For foreign travel, go for the chip, don't hold out for a PIN

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,
I am traveling to Dublin, Ireland. I am seeking a generally accepted credit card mainly for hotels, gas and restaurants. My credit score is excellent. I also want a card that protects against unauthorized charges in case of theft. I read an article that said that "chip and PIN" cards are safer and more accepted than our magnetic stripe cards, but they are available only in the country of arrival. -- Jan

Answer Dear Jan,
That sounds like a great trip. Let's break down your question and see if we can find some cards that might work well for you. 

It sounds as if your main concerns are card security and ease of use, and that you would like to earn rewards on your travel purchases. I'll address those in order.

On card security, all the major U.S. card issuers handle fraudulent charges the same way. They have robust anti-fraud departments and if suspicious charges start appearing on your card, they will notify you and perhaps even shut down your card until the concerns are resolved. If there are fraudulent charges, and the bank catches them or you report them promptly, you will not be held responsible for them. 

Last month, I was on a trip and awoke to emails from Citi asking me about purchases made the night before on a card I rarely used. Somebody had used my card number to make about $500 worth of online purchases at a Canadian toy store.

Now, I love Canadian toys as much as the next guy, but I didn't make the purchase. Citi credited back the charge, shut down the account and promptly issued me a new card. That's the typical way all major card issuers handle fraud, and I don't know that one bank is superior to another. 

On chip-and-PIN cards, you are correct that it is the prevailing format in Europe. Cards typically issued to Europeans contain an EMV chip and require the user to enter a PIN when making a transaction. That provides an extra layer of security against card theft or loss.

In the U.S., though banks are issuing chip cards, they are mostly chip-and-signature cards, which do not require entry of a PIN. However, these U.S. chip cards are still more likely to work abroad than ones with only a magnetic stripe. You might encounter problems at automated ticket kiosks, such as the kinds you find in parking garages and train stations.

Your options would be to get a card from one of the few U.S. issuers offering chip-and-PIN cards, such as Andrews Federal Credit Union and Barclaycard. Or you could wait until you arrive in Ireland and grab some kind of prepaid debit card. 

In my book, the PIN issue is not big enough to be a determining factor in selecting a card. Also, prepaid debit cards have fewer fraud protections than credit cards.

Another factor to consider is foreign transaction fees: Make sure you don't choose a card that charges you for every foreign purchase. 

If the PIN issue is important to you, and you want something that rewards purchases in the form of credits for travel expenditures, you could go with something like a Barclaycard Arrival card (annual fee of $89, waived first year). It offers double points on all purchases, has no foreign transaction fees and is available with chip-and-PIN technology so that it should work at those unattended kiosks.

Competing cards in this category include Chase Sapphire Preferred (annual fee: $95, waived first year), which gives double points on travel and dining, redeemable for partner airline and hotel points or travel purchased from nonpartner travel providers; and airline cards, which come with benefits such as free checked bags and priority boarding. These often come with substantial sign-up bonuses. There are also plenty of cards offering cash back, which you might prefer, though those often lack sign-up bonuses.

There should be plenty of cards that meet your needs. Just examine your options, make a decision and have a great trip!

See related: Earning rewards on foreign purchases, A cash-advance PIN on an EMV card doesn't make it 'chip-and-PIN'

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Updated: 02-19-2019