Will You Be Able to Use Your Credit Cards in Europe?

by Miranda Marquit · 17 comments

One of the reasons that many prefer to use credit cards is due to the fact that they can be taken almost anywhere in the world. Plus, there are a number of fraud protections that come with credit cards. From earning rewards, to peace of mind, credit cards can offer a great way to pay when you go abroad.

That, however, might be changing with regard to Europe. In order to boost the security of cards, the introduction of chip cards has begun. This means that Americans, with their less secure cards, are having a bit of trouble at some locations.

Chip Cards vs. Magnetic Strip

In America, most of our credit cards still have the information stored in a magnetic strip of the card. One of the biggest security issues with this method is that the data stored in the magnetic strip is not, in fact, encrypted. Let that sink for a bit. This makes it relatively easily for thieves to copy the information on the magnetic strip.

Instead, there are newer “smart cards” being introduced. These cards, named for Europay MasterCard Visa, are called EMV cards. They feature computer chips stored inside the cards. The data on these computer chips is encrypted.

On top of that, there are transaction identifiers. These are unique “tags” that can change from transaction to transaction. So, if some does intercept some of the data, the identifier used probably won’t be good for more than a transaction or two. There are multiple levels of security with these EMV smart cards, from the identifier to the encrypted data on the computer chip.

At locations where the point of sale terminals have been switched out to accept chip cards and not magnetic swipe cards, it can be difficult for Americans to use their credit cards. If you are abroad and happen to be at these locations, then you are out of luck.

What Can You Do?

The good news is that some banks in the United States do offer EMV cards. You can ask your credit card issuer if they have these smart cards. Chase, Wells Fargo, and U.S. Bancorp are among those that offer EMV cards. You can also check with your credit union to see if it issues “smart cards.” In some cases, you might be able to get a card that will be compatible with the new systems rolling out in Europe, and in other countries.

In reality, these smart cards are somewhat comforting. They make it harder for thieves to steal your credit card information, and they can provide you with increased peace of mind. Yes, it’s nice that you don’t have fraud liability when someone steals your credit card information and uses it. But wouldn’t it be even nicer if it was difficult for the unscrupulous to steal your information in the first place?

Before you leave the country, be aware of some of the differences associated with money abroad. From the type of credit card used, to the number of digits required for PIN at the ATM, there are differences that can be very inconvenient if you don’t prepare for them.

Have you seen these newer “smart cards”? What do you think?

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  • Sharky says:

    This is great, but still doesn’t fix the problem with credit card numbers being stolen and used to make purchases on the Internet. I want one of those credit cards with the one-time password LCD displays on them. The credit card will only work if you have that one-time password, and if someone steals your card, it won’t work.

  • Kiwikid says:

    Chip cards are just coming into the market now in New Zealand. The thing about these is they also have a magnetic stripe. However, as my card is a BNZ card the stripe is covered by software called liquid encryption which was developed by the BNZ. Apparently no one has been able to bypass the liquid encryption for fraud purposes. So far anyway. I believe they have licensed this software internationally.

    Biggest issue I have with chip cards is that it takes longer to do the transaction. Put the card in, wait for it to be recognised, select account after about 6 to 10 seconds, enter your pin, wait some more, then it will come up with remove card on the display, remove card and then it will say accepted. Much quicker using magnetic stripe technology that’s for real.

  • S Norris says:

    Oh, and I forgot to say, just because you have a chip and pin doesn’t mean you will be able to use it everywhere. We had a few problems with our UK-issued chip and pin credit cards when in Spain a few years ago, and many of the shopkeepers said that wasn’t uncommon with UK cards. :-/

  • S Norris says:

    It would probably cost American card issuers more money to replace the existing US swipeable system with a chip and pin system, like we have in the UK, rather than cover the cost of fraud, which chip and pin is supposed to guard against. I’ve lived in the UK for 18 years now, and both my husband and I have been the victim of credit card fraud. There’s still ways and means to copy cards and use them online etc.

  • Peter Steeper says:

    We are rapidly converting to chip cards in Canada as well. Most places still accept swipe cards but most Canadians have chip cards now.

  • Tim Wright says:

    I live in the UK and we have had these cards for 6 years, just got back from Germany and my US card did not work in the German Train ticket machines. But I went to the service place and they did help me swipe my card/ Also, only 30% of Germans have a credit card. They usually pay cash for everything!

  • Erin says:

    Having just moved to France, I can definitely attest to the usefulness of these cards. Until I was able to open a French bank account, it was always a gamble whether the store would accept my swipe card or not… there were lots of places that would try swiping it, but it didn’t work for some reason, and others where it was fine. Also, almost none of the train tickets machines will accept the regular swipe cards, just chip cards or cash. Luckily, it seems that nearly all ATMs still accept the swipe card, so you can always just get cash!

  • KS says:

    My husband and I moved to Ireland from the US a year and change ago. We’re still able to use our American “swipe” credit card in most places without trouble but a lot of places are phasing them out (and it seems to be harder in other places in Europe, like Italy). However, a French friend found that her chip and pin card was hacked there so I’m not convinced how safe it really is.

  • Julia says:

    In large, tourist areas when paying, tell the clerk that you have an American credit card. Instead of using the chip portion of the payment area, the clerk will swipe your card. Cash is always best when traveling though.

  • Marbella says:

    You can use all kinds of credit cards in Europe, the only thing you have to do is to be glued to the card. There are so many pickpockets here in Europe, unfortunately.

  • How weird is this?! I was just thinking today if I was going to be able to use my debit card in Portugal when I go there on vacation. I was wondering what to do about it… I was going to call my issurer to ask but at least I can act like I know what I am talking about when I ask about the smart cards. Hehehe…I’ll let you know what it’s like if no one has yet. 🙂 Thanks!!

  • Shane says:

    That is really good to know. I have been planning on making it over to Europe soon and would not have even thought about that. Thanks for the heads up I think I would rather have the smart card over the old one.

  • I will definitely keep this in mind next time I travel abroad. I wonder if I can request to upgrade my card before I go on my next trip. Great post!

  • Thanks for the info. I studied abroad in Europe 4 years ago and my credit cards worked fine everywhere. But I’ve been hearing a lot more about people having trouble with these types of chip cards. I’ll definitely look into one before my next trip to Europe.

  • I know a couple that recently went to Europe…not sure if they used one. But hopefully they did!

  • My girlfriend recently got an application for a citicard with a chip. We aren’t planning to go to Europe anytime soon though so no need to get one right now. I will definitely keep this in mind though.

  • Jules says:

    This happened late last year. And from what I can remember, most of the continent has adopted these smart cards, or else they don’t take credit cards–the supermarkets where I live, for instance, only take bank cards, and only one of them has a register equipped for credit cards (much to the flabbergasted German lady’s dismay). Your best bet when travelling abroad is to just use your ATM card to get cash.

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