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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