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An American in Paris ... without a chip-and-PIN card

What one writer learned on her summer vacation is that America is behind the times when it comes to secure credit card transactions.

By Smart Spending Editor Aug 19, 2013 6:24PM

This post is from MSN Money editor Julie Tilsner.

Couple taking photo of Eiffel tower in Paris (© Les and Dave Jacobs/Cultura/Getty Images)We took a family vacation to Europe this summer, introducing our two teenagers to the continent my husband and I had  backpacked through years earlier. We'd be visiting five countries in a whirlwind two weeks, visiting old friends and family.

It had been a few years since I last was in Europe, but I knew traveler's checks  were a thing of the past. To avoid carrying around a fat wad of euros, I had planned to put large purchases, like train tickets, on my credit card.

But as I stood in an Amsterdam train station, trying to buy tickets to our next destination, I was told they couldn't take my card. It wasn't a "chip and PIN."

How could my card be so rudely rejected? It was a major credit card from a notoriously too-big-to-fail bank with a large amount of available credit. American money! Lots of it! Demanding to be spent! I stood there, staring at the clerk, my impotent card held in front of me like a signpost that screamed: "Quintessential Stupid American."

I'd never even heard of a chip-and-PIN  card -- even though I work as an editor for a personal finance blog. I had read countless posts about traveling with credit cards, but I had never read that most places in Europe won't take your good, old-fashioned American swipe credit card.


Europe long ago switched over to "chip and PIN," a system in which each card has a computerized chip instead of a magnetic strip, and requires a personal identification number to complete the transaction.


Luckily, my credit union debit card worked fine and I was able to buy the tickets, but I was further vexed when my Visa card was refused at several more locations throughout Europe.


It struck me as odd that such a huge disconnect between payment systems in the U.S. and Europe was not better publicized. It wasn't until I searched European media that I began to find some information, such as this damning bit in an Economist blog:

With the rest of the developed world having embraced more secure “smart cards” (or at least in the process of doing so), America remains the only major country that still relies on antiquated payment cards that encode their sensitive data in a magnetic stripe on the back. In security terms, that is about as safe as writing your account details on a postcard and sending it through the mail.

It turns out even if I'd known about the chip-and-PIN revolution, I wouldn't have been  able to get one. The only two U.S. providers that offer them are USAA, which primarily services military families, and the State Department Federal Credit Union.

Europay, MasterCard and Visa developed the chip-and-PIN technology more than a decade ago with the idea of creating a global payment standard. Ironically, neither MasterCard nor Visa currently offer such cards to their American customers.

Why don't the major card companies offer these cards? They promise they're getting to it. By 2015 for sure! But in the meantime, there are all those expenses.

What to do?
For now, American travelers in Europe have few options other than to bring their debit cards, and maybe some traveler's checks.


You can also check with the State Department Federal Credit Union, which anyone can join through its partnership with the American Consumer Council. 

And you can start by reading a recent article on chip-and-PIN cards in the Washington Post, which I eventually dumb-lucked into, and is as informative as any I've seen.

Read it, do your homework, and let's all start nudging our credit card providers to show us the money!

Aug 19, 2013 8:36PM
Just goes to show how America is no longer a "World Leader" in yet another area. Sad.

Aug 23, 2013 1:27PM
I first heard of chip and pin technology five years ago and how America, visa and MasterCard helped to develop it but refused to use it.  What is wrong with American credit card companies not keeping up with things that they developed.
Aug 23, 2013 1:05PM
I worked in the fraud department at Bank of America.  I asked management why we didn't offer pin and chip technology.  I was told it was too expensive to put the chips in their cards.  And it's not too expensive to pay out millions in loses every year because of fraud, theft, etc.?
Aug 23, 2013 5:27AM
This is a travel writer???? He must have done all his travelling on the internet from his Barcalounger in the den whilst watching some gladatorial American sports rubbish or unreal reality show..

European banks began the switch over to chip and pin cards for debit cards before the end of the last century, and for credit cards almost a decade ago. Most card readers have no more magnetic stripe readers, and many are wireless so that the waiter, server, counter clerk or sales person can complete the transaction more quickly. Many restaurants and hotels that cater to American tourists still have card swipe readers, but their numbers are declining - more tourists come to Europe from advanced banking countries than from the US.
Aug 20, 2013 1:41PM
usbank also carries a visa signature card that is equipped for chip and pin
Aug 20, 2013 5:31PM
Aug 20, 2013 12:17AM
At least one frequently used US guidebook for Paris mentions chip-and-pin. Automated credit card machines won't accept our pin-less cards, but the hand-held devices that are used just about everywhere else (at least in Paris) will still accept our cards and spit out a receipt to be signed.

You can actually chip-and-pin cards from AMEX (which isn't accepted very widely in Europe), Chase, and Citi.

Dec 9, 2013 5:14PM
It's the same thing in Canada, every credit card is chip & pin now.

Please understand that credit card fraud is 100 times easier when requiring only a signature instead of a PIN.

However, my question is : Why is there no chip & pin credit cards in the U.S ? Since security is such an important issue in your country....I find it hard to understand.
Aug 23, 2013 11:07AM
before traveling to Europe I called my credit card company (Citi) and they sent me a card with a chip on it.  It worked great while in Europe for most purchases, and it has a magnetic strip so I can still use it in the US.   I did have the same problem buying tickets at an automated machine in a train station in Netherlands, but the card worked elsewhere.
Aug 23, 2013 6:43AM
There is a catch 22 here-  Chip & pin cards aren't going to help anyone if US merchants are still using stripe readers in their stores.  The card providers & the merchants have covert to the new technology. This is a long process and by the time it occurs there will something newer, better & safer developed.  
Aug 20, 2013 6:53PM

I'm surprised that the writer was surprised by this since it's old news to me.  I tried to get a chip card before my last trip to Europe, but citibank told me they couldn't get one to me in time.  I was prepared to use my atm card and pay cash along the way, but actually was able to use my magnetic strip card in many places.  I did not travel to France, so perhaps that is why I didn't have any issues.

Aug 20, 2013 10:39AM
Andrews Federal Credit Union also has a chip and pin card with some nice features.  Anyone can join.
Aug 23, 2013 4:02PM

Funny. Last summer I was traveling in England, Germany, and the Czech Republic and used my "dumb" credit cards all of the time and was not rejected a single time. Perhaps the travel expert is being paid to scare up business for the new cards???


Aug 23, 2013 8:59AM
I have a Pentagon Federal Credit Union (PenFed) VISA with chip and PIN, so there is a third institution using it.
Aug 23, 2013 2:51PM
Julie Tilsner

please copy this and paste it in your browser

You will find out that there is close to 30 credit cards issued by 5 major american banks and having chip and pin. 
Aug 20, 2013 1:42PM
Chip and Pin would be fine as long as it is an option to cash or mag-stripe. Don't consolidate their power for them, Julie!
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