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We are US travelers who will be spending 2 weeks in France (Bordeaux through Provence to Nice) in mid-April 2013. We understand that Europe is well ahead of the US in the use of EMV (chip-and-pin) technology for credit cards, and all of our cards are traditional magnetic stripe only. We would like to use a credit card for as many expenses as possible. We will be using public transport as well as renting a car, purchasing gasoline, etc.

What is the current state of EMV vs. magnetic stripe card acceptance in France? Should we inquire about EMV cards with our card issuers?

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Every shop uses chip-and-pin cards, every credit card issued for France is one of them, so I personally never saw any other case. But maybe the machines are compatible with magnetic stripes, and there are a lot of American tourists coming to France. I would still recommend you to ask your bank a chip-and-pin card if you can, especially given this answer (note that in France, credit cards are widely used, way more than in Germany) : travel.stackexchange.com/questions/920/… –  Vince Feb 21 '13 at 22:54
    
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2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

In my month or so split between riding a motorcycle and taking trains throughout France in the past four years, here's what I've found:

  • Takes magnetic strip + signature: Any place that takes credit card and has a live person collecting payment (e.g. cashier, waiter, etc). This means just about all stores, restaurants, manned gasoline stations and manned ticket booths will accept mag+signature, as well as chip+pin.
  • Does not take mag strip+signature: most gasoline stations after hours, bicycle rental kiosks, metro ticket kiosks and train ticket kiosks. Essentially any self-service payment place. Many of these do not take cash either.

Pay particular attention to your gasoline level and time of day. I got stuck at gasoline stations after hours more than once. Locals could gas up with chip+pin cards. I didn't have one so I had to convince them to dip their card and take my cash in exchange. I was really glad I carried enough cash to get me to the next pillow.

Another thing to watch out for is that, in the US, some banks have EMV cards that are chip+signature rather than chip+pin. It's confusing because those chip+signature cards may have a PIN setup but that PIN does not work with the chip+pin system. Also, some web sites might mis-report them as chip+pin. As of May 2012, this was the case with the British Airways Visa Signature EMV card. Before you get a US EMV card, interrogate the bank to make sure it's chip+pin rather than chip+signature and that it can be used an unmanned kiosks in Europe that only accept chip+pin.

You might be able to find legit chip+pin EMV cards in the US from some credit unions like the Andrews Federal Credit Union. Their GlobeTrek Rewards Visa is the one I ended up with. See also Victoria Hawkins' blog and Flyertalk's forums for more good info on US banks and chip+pin.

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As an aside, to me, the pattern suggests that there's some law, regulation or standard that mag+sig cards are only accepted if a person can confirm the signature. On chip+pin cards, the PIN serves as the identity check in place of the signature. Since the PIN can be verified without a person, it's accepted in their absence. –  jlpp Feb 22 '13 at 3:08
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Yes you can use cards with magnetic strip in stores in France as most machines are equipped to deal with both chip and magnetic strip cards. You might face a problem in some shops where shopkeepers do not see much cards with magnetic strips, in that case try to explain to them or simply say "la piste magnetique". Also, some automated payment systems like gas stations and ticket machines do not accept magnetic strip cards, so it is essential to keep cash with you at all times.

Sources: justlanded, SlowTravelTalk, Rick Steve's, fodors.

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