Q: I'm traveling to Europe this spring. What do I need to know about using credit cards there, and do I need to get a special one to use there?
Even casual travelers have started to encounter the "chip-and-PIN" credit card terminals that have become popular in Europe. Here's how to avoid getting stuck with an incompatible credit card overseas.
Credit cards have streamlined overseas travel for Americans, who rarely need to worry about trading much cash at the corner "bureau de change." However, European banks and merchants have adopted a security protocol that can leave U.S. visitors fumbling through their wallets.
Chip-and-PIN credit cards look just like regular credit cards, except for a visible microchip (the so-called EMV chip) embedded just above the first four digits of the account number. Instead of swiping the traditional magnetic stripe, a European retailer will insert your credit card, chip-down, into a slot on their point of sale terminal. For years, European credit card users have enhanced their security by using a four-digit personal identification number (PIN) in addition to the EMV chip.
As credit card cloning grew more rampant in both Europe and the United States, most European merchants stopped accepting magnetic stripe cards altogether.1. Get a chip-and-PIN credit card or debit card
Credit card issuers catering to frequent business travelers have started rolling out chip-and-PIN versions of their travel credit cards, usually by request. Chase's British Airways Visa Signature Card may be the highest-profile chip-and-PIN card available to Americans, but Wells Fargo and a handful of credit unions have also offered the service for customers who ask.
Set a PIN for your account before you leave the U.S., and your card will work just like those issued to Europeans. If you want to avoid the hassle of setting up an entirely new account, Travelex offers a prepaid debit card with an EMV chip that you can reload online or at a network of travel service offices.2. Leapfrog chip-and-PIN with a contactless credit card
Like Americans, Europeans have already started adopting a replacement for existing credit card technology. Visa has promised a contactless payment experience for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, spurring adoption of next-generation EMV chips and card readers.
You'll also find this technology branded as Visa Paywave on cards from Barclaycard, Chase and Wells Fargo. MasterCard's PayPass now comes embedded in select cards from Citibank and Bank of America. Most of your transactions will default to the "chip-and-signature" standard, but you can also set a PIN with your bank for legacy retail systems. Just check with your hotel's concierge or with travel advisors from the places you'll visit to ensure that contactless card readers have reached your destination before you do.