The Pros And Cons Of Credit Card Security Revisited

My Road Worrier column on when credit cards go wrong travelling overseas attracted a lot of interesting comments. Here's some further thoughts on the topic, based around my own recent experiences travelling in Europe

Picture by andresrueda

I still think Tesco's blanket refusal to accept a credit card in Britain because their own systems couldn't handle validating overseas chip and PIN systems was a ridiculous position to take (and, as one reader pointed out, a potential violation of its own merchant agreement). However, the responses from readers emphasised one crucial point: it's always sensible to have more than one card with you, just in case something doesn't work. That won't always help — two Australian credit cards in the UK's biggest retailer were no more use than one — but it's not too hard to organise.

Even with that precaution in place, you never know what kind of response you're going to get, especially in a country you haven't visited before. Between Italy, Switzerland and France over the past week, I've seen a range of different responses to Australian PIN-enabled cards, ranging from a no-worries acceptance of the PIN to allowing a transaction without even seeking a signature.

Italy surprised me the most. When I helped a cousin organise a train trip to Italy a couple of years ago, the Trenitalia site was completely incapable of completing a booking against an Australian credit card, and the company's phone booking service couldn't manage it either. Attempting to use it in an actual railway station didn't work; a call to his bank gave the remarkable response that the Italian railways was such a source of fraud that all payments were routinely blocked.

Things seem to have improved dramatically since then. Booking a train ticket at Milan airport, the credit card reader accepted the card and the pin without a problem. Every time I used a card during the visit, it was accepted, and only a handful of locations required a signature rather than a PIN (in the UK, while Tesco was the only company that refused to accept a PIN-free card, everywhere I went wanted a signature to verify transactions). All that suggests that Italy has gone from next-to-useless to performing better than the UK. It was a similar story during a brief sojurn in Switzerland, where every machine encountered accepted a PIN number without problems.

France offered a more mixed experience, though again with no outright rejections. Many retailers required a signature; and one coffee house, disturbingly, required neither PIN nor signature but simply accepted the transaction. That hardly represents best-practice security, and suggests a certain laxness on the part of the card providers in terms of enforcing policy.

Obviously, multiple factors play into whether a card will be accepted and how closely it will be scrutinised, including the banking provider used by the merchant, the age of their equipment, corporate policies and what sort of mood the counter staff are in. Overall, using a credit card in Europe has been mostly trouble-free, but it still seems to me that global operators like Visa and Mastercard should be able to enforce security in a more efficient and consistent manner.

Got your own tips on which countries accept or reject signatures or PINs? Share them in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman thinks credit card companies are irritating for travellers, but at least they're nowhere near as incompetent as Vodafone. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    Having just visited Japan and Hong Kong, I found my VISA card wouldn't let me use a PIN over there. Most of the time a signature was required and several times they didn't even ask for that!

    I carry take a credit card and debit card. that way, I can fall back on an ATM if the credit card doesn't work.

    I was in fiji a couple of weeks ago, and almost all the merchants we went to still used the click clack machines for credit cards, so PIN was pretty much out of the question there.

    I'd suggest steering clear of Westpac if you're worried about CC fraud. In my experience nab and ANZ are quite proactive about suspect transactions, but Westpac make it your problem.

    Im not happy with McDonalds here in australia, they dont ask for a pin or a signature when you purchase food at their outlets


      I've always had to give my PIN or signature at the various Maccas I go to. Perhaps the franchise you're dealing with haven't got their processes up to scratch.

    I am just surprised that nowhere here is mentioned that Austrlian banks charge a flat 3% "exchange rate" on top of the purchased amount if it is not charged in AUD. This is completely outrageous and I tried calling several banks in Australia and all have answered that this is a standard Visa and Mastercards Australia policy. Calling my Europen bank revelaed that neither Visa not Mastercard cahrge these fees.
    So beware, using your AU card abroad most likely incurs and additional 3% exhcange fee on top of the actual exchange rate. I am not sure about Amex, but if they do not charge it is worth looking into for traveling abroad.

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