don't work, look for a machine that takes cash, seek out a clerk who might be able to process the transaction manually, or ask a local if you can pay them cash to run the transaction on their card.

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.

And don't panic. Many travelers who use only magnetic-stripe cards never have a problem. Still, it pays to carry plenty of euros (you can always use an ATM with your magnetic-stripe debit card).

If you're still concerned, you can apply for a chip card in the US (though I think it's overkill). One option is the no-annual-fee GlobeTrek Visa, offered by Andrews Federal Credit Union in Maryland (open to all US residents).