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When traveling in other countries, I frequently feel a little behind the times when it comes to paying with credit cards. I watch Europeans in sidewalk cafes pay for their drinks and meals almost effortlessly when waiters insert their credit cards into small mobile EMV processors, then ask customers to input their PIN and/or a tip. Lately. I’ve seen them “tap to pay” at these terminals. Easy breezy! When I try to do that with my U.S-issued credit card, it’s a problem. Waiters have to take the time to print out a tiny, curled up receipt and ask me to sign it. Whyyyy?

On recent trips to Canada and Australia, I’ve watched locals there tap their credit cards to pay for just about anything—from meals and groceries to shoes or snacks. Just a tap is all it takes. But when I pull out my US-issued credit card, it feels like I go back in time. The clerk has to print out a receipt that I must sign. Then there’s the question about whether I want to pay in local or U.S. currency, or to leave a tip. The whole process seems so unwieldy and slow. I feel singled out as a bumbling American.


And don’t get me started on how I can’t use my credit card to buy train tickets from kiosks in most other countries. Last time I was in Ireland, I queued up with locals to buy ticket for a train trip between Dublin and Belfast on a cold Sunday morning. Everyone was in a rush because the train was departing shortly. When it was my turn, I dipped my card into the reader, ready to speed through the transaction but the machine declined it and told me to see the attendant. So I tried again as folks behind me huffed and puffed as the train’s departure approached. Again, it declined. Of course, on Sunday morning, the manned ticket counter was not yet open. I did not have time to find an ATM to withdraw euros. So I missed the early train to Belfast and later bought a ticket from the attendant—which required a signature from me. Arrgh.


According to Visa, so-called contactless payments are much more prevalent outside the U.S., comprising about 70 percent of all face-to-face transactions in Europe, and about 40 percent worldwide, outside the US. In Canada, nearly 70% of transactions that are less than $50 occur with a tap of a card. In Poland, nearly every checkout terminal in the country is now tap-to-pay capable. In Costa Rica, more than 80% of checkout terminals allow customers to tap to pay. In Sydney, Australia commuters and tourists can tap to pay for rides on the city’s train network. (Exciting: Transit payment technology is advancing quickly- soon we’ll be able to tap to pay at subway turnstiles, bypassing ticketing kiosks altogether in New York City. London Tube turnstiles are now tap-capable  and it’s coming to Rio de Janeiro later this year. No word yet on whether we’ll see it in the Bay Area.)


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In the U.S., adoption of contactless payments is slower. (Visa will only say that the current rate of adoption is “low.”) But that’s changing. This year Chase, the largest issuer of credit cards in the US is rolling out contactless cards, and Visa expects nearly 100 million Visa contactless cards to be in use. But we’ll need a place to tap-to-pay with those cards, so merchants are rapidly adopting the new technology, too. Right now, you are most likely to find tap-to-pay terminals at fast food restaurants or pharmacies. Some big retailers like Target are getting on the bandwagon, too. (Disclosure: Visa is a sponsor of TravelSkills on SFGate.)

But how do you know if your credit card offers the contactless option? Look on the back for the tap-to -pay logo. If you don’t see the logo, call the number on the back of your card and ask to be sent a contactless capable card. (I just did so and I have two new tap-capable cards on the way.) Chase has published this list of credit cards that currently have contactless capabilities—most of these are the airline-affiliated cards that travelers use most. Most American Express and Mastercard cards are now contactless capable, too. You can also load your credit cards onto smartphones equipped with electronic wallet apps (like ApplePay or AndroidPay) to go contactless. Similarly, look for the tap-to-pay logo when paying at merchants and try tapping instead of inserting next time.



In the U.S., we have quickly made the transition from mag-striped cards to chip cards over the last five years. Whether or not those chip card transactions require a signature or a PIN is still a gray area both here and abroad. This year, we may leapfrog from chips, PINS and signatures to contactless tapping. And eventually, we may not need a card at all as we use our smartphones, watches, rings or keys with NFC capabilities to pay for just about everything.

Have you tried tapping to pay yet? Loaded up your credit cards in a digital wallet on your smart phone? Felt like a bumbling American when paying in other countries? Please leave your thoughts in the comments. 

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Chris McGinnis is the founder of TravelSkills.com. The author is solely responsible for the content above, and it is used here by permission. You can reach Chris at chris@travelskills.com or on Twitter @cjmcginnis.






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