EMV cards' common errors: A guide for confused cardholders

Hit with a 'sled' or a 'fallback transaction' on your chip credit card? We have answers

Jay MacDonald
Personal Finance Writer
Exploring the cultural impact of credit cards

EMV chip card common failures

If you own an EMV chip card, you’ve undoubtedly experienced this checkout cha-cha: You slide it into the downward-facing slot and nothing happens.

Or the terminal screen tells you to try again.

Or the cashier tells you to “just hold it there.”

Or between the two, you’re instructed to just swipe the dang magnetic stripe to get this purchase started.

Why does this new, more secure Card 2.0 that the rest of the world has enjoyed for years seem to encounter so many misfires here in the United States?

EMV chip card transition in U.S. different than elsewhere

Unlike other regions of the world, chip card introduction hasn’t been legislated or mandated by the government. As a result, we’ve had kind of an uneven implementation across the country.

How uneven? Well, to find out, we decided to break it down for you with the help of two global EMV experts: Allen Friedman, vice president of payment solutions for merchant payment provider Ingenico, and Jamie Topolski, director of payment card products for Fiserv.

We compiled a list of questions related to common EMV chip card errors. Here are their answers:

1. How frequently do U.S. cardholders encounter issues with their EMV chip cards?

There are one-off problems, there are certainly merchant-specific problems, but nothing systematic or widespread. According to recent statistics on fallback transactions (in which you fall back to swiping the mag stripe), we’ve gone from a little more than 3 percent in 2016 down to under 2 percent in 2017.

Over 3 percent is considered unacceptable, while 2 percent is considered average, given that 1.5 percent of all credit cards issued may be flawed or damaged. So, we’re getting down to the normal percent of failure on chip cards. 

2. Why does my chip card fail when I insert it?

The most common reason for this is that the merchant, or whoever provides their merchant software, has not installed a chip card application into the terminal.

Sometimes they just haven’t invested money to do it, sometimes it’s because they don’t want to do it, and sometimes it’s because they are still working on getting an application certified.

And because the applications have to be certified with each card brand through the merchant’s acquirer or service provider, that can take some time.

3. When my chip transaction fails, why does the mag-stripe swipe work?

If the terminal’s application cannot read the chip, it will say “failure” or it may say “retry,” because it could have just been a bad insertion, a bad angle or not inserted all the way.

So, it may tell you to retry it once or twice, and then, if it’s still not working, it will go to fallback and say, “Please swipe card.” Then, when you go to swipe the card, it allows you to swipe without being prompted to insert the card. All cards can be swiped, as long as they have a magnetic stripe.

We recommend one or two more insertions, just to make sure it’s not being inserted upside-down or backward.

"If the terminal’s application cannot read the chip, it will say 'failure' or it may say 'retry,' because it could have just been a bad insertion, a bad angle or not inserted all the way."

4. Why do I have to hold my card in the slot to make it work?

That’s most likely a problem with the terminal hardware. There is typically what we call a sled: It’s a set of torsion springs that guide and press the chip card into the contact reader.

If those springs are worn or damaged, or if the terminal has been dropped and the springs are not working right, that’s the most likely cause.

Ordinarily, those springs are tested for a million insertions, so just through normal wear and tear, that usually doesn’t happen.

5. Why does my chip card fail at one chain store location but not others?

That sounds like an application situation. The way that applications are loaded in general in chain stores is, they get pushed down from their corporate host to the terminals in the stores to update applications.

If that particular store failed to get an upgrade and add the application, that could explain it.

6. Why does my chip card fail at multiple chain store locations?

That merchant may not have EMV implemented for that card, and it’s typically by card brand. These days, however, most chain merchants accept the four U.S. card brands (Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover).

Also, if the merchant has an old application and the card has a new application that no longer supports that old application because it’s so old, it may not work. But you usually won’t run into that at major chain stores.

7. Why does the payment terminal say, 'Transaction cannot be processed'?

The most common cause of that lately is a contactless card that is EMV chip card-only and the merchant doesn’t have contactless EMV enabled, but they do have magnetic stripe enabled.

 

Video: How EMV chips are made

So, the card reader detects a contactless card, but at that point, it doesn’t know that it’s a chip card. And sometimes it picks up that contactless signal from the card even if the consumer is trying to swipe or insert it.

It depends on where the contactless antenna is located on the terminal. If the card passes by the antenna on its way to be inserted, it may try to start a contactless transaction, but then can’t proceed because it doesn’t support chip card-only contactless.

8. Why does the cashier tell me to dip my chip card several times?

There are so many different terminal manufacturers and terminal models that, on some models, there apparently is room within the slot for a card to be angled slightly, causing you to have to reinsert. And if you insert it the same way, it will fail again.

Whichever side of the card is leaning slightly as it is inserted, the error message will vary, depending on the angle. That’s how critical it is to get the card in straight.

If the device allows the card to be inserted slightly unevenly, you’ll come up with problems like that.

"If you tap the [contactless] card to the terminal before you’re prompted to, or if you're going too fast or just waving it, it may not spend enough time in antenna range for the terminal to read it."

9. Why can’t the touchless terminal read my contactless chip card?

If you tap the card to the terminal before you’re prompted to, or if you’re going too fast or just waving it, it may not spend enough time in antenna range for the terminal to read it.

It should be able to read the card in under a second, but some people don’t leave it long enough. That will tend to go away as people get more used to contactless.

10. What’s the best way to make my contactless card work?

Tapping is probably the best way to use it. Usually there will be a target on the device that indicates where to tap.

11. Why did I suddenly receive a replacement card for a chip card that’s not even close to expiring, with no explanation from the card issuer? Are they wearing out already?

They won’t ordinarily need to do that unless it’s a security issue or the application on the card has changed substantially. And sometimes they purposely don’t tell people why, especially if they’re updating the card because they found a security flaw in their application.

Suffice to say, issuers won’t do this unless they have to, because it costs a lot of money to reissue (approximately $2-$4 per EMV card, according to First Data).

See related: 8 FAQs about EMV credit cards


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Updated: 06-23-2018