We were already running late. It was our first business trip, and the three of us were nervous about visiting our two London offices for the first time. The line to buy Oyster cards, the rechargeable plastic cards you use to ride the subway, was moving slowly since only one cashier was working. It was rush hour, and one of our co-workers offered to save time and pay for all three of our cards; she was trying to rack up JetBlue miles with her American Express credit card.
An Oyster card, a rechargeable plastic card that gets you on the London subway.
We went up to the cashier’s stand together. My co-worker said she wanted three Oyster cards, each with $25 on them. Sighing, the man said each card had to be purchased with a separate transaction. Wanting to earn those frequent flier miles, she wanted to go ahead and pay for each anyway. He took her card for the first payment and gave her the receipt to sign. When she signed it and handed it back, he compared her signature on the receipt to that on the back of her card. “Sorry,” he said. “They don’t match.”
So began the first of many adventures on our visit with old-fashioned U.S.style swipe-only credit cards in a new-style chip-and-PIN world. The lesson: If you don’t have chip-and-PIN, don’t expect to easily buy your fish and chips.
My co-worker, confused, insisted it was the same signature. He asked her to sign the paper again to prove it. Nope, not close enough. Again. Nope. And again. Nope. At this point, her receipt was filled with various forms of her signature all across it. It was becoming comical, especially since he was the only cashier open during a very busy time of day.
Finally, she signed the receipt to his satisfaction, and then he processed the payment for the second Oyster card. The same signature discussion happened again. And again with the third Oyster card. The people waiting behind us were rolling their eyes at the debacle.
For some reason, I didn’t have this problem with my first few card transactions, but soon it happened to me, too. I was buying lunch at a grocery store when the cashier flipped over my card and said in shock, “You haven’t signed the back!”
Forgetting to sign the back of your credit card can get you in some trouble in the U.K. Above you’ll see my poor attempt at signing the back of one of my cards.
It was a new card, and I realized I had forgotten to do so. She told me to sign it in front of her, and of course, I only got through my first name when the pen stopped working. She gave me another pen, but I couldn’t get it to work on the glossy surface. She said I could just sign a piece of paper instead so she could compare it to the paper receipt. Wow; it just seemed nonsensical to me.
After being asked to see the back of my card about a dozen times, I finally asked a kind shopkeeper why this was happening so frequently. She explained that because chip-and-PIN cards cards were much more secure and had become the norm, cashiers were ordered to use extra caution when regular swipe cards were presented.
After all the signature troubles, it wasn’t long until I noticed
another difference in how the United Kingdom and the United States use cards: credit card
machines. I went to several establishments where I was instructed to
“Just insert your card into the machine.” But when I inserted the card,
it only went in about an inch and stopped.
U.K card machines can’t read
swipe-only cards anymore. If you have a U.S.-style magnetic stripe card, you
have to swipe them at the top of the card reader. Chip-and-PIN are used in the bottom of the machine, where you stick it in (like most U.S. places have now). If you have a swipe card, you have to know to swipe it across a long slot at the top of the machine.
In the eyes of the person accepting the card, anyone can waltz in with a regular swipe card and go on a shopping spree without the added security built into the chip-and-PIN card. So, they require that all cards be signed and that your signature on the back really looks like the one you signed on the receipt.
Believe me, they’re serious.
Card security is tight in restaurants, too. I noticed in many eateries there, that rather than sending your credit card away to pay the bill, the waiters come to you with a card machine and process it right at your table. That way, the card never leaves your sight. Another great safety feature they have implemented!
So my advice? Find a pen that works on that sleek surface on the back of your card and sign all your cards before you head to the United Kingdom. Do your best to sign it the way you normally sign things so it’s easy for you to replicate later.
See related: Have card, will travel: A guide to traveling with a credit card, U.S. magnetic stripe cards on brink of extinction?, U.S. credit cards becoming outdated, less usable abroad