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What you need to know about new computer chip credit, debit cards

New credit and debit cards are being mailed to Americans by the millions. TODAY financial expert Jean Chatzky shares what you need to know.
/ Source: TODAY

Have you gotten your first chip credit or debit card yet?

More than 600 million cards will hit the wallets of U.S. consumers by the end of the year, according to estimates from the Smart Card Alliance. That’s about half of the 1.2 billion cards in the U.S., according to the Chicago Fed. New research from Mastercard International says 69 percent of consumers are either using chip cards already (more on that in a moment) – or looking forward to it.

That makes sense. The past few years have brought record-breaking numbers of data breaches; you can’t blame consumers for feeling fatigued. And the EMV (short for Europay, Mastercard and Visa) cards, should help.

They’re an improvement over yesterday’s magnetic stripes (which trivia buffs might be interested to know use the same technology that powered cassette tapes) because the stripe contains all the info a thief needs to make purchases using your card. That info never changes, so a thief can replicate it and use it over and over again.

The chips, on the other hand, generate a new transaction code every time they’re used – so even if a thief gains access to one, it can’t be used a second time. “It’s kind of like stealing an expired password,” says Matt Schultz, analyst for The other difference is that having the chip – which is about the size of a fingernail – makes the card harder to counterfeit.

So, what do you need to know before you put yours to use?

In case of fraud, you’re not liable. The same zero-liability laws that protect you with today’s credit cards will protect you with chip cards. Starting Oct. 1, however, merchants may be on the hook if their out-of-date technology accepts a fraudulent card. If the merchant has a chip terminal, but your issuer is still using magnetic stripes, the issuer is responsible in the event of a fraudulent transaction. In other words, he with the oldest technology loses. But you can let the merchants and the card issuers duke that one out.

Master the dip: Chip cards aren’t swiped the way you do a regular credit card so your hand will need retraining. They’re dipped into a machine (as you dip your ATM card). You’ll also need to be a little more patient. The transaction will take a little longer to process. If you pull your card out too quickly, you’ll have to do it over again. Also, many of the terminals that accept chip cards also will be equipped to let you pay with “contactless” technology using your phone, iWatch or an even smarter credit card. Welcome to the future, McFly.

You may already have chip cards that you’re not using as a chip card: Many recent credit cards have been issued with both chips and magnetic stripes, says Schultz. “That’s largely to ease the transition from mag to chip.” Interestingly, Schultz says he tried to swipe a chip card at a Target recently and got a message on the terminal that told him to dip the card instead. Lesson: You don’t have to panic. The terminals will be your guide.

Financial advice for every stage (and age) of life

Online shopping is the flaw in the system: What, you may wonder, is the security upgrade when it comes to online shopping. There isn’t one, says Schultz. These transactions never required the card to be present anyway. “When people talk about the flaws of these cards, online safety is one of the things they talk about,” he says.

You may also need a PIN: Two to three years from now, chip cards will likely operate more like debit cards. You’ll need both the card and a PIN for the transaction to go through. But the technology isn’t there yet, so for now, you’ll dip your card and sign just as you’re doing with your current credit cards. And if you haven’t received your chip card(s) yet, don’t worry. The stores will be still be happy honoring your old ones.