Have an ATM Card from a Credit Union? Don’t Make This Mistake When You Travel

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“Reader error” may be the scariest words you’ll ever see.

Key points

  • Many countries outside the US no longer use cards with magnetic stripes. This includes merchants as well as ATMs.
  • Smaller banks and credit unions in the US have been slower to adopt EMV chips than larger banks, and your older cards or ATM-only cards may not have the technology.
  • Ask for an upgrade to a regular debit card or open a new account to get a chip-enabled card before traveling to ensure you can access your cash abroad.

Thanks to credit cards, modern travel is far less complicated than it used to be. Gone are the days of traveler’s checks and exchanging hundreds of dollars in cash. Instead, nearly everywhere in the world will let you use your handy-dandy credit card to pay.

That being said, there are still occasions that call for cash, like tipping your cabbie or buying food from a street vendor.

Often, the easiest way to get cash in another currency is to use 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? It comes down to the readers. If your ATM card uses a magnetic stripe to talk to the machines, ATMs abroad may not speak the right language.

Magnetic stripes are i know last decade

For many years, payment cards operated thanks to magnetic stripes that you could swipe through special readers. While effective, however, magnetic stripe cards are laughably easy to duplicate, leading to widespread card fraud.

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

Outside the US, banks and businesses alike quickly adopted the new technology. Before long, EMV chips became standard practice for all payment cards, including credit cards, debit cards, and ATM cards.

The US, on the other hand, has been significantly slower to implement the change to chips. It’s only been the last few years that major banks and businesses have upgraded their cards and readers to accommodate EMV chips. And some are still behind the times. In particular, smaller banks and credit unions without the resources of larger companies have lagged behind.

Even if your credit union or local bank has upgraded your cards, you may still have older cards that have yet to get their chips. Anything on a major card network – Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and Amex – can probably be upgraded upon request 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 that option.

No chips, no cash

In many parts of the world, including the UK and most of Europe, it’s hard to tell magnetic stripe cards ever even existed. Payment terminals and ATMs don’t just dislike magstripe 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 simply won’t work. You can put it into the ATM, but the machine likely 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 chips.

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

Some account types, such as the small savings accounts often required by credit unions for maintaining your membership, may not come with a proper debit card. In that case, it may make sense to open a checking account and move over the money you’ll want access to when you travel. Checking accounts nearly always come with a debit card that operates on a major network, and new debit cards should have EMV chips by default.

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