How Can I Upgrade to a Chip Card Before a Trip to Europe?

By Cathleen McCarthyLifestyle and

Dear Cashing In,

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My wife and I will be traveling in Europe in August 2013 for about three weeks. I've pretty well decided I need at least one card with a chip, either signature or PIN. My problem is I already have two Visas (credit union, Chase Coldwater Creek [wife]), one MasterCard (Sears/Citi), and three American Express cards (Costco, Blue Sky and Delta).

I really don't want another credit card and if I do get one, I would only use it where I can't use an existing card. Is there any way to upgrade one of these cards? I've already checked with American Express and the credit union, and the answer is, "No, it is really not needed." My response to that is really not printable. I'm 99% sure that I'd get the same response from Sears Citi MasterCard and Chase. Any ideas or options? 

- John

Dear John,

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You're smart to be taking steps before your trip, because you may well find yourself in a situation where your magnetic-stripe credit cards just won't work. If you're telling customer service that you're traveling to Europe and they're responding that chip cards are not needed, I don't blame you for being frustrated.

Europe began adopting chip-and-PIN cards in 2004 and now more than 80 countries use them. As you've pointed out, it's getting more and more inconvenient to be caught without at least one chip card overseas. Many kiosks in Europe and parts of Asia simply don't acknowledge magnetic-stripe cards anymore. U.S. card issuers are starting to come around, however, including Bank of America, Chase and Citi.

Even though American Express and the credit union shot you down, I would still try Citi and Chase. Both have cards with chip technology targeting customers who travel overseas. Citi introduced the Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa Signature card last summer, for example. A chip-and-signature card such as the HHonors Visa requires a signature, not a PIN, but will be accepted in most overseas destinations as long as you don't travel too far off the beaten path.

It's possible chip technology is not available yet for the particular cards you carry. Both your Citi and Chase cards are co-branded with U.S. retailers (Sears and Coldwater Creek), which aren't as pressured to be traveler-friendly as rewards cards co-branded with an international hotel chain, such as Hilton.

You have nothing to lose by contacting Citi and Chase customer service, but you may have better luck taking your quest to the Web. Most banks that issue credit cards have Twitter-based customer service and I find them more responsive and less time-consuming than phone centers, possibly because they're dealing with customer complaints in public and are thus motivated to resolve them quickly.

Some Citi cardholders have reported that the bank has been willing to upgrade their MasterCards to chip-and-signature cards, usually after they tweeted about it with the tag @AskCiti. To ask about your Chase cards, use @ChaseSupport. While you're at it, you could try again with @AskAmEx as well. Generally, you'll be asked, via Twitter, to follow the Twitter account of the customer service department you've tagged so they can DM (direct message) you and then hook you up with someone from customer service.

If it turns out that the cards you're carrying don't have a PIN upgrade available and you're determined not to take on another credit card, you may consider a work-around. Travelex's Cash Passport is a prepaid card that can be loaded with euros, British pounds and other European currencies. The company is no longer selling the cards in the U.S., but you may be able to purchase one when you get to Europe at a Travelex office.

See related: American travelers' guide to chip-and-PIN cards, How to solve credit card problems through Twitter