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Background:

US banks, without exception, issue credit cards with magnetic stripes. In Europe, though, almost all credit cards also have a chip and require a PIN.

Most merchants in Europe don't mind swiping an American card with a magnetic stripe. However, many automated machines (at train stations, gas stations, tollbooths) in Europe REQUIRE the chip and pin. This can be extremely frustrating for Americans... instead of getting a train ticket from a machine in 10 seconds, you have to wait on a long line to pay with cash (something that has caused me to miss a train more than once).

For more background, read here.

Now to the question.

Since there are no US banks that issue chip-and-pin credit cards, what is the easiest way to open a bank account in a foreign country that does?

Ideally:

  • I could open the account without being a citizen
  • I could open the account without having a local address, only a US address
  • There was some easy online way to transfer money back and forth to US accounts
  • The whole thing didn't get me arrested and thrown in a prison in a military camp in the carribean
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5  
Sometimes it works, more often it doesn't. I challenge you to buy a train ticket from a machine anywhere in Europe. It was particularly unnerving on a highway in France trying to pay the toll from a machine which didn't take cash at an unattended toll booth... none of my credit cards worked except, oddly, American Express. –  Joel Spolsky Aug 27 '10 at 2:13
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France is a whole other world of pain when it comes to cards. Many things, including certain self-service petrol pumps and toll booths will only accept a France specific 'Carte Bleue'. This is only available if you have a French bank account. Increasing numbers of things take Visa or Mastercard but you can't be sure you'll succeed in paying anything without a CB. –  MJeffryes Aug 27 '10 at 8:27
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I must say, we all would be horrible at money laundering. We can't even figure out how to do off-shore accounts for legitimate purposes. –  David Pfeffer Aug 27 '10 at 12:23
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Didn't American Express offer a chip and PIN version of the blue card? The card I have today has the contact-less transaction thingy, but I recall getting a card reader for my PC for the previous model. –  duffbeer703 Aug 31 '10 at 11:36
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As of today, NO American credit or debit cards from any banks have Chip and PIN, with the exception of the UN Employee Credit Union, and you have to be a UN Employee to get that. –  Joel Spolsky Dec 10 '10 at 17:52

15 Answers 15

Open an offshore account in a Bank in Jersey. Mime is with lloydstsb-offshore.com. It will cost you £70 a year, but for that price you can get 3 accounts: one in $, one in £ and one in €. You can move money between the accounts without any cost and you can have a chip and pin card on both the Euro and the £ accounts.

And there is no residency restrictions.

Downsides: The anti laundering checks are annoying. Don't forget to tell the IRS about every single cent you get in interest and religiously pay your tax on it. The revenue service doesn't like people with off-shore accounts...

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+1 for "Don't forget to tell the IRS ...". :-) –  Chris W. Rea Aug 27 '10 at 12:55
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I actually tried opening an offshore account in Jersey... they rejected my application without explanation. I assume it's because I only wanted to deposit a smallish amount, and their target market is british expats in Dubai who use the account much more heavily than I would. FWIW the fees associated with these accounts were insane compared to what I'm used to with American checking accounts. –  Joel Spolsky Sep 14 '10 at 3:28
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Oh, well, was worth a try. Sorry it didn't help. –  eric Sep 15 '10 at 10:40

Update, 2013: this product is no longer available.

As of December 1, 2010, Travelex announced a product, the Travelex Cash Passport, which is chip-and-pin protected.

You can buy it in the US and then load it up with either Euros or British Pounds.

There are a few things to know about this:

  • Right now, it is not available online at the Travelex website. You must purchase it in person at participating Travelex retail locations. I bought mine right downstairs from the Stack Overflow world headquarters!

  • The fees that Travelex charges for foreign currency transactions will take your breath away. I purchased a £300 card for $547.15, which comes out to a 15% service charge. Travelex will give you better rates if you purchase larger amounts. There is a further 3% fee if you use a credit card (I used a debit card to avoid this).

  • Think long and hard about whether to load it with Pounds or Euros. They charged me 5.5% above the interbank exchange rate to spend my Pound card in Euros.

  • You get two cards, which is very convenient.

  • You can refill the card on the web.

Due to the high fees, the Chip and PIN Cash Passport is not a good idea for everyday transactions, for getting cash from an ATM, and certainly not for paying for big-ticket items like hotels. You're going to want to reserve it for purchasing things from those automated kiosks in Europe (especially gas stations, ticket machines in train stations, and toll booths) that will not work with a standard magnetic stripe card.

The card worked perfectly buying tickets on the tube in London. I haven't had a chance to check it out in other countries.

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They just came out with a new product with a chip and pin businesswire.com/news/home/20101201006404/en/… –  Vitalik Dec 1 '10 at 22:35
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If you lose it, do you lose your money? –  Michael Pryor Dec 2 '10 at 0:20
    
Looks like you get free replacement according to this: us.travelex.com/US/Products/Cash-Passport by the way it's not available in all states. Tried it for Connecticut and it said it's unavailable but works for NY –  Vitalik Dec 2 '10 at 12:37
    
No, if you lose it you do not lose your money. –  Joel Spolsky Dec 10 '10 at 16:39
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Update: Product seems to be withdrawn from the US market. –  MSalters Mar 25 '13 at 12:11

Your best shot in terms of credit card "compatibility" would probably be a very large private European Bank, like Deutsche Bank, HSCB or the like issueing a MasterCard. In England it is quite difficult to get an account without being a resident, but I think HSBC offers a so called "Passport" account to non-residents with all the usual cards and benefits, even overdraft, but it's probably expensive.

I think you underestimate how heterogeneous the banking world in Europe is. There are plenty of different local systems in each country. France has it's custom CB system and Germany has a system called GiroPay and a cashless system called GeldKarte (which no one really uses).
Even if you have a Mastercard or Visa with pin from a European bank, there is no guarantee that it'll work everywhere reliably. I remember my German housemate having loads of trouble with his amazon.de Mastercard in England.
In addition, you will most likely be charged for paying with your CC and ATM/Cashpoint withdrawals in any other country. Fees can range up to 3% for a transaction.

So ideally you profile which European country you travel to the most and set up the account there. You should also look for cooperations between certain European banks. I remember Barclays and Deutsche Bank cooperating.

On a side note: I'm still amazed by how backwards some banking systems are, e.g. the English. I've been using secure (pin/tan) online-banking in Germany for over 10 years. Transfers are quick, international transfers are free, as long as they are in Euro etc. Everything runs pretty smooth. Not so in England, you need to confirm online transactions over the phone (wtf?) and your only security is a pin and memorable information. Inter-bank transfers, if not set up online, cost up to 30 pounds, even though I could just go to the other bank, draw the cash there and pay it in to the account for free. International transfers start at 20 quid etc.

I could hardly imagine, living in a cheque reliant system like the states anymore.

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Update:
Here is a Google Docs spreadsheet that is actively maintained and editable. It contains a list of EMV credit cards. With a few exceptions (UN, existing BMO Diners Club cardholders, employees of the state of North Carolina), it still looks like the Travelex card is the best option for most people.


Original answer:
The premise of the question may now be outdated. I have found internet articles claiming 4 US banks will now issue Chip and PIN cards. Specifically:

The Chase link is for their British Airways card, which multiple sources say is really Chip and Signature (leaving it there so no one else suggests it). The Citi link is to specific chip and PIN information. I could not find specific information for the other two. I have a question into my bank (US Bank) and will update when they get back to me. In looking into this, some of the chip and PIN links I followed ended up being chip and signature, so as always, be careful.

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I am most interested in Chip and Pin card for travel to France later this year where we will take an extensive road trip and will need ability to pay tolls and get gas with card. The link above to Chase does indicate CHIP but does not indicate PIN. I believe that this article on Bankrate does indicate that the card is Chip and Signature, unfortunately. bankrate.com/financing/credit-cards/chase-to-offer-chip-and-pin –  user5841 Feb 26 '12 at 15:16
    
Updated. Found a link to a flyertalk forum with someone claiming to be an actual card holder and saying it is chip and signature. –  Joel Rondeau Feb 26 '12 at 23:13

The easiest way is almost definitely through a Canadian bank. They can get your American credit history through Equifax. American Express in Canada will have no problem giving you one if you have an American Express in the US, as well. It would be easier if you went through TD Canada Trust since there's TD Bank NA in the States, or BMO since they own Harris Bank in the States. Oh, and doesn't Bank of America have Canadian branches?

I'm in the process of doing the reverse (getting US card when I'm from Canada). I use XE Trade to transfer money -- the rates are great and it takes only 2 days for a transfer to go through if you use wire transfers ($25 charge) or online bill payment through the bank (free).

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Are you sure that canadian banks would open bank accounts for Americans with US addresses? Many of them appear to require canadian citizenship and a canadian address. –  Joel Spolsky Aug 27 '10 at 2:27
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I'm sure that BMO would, at least. Harris Bank let me open an account with a Canadian address. –  Matthew Read Aug 27 '10 at 2:28
    
Most of the major Canadian Banks have expanded into the US to some degree (e.g., Royal Bank operates as "RBC Bank" in the US - rbcbankusa.com). You might even be able to open a card in US funds. –  BIBD Aug 27 '10 at 4:04
    
RBC and TD have US branches, but every time I've asked they've always said "we're not affiliated with the Canadian ones" and give no special treatment. I haven't heard of any Bank of America branches in Canada, though that doesn't rule them out. –  Craig Walker Aug 27 '10 at 5:45
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There's also HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) which has divisions in Canada and the US; and CitiBank and ING Direct. And I could have sworn I saw a Wells Fargo sign a block up from my office. –  Ether Aug 31 '10 at 3:28

CitiBank offers a chip card. It's not a chip and pin, but a chip and sign, however it worked well for my all transations. Just call and ask for a 'world credit card' with a chip.

https://creditcards.citi.com/credit-cards/citi-thankyou-premier-card/

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without a PIN, did you use it in automated machines? Esp. ticket machines at train stations, gas pumps, etc.? –  Joel Spolsky Oct 9 '12 at 1:25

While in London for a month about a year ago, I had similar issues. I ended up getting a prepaid chip-and-pin card that was filled with cash. I don't remember the retailer that sold me this, but I figure it'll give you something to start your search.

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I think you can get a FairFX prepaid Mastercard for free if you come to their site from an appropriate link. Also allows buying of RyanAir tickets without an inexplicable five pound charge per seat per leg. –  Tom Hawtin - tackline Dec 10 '10 at 17:11

As someone who spends a lot of time in France, I learned that many French banks will issue debit cards to US citizens, as an add-on feature to a bank account. The fees are not low. Societe Generale charges 8 Euros per month, Credit Agricole charges 30 Euros a year, BNP Paribas charges 12 Euros a month. I'm sure other banks will issue cards as well. You need to show 2 items proving US residence, such as a utility bill, plus a passport. They can open an account immediately, on that basis and it takes about 7-10 days to get your debit card.

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Many European countires allow you to an account for non-residents. You have to appear in the bank personally to open it, some of them even to get your own tax number for non-residents from the local government. I'm not sure if you get a Visa (Electron) chip card immediatelly or you have to wait for like 3 months before being issued one. I've heard that getting a tax number for non-residents and opening a bank account is easily done in one day in Brezice, Republic of Slovenia. They seem to have agile local bureaucracy and banks, since many pople from neighbouring (non-EU) countries (used to) come there to open an EU bank account. Funds can be transfered via Internet banking - US banks have that, do they? SWIFT and IBAN codes are used for international money transfer. But it takes some time (days!) for it to arrive to destination. Tansfers below $20000 per month or per transaction are considered normal, but for amouts above that the destination bank might ask you to explain the purpose, to prove it is not illegal. Some of them accept the explanaiton in writing (they forward it to the regulator that tracks such large transfers), some of them ask you to appear there in person for an interview and to sign a statement. Can't believe US banks are still issuing paing magnet stripe cards like it's still 1980s. I'd expect Europe to be 10 years behind USA in technology, but this seems to be a weird reverse. I've beed using Internet banking with one-time passwd tokens and TAN lists for almost 10 years, and chip cards exclusivley for over 5y. Can't remeber the last time I've seen mag stripe card only. American Express (event the regular green one) got the chip at least 5 years ago. And it is accepted regularly in Europe. Alegedly it's more popular in Europe (although Mastercard is a definite #1, with Visa close to that) that in USA.

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A more updated answer: USAA is an American bank offering chip and pin credit cards to US customers. USAA membership is restricted to military service members and their relatives, but according to this Los Angeles Times article, you do not need to be a USAA member to get a USAA chip and pin credit card.

I'm a USAA member and can testify that my USAA chip and pin MasterCard worked in Europe, so assuming nonmembers get the same kind of card, it will work. However, it's worth noting that for it to work, the place still has to accept MasterCard, which seems somewhat less common in Europe than in the USA. (In Germany in particular, I was rather baffled to find that many places only accept some other European bank cards but not MasterCard/VISA.)

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There are a number of companies that will issue pre-paid chip and pin Mastercards this is probably the easiest way to deal with the issue. Most of them are limited to UK residents but with a very quick google I found this one

http://public.neteller.com/content/en_US/cards_index.htm

which seems to be open to US residents. I have no experience of using this company but when I googled "chip and pin usa pre paid credit card" they came up.

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"they're no longer open to Americans. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…; from @patrikr's answer –  Alex B Aug 27 '10 at 16:42
    
I think the -1 is a little unfair as a) their site says they are still open to Americans and b) my answer was essentially "get a pre-paid Mastercard" lots of companies do them –  Alex Andronov Aug 27 '10 at 20:33
    
They're no longer open to Americans. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… [migrated from answer by mod] –  patrikr Jan 13 '11 at 16:58

http://www.andrewsfcu.org/ is one of the only US financial institutions to issue a low or no annual fee chip and pin visa or mastercard.. Andrews is primarily for civilian employees of the Andrews Air Force Base but is available to members of the American Consumer Council, which offers free membership, see http://www.andrewsfcu.org/page.php?page=330 .

The chip and pin card is a visa with $0 annual fee and charges a 1% foreign transaction fee.

Getting one is modestly difficult because you have to first join the credit union then apply for the card, then go through underwriting as if it were a personal loan rather than a revolving credit account. Still, for travelers, it is probably worth it.

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Here is a link to the announcement document. It is called the GlobeTrek card in that document, and it calls the Chip & PIN EMV Technology. –  Brian B Feb 27 '12 at 19:57

You could get a prepaid Visa card. You don't need a bank account and at least here in Australia you just buy them over the counter at the post office.

I believe the U.K. has a similar card: Travel Money Card Plus from the Post Office. The card requires a UK passport or driving license.

Other European countries may have similar prepaid cards but may also require resident status and electronic identity / credit inquiry.

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<< UWCFS Quick CARD >> denominated in Euros € steps

  1. open account via scanning in passport and address takes 5 days.
  2. notarize documents, have county clerk verify notary, get apostille from state ...
  3. send in passport and address documents via post
  4. after approval get access to UWCFS WEB and FX accounts
  5. apply for EURO Quick Card
  6. takes approximately 3-5 weeks
  7. receive Chip and PIN Euro Card =)
  8. Top Off at Barclays or Post Office =)
  9. Post deposits via IBAN/BACS/ACH/EFT =)

Fees are here (question 1).

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Ridiculously expensive card, compared to the Travelex cash cards. +1 for the relevant info, -1 for the very expensive solution. There are much better options that this. –  littleadv Feb 6 '12 at 20:08

Found another one. Not sure if they ship to US

http://www.iceplc.com/

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