What's the fuss about chip-and-PIN credit cards?

By , CardRatings Contributor
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Chip-and-PIN credit cards seem to be getting a lot of press lately. Take a spin through the blogosphere, and you'll find plenty of travelers bemoaning the lack of U.S. chip-and-PIN cards and how it is increasingly difficult to use credit cards in Europe without this technology.

If you are feeling a bit befuddled about chip-and-PIN cards, here's a short primer on everything you need to know.

What are chip-and-PIN credit cards?

Chip-and-PIN cards are simply credit cards that use a different type of technology to process payments. The cards are also sometimes called EMV cards, which stands for Europay, MasterCard and Visa. The cards are considered more secure than those that have only a magnetic strip.

Used widely in Europe, the cards are inserted into a payment terminal which reads an embedded microchip. Then the owner punches in a PIN to complete the transaction. No swiping and no signature required.

Chip-and-PIN cards should not be confused with cards using RFID or near-field communication technology for contactless payments. Just because you can tap your card on a terminal to pay does not mean you have a chip-and-PIN card.

Do I need a chip-and-PIN card?

If you plan to travel overseas, you probably want to get a chip-and-PIN card. However, you might have trouble acquiring a true chip-and-PIN card; instead, you'll be issued a chip-and-signature card. These use the same technology, but instead of a four-digit PIN, you will still need to sign your name. Since the U.S. has been slow to adopt this technology, this is the best strategy for dealing with the payment systems found in Europe. Many merchants in other countries, including Australia, China and Mexico, have switched over to chip-and-PIN payment terminals. Without a chip, credit cards cannot be processed by these terminals.

Typically, you need to request chip-and-signature card from your bank but not all credit card issuers offer them yet. However, according to a Washington Post article, all the major credit card companies - Discover, Visa, MasterCard and American Express - will be rolling out more cards containing chips in the coming years. So it may just be a matter of time before your default card automatically comes with an embedded microchip.

Could I already have a chip-and-signature credit card in my wallet?

Probably not. Elite travel rewards cards are most likely to come standard with a microchip, but since the technology is more expensive, many issuers provide chipped cards only upon request.

If you aren't sure whether your card has a microchip, simply look on the front. The chip is visible on most cards. If you still aren't sure, call your issuer to find out.

What else should I know about the cards?

When you receive a chip-and-signature card on an existing account, your terms and interest rate generally will not change.

If you are in the market for a new credit card that has a chip, be sure to check the foreign transaction fee if you will be traveling. While some cards have transaction fees of up to 3 percent, there are plenty of zero foreign transaction fee options available.

Finally, even if you have a chip-and-signature card, be sure to notify your card issuer if you'll be traveling out of the country. Even a chipped card isn't going to help you in Europe if your bank suspends your card for suspicious activity.

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