Editorial Policy

Should I get an EMV card for my overseas travels?

Laura Mohammad

June 20, 2014

I’m planning a family trip to Jordan this summer, and like a good traveler, I sat down one recent Friday and called our credit card companies. I wanted to know if we needed EMV cards, also known as chip-and-PIN or chip-and-signature cards, to make purchases in Jordan.

We will be with family, which means expenses will be minimal, but I wanted to make sure we’ll have a card we can use as a backup.

After calls to four card issuers who gave me four different answers, I realized this wasn’t going to be easy. It begins with the fact that there is no universal system for secure cards. Every country is different, and there are even differences within the same country.

Chip and PIN refers to a technology that makes credit cards more resistant to data theft, requiring a personal identification number for payment to be accepted.  It’s common in other parts of the world, including Europe and parts of Asia. But not in the U.S.

You see, the less-secure magnetic-stripe card dominates in the U.S. (although that will change over the next 16 months, when merchants will need to have appliances in place that take the chip cards). Chip-and-PIN cards are hard to get for U.S. cardholders, although some companies offer a similar chip-and-signature card (which is less secure than chip and PIN, but still safer than mag stripe).

However, as handy as it is to know what kind of technology a country’s merchants have, it isn’t necessary, says Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management policy for the American Bankers Association. For example, Johnson used his chipless card throughout London last week without any problem. “It’s at the discretion of the retailer,” he says. “The exception is when it isn’t accepted.”

As expirations come up, debit and credit cards are being issued with the chip, Johnson says.

Still, even if your current card will usually be accepted, here are some card tips for you before you go overseas:

1. Tell your card issuer when you will be traveling. That lessens the likelihood your card will be rejected for security reasons.

2. If you want to know whether the magnetic stripe is accepted in your destination, search or start a thread on a site like CreditCardForum.com or flyertalk.com and find someone who has recently traveled to your area. If you want to avoid the possibility that your card will be rejected, ask your issuer for a card with a chip in it, says Johnson.

3. Bank of America advises that you allow for extra time when traveling abroad, because unless you have a chip-and-PIN card, you will need to go to attended train terminals in some regions, such as Europe.

4. Most American issuers are releasing chip and signature cards. While you may run into some self-service kiosks that require a PIN, the signature cards will work with most international merchants.

5. Keep a list of your card numbers, PINs and the issuer’s contact information separate from your wallet or purse in case of theft or loss.

6. Clarify which phone number to call the issuer in case of an emergency. The overseas number is usually different from the one for domestic calls. In some cases, it’s the “collect” number on the back of the card.

7. Does the issuer charge a foreign transaction fee? Capital One in particular is known for not charging these fees, but others can charge upward of 3 percent, Bankrate.com reports.

8. Bank of America advises you to have two forms of payment in case one is rejected. For example, carry both a debit and a credit card.

I’ve learned from a co-worker who recently traveled to Jordan that the magnetic stripe is still accepted there. But just in case, my husband received a chip-and-signature card from one of his issuers.