Do You Need a Chip and PIN Card in Europe?

11 Sep Do You Need a Chip and PIN Card in Europe?

If it’s been a while since your last international trip, I have some unwelcome news: outside of the U.S., most credit cards and card readers are using a new technology. Old style magnetic strips are on their way out; embedded security chips are on their way in. The bottom line? Your card won’t work everywhere anymore.

Train station sign Germany

In response to demand, a handful of U.S. banks – mine among them – have begun to offer credit cards with embedded chips (though these are technically chip and signature cards with PINs, a sort of hybrid). For a recent month-long trip to the Netherlands and Germany, I decided to get one.

Because I was planning to travel both by rental car and train, I foresaw needing to operate lots of automated payment machines at gas stations, unattended train stations, parking lots and garages, toll roads, bike rental kiosks, and luggage lockers – all notorious for not accepting U.S.-style magnetic strip credit cards.

Armed only with information gleaned from the Flyer Talk forum, I called my bank on a Saturday morning. Ninety minutes and four customer service representatives later, I had completed my application. A month later, I had my card. The long delay was due to the fact that my bank couldn’t simply issue me a card, but with certain products (all of which had annual fees), they could issue me a standard card and then upgrade me to a chip and PIN card. It was easily the most frustrating financial experience of my life.

In June, I arrived in Amsterdam with my kids and got a chance to test out my new plastic. We traveled all over the Netherlands with a long side trip into Germany (by train only, as it turned out). Here’s what I discovered.

1. Virtually all shops, museums, and restaurants can still swipe
With only two exceptions (both of them in very small towns), shops, cafes, museums, and restaurants were able to process payments with my old school swipe cards. In fact, even my chip card often prompted vendors to print a receipt and have me sign it instead of entering my PIN.

2. Big train stations have attended ticket booths for cash transactions
All the large and medium-sized city train stations we visited had attended ticket booths where I could have bought tickets with cash if I’d needed to. Very often, the lines weren’t really any longer than the automated kiosk lines. The one exception to this was at Schiphol airport where the line of jetlagged American travelers stagnated across the terminal while those of us with chip and PIN cards were already on our way into downtown Amsterdam.

3. Small train stations don’t
Not every train station we passed through had an attended ticket booth. In many towns, I was very glad to be able to buy our tickets (or top up our train passes) at a kiosk with my new credit card. Confusingly, some machines in the Netherlands accepted euro coins, but none accepted euro notes. In Germany, it was euro coins only at the small stations.

4. International train tickets are cash or chip and PIN only
I was surprised to find I couldn’t pay with an American credit card at the international ticket and service counter at Amsterdam Centraal Station. It’s possible to pay with cash, but most people I know don’t like to walk around foreign cities with $400 or $500 in their pocket. If you do decide to pay cash for those Eurostar tickets to Paris, plan ahead. Most ATMs will only let you take out $250 a day. You’ll need to remember to stockpile cash for a few days before heading to the train station.

Eventually the U.S. will have to convert to chip and PIN technology, and none of us will have to decide whether to go through the headache of getting a special card for an international trip. Until then, I’m not sure the convenience is worth the cost and the hassle.

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Jamie Pearson
Jamie Pearson is a freelance writer, a mother of two, and the publisher of the independent family travel blog Travel Savvy Mom. She regularly writes about family travel for Vail Resorts and Homewood Suites, and her dispatches have also appeared on National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel Blog and on
Jamie Pearson

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