Please have patience with me as I am very confused about all of this and feeling a bit overwhelmed.

I am about to leave for a year around the world trip (including mostly Europe, South America, Africa and Asia) and I am wanting to have a debit card that will work "wherever" I go.

I am understanding that a "chip and pin" card is needed in Europe. I would like to find a local bank (I am based out of Olympia, WA) that can offer this feature to me. I am also looking for an account that has no foreign transaction fees and no ATM fee charge coming from their end. I know I have to expect to pay for the local ATM fee, of course. And I have found accounts that have these features, but do not feature a chip.

I am also seeing now that most chip enabled cards in the US are "chip and signature" which is also confusing to me.

Can someone please explain in a simple way all of this to me? and maybe help me find a suitable card? I would be very grateful.

  • 2
    I don't know the exact status of all this in the US so I will let someone else answer but note that a chip&pin card is not needed in Europe. You can still get cash, pay hotels, etc. with any visa or mastercard branded card. The main sticking point is going to be vending machines for public transportation (of which there are many in Europe). They cannot be used without chip&pin and the alternative (buying tickets from a real human at a desk) is usually more expensive and/or less convenient (limited hours, waiting times, etc.)
    – Relaxed
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 22:35
  • 2
    AFAIK, no US banks are offering chip&PIN. Chip&signature means that you insert the card the same but instead of asking you to enter your PIN code, it'll print out a duplicate receipt and the merchant will ask you to sign it. My experience in Europe is that this works fine, EXCEPT in automated kiosks at train and subway stations and such.
    – DoxyLover
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 22:37
  • This question is a little on the broad side for this site. I would start with articles like Chip-and-PIN vs. Chip-and-Signature at CardHub or Chip and PIN? at the LA Times, then return here when you can narrow down "all of this" to something more focused.
    – choster
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 22:55
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    @DoxyLover There are a few US institutions offering chip and PIN but they are few and far between. As you noted, most are doing chip and signature, which is useless. And some haven't even gotten around to doing the chip yet, like the replacement card I just received last week... Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 23:42
  • There are also some US credit card companies offering chip and PIN credit cards (and all the nice benefits you asked for like no foreign transaction fees). You might consider getting one of these and having it paid from your existing bank account. Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 23:44

2 Answers 2


The key difference between the US bank's "chip & signature" and the "chip & pin cards used in Europe is the verification aspect when you make a purchase. Both cards have an embedded microchip which carries the necessary data for the credit card and user, much the same way the older magnetic stripes did.

With a "chip & pin" card, once the card is inserted into the credit card terminal, the customer has to enter their PIN to verify they are the authorized user of that card. The terminal then prints out only a receipt.

With the the US "chip & signature" cards, there is no PIN required, rather the terminal prints out a signature slip, same as credit card systems have done in the past, for the customer to sign that they are the authorized user.

Fortunately the majority of credit card machines recognize and accept both kinds of chip cards. And will automatically handle the card the correct way, which may surprise the occasional clerk in Europe or Canada, when their machine suddenly prints out a slip to be signed. (I have gotten into the habit of asking, if by chance the clerk doesn't hand me a slip to be signed, saves them grief from accounting later on ;-)

The only places that the US card are a pita is at automated kiosks that sell things like bus tickets or movie tickets. Those machines only accept chip & pin cards as a security measure.

As far as which bank, most US banks offer "chip & signature" cards, though staff at smaller branches may not know about them as there is little demand. I hear rumors that some banks have "chip & pin", but I have never been able to find one (I think many folks get a chip & signature card with an ATM pin and then assume it is a chip & pin, but they don't work that way).

I have both credit cards and check debit cards from a variety of US financial institutions, that are all chip & signature and use them all over the world (literally) without issue.

Tips about ATMs and cash advances, bring a check card / debit card either Visa or MasterCard to use for getting cash from your account. A credit card will charge you interest from the moment you take the cash, irregardless of whether you pay it off or not before the due date. A debit card simply deducts the cash from your account. Most major US bank debit cards now carry the same level of protection against fraud as do credit cards.

Also getting a cash advance inside the bank instead of withdrawing through the ATM may avoid ATM fees by both your hometown bank (they treat is as a purchase) and the withdrawing bank. It is a loophole that Visa/MC haven't plugged yet ;-)

  • 1
    Most chip cards I've seen do not use RFID. RFID supports wireless "tap and pay" systems, whereas the wired chips now being introduced in the US, and long prevalent in Europe, require the card to be inserted into a card reader.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 4:20
  • OK wrong technical term ... been edited.
    – user13044
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 5:05

I noticed you mentioned a debit card. The most compatibility you will find will be for credit cards; especially if you plan on doing a lot of ATM transactions.

At point-of-sale terminals - depending on where you are in the world, your debit card may or may not work.

For many years now, debit cards issued in the US (even before the chip+signature and chip+pin were introduced) were configured so that they use the credit network for transaction. These were sometimes called "check cards". You can usually tell these apart because they will have embossed (raised) lettering, and a hologram of the network. They look just like credit cards; except they work directly against your account balance. If you have one of these cards, they will will work wherever the equivalent credit cards are accepted - so where you see VISA/MasterCard accepted, your card will work.

The networks to avoid are Diners and AmericanExpress. There is nothing wrong with these cards, but they are not as universally accepted as VISA/MasterCard.

For most Point-of-Sale and ATM transactions, you don't have to worry about the CHIP+PIN part. The reason being, it is up to your bank to authorize transactions - so if your bank accepts (authorizes) the transaction, then it will go through.

For automated vending machines, paying for transportation - your card may be denied if the country is working on CHIP+PIN. These automated devices do not support CHIP+Sign; some even prohibit magstripe-only transactions.

Therefore, I would recommend:

  1. Getting a CHIP+PIN card; or enabling your existing card for CHIP+PIN; on some banks you can do this online.

  2. Get a card that has either a fixed exchange rate; or fixed ATM/transaction fees. Your biggest cost will be these when doing transactions overseas.

  3. You may find that a separate credit card might give you better options.

  • I don't think you need to avoid Amex, but don't rely on it completely. They are accepted in most larger places and unlike Visa or MC, if the place says it accepts Amex your card will work there no matter where it was issued, whether it is chip and pin or signature or whatever. I often find my Amex card works in vending machines abroad when none of my visa or MC cards do, making it quite useful in that respect!
    – Calchas
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 23:52

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