Is a smart-chip card needed when I travel to Europe?


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Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
Do I or don't I need a credit card with a chip in it when traveling to France and Italy? -- Joyce

Answer Dear Joyce,
It sounds as though you want a straightforward answer, so here it is: You don't have to have a smart-chip card for France and Italy.

It is true that there has been a lot of buzz about this topic recently, as U.S. card issuers gradually replace the familiar cards bearing only magnetic stripes with cards containing EMV chips. (EMV stands for EuroPay, MasterCard and Visa, the companies that developed the specifications for the chip technology.) Just last week, American Express mailed me a new card with a chip to replace one with a magnetic stripe. 

The new cards help cut down on fraud by making it tougher for thieves to lift data from the card. The technology is widely used throughout Europe. In the U.S., only in the past few years have card issuers slowly started offering cards with EMV chips. Most of those have been upper-end reward cards aimed at international travelers, but the move will soon spread to many other cards.

A June 2014 study by Aite Group predicted that 70 percent of U.S. credit cards will be EMV-enabled by the end of 2015. Just 4 percent were in 2013, according to Aite, a financial research company. 

Some issuers and frequent travelers claim that such cards are easier to use in Europe than the traditional cards with magnetic stripes.

A year ago, I put that theory to the test during a two-week, three-country vacation in Europe. With 106 attempts at using a credit card, my wife and I had success with a magnetic stripe card about 85 percent of the time. An additional 10 percent of the time, neither an EMV card nor a magnetic stripe card worked -- usually at automated kiosks in parking decks or public transit stations. 

That's because those kiosks required a PIN in order to accept the chip-card payment, and my card lacks that capability (for now, at least). Instead, my card, like most chip cards issued thus far in the U.S., is a chip-and-signature card. The kiosks wouldn't accept a signature so we were out of luck in those instances. The lesson: Don't think that just because you have an EMV chip in your card that it will be universally accepted.

You don't need a chip-enabled card to travel in Europe, although one might come in handy every now and then. Magnetic stripe cards are still widely accepted. 

However, I would err on the side of leaving yourself plenty of options. Many smaller merchants don't accept any credit cards, so carry some cash. Make sure you have a debit card that works at ATMs. And consider taking multiple credit cards, in case one doesn't work at a particular place.

If you decide you want a card with a chip but don't care to apply for a new card, try calling your card issuer to see if an EMV version of your card is available. If it is, the bank can send it to you quickly, free of charge. 

Let this issue of cards and chips be the least of your worries, and have a great trip!

See related: Data breaches turn spotlight on EMV cards, U.S. rolling out chip card technology, ever so slowly

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Published: July 1, 2014

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