Do you Really Need a Chip & Signature Credit Card in Europe?

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Chip and Signature cards are slowly becoming more popular in US-issued credit cards, but in my opinion, most folks traveling to Europe don’t really *need* a credit card with a chip when they travel to Europe.

Sure, having a card with a chip helps, but most travelers won’t be terribly inconvenienced without one.  If you’re traveling outside the US, you should first try to get a card which doesn’t charge the 3% foreign transaction fee for using the card outside the US and then try to get a card which has a Chip (though some cards with Chips also don’t charge foreign transaction fees).

That’s because most European credit card readers have the ability to use BOTH credit cards with a Chip as well as signature-based US cards as well.  After all, European shopkeepers and businesses would have much lower sales if they refuse to accept credit cards carried by Americans and other tourists.

The picture below is of a credit card reader at a store in Paris.  Note the option to either pay in euros by pressing #1 or in dollars by pressing #2.  Of course, you’ll pay in euros to save money, right?!

But notice that the reader is equipped with a swipe reader on the right to read American credit cards and has a slot at the bottom to read cards which have  a chip.

Chip & Signature

Can Read Magnetic Swipe Cards

I’ve been to many places in Europe, over 10 years, and almost never had a problem with using a US credit card as long as there was a human around who could figure out how to use the swipe reader for the American credit cards.

But I was curious to find out if this was mere luck, or if European credit card readers were deliberately equipped with magnetic strip readers for US-issued credit cards.  So I reached out to Visa and got a reply from Ava Kelly, Head of Global Affluent and Cross Border Initiatives, Visa Inc. who wrote:

“If you are traveling abroad and you come across a business that says that it can’t accept your magnetic stripe card, tell them to look for the slot on the machine to swipe your card and then follow the prompts on their payment terminal.  The clerk may not be familiar with magnetic stripe cards and just needs to find where to swipe the card.  Most of the time, their machines are equipped to take your card.”

My experience, particularly in more remote European cities has been very similar.  There was sometimes a little confusion about how to swipe an American credit card, but I was always able to use my credit card after explaining (and gesturing and showing my wallet with no cash in it!) that it had to be swiped.

The only times when my US credit cards didn’t work were in automated machines.  If you’re traveling by car and need to use the automated gas pumps, you may need a REAL Chip & PIN card which is very different from the Chip and Signature cards issued by the the big banks.

Rapid Travel Chai has a great write-up on the only real Chip & PIN credit card in the US available.

Bottom Line:  Chip and Signature cards are nice to have, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get one unless it also offered no foreign transaction fees (like the Chase Hyatt and British Airways cards, or the Citi Thank You Premier).

And if I was going to use my card in a *lot* of automated machines, I’d make sure to get a real Chip & PIN card, but that’s probably overkill for most folks.

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36 responses to “Do you Really Need a Chip & Signature Credit Card in Europe?

  1. You don’t need it, but it’s a huge help if you need a train ticket or subway ticket after hours or the line is very long at the ticket booth.

  2. I’ve got the Diners Club which is real chip and PIN. But I’ve never actually needed that feature.

    If the US eventually goes chip and PIN it will NOT be a good thing for consumers. In Europe, customers lose consumer protections for fraud because banks can (and do) claim that if there are fraudulent charges that the customer must not have properly safeguarded their PIN. In the US customers generally don’t have responsibility for fraudulent charges on their cards, in most of Europe they in effect do. A chip and PIN standard in the US would likely bring with it lobbying for change of consumer protection laws to match Europe.

  3. I travel to many countries in Europe several times a year and have been seriously considering getting a card with this technology (the new Hilton Visa which has no currency fees seems like a good fit for me). As for restaurant and shops, I’ve only encountered 1 or 2 places in the last 10 years that couldn’t do a swipe. Where chip and pin really can save you time (by avoiding lines) is the automated ticket machines located at train/subway stations or tourist attractions, vending machines, or even automated toll booths on the highway where there is no human present.

    As Gary points out, I don’t like the potential consumer protection threat but if we can use chip/pin and enjoy the same protections that we have today, I’m OK with it.

  4. I just got back from Paris, yesterday, and I found that at one extraordinary restaurant, my American Express Platinum magnetic strip card would not work, even though the card reader had a swipe slot on the side. The waiter — who was fluent in English, and understood the procedure — swiped the card a few times, but the terminal wouldn’t read it. Eventually I gave him my chip-and-pin MasterCard, which worked on the first try. I’m glad I had it.

  5. I was in the Netherlands for one week in May 2012. All stores have disabled the swipe function on their machines, they have pasted a “no swipe” sign on it. One of the merchants did allow me to swipe and it failed 4 times in a row, it just doesn’t work over there. Chip and pin only. When I called Chase and Bank of America to inform them of my problems, I was told that the merchant in the Netherlands should accept your card and it should work. However, in this country it no longer does. I have since acquired the British Airways chip Visa and will use that next time I visit the Netherlands.

  6. Your contact at Visa understates the issue and the solution.

    It is not just a matter of knowing where the swipe slot is. Some machines and systems are programmed to require a different series of entries before and after the swipe occurs, and most often when a swipe won’t work, it is because the merchant does not know the sequence. Getting better educated would solve the issue in these cases but in some places like non-tourist France, swipe sales are so rare that many merchants don’t bother to learn (and shrugging their shoulders often brings out cash or another card, so no sale lost).

    There are a few machines where the swipe feature just doesn’t result in an approved sale. I’ve seen these show “invalid card” type results over and over. I suspect that in these cases, the downstream wholesale processor just isn’t hooked into their US equivalent.

  7. @ Sam, I also tried inserting the card into the slot, it would partially start the transaction and then fail. Holland is “anti” swipe. And it was/is a huge nuisance to have people say it should work or the downstream wholesale processor isn’t hooked up. Believe me, I am Dutch and was able to communicate just fine there, and no luck

  8. I agree with Sam. Some shopkeepers just don’t bother to learn the swipe procedure. I’ve been using a swipe card for all of my European trips. Sure, it worked “most” of the time, but the last straw was shopping at the Fields mall in Copenhagen. You would expect that major stores there would accept the swipe cards, but that wasn’t the case. All the stores I went to had difficulty or wouldn’t even accept swipe cards. The shopkeepers just didn’t know what to do. We ended up paying in cash, and when we ran out, just left our purchases on the register and walked away. Thankfully, I now have the Chase BA card with chip and signature. It worked like a charm when we went to London and Istanbul last May.

  9. What about buying bus/train tickets in Paris, do we need to use PIN/Chip credit card ?

  10. WitteMuis: My experience in the Netherlands does not seem to match yours at all. I was just there (July 31-August 8, 2012) and had no problem using my non-chip card at every merchant. I don’t know if you were in a smaller city (I was in Amsterdam) but we had absolutely no problems swiping at restauurants and other merchants. Our friends traveling with us had a problem swiping at the Thalys high-speed train window but I think that had more to do with the teller being an idiot than with an actual problem with their card.

  11. wow.. Im from Brazil, the so called “country in development” and down there, we have credit cards with chips for maybe 6 years already, and any credit card machine acepts both chips and no chips credit cards, any small store or pizzaria in the ghetto has one machine just like or even better then the one on the picture above 🙂 way to go, i dont have to worry about when i use my Sapphire Preffered when i go there 🙂

    • @Jamie – Agreed!

      @Gary Leff – My understanding was that Chip and Signature was deliberately chosen in the US to ensure a higher level of consumer protection.

      @Erik
      – The US cards are Chip & Signature which, I believe, give you the same level of protection as a regular US issued card. In my experience, the US issued cards worked on about 70% of the automatic machines, but not all of them.

      @Tom
      – Glad it worked out!

      @WitteMuis – That is a bit odd to have all the shops refuse to swipe the card, but hopefully you shouldn’t have those issues with the British Airways card.

      @Sam @Cara – You’re right- there’s definitely some education to be done around how to use the machines with magnetic strip cards.

      @Ed – In my experience, the Chip cards worked in the automatic machines in Paris, but regular credit cards did not.

      @Nei – We didn’t have any issues in Brazil when we were there last year either.

  12. Those who travel to Europe frequently will find it more and more necessary to have the chip and pin cards. The new handheld machines do not even have the swipe feature any more! We’ve found this more widespread in the Netherlands, as mentioned above, but have also encountered the problem in France more than ever before. Even if just as a backup, have a chip and pin with you – or you could spend hours of your valuable time stuck in long lines at toll booths or rail stations if you have to use swipe card or cash,

  13. I am with Jamie, in Paris, we had to walk several miles one night to find change to get subway tickets back to our apartment. Other than that, I never had a problem (but usually worked in cash).

  14. Is the British Airways card work in these automated machines/tellers such as gas stations? I don’t have a PIN for this card and I don’t think that Chase offers a PIN for this card.

    Thanks!

  15. The BA card has a chip, or can come with a chip. The first card they sent me a few weeks ago didn’t have the chip, and I had to call them to get one. If you don’t see the chip on the front of the card, you don’t have one. BIT even with a chip, it doesn’t come with a pin, you still have to sign. Since I’m going to be in Amsterdam in a week, I’d like to hear from anyone who has just been there and tried to use a chip/signature card. Did that work when the swipe cards didn’t?

  16. Citi recently sent me a new card because my old card was expiring. My new card came with the chip. If it’s a free upgrade, I’m not complaining. 🙂

  17. @Ken Which Citi card did you get with a chip?

  18. It was the Citi AAdvantage VISA card. It came with a flyer saying that my new card comes with this chip for international travel. It would be nice that they could get rid of the 3% foreign transaction fee so it would be actually useful as my main card abroad, but what the hey. It actually saved me the trouble to go look a card just for that particular benefit. If it’s a free upgrade, I’ll take it. 🙂

    I think I’ll just use the Capital One card with no forex fee as my main card abroad and in places where the chip is needed, I’ll use the new chip card that Citi sent me as a backup.

  19. @Daraius – Did you have any problems with using your magnetic strip debit card at ATMs in Europe? I hear some people complaining that more and more ATMs would only accept debit cards with a chip. Thanks.

  20. I just got back from Canada last week. I found it ironic that all the credit card machines were swipe and/or chip machines like the picture above, with Chase logos on the top of them…Yet there are no Chase banks or Chase credit cards in Canada. I had my trusty Sapphire Plus card and it drew all sorts of what the heck is this card stares. Nobody had seen one like that.

    Personally I don’t like PIN cards at all. They’re slower than swipe. And with the overwhelming amount of fraudulant PIN reading machines out there, I don’t see PIN as being any safer than a traditional signature.

    Buying gasoline at US gas stations with a foreign credit card can be tricky. It seems most gas stations these days want you to put in your zip code at the pump. But Canadians don’t have zip codes. They have postal codes. (Half letters, half numbers). This is fine during the day. Just go inside. But if you’re pumping gas at night when the station is closed, you’re out of luck.

  21. Regarding gas with foreign credit cards (CA in US or US in EU), try picking up a gas gift card. You can get ones for Shell or Chevron at grocery stores or inside at the gas station. I’ve heard N1 in Iceland offers gift cards you can use at unmanned pumps that only take chip & pin.

  22. Interesting discussion. Are there any current US credit cards that offer REAL chip & PIN, not the chip & signature variety? I know that Travelex offers a debit card, but the exchange rate to load that thing with Euros or Pounds is ridiculous!

  23. After a bit of digging, I think the real credit should be given to the guys over at Flyertalk who maintains a good EMV discussion forum there with a list of all the US issued Chip-and-Signature and Chip-and-PIN cards that are out there to this day:

    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/credit-card-programs/1304271-usa-emv-cards-available-today-chip-pin-chip-signature.html

    Because of the google docs spreadsheet list posted there, I think I’ll go apply for either the BofA Travel Rewards card or the State Dept FCU card. The both come with no annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, they both earns rewards, and they both come with the chip (BofA Chip-and-Signature, State Dept FCU is Chip-and-PIN). If there is cost to maintain them each year and they both have no foreign transaction fees, it’ll be a great backup card for international travel should the need of EMV arises.

  24. Thanks. The State Dept. FCU sounds like a good no-fee choice for true chip-and-pin.

  25. I was in the Netherlands/Denmark /Norway a year ago and in all those countrys I had a lot of issues with my normal card most stores only took the one with the chip. In one of the train station I couldn’t get a ticket I have to get cash and then buy the ticket

  26. Was in Barcelona a few weeks back and the automated Metro kiosk seemed to accept my Sapphire Preferred (no chip) card but then asked for a pin. I entered my cash withdrawal pin and it worked. The transaction appears as “normal” on my online statement and I haven’t seen any additional fees, so I do not believe it was processed as an ATM/debit transaction.

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  32. This blog led me to not worry, but that was wrong. My Chip and Signature card was useless when I almost ran out of gas on a Saturday in rural France and station after station had no attendant. It was useless at a train station with no attendant. And it was useless getting off a tollroad with no attendant.

  33. In Netherlands I have not been able to use my swipe or my Citi chip and signature card. All the stores and markets 1) refuse to accept the swipe card (they have signs) and 2) the chip and signature card causes some error/do not process code. Total pain.