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U.S. Credit Cards Lose Their Cachet in Europe

Many European countries have moved from the magnetic-stripe cards U.S. travelers are familiar with to a system called 'chip and PIN' -- which for us might as well be called 'chip and headache.'

When Online Editor Jason Clampet went to London recently, he got a rude shock: some pubs wouldn't accept his credit card because it didn't have an embedded computer chip that has become common in Europe.

Over the past few years, many European countries have moved from the magnetic-stripe credit cards we're all familiar with to a new system called "chip and PIN," which for Americans might as well be called "chip and headache."

The problem for US-based travelers isn't technological, says Louise Hamilton of Visit Britain. It's social. While businesses that show the Visa or Mastercard logo all have the equipment to take US-style swipe cards, a massive retailer education campaign about chip cards in the UK has led some retailers to falsely conclude that they can't take swipe cards, or can't take signature cards that don't have PINs any more.

Clampet said that some pubs told him the swipe reader was broken, or that the staff didn't know how to use it.

"There are some retailers where the cashier just hasn't been informed enough, and they've just had it hammered in that they must use chip-and-pin," said Louise Hamilton of Visit Britain.

Michelle Meyer, press officer for APACS -- the UK organization that arranges credit card payments -- agrees.

"Often it is a case of miscommunication where a customer warns the retailer that their card is not chip and PIN compliant, and then the retailer incorrectly replies that the card cannot be accepted. In reality however, provided that both retailer and card are Visa/Mastercard compliant, the machine would automatically default to ask for a signature rather than chip and pin entry," she wrote in an e-mail.

In France, travelers may run into a similar but slightly different problem, said Katherine Johnstone of Maison de la France, the French tourist board. French people tend to use debit cards far more often than credit cards, and the French debit card system isn't compatible with US credit cards. So it's important to check if a bistro or other business accepts credit cards -- "cartes credit" -- and not just debit cards, "cartes bleues."

"I've had to be really clear sometimes and say no, c'est une carte credit, you have to zip it through rather than sticking it in the machine," she says. Some French systems, such as the new VĂ©lib rental bikes in Paris, don't work with US credit cards at all, she says. Many self-service vendors in France -- including gas stations and automatic ticket kiosks throughout the entire national rail network -- will only operate with chip and PIN.

While all of Europe is moving to chip-cards, problems with US cards vary country by country. In Spain, for instance, "all stores accept the usual credit cards," according to Jose Antonio Rosello of the Spanish tourist office. That was my experience, too, shopping at a range of stores in Barcelona in February 2007; I didn't have a problem.

Neither Visa nor Mastercard would comment for this story.

So what can US travelers do?

  • Get a four-digit PIN number from your credit cards' issuing banks before leaving the US. Just call the number on the back of each card and ask for one. Get the PIN for your credit cards -- this isn't for your ATM card. Some British businesses are comfortable with swipe cards as long as they have PINs, Hamilton says.
  • You can try to stand up for yourself, but I'm not sure how far that would get you. APACS insists that every business that takes Mastercard and Visa can handle swipe cards, even if they don't know it. But pub owners may not take too well to random American tourists telling them how to work their machinery.
  • Keep an eye out for the right logos. You want Visa and Mastercard, not Maestro, Visa Electron or Carte Bleue.
  • American Express is accepted at fewer locations than Visa or Mastercard, but you know your AmEx will work where the AmEx logo is shown.
  • Make sure you have enough cash. As a last resort, you should be able to cover your purchases with cash.

Have you had trouble using your US credit card in Europe? Talk with other readers on our Message Boards.