The Low-Down on Chip-and-PIN Cards in Europe

When Europeans buy something with plastic, they insert their card, then type in their PIN.
By Rick Steves

Europe — and the rest of the world — uses a system for credit and debit cards that differs a bit from ours (yes, even from our new chip-embedded cards). This fact has caused some anxiety among American travelers, but really: Don't worry. While I've been inconvenienced a few times by self-service payment machines that wouldn't accept my old-style, magnetic-stripe card, it's never caused me any serious trouble. Any American card will work at hotels, restaurants, and shops as long as there's a cashier.

How chip-and-PIN cards work: European credit-card readers work on a chip-and-PIN verification system. To make a purchase, the cardholder inserts the card into a slot in the payment machine, then enters a PIN while the card stays in the slot. The chip inside the card authorizes the transaction; the cardholder doesn't sign a receipt. You've probably seen similar machines at home, as most major US banks now offer credit cards with chips.

How US chip cards are different: The chip cards being rolled out in the US are generally chip-and-signature cards, for which your signature verifies your identity. For the most part, American cards — especially ones with embedded chips — work fine in Europe. Since our cards are designed to work on a signature-verification system, some European card readers automatically generate a receipt for you to sign, just as you would at home. American chip-and-signature cards also work at plenty of self-service machines, including those in the Paris Métro and London Underground.

Tips for using your US card at payment terminals in Europe: Some payment machines may prompt you to enter your PIN. Because you might run into this, it's important to contact your bank well before your trip to request your card's PIN (if your bank says the PIN is only for cash withdrawals, ask for it anyway). Be sure to allow time to receive your PIN by mail.

Even armed with an chip card and a PIN, you may still hit some bumps in the road. US chip-and-signature cards are not configured for offline transactions (in which the card is securely validated without a real-time connection to the bank). This is a common hassle at unmanned payment terminals, such as Dutch train ticket machines, French toll plazas, and out-of-the-way Swiss gas stations.

If a self-service payment machine won't accept your card, look for a cashier nearby who can process your card manually. (For this reason, it's a good idea to allow a little extra time at train stations and the like, as staffed service windows almost always have longer lines than ticket machines.) Since most payment machines take cash, it's also smart to keep spare change handy in case there's no cashier nearby (for highway toll booths, parking garages, luggage lockers, bike-rental kiosks, etc.).

Drivers in particular need to be aware of potential problems when filling up at an unattended gas station, entering a parking garage, or exiting a toll road. Be prepared to move on to the next gas station if necessary (don't let your tank get too low, especially if driving at night or on a Sunday). In a pinch, you could ask a local if you can pay them cash to run a transaction on their card. When approaching a toll plaza, err on the easier (if slower) side by using the "cash only" lane.

Finding a true chip-and-PIN card: If you're concerned, ask if your bank offers a true chip-and-PIN card that will work at offline payment terminals. Andrews Federal Credit Union and the State Department Federal Credit Union offer these cards with low fees and are open to all US residents (though you may need to jump through a few hoops to join). Some banks may also offer true chip-and-PIN cards, but verify your card's status carefully to make sure it'll work offline (and that its overseas-transaction fees aren't unreasonable). For a helpful overview of US chip cards, see us-emv-cards.silk.co.