|Chip+PIN Debit/Credit Cards in France|
If your credit or debit card has a magnetic stripe, but not a computer chip, you will have trouble using it in Paris and the rest of France. In fact, you may not be able to use it at all. But there are solutions to this problem.
On your trip to Paris and France, if your Visa, MasterCard or other credit or debit card does not have a computer chip in it, it will not be accepted everywhere. You may not be able to use it at all, even in online transactions.
Most banks and credit card companies in the USA have begun issuing new cards with chips. You should get one, and also a PIN (Personal Identification Number) to use with it.
American Express cards, even those without chips, may work in some establishments that accept them, and Amex is now issuing cards with embedded chips.
But perhaps you are not an Amex cardholder, or you are, but you do not want to depend solely on one card to pay all of your travel expenses.
To deter credit and debit card fraud, European banks, including in France, use the EMV Smart Card Payment System which requires credit and debit cards with computer chips in them (cartes à puce in French).
When used for a purchase, the card is inserted into a merchant device card reader (often a handheld device brought to you), the merchant (say, a waiter in a restaurant) enters the business code and the amount of the charge, then hands the device to you. You press the number keys for your 4-digit PIN (Personal Identification Number), the charge is recorded, the device prints a receipt for you, your card is removed and returned to you, and the transaction is over. It's quick, easy and secure.
Credit vs. Debit Cards
Foreign (that is, non-French) chip+PIN debit cards may work in France because they use a PIN. Credit cards are another matter.
What's Wrong with Magnetic Stripe?
It's much easier to copy and steal the information on a magnetic credit card stripe than it is to copy the information on a computer chip embedded in a credit or debit card, which is why banks like chip cards: less credit card fraud.
Better Late Than Never...
The USA has been laggard in adopting chip-card technology because of the equipment cost of retrofitting retailers' pay stations, but recent criminal data breaches have been so serious and expensive that—at long last— the USA is converting to chip card technology. But...
With Chip+Signature cards, now being introduced in the USA, your card has a chip in it, but you sign your signature on the device or on a paper receipt, as you did with the old magnetic stripe cards. With this system, you are usually not liable for fraudulent use of your card.
Chip+Signature is not the system used in France, so your Chip+Signature card may not work everywhere, although some establishments will have forms for you to sign, and will accept your card. Or...
Get a PIN!
From some companies in the USA, you can request a PIN to go with your Chip+Signature card, making it a Chip+PIN card as well. With a new card, you may have to make your first transaction with a person (cashier) and use your signature, but after that your PIN should be active, and you should be able to use it as a Chip+PIN card in France.
You may already have, and use, a Radio Frequency Identity (RFID) card: city transit passes for bus, metro, etc., such as Paris's Navigo, are RFID cards, as are any cards that you just touch or wave at a sensor: you just put the card on or near a sensor, the card and the sensor exchange information, and you're on your way.
RFID technology is coming to bank, debit and credit cards. RFID cards have chips within them, but these chips do not have electrical contacts on the surface of the card, so they may not work on the EMV chip card system.
What to Do?
—Ask your bank about Chip+PIN debit and credit cards, and obtain one if possible.
—Use a chip+PIN cash/ATM card from your home bank to withdraw euros from cash machines (retrait, distributeur des billets) in France—if it works.
—Inform your bank that you will be using your card abroad, in France, and that charges and cash withdrawals made with the card should be approved.
—Bring cash (dollars, etc.) and convert it to euros at a bureau de change (curency exchange office)— but this can be quite expensive, as exchange offices charge commission of between 6% and 10% of the amount changed, plus a service fee of 2.50€ to 6.00€, meaning that if you give the exchange office US$100, you may receive less than $90 in euros.