On a recent trip to France, I tried out the new “chip” credit card that Bank of America (and some other U.S. banks) are issuing. Getting it was simple. I just phoned up the bank and ordered the new card, but was able to keep my same credit card number. It comes with an embedded chip on the front of the card that contains user information that’s read by credit-card processing machines, as well as the traditional magnetic-swipe strip so it still can be used in the U.S.
Why did I want this card? Because Europe, Canada and most of the world apart from the United States use what are called “chip and pin” credit cards which are more secure – and in some places a traditional U.S. card won’t work.
The chip-and-pin card is inserted into a credit card machine (at restaurants, waiters bring a hand-held machine to your table) and the card owner then punches in his or her private four-digit PIN (personal identification number). At certain places in Europe — such as automated ticket machines in train stations, gas stations (which in France can be unattended on Sundays and in rural areas), and highway toll booths — only a chip-and-pin credit card works. If you don’t have a chip-and-pin card, or enough cash, you’re in trouble. And in the rural area of southern France my travel companion and I were exploring, some gas stations only took chip-and-pin credit cards.
I was very glad to have the card as it made life much easier. We successfully bought gas at one-pump automated stations and used the card in grocery stores. But it didn’t work at the automated highway toll booths; I wasn’t sure why — perhaps the machine was set up only to accept cards with a true PIN punched in.
That’s the problem. The Bank of America card is sort of a half-measure. It’s not a true chip-and-pin card (and the bank at least isn’t calling it that any more, now referring to it as simply a chip card). It’s really a chip-and-signature card with the transaction supposedly verified by a signature rather than a PIN). But at least it worked, thank goodness, at automated gas stations. And it worked at grocery stores — although most staff were baffled that my credit card worked without requiring me to punch in a PIN (and few ever required a signature from me which makes it rather less secure had I ever lost it).
The verdict? The Bank of America chip and pin card certainly was more useful than my traditional U.S. credit card, but travelers in Europe and beyond still should carry cash to use at highway toll machines, etc., in case it doesn’t work. (In Canada, where U.S. travelers are so prevalent, most merchants have dual machines that accept chip-and-pin and the traditional swipe card.)
Hopefully in the future, U.S. banks will shell out the necessary money and set up the infrastructure for true chip-and-pin cards. It would cut down on fraud and make traveling abroad a lot easier.
A question for readers: Have you used a U.S.-issued chip and pin card overseas? Did it or didn’t it work for you? Add a comment, and I’ll pull some out for a future post and in print in The Seattle Times.