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Chip-and-signature Cards Are Not The Same As Chip-and-pin Cards

Sarah's work as an academic involves many foreign trips, mainly to Europe, and she's gotten used to problems using her American credit cards when she's out of the country. Until recently, her U.S. plastic came only with black magnetic stripes on the back. That's fine at home, but in many other nations merchants are used to processing transactions using the on-board microprocessor chips that are universal on cards in their territories, commonly referred to as "chip-and-PIN" cards. Many merchants abroad have converted to payment terminals that no longer read magnetic strips.

Chase chooses chips

So Sarah was excited recently when she received her new J.P. Morgan Select Visa Signature Card from Chase. Not only did it come with a microprocessor chip, but it also -- in common with nine other Chase products -- charged no foreign transaction fees. She was, however, mystified by one thing: it didn't come with a four-digit personal identification number (PIN).

As it turns out, the J.P. Morgan Select product is a chip-with-signature rather than a chip-and-PIN card. That's fine in the United States, where signature authorizations are the norm, but what about in many other countries, where the use of PINs is nearly universal?

PINs -- a sign of the times?

In the U.K., for instance, people who are blind or who have dexterity or memory problems are entitled to chip-with-signature cards, even though chip-and-PIN is the country's standard technology. However, PIN-less transactions are so rare that many merchants' employees have never processed one. Indeed, a July 2012 study by the Payments Council, a British industry body that claims it "sets the strategy for U.K. payments," found that consumers are frequently embarrassed or anxious when signing to authorize a payment.

IndexCreditCards.com had an email exchange with one industry insider who should understand the implications of the signature vs. PIN debate. He observed:

Chip-with-signature technology is the standard in Asia, Germany and many other countries around the globe. It has the most universal acceptance which makes it easier for international travelers.

So, most areas should be able to process the chip-and-signature card without much issue. A French person with a PIN-enabled card making a payment in Asia can presumably always sign, but an Asian person in France without a PIN may encounter problems, especially in remote regions away from tourist areas, and when using those automated vending devices (though some reports claim that the transaction will be approved without requiring a signature).

Imagine being in that situation as a foreign tourist, especially in some other countries where you may not speak the language well. This writer has personally witnessed a tourist in a French supermarket pleading that, at home, she could sign for transactions when using her American Express card. The clerk ended the conversation icily: " Madame, vous êtes en France." (You're in France, ma'am.)

Chip-with-signature has downsides

In his email, our industry insider also wrote:

Cards that feature chip-with-signature technology do not require cardmembers to remember another PIN. Also, chip-with-signature technology is EMV compliant, meaning the chip is very secure and cannot be counterfeited.

[EMV is the technology that enables payment card microprocessor chips, and the abbreviation stands for the three companies behind its invention: Europay, MasterCard and Visa.]

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