Jun 17 2013

Traveling Internationally? Plan Ahead to Use Your Debit and Credit Cards

EMV Card

An EMV or chip-and-PIN card has an embedded chip rather than the magnetic strip that is currently standard in the U.S.

When you travel abroad, we want to make sure you have convenient access to the funds in your accounts. Certain differences in American and European credit and debit cards can make that more challenging; however, if you prepare in advance, you can easily navigate these differences.

Why is there a difference?

Many European countries have switched to chip-and-PIN cards (also known as EMV cards for Europay, MasterCard, and Visa). Instead of having a magnetic strip, these cards are embedded with a little chip (some have both). When making purchases with a chip-and-PIN card, you enter your PIN to complete the sale, the way you do with a U.S. debit card.

The major credit card providers plan to introduce this chip technology to the U.S. in the next two to three years. Your cards with Consumers will incorporate chip technology at that time. As a U.S. card with a magnetic strip requires different processing technology than a European card with a chip, the difference can create complications for travelers until chip-and-PIN cards are widespread in the U.S.

Until chip-and-PIN cards are widespread in the U.S., what is the impact on travelers?

European ATMs still accept both types of cards, so travelers may need to get in the habit of withdrawing and carrying more cash than they do at home.

Automated kiosks, such as those at gas pumps and train stations, may not process magnetic strip cards, and although merchants on the chip-and-PIN system are supposed to be able to process our magnetic strip cards, they may not be familiar with them and turn them away or may not have the necessary technology.

How should I plan to pay while I’m traveling?

Travel expert Rick Steves says that when he is in Europe, he pays for most of his purchases in cash, which he withdraws at the ATM. He uses his credit card only sparingly: for hotel reservations and pricey bills such as car rentals and plane tickets. Our employees who have traveled abroad with their Consumers credit and debit cards have found this system to work well. (Rick shares more advice on paying for your trip to Europe here.)

Other options include prepaid chip-and-PIN cards that you can order online through services like Travelex. While these services can be handy, they tend to charge exchange rates higher than the foreign ATM charges you would pay withdrawing cash with your American card. Unless your stay abroad is lengthy and you’re willing to pay for the convenience of using plastic, it’s not the most cost effective option.

What do I do if I have a problem with my card while abroad?

We are here to help whether you’re in your backyard or Bangladesh. Call us at 800.991.2221 or send an email to cuonline@consumerscu.org. For after hours concerns, call the phone number on the back of your credit or debit card for round the clock assistance.

Did you know you can call phones in the U.S. for free from the Google Voice plugin in Gmail? It’s great when you need to reach home while abroad.

Let us know before you go!

We will place a travel note on your account so that our card monitoring service doesn’t flag your transactions abroad as suspicious. Otherwise, if you typically do your shopping in Mattawan, and suddenly your card makes a purchase in Madrid, we will need to verify the purchase with you before approving, which can slow down your travels.

With these tips in mind, you can relax and enjoy your trip!






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  1. David Hancock says

    A few days after arriving in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico I attempted to use my Consumers Mastercard. The ATM machine indicated that it could not service my request. I made several futile attempts at three different locations involving 2 different banks. Fortunately, a relative of mine has been getting extra money for me. I tried an ATM again today, but no luck. In previous years I have used my Consumers Mastercard with no problems.

    I did call Consumers ahead to let them know that I would be using the card in Mexico.

    • KDavidson says

      Thanks for the question, with the new rollout of our online banking we will be adding several new features that you may find helpful being out of the country. When using your MasterCard sometimes there can be charges associated with that through MasterCard. Our improved online banking solutions unfortunately will not impact your Credit Card usage. If you have other questions please let us know.

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