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.