Innovations and Payment Systems

Headed abroad? Which US issuers offer chip-and-PIN cards


Chip-and-signature cards may leave you in the dust at kiosks and terminals abroad, so arm yourself with a true chip-and-PIN card from one of these issuers.

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Using your American credit card overseas is a lot easier now that U.S. issuers have rolled out cards with embedded EMV microchips.

But there’s still a key difference between American cards and their international counterparts: While cardholders in most other countries punch in a PIN to verify their identities, most American issuers require a signature instead. And while most of the major card networks are in the process of abandoning signatures, that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be asked to key in a PIN instead.

For international travelers, in the vast majority of situations, not having a PIN connected to your EMV-chipped card won’t be a problem, says Julie Conroy, research director at financial industry consultant Aite Group. Especially in areas that get a lot of U.S. tourists, she says. Merchants are used to American chip-and-signature cards, and will often give you a receipt to sign.

But in smaller towns with fewer tourists, you may encounter a waiter or store clerk who doesn’t know what to do when the terminal asks for a signature.

In the worst-case scenario, unattended payment stations at train stations, bike-sharing racks, parking garages, car rental agencies or gas pumps may reject your card because you don’t have a PIN.

That’s what happened to Mike Gnitecki of Dallas a few times on a trip to Italy and France last summer.

“At one point, I was trying to buy a ticket for an airport express train in Italy, and the machine kept asking for a PIN,” Gnitecki said. “I ended up having to get cash from an ATM. Then I had to go to a coffee shop to get smaller bills for the machine. It was really an annoyance.” It cost a bit, too, since he had to pay a foreign transaction fee.

Fortunately, a few U.S. banks and credit unions offer cards with chip-and-PIN capacity that will work on your next international trip. (See below.)

Both Visa and Mastercard changed their rules in 2015 to require unattended terminals worldwide to accept cards without requiring a PIN. While some merchants have been slow to adapt, Conroy said, issuers are now reporting a 95 percent acceptance rate abroad, up sharply compared to previous years.

Some issuers add PIN capacity as a secondary mode – making it easier to use the card overseas.

“I personally used to have problems with my cards when I traveled, especially getting a train ticket in Paris,” Conroy said. “But in the past year, I went through the process there and it worked perfectly – even though my card did not have the PIN.”

Online vs. offline PINs

While chip-embedded cards are relatively new in the U.S., much of Europe and Asia began rolling them out over a decade ago as part of an effort to fight fraud. Asking a customer to punch in a PIN adds an additional layer of security by making it harder for a thief to steal a physical card and use it in a store.

In America, lost and stolen cards make up a very small proportion of overall fraud, Conroy said, and issuers didn’t want to make it harder for customers to use their cards by having to remember PINs. So they elected to issue chip-and-signature cards.

But a card can have more than one “cardholder verification mode” (CVM), so some issuers add PIN capacity as a secondary mode – making it easier to use the card overseas.

Cards that are signature preferred but have a PIN as a secondary mode will still ask you to sign a receipt if you’re shopping at an international merchant that has signature capacity. However, at an unattended terminal that can’t take a signature, you will be asked to put in your PIN. Barclaycard cards, HSBC MasterCards and Bank of America cards are some examples of cards having dual CVMs.

However, only a few cards in the U.S., mostly issued by credit unions, have true PIN priority, which means consumers are asked to enter their PIN first in every transaction (even in the U.S.) if that’s an option the merchant supports.

The most versatile cards also have what’s called an “offline PIN.” These cards actually store the PIN securely on the chip itself, so cardholder verification can occur even at a stand-alone kiosk not connected to a network. The technology was developed in other parts of the world where the telecommunications infrastructure wasn’t as robust as it is in the U.S.

If your card has an online PIN, the terminal must electronically contact the issuer over a network to verify that your PIN is correct every time you enter it.

Travelers on the travel forum Flyertalk reported problems with cards lacking an offline PIN at unstaffed gas stations in rural France, Belgium and Norway, railway ticket terminals in Denmark and the metro kiosks in Berlin.

Brian Ziff-Levine, senior director of payments, strategy and support for First Tech Credit Union, said First Tech began issuing cards with PIN priority (and an offline PIN) about two years ago to meet customer demand. Cardholders wanted to have the same experience as locals – entering a PIN instead of needing to sign – when presenting their cards in international restaurants and stores.

“We have a significant proportion of our portfolio who travel internationally, especially to Canada,” he says. “A PIN priority card offers a much smoother, more native experience in other parts of the world.”

What you need to know before you go

Unless you travel abroad frequently, you are probably fine with the basic chip-and-signature card you already have. If you end up at a self-service machine in a foreign country that won’t accept your card, you can always find a cashier or pay with cash, so you may want to pick up a small amount of local currency when you arrive.

Only a few cards in the U.S., mostly issued by credit unions, have true PIN priority, which means consumers are asked to enter their PIN first in every transaction (even in the U.S.) if that’s an option the merchant supports.

The following steps will help make it less likely you’ll end up stuck in a remote train station with no way to pay at an automated terminal:

  • Carry more than one credit card.
    You never know when a card will be blocked or denied, so it’s a good idea to travel with a few different cards in your wallet. (Prioritize cards with no foreign transaction fees.) That way, if one card can’t connect to a network or isn’t recognizing your PIN, you have another option. To minimize issues, tell your issuer about your travel plans before you go.
  • Push “cancel” or “enter” if it asks for a PIN.
    Travelers on the FlyerTalk forum report they have had success using chip-and-signature cards at automated terminals by pushing “cancel” or “enter” if an automated terminal asks for a PIN. Many will just process the transaction with no verification at all, signature or PIN.
  • Have a debit card as backup.
    If your credit card gets rejected by an automated kiosk, your chip-and-PIN debit card may work, Conroy says. Simply enter the PIN you use when you withdraw cash from an ATM. Keep in mind that you will most likely pay a foreign transaction fee as well as perhaps an ATM fee, but it’s a good option in a pinch.
  • Pay with your phone.
    Contactless transactions are much more common overseas than in the U.S., so if you have ApplePay or Android Pay set up on your phone, you can use it in dozens of countries to make small transactions. You can even use the feature to pay with a card that doesn’t have chip-and-PIN capacity (such as the AmEx SPG or Chase’s Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve). No signature or PIN will be required.

Signature-preferred cards that have PIN capacity

The following cards will spit out a signature slip in most foreign transactions, but they have secondary PIN capacity that can help if you are stuck at an unattended terminal that is asking for a PIN:

Barclays bank cards. You will be assigned a PIN when you get your card, and you can customize it through the online banking portal. If you do change your PIN, your first transaction must be an online transaction so the new PIN can be encrypted on the card. Here are some Barclaycards that offer rewards along with no foreign transaction fees:

Bank of America credit cards (online PIN verification required). Request your PIN before you travel by signing into online banking or calling the number on the back of the card, said spokeswoman Betty Riess. Though all BofA cards have PIN capacity, the Travel Rewards card is your best bet because it has no foreign transaction fee. It also offers a decent signup bonus, plus 1.5 points for every dollar spent.

PenFed Credit Union cards. If you don’t meet this credit union’s typical eligibility criteria (U.S. military or government employee or family member), join Voices for America’s Troops for a one-time $17 fee and deposit at least $5 in a savings account. A random PIN is assigned and mailed separately, or you can call customer service to customize your PIN. Various cards are available with different types of rewards and no foreign transaction fees. There is no annual fee if you meet certain criteria.

Navy Federal Credit Union cards. If you’re eligible to join the Navy Federal Credit Union (Department of Defense employees, service members, veterans or their family members), you can add PIN capacity to any of their cards, according to the Navy Federal website. Navy Federal cards have no foreign transactions fees.

True chip-and-PIN cards with PIN priority

If you will be traveling in a foreign land with few tourists or using your card at a lot of gas stations, toll booths, parking garages and remote train stations, you may want a PIN priority card. These cards can also be worthwhile if you travel frequently and simply don’t want to deal with the extra time and clerk eye-roll that often comes with U.S. cards that require a signature. Here are some credit cards with true PIN priority. They all have offline PINs.

First Tech Credit Union cards. To be eligible, join the Financial Fitness Association by paying an $8 membership fee, and then open a savings account. The Odyssey Rewards World Elite MasterCard has no foreign transaction fees and rewards based on how much you travel. It has a $75 annual fee that’s waived the first year.

Andrews Federal Credit Union Visa Platinum Rewards card. To be eligible, become a member of the American Consumer Council ($8 annual membership or a one-time $15 lifetime fee) and deposit at least $5 in an account. Then specifically request a true PIN priority card, a spokeswoman said; otherwise, you get a signature preferred card with a PIN as a secondary verification mode. The Andrews Platinum Rewards card has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

State Department Credit Union cards. To be eligible, you or a family member must be employed by the U.S. Dept. of State or one of its affiliates, or you can join the American Consumer Council ($8 annual membership or a one-time $15 lifetime fee). If you answer “yes” when the application asks if you live overseas or travel frequently, you will receive a credit card with PIN priority; if you answer no, signature will be the default. If you already have a card, call customer service to request PIN priority.  The cards have no foreign transaction fees.

Target Mastercard. You can’t apply for this card; it’s an upgrade Target offers to its RedCard customers. But if you already have it, it is a PIN priority card with no foreign transaction fee (but no rewards except for 5 percent off at Target stores).

Walmart Mastercard issued by Synchrony bank. Cards issued after Oct. 24, 2016, should be PIN priority, according to the website.  If you received your Walmart Mastercard card earlier, you can call customer service to request a PIN. This card does have a 3 percent foreign transaction fee, however.  

Diners Club Premier and Elite cards. These cards are currently closed to new applicants. If you already have one, however, they are PIN priority and both carry no foreign transaction fees.  

United Nations Federal Credit Union (UNFCU) cards. To be eligible, join the United Nations Association of the United States of America for $25 and open a bank account. Some cardholders report a cumbersome application process, with a delay of several months after joining before they could apply for the card. The UNFCU Elite card has no foreign transaction fee.

For seamless foreign transactions, a true chip-and-PIN card with PIN priority is the way to go.

See related:EMV cards’ common errors: A guide for confused cardholders

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