Not Martha

Chip and PIN or Chip and Signature credit cards for travel

We recently spent a month in the UK and Ireland and one of the things we did in advance was get travel credit cards with smart chips, which you’ll mostly hear referred to as chip and PIN cards. Credit cards with smart chip technology are normal in most countries other than the US. Why just us? The reason I’ve read most often as to why we don’t have them here is that it’s far more expensive for credit card companies to manufacture them so until smart chips are required the banks are going to keep with our swipe cards.

One of the things that isn’t necessarily clear when you set out to find a chip and PIN card is that at the current point in time there are very few true chip and PIN cards available in the US, instead most cards offered with smart chips are actually chip and signature cards. The tricky bit? Lots of banks (including my own, urgh) go ahead and call them chip and PIN cards or talk about the smart chip benefits in the description, never quite letting you know that there isn’t actually a PIN involved. It’s very confusing. Dig deep into some travel forums and you’ll find that you can get a true chip and PIN card from Andrews FCU or the State Department FCU, but only after you join the credit union.

So, chip and signature cards. They have a smart chip but no PI number attached to it, which means you still have to sign a little slip of paper when you use them. There is a good list of currently available chip and signature cards here at The Points Guy and other over at Nerd Wallet.

I previously spent two weeks in England and had no trouble using my chipless credit and debit cards. But, there were situations where having a card with a chip would have made things a lot more convenient — for example I struggled with getting a ticket at an Underground stop because the machine just didn’t want to recognize the first card I tried to use. Frustrating because the station was busy and there was a group waiting for me to get my stuff together and frankly having a card refused is never a good feeling. I spent some time reading traveler forums and the only spot where people said that their chip and signature card was refused were automatic pay stations on toll roads or train stations in small remote towns (and always, of course, in the middle of the night when the stations were unattended). Scott and I spent a month in the UK and Ireland in some far away spots and didn’t have any trouble with the chip and signature cards, unless you consider the mild annoyance of some waiters needing to go fetch the machine that prints out a receipt to sign. We took to saying “this will ask for a signature” as we handed over the card.

So, do you need a chip and signature card if you are going on a trip outside the US? Probably not unless you’re going to be gone for a long time and even then it will just make things a little easier. Deciding on one is a matter or what convenience it can offer, transaction fees and how getting another card might affect your credit score. If all the things I just wrote make your head hurt don’t worry, the cards you have already will be just fine. Have a great trip.

We chose chip and signature cards that had 0% foreign transaction fees and either had no annual fee or had perks that we would definitely use and would balance out an annual fee. If you check your current cards you will likely find a 3% foreign transaction fee, which might add up if you use your card a lot or plan to do some serious shopping.

update: Jen mentioned this in the comments and it reminded me, other features that are great to have in travel credit cards are rental car coverage, trip insurance, lost baggage coverage and the like. These seem like pretty obvious benefits but enough of the cards I looked at didn’t have one or the other that it’s worth combing through the fine print to be certain. A note, credit cards generally will not cover rental car coverage in Ireland. A few other countries too, but Ireland seems to be the surprise. Before you rent a car there check with your card, read up about CDW and super CDW and ask a lot of questions. Good luck.

Do you have a favorite travel rewards card? I gave some serious thought to one of those that lets you into all sorts of airline lounges but the impressive annual fee was way too much for me and my three flights a year.

· comments [16] · 11-27-2013 · categories:travel ·

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 amy // Nov 27, 2013 at 6:29 am

    Great information! Another thing I want to throw out there: it’s worth researching whether credit cards are accepted at all for certain things in your destination country or countries. For example, ticket machines in Dutch train stations do not take credit cards—the only exceptions are Amsterdam central station and Schiphol (the airport). All stations have at least one machine that accepts coins, but they don’t accept paper bills.

  • 2 Kathrine // Nov 27, 2013 at 9:45 am

    The process to get the real chip and pin card from Andrews FCU is not too difficult. I am going to Europe in April and I already have my card and went through the whole process. The 0% foreign transaction fee is also a bonus. Boardingarea.com has a good write up of how exactly to get the card.

  • 3 fert // Nov 27, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Chip and pin cards are more popular in countries where the cost of telecommunications were high. In the US, where reaching out and touching through a decent infrastructure and strict regulations that kept telecommunications cost down (at the time chip and pin credit cards were becoming possible), it made sense that stores would just continue to verify the card by calling the credit card company. In Europe, telecommunications costs were significantly higher, so the cost per transaction was so high that it made sense to be able to verify on site that the card (chip) and the user (pin) matched. or so it was explained to me by someone a lot smarter.

  • 4 megan // Nov 27, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Amy – Oh, good to know.

  • 5 Jen // Nov 27, 2013 at 11:23 am

    Types of cards typical in Cananda will be a bit different in the US, and insurance requirements and types available probably varies state to state and province to province, but as non car owners who use a mish mash of renting and car share programs, a credit card that provides accident insurance is great. In my province, when you rent a car, the only kind of on the spot insurance you can buy, and are in fact obliged to buy) is a loss/damage waiver. There is nothing for injuries unless you purchase some kind of plan, long term. The credit card saves us the waiver fee and protects us from costs associated with injuries.

  • 6 megan // Nov 27, 2013 at 11:24 am

    Thanks Katherine! I had left it too long to go through the process of joining another credit union (my mistake) but I’m glad to know the Andrews option isn’t out of reach. The way it was spoken of on forums made it sound nearly impossible :)

  • 7 megan // Nov 27, 2013 at 11:26 am

    fert – Excellent to know, thanks. And it’s way less cynical than the explanation I’d heard!

  • 8 megan // Nov 27, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Jen – Thank you, I completely forgot to add that rental car coverage is a very good thing to have on a travel card!

  • 9 Janet // Nov 27, 2013 at 11:47 am

    What my husband and I did on our recent trip to Spain was get cash using our credit union ATM card (1% fee per transaction) and use cash for all small transactions. We used our usual credit card for larger expenses like hotels and had to sign. Can’t remember what the transaction fee was, but Capital One cards have one of the lowest rates.

    Train/metro machines did not accept our credit card, but there was always a machine that accepted cash, and because we had cash in hand, that was no problem. I don’t think all countries have this cash payment option.

    Of course, this method requires having sufficient bank funds upfront. The upside is that we didn’t have a huge credit card bill when we got home.

  • 10 Sally from Little Hiccups // Nov 27, 2013 at 11:49 am

    I was surprised when I moved to the US a few years back from Australia that chip and pin cards don’t exist here. They’re pretty much the standard in Australia now and have been so in the UK and most of Europe for years.
    I just figured that it was the US refusing to follow the rest of the world – you know, the same way that that we’re stuck with other things that are different to everyone else just because “that’s the way it’s always been done” i.e. farenheit, the imperial system, mixed up date system, 110v electricity…

    Ok, enough of being cynical ;) I’m sure it probably has more to do with cost as others have mentioned. Most things in the US are incredibly cheap compared to the rest of the world so this does sound like a logical explanation.

  • 11 A // Nov 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    I’ve been an SDFCU member for years and even they were frustratingly slow to adapt this technology. I wish the entire U.S. would, as it’s more secure. My husband’s credit card was recently spoofed, ugh.

  • 12 B.T.Carolus // Nov 27, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    Denmark is 100% pin only, so if you go there you need a chip and pin credit card or to use a debit card with a pin. Some countries are also still very cash oriented, like Germany. And many European banks are trying to make merchants stop accepting travelers checks (Deutsche Bank, for instance).

  • 13 whitney // Nov 28, 2013 at 9:00 am

    I was delighted to find out that the Capital One card I already had was a no foreign transaction fee card! We ended up using that for shopping and purchases when we were low on cash in Europe.

    And if you already have an AMEX card, they seem to have the best rental car coverage deal. None of them offer liability, but you can decline everything except that when renting (there’s an article on nerd wallet that breaks it down: http://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/credit-card-benefits/rental-car-insurance/). I found that a lot of the other cards make you decline everything in order to get their rental car coverage. If you don’t already have an AMEX card, possibly not worth the annual fee just to save on a rental car. They do offer a card with free foreign transaction fees, but it’s their platinum card which has a VERY hefty annual fee.

  • 14 allison // Dec 4, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    We just returned from three weeks in rural villages in France/Spain. We got the Andrews card about a month before our trip and it was super easy and quick. For some transactions we used the PIN, but for others it still required a signature. There were definitely a few situations where the chip/pin was the only viable option and we were relieved to have it in the wallet. The funny thing is that one of the main reasons for getting the Andrews card was for toll roads, and it turned out that the Andrews chip and pin card only worked on toll roads twice – the other times we used our plain old Capital One visa with no problem.

  • 15 nazilam // Dec 9, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Hyatt is my card of choice. They have a chip and signature card and 0% transaction fee overseas. They give you double points for food, travel like transactions. They also offer two free nights with sign up. This was awesome until all the travel bloggers got involved. The 95 buck fee pays for itself annually for us because of the no-transaction fee on foreign purchases and in the one free night award you get on your anniversary date. You can’t use the free night anywhere fancy, but we used it in Philly last year when the hotel prices were over 200 bucks a night.

    I am also partial to the SPG amex, but I am more interested in hoarding hyatt points right now.

  • 16 knick1959 // Feb 4, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    @nazilam: I recently acquired this card, too. Booked 2 free nights in London in May 2014. Looking forward to it. Saved a bundle (and used other free card nights in other places).

    Why is this card now not awesome? And what did all the travel bloggers “getting involved” have to do with it?

    Most of the Chase cards have or can be swapped for Chipped cards. They are ALL chip + signature, tho. This includes the Marriot, Hyatt and Sapphire Preferred, although I had to ask for my older CSP to be replaced with a chipped card. Oh, yeah, and the British Airways card, as someone else mentioned. All would work great as signature cards and no FTFs.

    Chase cards tend to have no foreign transactions fees, too.

    For a Chip+Pin card (for my trip coming up in May) I am working to acquire either a SDFCU credit card, or a debit card. It looks like their debit card works this way and won’t cause a hit on my credit report! Already have the SDFCU account open, just deciding on whether to settle for the debit card or apply for a credit card.

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