Have a credit union ATM card? Don’t Make This Mistake When Traveling

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“Reader error” may be the scariest word you will ever see.


Key points

  • Many countries outside the United States no longer use magnetic stripe cards. This includes merchants as well as ATMs.
  • Smaller banks and credit unions in the United States have been slower to adopt EMV chips than larger banks, and your older cards or ATM-only cards may not have the technology.
  • Upgrade to a regular debit card or open a new account for a smart card before you travel to ensure you can access your money abroad.

Thanks to credit cards, modern travel is much less complicated than it used to be. Gone are the days of travelers checks and exchanging hundreds of dollars in cash. Instead, almost anywhere in the world, you’ll be able to use your convenient credit card to pay.

That being said, there are still occasions that require money, like tipping your taxi driver or buying food from a street vendor.

Often the easiest way to get money in another currency is through an ATM. Unfortunately, depending on where you travel – and where you bank – it may not be as simple as swiping your ATM card and making a withdrawal.

Why? This is up to the readers. If your ATM card uses a magnetic stripe to communicate with ATMs, ATMs abroad may not speak the correct language.

Magnetic tapes are then the last decade

For many years, payment cards worked with magnetic stripes that could be swiped through special readers. However, while effective, magnetic stripe cards are ridiculously easy to duplicate, leading to widespread card fraud.

Enter: the EMV chip. The new technology is much harder to duplicate, reducing fraud and improving account security.

Outside of the United States, banks and businesses have quickly adopted the new technology. Before long, EMV chips became common practice for all payment cards, including credit cards, debit cards, and ATM cards.

The United States, on the other hand, has been much slower to implement the switch to fleas. It’s only been a few years since major banks and corporations upgraded their cards and readers to accommodate EMV chips. And some are still late. In particular, small banks and credit unions without the resources of large corporations have fallen behind.

Even if your local credit union or bank has upgraded your cards, you may still have older cards that haven’t gotten their chips yet. Anything on a major card network – Visa, Mastercard, Discover and Amex – can probably be upgraded on demand if it hasn’t been done automatically by your bank. But ATM cards (cards that only work at ATMs, but don’t work for making purchases) may not offer this option.

No chip, no money

In many parts of the world, including the UK and most of Europe, it’s hard to say magnetic stripe cards ever existed. Payment terminals and ATMs don’t just like magnetic stripe cards – they don’t even have the ability to read them at all.

What does this mean for you? Well, if your ATM card doesn’t have a chip, it just won’t work. You can put it in the ATM, but the machine probably won’t even recognize it, let alone let you access your account with it.

When you’re thousands of miles from home and your ATM card is your only key to getting cash, having the machine turn you down can be a kick in the gut. So long before you board your flight, be sure to check your cards for tokens.

If you have an ATM card without a chip, visit your local bank or credit union branch to request an upgrade. Depending on the nature of your account, they may be able to issue you a regular debit card with an appropriate EMV chip that can work overseas.

Certain types of accounts, such as the small savings accounts often required by credit unions to maintain your membership, may not come with an appropriate debit card. In this case, it may be a good idea to open a checking account and transfer the money you want to access when you travel. Checking accounts almost always come with a debit card that works on a major network, and new debit cards must have EMV chips by default.

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