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Chip-and-PIN cards: Do you need one?

Chip-and-PIN credit cards can benefit anyone who wants their purchases to be more secure.

Summary

Credit cards with chip technology are becoming considerably more common in the U.S. Find out how these cards are different and which card issuers offer them.

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The Bank of America content was last updated on August 1, 2022.

Frequent travelers were the first to embrace cards with embedded EMV microchips, mostly because they made using American credit cards overseas a lot easier. That said, there are still some key differences between credit cards with chip technology offered at home and those offered by card issuers outside the United States.

For example, cardholders in most other countries punch in a PIN (personal identification number) to verify their identities with their chip-and-PIN cards, whereas most American issuers require a signature instead. As a result, most chip credit cards in the United States are actually considered chip-and-signature cards.

It’s not a huge difference, but it’s still worth mentioning since most Americans have never had a PIN number associated with their credit card. And, even though 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.

However, even if true chip-and-PIN cards aren’t the standard in the United States, there are still some reasons it might be good to have one. Read on to learn how chip-and-PIN credit cards work, why they are considered more secure and which cards offer this functionality, if you’re looking for a credit card with updated safety features.

What is a chip-and-PIN card?

A true chip-and-PIN credit card is a type of credit card that requires the user to enter a chosen PIN in order for a transaction to be completed. Chip-and-PIN credit cards also have a square-shaped microchip that generates and stores information as transactions are made throughout the month. This makes them different from older credit cards that used a magnetic stripe containing information about the cardholder.

As mentioned already, most cards with this technology in the U.S. are actually chip-and-signature cards that offer similar safety features without the requirement for a PIN.

Either way, credit cards with chip technology continue growing in popularity across the United States. According to 2021 data from EMVCo, 77.52% of in-person credit card transactions in the U.S. were made with credit cards that have EMV chip technology from July 2020 to June 2021. This figure is up from 67.84% for the previous period (July 2019 to June 2020).

How do chip-and-PIN cards work?

Instead of swiping a credit card through a payment terminal, chip-and-PIN credit cards (and chip-and-signature cards) require you to “dip” your card into the end of the payment terminal instead. Once you dip your card into the terminal, information about the transaction is generated and stored in the square-shaped microchip on your credit card.

Some credit cards that have microchips embedded with data require a four-digit PIN that serves as a way to verify card ownership and complete a transaction. You may be assigned a PIN or you may be able to choose your own. Either way, asking a customer to punch in a code adds an additional layer of security by making it harder for a thief to steal a physical card and use it in a store.

But a card can have more than one “cardholder verification mode” (CVM), so some issuers add PIN capacity as a secondary mode.

Cards that are signature-preferred but have a PIN as a secondary mode can still ask you to sign a receipt. But you would be asked to put in your PIN if you were at a terminal that couldn’t take a signature, perhaps overseas.

That said, 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 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.

Are chip-and-PIN credit cards safe?

Yes. With a chip-and-signature card, your name can be forged. Also, cards without PINs can be more easily used for card-not-present transactions, such as online purchases.

Generally speaking, EMV chip cards are safer than magnetic stripe cards due to the way transactions are processed as well. EMV chip cards use a unique authentication code for each purchase that is made, and this code cannot be used more than once. Not only that, but EMV chips are nearly impossible to copy or duplicate.

Either way, it’s important to note that credit cards come with plenty of security features regardless of whether they have a magnetic stripe or they’re chip-and-PIN or chip-and-signature. Most credit cards offer $0 liability for fraud, so you’re not on the hook for any charges made with your card or card number without your consent. In the meantime, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that your legal liability for credit card fraud is limited to $50 no matter what.

Best credit cards with chip-and-PIN security

While most credit cards in the U.S. require a signature and not a PIN number, there are many that offer the safety and security of EMV chip technology. Consider the following options for your next credit card.

Bank of America Unlimited Cash Rewards credit card

The Bank of America® Unlimited Cash Rewards credit card comes with no annual fee, and cardholders earn a flat rate of 1.5% cash back for each dollar they spend. Bank of America cards can also be set up with a PIN number if you prefer.

New cardholders can earn $200 in online bonus cash after spending $1,000 on purchases within 90 days of account opening. Bank of America Preferred Rewards customers can also earn 25% to 75% more cash back for each dollar they charge to their card.

Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card

Bank of America will also let you set up a PIN on the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card. This card also comes with no annual fee, and new customers can earn 25,000 online bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days of account opening. All purchases accrue rewards at a rate of 1.5 points per dollar spent. An intro APR offer is also included with this card, which lets users benefit from 0% intro APR on purchases for 15 billing cycles, followed by a variable APR of 16.24% to 26.24%.

PenFed Credit Union credit cards

A random PIN is assigned and mailed separately for PenFed Credit Union cards, or you can call customer service to customize your PIN. Various cards are available with different types of rewards and no foreign transaction fees. PenFed says on their website that you can call in to establish a PIN (or change your PIN) on their credit cards, debit cards and ATM cards.

First Tech Credit Union cards

Even if you don’t meet First Tech’s membership criteria, you can still join by calling the credit union or visiting one of its branches. Its Odyssey Rewards World Elite Mastercard has no foreign transaction fees, and its rewards are based on how much you travel. It also 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. Department 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.

Bottom line

Whether you wind up with a true chip-and-PIN credit card or a chip-and-signature card, EMV chip technology can make your transactions safer and more convenient. If you travel overseas often, you may even find that having a card with chip technology makes it possible to use your card with more retailers overall.

With that in mind, it’s smart to look for credit cards that offer chip technology, including the top rewards credit cards on the market today. By comparing cards with EMV technology based on features and rewards, you can get something in return for your spending and feel safer as you shop.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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