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Originally published Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 7:00 PM

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Travel Wise / Trying out a ‘chip’ credit card

Using a new style of credit card (for Americans, that is) on trip to France.

Seattle Times NWTraveler editor

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On a recent trip to France, I tried out the new “chip” credit card that Bank of America (and some other U.S. banks) are issuing. It comes with an embedded chip on the front of the card that contains user information read by credit-card processing machines, as well as the traditional magnetic-swipe strip so that it still can be used in the U.S.

Why did I want this card? Because Europe, Canada and most of the world apart from the U.S. use what are called “chip and pin” credit cards, which are more secure. In some places a traditional U.S. card won’t work.

The chip-and-pin card is inserted into a credit-card machine (at restaurants, waiters bring a handheld machine to your table) and the card owner punches in his or her private four-digit PIN (personal identification number).

At certain places in Europe — such as automated ticket machines in train stations, highway toll booths, gas stations (which in France can be unattended on Sundays and in some rural areas) — only a chip-and-pin credit card works. If you don’t have one, or enough cash, you’re in trouble.

Having the card made life much easier. My companion and I could buy gas at automated stations in the rural area of southern France we were exploring and use the card in grocery stores. But it didn’t work at the automated highway toll booths; I wasn’t sure why — perhaps the machine was set up only to accept cards with a true PIN punched in.

That’s the problem. The Bank of America card is sort of a half-measure. It’s not a true chip-and-pin card (and at least the bank isn’t calling it that any more, now referring to it as simply a chip card). It’s really a chip-and-signature card with the transaction supposedly verified by signing instead of punching in a PIN. That makes it much less secure than a real chip-and-pin credit card, and few merchants ever required a signature from me.

The verdict? The Bank of America chip card certainly was more useful than a traditional U.S. credit card, but travelers in Europe and beyond still should carry cash in case it doesn’t work. In Canada, however, where U.S. travelers are so prevalent, most merchants have dual machines that accept chip-and-pin and the traditional swipe card.

Hopefully, U.S. banks will shell out the money and soon set up the infrastructure for true chip-and-pin cards. It would cut down on fraud and make traveling abroad a lot easier.

Kristin Jackson:

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