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On the Spot: Being smart about Chip and Pin cards

U.S.-issued magnetic-stripe credit cards aren't always accepted abroad. Here's what to know about Chip and PIN smart cards vendors will take.

May 12, 2013

Question: We are planning a trip to London and have heard that some of our charge and credit cards may not be accepted because they are not Chip and PIN. If that's so, what are our choices? We don't want to carry a load of cash.

Nancy Jones

Claremont

Answer: This was going to be such an easy answer. I'd just direct Jones to Travelex, which had a Chip and PIN (personal identification number) card, and that would be the end of it. The Travelex card would be a backup, because many places overseas can accept U.S. cards that have a magnetic stripe.

But the answer wasn't easy. Besides the fact that there isn't a convenient Travelex near Jones' home, Travelex has discontinued its C&P card, which worked well for me on a London trip last year. It was easy to get and use.

You may not even need a Chip and PIN card when you travel — but, then again, you may. You may need it when you try to buy a transportation pass at an unmanned kiosk in a London Tube station, which probably won't accept your U.S.-issued magnetic-stripe card. You may need it when you try to buy a mobile phone outside the heart of London, and the shop owner gives you a withering look and says, "Don't you have a smart card?"

That's when that Travelex card came in handy for me a year ago. But no more, the company says. At least, not for now. "We are working on a new and enhanced version of the card, which should be available later this year," Travelex rep Maria Brusilovsky told me in an email. "Unfortunately, we don't have a substitute at the moment."

So much for the easy answer, and things get more complicated from here.

For those who haven't been following the saga of credit cards that don't work abroad, the magnetic-stripe cards are so five minutes ago, even though they're so easy to use. You swipe them, you sign and you're done. Works for me — all too well. The problem? They also work all too well for thieves.

Enter the smart card, or EMV (short for Europay, MasterCard and Visa), the standard in many nations.

Until recently, it wasn't easy to find smart cards in the U.S. It's easier now; many banks offer them.

But the issue may be this: The cards come in a couple of flavors. One is the PIN; the other is called a Chip and Signature or Chip and Sign. For U.S. leisure consumers, the latter is often more easily available.

Either EMV card will probably work in most places that use that technology, but there are going to be occasions when it won't (see above; card purchases at Tube kiosks require a PIN). And if you're worried about security, consider what experts told me.

"If you have a smart card and there's a PIN associated with it and you drop it on the ground and someone tries to use it, unless they have your PIN, it's not going through," said David Hogan, executive director with Heartland Payment Systems, one of the largest credit-card processors in the U.S. (Do people really just drop their cards on the ground? I just found one outside a hotel door in San Francisco.)

With the Chip and Signature card, the signature must be verified. The issue, Hogan said, is the verification process: "I had one prominent retailer tell me, 'Dave, can't remember the last time we hired a handwriting expert.'"

Score one for PIN.

But wait, there's more.

Before you ditch the idea of a Chip and Signature card, consider this from Rip Gerber, chief executive of Locaid (www.loc-aid.com), which provides location data to businesses that can be used for marketing and security, among other things: "The PIN card doesn't address the growing online environment," he said. Said another way, the PIN card can be difficult to use when you're trying to buy from an e-tailer.

Score one for Signature.

All very interesting, but if you need something now? The short answer, said Seth Eisen, a vice president at MasterCard, is this: "Open up your wallet and call the number on the back and see if [that card company] has the EMV card." Or check and see if yours is already a smart card.

I did find a Chip and PIN card that is winging its way to me as I write. Next week, I'll tell you about my quest and how I found the card I wanted in an unexpected place, thanks to this FlyerTalk forum: http://www.lat.ms/11cj2HB. (There, you'll find a Google Document that lists many options, including the one I chose.) We'll also talk about credit-card practices and your overseas travels.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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