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Chip tips: 4 ways to improve foreign trips with EMV cards

Tony Mecia

Imagine traveling abroad and finding out when you arrive that none of your credit cards works.

It’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it? With a switch underway in the United States to replace old magnetic stripe cards with cards containing EMV chips, some travelers are apparently envisioning scenarios in which their new cards are unable to work overseas — if not everywhere, then at least at unmanned kiosks like you find in parking garages and toll booths.

Chip tips: 4 ways to improve foreign trips with EMV cards

Based on a 10-day trip to Europe in May, during which my wife and I used credit cards frequently, I can tell you that those concerns are overblown.

I write a weekly column on credit card rewards for CreditCards.com in which I answer reader questions. Hardly a few weeks go by in which I don’t receive some variation of this question: “Why doesn’t my credit card have a PIN, like they use in [insert country here]?” or “I’m traveling to [country] soon — where can I find a chip-and-PIN card so that I can pay with plastic?”

It’s true that most major U.S. issuers are programming their new chip cards to require only a signature to verify identity instead of entering a PIN, as is common in other countries. This is because banks worry that customers won’t like having to enter PINs and will stop using cards that require them.

Here are four pieces of wisdom I learned on my trip about using chip cards abroad:

1. Don’t sweat the lack of chip-and-PIN. My wife and I each took two chip cards to Europe with us. Our travels took us to big cities as well as small towns. After reviewing our statements, I see that we tried to use credit cards 66 times on our trip, including four times at unmanned kiosks. The transactions went through in all but two cases. (More on those in a minute.)

The conclusion: Chip cards work internationally almost all of the time. For us, they worked 100 percent of the time at hotels, restaurants, shops, museums and car rental counters — places where you’re making potentially big purchases. They also worked at two automatic kiosks, in the Munich and Paris subways.

We could not get them to work at two other unmanned machines, at a toll booth in eastern France and in the Madrid subway. Which leads me to my second piece of advice …

2. Carry cash. Don’t plan on charging everything. In the U.S., we are accustomed to using credit cards everywhere and often charge even the smallest transactions.

On our trip, we found that some merchants don’t accept credit cards, like the street vendor in Madrid who was selling Lionel Messi soccer jerseys on the cheap, or the well-known Berthillon ice cream shop close to Notre Dame in Paris.

Also, if you’re worried about cards at automated kiosks, you’ll want to carry cash. You’re unlikely to spend a lot of money in a subway station, parking garage or toll booth — probably no more than $20. In the French toll booth, we were trying to pay a toll of about 5 euros (about $5.50). In Madrid, we were trying to buy tickets totaling about 4 euros (about $4.50).

I tried to have between about $30 and $200 on me at all times — enough to cover expenses we couldn’t charge, but not so much that it would be a huge problem if I lost it or was robbed.

3. Remember that chip cards work differently. In the U.S., even though we are receiving new cards with EMV chips, most merchants are still processing transactions with the magnetic stripes — the kind you swipe at the register. That will soon change because of upcoming new rules about who is responsible for the cost of credit card fraud.

In other countries, using EMV chip cards is already the norm. It is a more secure technology. For U.S. travelers, that means that you don’t have to use the magnetic stripe. Instead, use the chip security by inserting the card into the processing machine and waiting a few seconds until you are told to remove it.

Several times at restaurants, we had waiters who were accustomed to swiping U.S. credit cards on the handheld machines they take to the table to process your payment. I told them, “No, it has a chip — you insert it,” and pointed to where they insert the card. That worked every time.

4. Understand that kiosks can be tricky. I’m convinced that at least some of the trouble people have paying with credit cards at unmanned foreign kiosks arises because doing so can be complicated. Check out this photo of an automatic ticket machine from the Madrid metro:

Madrid subway ticket machine: Insert card … where?  

I count five slots into which you could plausibly insert a credit card. On this one, there was little guidance. I put my card in where I thought was correct, but the card became stuck for a minute before I succeeded in prying it out. I wasn’t about to risk losing the card again, so I paid cash instead.

In Munich, in the subway system at the airport, I couldn’t get my card to work, either. The machine had a card reader similar to those at some U.S. ATMs, with protruding brackets on each side, in which you insert the card about halfway and quickly pull it out. But the kiosk wouldn’t process the transaction.

Then, my wife figured out that you have to leave the card partially inserted for a few seconds to allow the machine to process the chip (see tip No. 3 above). It worked, and we were soon whisked on to downtown Munich to start our adventure.

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