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More for Your Money: Securing Chip and PIN cards ahead of time

Many U.S. credit cards have only a magnetic stripe and might not work abroad. Smartcards can be found in the U.S. if you know where to look.

June 10, 2013|By Catharine Hamm
  • U.S. credit card companies are beginning to offer "smart" credit cards--that is, cards with the chips used by many foreign merchants.
U.S. credit card companies are beginning to offer "smart" credit… (Visa photo by Patrick Semansky;…)

A couple of recent On the Spot columns (www.lat.ms/19uSnX6 and http://www.lat.ms/11J5PFc) dealt with making sure that travelers have a credit card that's compatible with foreign systems.

Many U.S. cards have a magnetic stripe. They are, technologically speaking, old hat. They're supposed to work abroad. They don't always. Many foreign merchants use smartcards with a chip. Some require a personal identification number to work; others just a signature.

The smartcard credit card is increasingly available in the U.S. but not always readily.

This matters because you may have problems abroad using a mag-strip card. I did last year (minor) and so did readers.

"My wife and I visit [Britain] and Europe every few years," Paul Roberts wrote in an email. "We never had any problem using our USA-issued credit cards — that is, until a few years ago on a trip to England. We were turned down on the use of our credit card because we had the magnetic stripe and no embedded computer chip. We were not even aware of that technology."

Reader Marcia Adair was in Britain for much of 2012 and, she said, "many small places didn't take it [the magnetic stripe]. If they did, there was almost always a rolling of the eyes as they scrambled to find a pen for me to sign."

And reader Darryl Komesu wrote to say: "Any automated metro/bus ticket kiosk in Copenhagen and Amsterdam would not work because it needed a PIN. So the standard U.S. mag strip would not work. Even at the [Copenhagen] airport train cashier, they wouldn't accept the Chip and Signature — and there was no ATM in the terminal in the main lobby before security."

My solution was to apply for a Chip and PIN MasterCard through USAA. I like the extra security the PIN affords, although I haven't yet tried to use it online. I'm told that can be a problem.

Here's what other readers have found:

"We regularly use Capital One Visa card and Bank of America Visa," Roberts wrote. "So I inquired as to whether or not they could issue us a new card with both mag-strip technology for use in the USA and embedded computer-chip technology for use in the United Kingdom. Capital One said they did not have that capability at present. But Bank of America Visa was happy to help us — with no charge or hassle. They simply issued us new cards as requested with both the old and new technology."

Reader Carol Marsh had card problems last year in Eastern Europe. "We did not have the new card with the chip and we had difficulty using various cards," she wrote. But for a trip this year trip to Sicily and Malta she said she used a Chase Marriott credit card with a chip. "We used it several times and never had a problem," Marsh said. "We only had to sign the receipt and did not have to give a PIN number."

Denise Federoff, whose husband is an Army vet, was also going to apply through USAA, but the day she was set to do that "we received emails from Citibank, where we both have American Advantage credit cards, advising us that we would be able to upgrade, free of charge, to their new Chip and PIN cards," she said in an email. "We placed a phone call to customer service and within a matter of a few minutes, our cards were upgraded and were sent to us, overnight and free of charge. The card works with both a PIN and swiping, so we are very good to go."

Art Cravets is a USAA member and got a new Chip and PIN card in minutes, he said. But he also wanted a backup, he said: "We never travel with only one. An ad from the Auto Club of Southern California (AAA) caught my attention … and, being a member, I called and very shortly had a new card with Chip and PIN through them."

At least two readers mentioned getting their Chip and PIN card through the State Department Federal Credit Union. Reader Jeff Utay said his State Department card has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fee.

He had to join the State Department's credit union, which he did through the American Consumer Council (www.americanconsumercouncil.org). That was free, and "that membership made me eligible for SDFCU membership," he said. "I was asked to make a $100 deposit to open an account with SDFCU, which I did."

There are more smartcards out there, so take heart. But also heed these three things as you hunt for the tool that's right for you: First, find out if there's an annual fee for the card. Second, find out if it charges a foreign transaction fee (which can cost as much as 3%). And finally, make sure that if you get a card that has a PIN, it's for a credit card and not for a cash advance from an ATM, which accrues high fees.

Thanks to all the readers who wrote in with their wisdom. Now charge!

travel@latimes.com

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