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It'll be my first Western European (France, Switzerland, and Italy) travel. I already have a MasterCard debit card, but I heard that having a credit card is beneficial for security.

While I found one that sounds good to me, it is issued as a virtual card only. I'm wondering if not having a physical card can be a problem. I think I can use Samsung Pay against card readers (MST I presume?) to use the virtual card, but I can't be sure since I never tried it in other countries.

Is it risky not to have a physical credit card when traveling Europe?

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    @Doc I'm from South Korea Oct 19 at 15:26
  • Whatever card you use: Inform the issuer of your travel plans in advance or you may find yourself cut off from your funds because they suspect fraud. Oct 20 at 8:38
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Oct 20 at 8:46
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"Europe" is a big place. The situation regarding acceptance is going to vary significantly depending where you are.

Where I am in Germany, contactless payments (either with a card, or mobile phone-based system) are widely accepted, but far from universal. There is still a small but significant number of shops, cafes, and restaurants where a physical card would be required (indeed, some where cash would be required). I'd consider it a significant advantage to have a physical card for any trip here.

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  • Sorry for the ambiguous question. I clarified the countries I planned to visit. Your answer confirmed my concern. Thank you! Oct 19 at 9:19
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    Hotels often have stricter rules about what you use when you check in (to book future expenses against), and may prefer a physical credit card. I'm not sure if they can even use a virtual card for this.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 19 at 9:28
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    @Alexandre: These limits don't apply to mobile payments since you are required to authenticate by unlocking the phone (at least in Finland).
    – Lll
    Oct 20 at 6:50
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    @AlexandreAubrey yes, NFC-based 'phone "virtual" cards are susceptible to skimming too, although you do need to have the phone unlocked. For physical cards, you can use a Faraday cage wallet to provide protection against skimming. Oct 20 at 12:16
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    @vsz it's more to keep someone from stealing the physical card and making large purchases. For larger purchases I need to insert the chip and enter my PIN, for tap I just need physical access to the card. Thieves aren't walking around with card readers... at least not for long if they try - credit card transactions are just about the most traceable thing imaginable. Oct 20 at 14:18
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Having only a virtual card puts you one dropped/stolen phone away from having real trouble paying for things, possibly rather important things. Even a flat battery can make life difficult.

I'd say that's the biggest risk.

If you have an existing card (e.g. your debit card) that's expensive to use abroad but reliable for emergency use, you might* be OK with your primary on your phone. But as you mention France and Italy, cash will be useful too - probably not essential, but certainly useful (apparently also in Switzerland).

Further, it depends on the nature of the trip. If everything is prepaid and you're not hiring cars, you have more chance of getting away without a physical credit card. Hotels that allow charging to the room (and even some budget ones that don't) take credit card details on arrival to cover charges etc. I wouldn't like to rely on a virtual card for those. Some prepaid tickets and bookings expect to see the original card used for the booking. As an example, until recently, train ticket collection machines in the UK required the physical card to be inserted (no contactless support; the ticket office could help when it's open, if you speak the language).

Note that cash can be useful too in some circumstances. Small businesses may not accept cards (or may have minimum card transaction limits, or prefer cash). This is especially true for things like markets and if you're visiting sparsely-populated areas without the connectivity required for cards - just where you might want a souvenir, or have little-to-no choice of where to eat.


* But deposits for things like hire cars and some hotels really do want a credit card so whether a debit card will serve as backup depends on the trip. These are the same places that may not be able/willing to take a virtual card.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Oct 20 at 12:49
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There’s quite a few reasons why only having a virtual card may not be a good idea:

  • There are probably still a few places where they have a POS terminal which does not accept contactless. It is becoming quite rare, but in places where amounts are nearly always over the limit for contactless, they have little incentive to change.

  • In some places terminals or the POS system beside it do not activate the contactless feature if the amount is over the current local limit for physical contactless cards. Haven’t seen the case recently, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it still existed.

  • Phones need batteries. And they always run out when you’re travelling.

  • The credit card is also your backup to draw cash from an ATM. No contactless there in the vast majority of cases.

  • In some places like hotels, they still like to see the physical card with a name on it and blah blah. A holdout of the days before 3D secure or chip and pin, but habits stick.

  • “Contacless payment failed. Please insert card”. I kid you not, I’ve seen these kind of messages (common with a physical contactless card) even when paying with Apple Pay.

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    @Nico my experience in Germany is the same as yours - large payments require a PIN, but that doesn't mean the card has to be inserted.
    – Chris H
    Oct 20 at 10:40
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    @jcaron: "it's the chip in the card which verifies [the PIN]" is only true for offline verification. In online verification the card processing network verifies it (not a plaintext copy but a challenge-response between the processing network and payment terminal)
    – Ben Voigt
    Oct 20 at 15:51
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    @jcaron: Most USA card issuers only support online PIN verification, which causes a fairly well-known problem when traveling and trying to use chip+PIN at bus and train kiosks.
    – Ben Voigt
    Oct 20 at 16:08
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    @jcaron Yes, it is possible to enter the PIN directly after tapping the card without having to insert it in the terminal (see my earlier comments). The PIN is then verified online (this is a separate cardholder verification method). I have personnally seen and experienced it multiple times with European chip and PIN cards but I think it's up to the card issuer to allow it or not.
    – Relaxed
    Oct 21 at 6:19
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    You might want to spell out POS - I assume you mean Point Of Sale, but another meaning would fit equally well here Oct 21 at 10:51
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Apart from the other answers, which are really good already, there is a very important additional point. At least in Germany, there are vendors (even supermarkets!) that DO NOT ACCEPT credit cards of any brand. They may have wireless POS capabilities, but only accept "GiroCard" or Maestro. Make sure you ask beforehand or have enough cash on you.

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There are many good answers already, and having had my troubles with cards throughout Europe, let me try to put forth another answer.

You mentioned you are from South Korea, so I assume your bank is also based there.

More often than not, paying with a credit card incurs some extra fees that debit cards do not. Check with your bank if that's the case. I have yet to see a super market that didn't have contactless payments in the past few years, so I think your debit card is fine. However, many vending machines and ticket machines sometimes require you to insert the physical card, so Samsung/Apple Pay might not be an option there.

However, with a credit card, it's bank's money that you use first, and comes with better protection against stolen/skimmed cards. I personally never had any problems, but a friend of mine had some money taken from her card. We were in Germany, and the charge was made in Bosnia, and it was easy to inform the bank and reverse the charge a few weeks later.

Car rentals, in-flight purchases, etc. often require a credit card, and I highly doubt Samasung/Apple pay can help anyone there.

Contactless payments also often have a lower limit. Sometimes it requires the card holder to enter the PIN, or sometimes to downright insert the physical card.


With all that said, I think your best option would be to obtain a physical debit card, a credit card, and setup your phone with both of them. This way, you can have all the backups you need. Pay with your phone when it works, with debit cards otherwise, and use the credit card if you were to rent a car. If the credit card company does not charge a fee for foreign transactions, use the credit card whenever you can.

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There are a lot of good answers, so I will refrain from repeating those points, it's established well why a physical card is beneficial. I'd contribute to the kind of physical card you should have, as not every vendor is supported. In Europe, you should be good with with MasterCard or VISA, as it is widely accepted, other than e.g. AmericanExpress or others.

As you already have a MasterCard debit card, one could say there is no further benefit in having a MasterCard credit card purely from a technological compatibility perspective. However, as others mentioned, there are a few services that require a credit card, most prominent are car rentals and also some hotels. If you have booked everything in that regard, your debit card could suffice.

However, you should definitely consider having cash on you at all times, not much but enough to handle minor situations without inconvenience. You want a scoop of ice cream from the stand around the corner? They will probably only take cash. You need a bottle of water while in a park? Mostly probably only cash. You might also be unlucky with e.g. getting a taxi in non-metropolitan areas and the list goes on, so keep at least around ~50€/CHF in your pocket for emergencies.

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The question I'd ask, is whether you will encounter any places that will take a virtual card but not a physical one?

I suspect not, as of today. In which case the virtual card has no advantage and some possible disadvantage.

I travel with four cards, all physical. Visa credit, Mastercard Credit, spare credit card to lock in the hotel safe in case the others get stolen, and a currency card. The last (Wise brand) is like a local currency debit card to use. The advantage is that you convert between currencies in advance (can be just a short while in advance, through your mobile phone) and the exchange rates are better than with the credit cards. Anyway, whatever mayhem might occur with computer networks or pickpockets, I've still got something that I can pay with!

Ccredit cards do have an edge should you ever need to dispute anything. The legal framework is that the card issuer has to prove that you owe them the money (in the UK. Other jurisdictions may vary). With a debit card the money is plain gone, not still in your bank and disputably owed to a card company. So I'd never pay for a future service with a debit card.

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  • "In which case the virtual card has no advantage and some possible disadvantage." I think that the advantage that the virtual card offers is that it'll remain available to you if the bag or wallet it's stored in goes missing on the plane.
    – nick012000
    Oct 22 at 12:07
  • My physical cards live in my pocket. They've never gone astray except when my pocket got picked (not at airport). If a virtual card goes astray, it presumably means your phone is stolen. Isn't a phone a higher value target to a thief? Also a phone can break down or suffer a flat battery.
    – nigel222
    Oct 22 at 13:40
  • "My physical cards live in my pocket." Many women carry them in their purses, and it's entirely possible for those to wind up in luggage and going walkabout on the plane. By contrast, you digital card lives on the cloud, so even if your phone goes missing, you just need to buy a new phone and you're good to go.
    – nick012000
    Oct 22 at 17:01
  • I wonder, how do you go about buying a replacement phone with a virtual card if you don't have a phone to access the cloud? As for women not having pockets, might this be a gap in the travel apparel market for some company to fill? A card-sized pocket might be possible where a more normal-sized pocket isn't.
    – nigel222
    Oct 26 at 9:16

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