When consumers reach for the check in the U.S., cards are king, with cash payments making up an ever-dwindling percentage of in-person sales. So it comes as a rude surprise to many Americans vacationing in Europe, Canada, China and elsewhere when they are told that their card cannot be accepted.
Often, the business happily accepts plastic—just not the cards Americans are carrying. The majority of U.S. cards use magnetic strips, which are vulnerable to fraud through a process called “skimming.” European banks have switched almost completely to the more secure chip-and-PIN technology (or “smart cards”), in which the user enters a PIN for each transaction. Fewer and fewer businesses abroad are accepting the outdated magnetic-strip cards.
U.S. banks have been slow to make the switch to chips, leaving many traveling Americans stranded at the cash register—especially in less touristy destinations. If you only have a magnetic strip card, read these tips before traveling:
- Try to obtain a chip-and-PIN card. Some banks including Chase have begun rolling them out on a limited basis, but often only for premium costumers.
- Get a pre-paid chip-and-PIN card. Travelex's MasterCard Cash Passport is one good choice if getting a standard smart card isn’t an option.
- Carry cash. Having cash on hand is always a good idea, no matter what kind of card you have—though for safety reasons, avoid traveling with large sums of money.
- Avoid self-service pay stations, such as ticket kiosks and gas pumps, which often only accept smart cards.
- Check what’s accepted in your country. PIN or no PIN, you’ll have more success with a brand that’s commonly accepted where you’re going. In general, Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted abroad, but it’s wise to double-check for the particular country you’re visiting. If possible, have more than one option between you and your traveling companions.
- Ask the cashier to try again; sometimes the card will work if they swipe it again and follow the prompts given by the card reader, or if they process it manually. You can also request a PIN from your bank—it’s not the same as an actual chipped smart card, but it may increase the chance of the card being accepted
No matter what card you’re using, be diligent about following these general recommendations for traveling with a credit card.