You’re getting ready to be stationed or transferred overseas, or you’ve spent months budgeting and planning your family’s summer vacation. The last thing you want is for your plans to be derailed by unexpected credit/debit card rejections. But, if your business or personal travel plans include European destinations, this unexpected snafu is more likely than you might expect.
The problem is the differences in security features and processing procedures between European and American credit/debit cards. Cards issued by American banks rely on magnetic strip for security. When a purchase is made, the magnetic strip is swiped and the cardholder then validates the purchase with a signature. Europay, MasterCard and Visa (EMV) or pin-and-chip cards, which are now standard throughout Europe, feature embedded microchips. When a purchase is made with a pin-and-chip card, the card is inserted into an automated machine and the cardholder then enters the PIN that is stored on the chip (similar to using a debit card for a point-of-sale purchase in the United States).
The good news is that most hotels, restaurants and rental car agencies still accept U.S. cards. Unfortunately, while most European cash registers are still equipped to handle American cards, many cashiers don’t know how to process them and some merchants have made a business decision not to accept non-chip and PIN cards.
Travelers with magnetic strip cards most frequently encounter the problems at automated ticket or self-service payment kiosks that will not recognize cards that don’t have a chip. These include unattended ticket machines in train and subway stations, toll booths, parking meters, parking garages and self-serve gas pumps.
Chip-and-pin cards are currently only offered by a few American banks and only to a select number and type of cardholders. The pin-and-chip card will be standard in the U.S. in 2015, but until then when traveling to Europe, it’s best to know what to expect and plan ahead.
- Notify your bank — Before you leave the country, call your card issuer and provide them with the dates and locations of your travel or your bank might block your transactions to prevent fraud.
- Bring alternative forms of payment — Try to take at least one extra credit card as a back-up. Make sure you are familiar with your bank’s daily withdrawal limits on your debit card. Magnetic strip debit cards do work in European ATMs so you should have sufficient access to cash.
- Wait for the attendant — When in a situation where you have the option to use an unattended kiosk or make your purchase from a human attendant, it’s often a safer bet to brave the inevitable line and wait to interact with a person. Many kiosks are programmed not to accept cash or non-chip cards. When dealing with a person, you have the option of paying with cash or asking the cashier to try to process the magnetic strip on your card (see next tip).
- Alert the person at the register — If prompted for a PIN, tell the person behind the counter that you have a non-chip and pin card and ask that they swipe the magnetic strip. If your card does not work after the strip is swiped, ask that the cashier swipe the card again or try another card since the card reader may be able to recognize the magnetic strip and approve the purchase.
- Make purchases ahead of time — Before you leave on your trip, consider buying tickets and other purchases online. For example, Rail Europe now allows American tourists to buy train tickets in advance. Other merchants have similar pre purchase options for American tourists.
This article was reprinted in part from a First Command Financial Services publication.