Headed overseas? Get an EMV chip card

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I'm traveling to Europe next month for the first time in years. I wonder how I should plan to pay for things over there. Should I get cash or traveler's checks before I go? Will most countries take American dollars? Or can I just use my credit cards for everything?

I'll be in several different countries, not all of which are on the euro, so getting currency for each country would be a hassle.  -- Stacey

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Stacey,
It's easy to assume that you can go to Europe with a credit card or two in hand and pay for everything you need. You use your card, the bank figures out the currency exchange rate, and all is well. Your bank charges a small fee for the transaction, but in my experience it's less than you would pay to get money changed at a bank in Europe.

It works great -- except when it doesn't.

When you pay at a restaurant or grocery store in Norway, for example, you may see a card reader just like the one you see at retail establishments back home. You swipe your credit card, and it asks you for a PIN. If you don't have a PIN, you're out of luck.

Some stores allow you to use your debit card, because it has a PIN. If you have enough money in your account to pay your travel expenses, that may work. However, I would avoid using your debit card as the fraud protection isn't as good as it is with credit cards.

The problem seems to be that most U.S. credit cards don't work with Europay Mastercard Visa (EMV) technology. "The payments industry is undergoing a rapid worldwide transition to EMV chip card technology, the global standard for credit and debit payment cards," says Lisa Briggs, representing HID Global, the world's leading supplier of secure identity solutions. "EMV is expected to accelerate mobile payment innovation while ensuring more secure transactions."

Experienced travelers to Europe recommend getting a credit card with EMV technology before you go. Alanna Vitucci from Scottsdale, Ariz., has relatives in Europe, and she travels there frequently. She says, "I specifically have the Bank of America Visa Card with a chip embedded in it, as U.S. swipe cards will not work. I was in France for 10 days this summer and never had any issues with my chip-card -- nor did I need to provide a PIN number."

Some travel destinations do take American dollars. Don't count on it in Europe, however.

Of course, you can always use local currency. I recommend a little walking-around money everywhere you travel. ATMs are widely available, and the fees are not that bad. I don't mind paying a few dollars in fees to withdraw my own money -- thousands of miles from home, at any time of day or night. That's a pretty good service for the price, in my opinion. You can check with your bank at home to see if it partners with financial institutions where you are traveling to save on ATM fees.

Traveler's checks have largely been replaced by credit and debit cards. You can probably find retail clerks who have never seen one before.

Don't forget to tell your credit card issuers you're leaving the country. The last thing you need is for them to get suspicious about out-of-the-country charges and disable your card.

See related: U.S. rolling out chip card technology ever so slowly, How can I upgrade to a chip card before a trip to Europe?

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Updated: 02-15-2019