This isn’t talked about much outside of travel websites, but America’s credit card situation is pretty terrible compared to the rest of the world. In the last few years we just got Chip + Signature cards—you know, the ones where you have to put your card into a reader instead of swiping it, and then sign an electronic pad—while every other country has Chip + PIN cards. We still don’t fully understand why our country would be so slow to adopt Chip + PIN when we’ve had Swipe + Pin on debit and ATM cards forever… but in any case, Chip + Signature just isn’t popular outside of our country.
If you want to avoid looking like that clueless American tourist when abroad, we’ve learned a few tricks for getting by with your credit cards.
Get a Chip + PIN Card
There are very few Chip + PIN cards available in the US, and even fewer that work the same as the foreign credit cards. Any credit card you get through Barclaycard or Bank of America will have the option to set a PIN, and this comes in very handy when picking up tickets at train kiosks, or refilling an Oyster card in London.
US cards that support a PIN generally do it as a secondary option. The dumb thing is that payment terminals in other countries, apart from self-service machines, support signature and if your card is a signature-first priority, you’ll still get a receipt spat out for you to sign. So the Barclaycard and Bank of America credit cards can come in handy in some situations, but not in any that have you interfacing with a human being.
All that said, some credit unions in the US have Chip + PIN cards where PIN is priority over signature. You should check with your credit union if they offer this as an option.
I remember when I was younger and contactless payments started coming out in the US. Then they were gone. If you walk into a McDonald’s they still have the option to “tap” your contactless card at the register, but how many of us have contactless enabled cards in our wallets? I think AMEX might still do a few, but I don’t have one.
Our saving grace is that modern cell phones have started integrating contactless payment systems into their hardware. Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay all operate on basically the same technology and are widely enabled in Europe. Any contactless terminal will support your Apple Pay device, for sure. And you won’t even have to sign anything!
There is one caveat, though. Standard contactless cards in the UK are limited to transactions of £30 for security reasons and often times that’s enforced at the till. Even though Apple Pay permits uncapped purchases—and stores like Tesco, Sainsbury, and restaurants like Nando’s support it—many store and restaurant employees won’t. So you risk having your contactless purchase turned away even if it’s supported.
Carry your own pen
In many cases you just won’t be able to get around without using your normal old American credit card. In this case, I recommend carrying your own pen with you. In big cities like London or Newcastle, most retail and food workers deal with our annoying American credit cards enough to be ready for us, but in smaller towns you mind the clerk hunting for a writing utensil so you can sign. And in those cases you’ll probably be the first person in 5 or 6 years to have to sign a slip. Carrying your own pen is a big help, but also shows you’re considerate. I’ve made good connections with shop clerks when I pull out my pen and they are always grateful.