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Important Information from Frommers on US Credit Cards

Just received this in my e-mail and think it's important to know before you travel:

By Sascha Segan
November 20, 2007
When Frommers.com 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 Vélib 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 Frommers.com readers on our Message Boards.

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Thanks for sharing this, Doris. Do you have a link to the original article?
Powen, if you just go to Frommers.com, this comes up as his first article or issue being discussed - at least it does today. I'm not sure how to put a link in here. In fact, if you can tell me a simple way to do it, I'd LOVE to learn how!!
Well, how I usually do it is like this:
1. Go to the website you want to link to
2. Copy the URL (web address, starting with http) from the address bar, usually at the top of your internet browser
3. Select (highlight) the words that you want to link to the website.
4. Click on the icon that looks like a chain -- right above the box where you enter text.
5. A window will pop up with a place to paste the URL.
6. Click OK and the link is created! You won't see see it until you add the reply or post the blog entry -- until then, it will look like a bunch of crazy letters and symbols.

Frommer Article

We just returned from a month in France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Iceland, carrying a supposedly chip&pin card from Bank of America, obtained through AAA.  The first time we tried to use it, at an autoroute tollbooth outside of Nice, it was completely rejected by the automatic toll machine.  In restaurants and other places, the machine used by the waiter/clerk required a signature every time, even though BofA had given us a PIN number and we had changed that to our own number.   No human clerk ever seemed to have a problem processing the signature; it just wasn't an issue.  But we had to be very careful about not needing to buy gas on a Sunday, as most stations were closed.  I will be letting BofA and my local AAA office know about this, and will cancel the card once I pay the bill.

Thanks for this.  Does anyone know how to deal with the common advice to "be sure you have a four-digit PIN for your debit card."?  12 years ago when I went to London, this advice was on all the travel sites, including my bank's -- but in fact the bank does not allow short PINs for security reasons.  I sweated a lot about whether cash would be available, but at that time everything seemed to work fine with the longer PIN.

What's people's experience?  How did you persuade your bank to give you a four-digit PIN -- or was it unnecessary?

Thanks!

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